The Conservation of War Memorials

Joy Russell


War memorials stand at the heart of virtually every community in England. Not only are they poignant reminders of the scale of losses endured by ordinary people in two world wars and numerous other armed conflicts, but also collectively they provide a spectacular legacy of 19th and 20th century art and sculpture; the result of a spontaneous, emotional response by bereaved families and communities on a scale which is unlikely ever to be repeated. The sheer variety and diversity of their forms and styles is astonishing, ranging from simple plaques or crosses to statues, windows, gardens, lych gates or whole buildings such as hospitals, chapels and community halls.

The concept of commemorating war dead did not develop to any great extent before the end of the 19th century. Until then war memorials were rare, and were mainly dedicated to individual officers or, occasionally, regiments. The Boer War of 1899-1902 was the first major war following reforms to the British Army which resulted in regiments being recruited from local communities, and with volunteer soldiers. As a result, it was followed by the first large-scale erection of war memorials to the ordinary soldier.

The majority of our war memorials were erected following the First World War when the loss of three quarters of a million British lives left aching gaps at the heart of every community in the country. The official policy of not repatriating the dead meant that war memorials provided a physical focus for the grief of millions of bereaved people. Usually they were paid for by public subscription, but in some cases their cost was met by private donation, and occasionally existing public monuments, such as market crosses, were adopted as the local war memorial.

As a result, it can be difficult to identify legal ownership and responsibility for their maintenance and upkeep. The War Memorials (Local Authorities’ Powers) Act 1923 attempted to address this issue, empowering – but not obliging – local authorities to use public money for the maintenance, repair and protection of war memorials. So although many war memorials are maintained with great care by their local communities or organisations such as the local council, church or branch of the Royal British Legion, others have suffered in various degrees from neglect.


Many of the problems affecting the physical condition of war memorials are similar to those faced by other buildings or forms of public sculpture, including structural instability, general weathering and decay, graffiti and other types of vandalism. Regardless of architectural or sculptural merit, however, the dedication and roll of honour on war memorials have an intrinsic historic value which differentiates them from other types of public monument, forming a repository of communal memory which needs to be preserved for future generations.

Those who take on responsibility for the upkeep of the fabric of war memorials often have little or no experience of the conservation and repair of historic buildings, and do not know who to turn to for advice. Although the local small building firm or monumental mason may have experience in producing new work and carrying out general household repairs, they often lack the specialised knowledge and skill which are essential for good specification and practice in building conservation work.

The primary purpose of a war memorial repair project should be to restrain the process of decay without damaging the character of the memorial, altering the features which give it its historic or architectural interest, or unnecessarily disturbing or destroying historic fabric. The use of inappropriate materials and techniques can cause further problems and long term damage to the fabric of the memorial, so repairs should never be carried out without first analysing the physical characteristics of the memorial and identifying the causes of any defects. Similarly, lack of attention to the detail of the names inscribed on the memorial can inadvertently result in changes to the roll of honour so an accurate record should always be made, supplemented if necessary by archival research, before any repairs to the lettering are carried out.

Before any works begin a method statement should be prepared by a building professional with experience in working with historic buildings, or by the conservators or contractors who are being asked to tender for the work. The method statement should address all those issues which will aid in the correct identification of necessary works, as outlined [below].



  • where is the memorial?
    – describe environmental factors which may have contributed to decay or damage
  • what does the memorial look like?
  • what are the materials of its various elements?
    – include details such as types of stone, metal, lettering, mortar
  • is the memorial listed?
  • has an accurate record been made of the lettering? If not, this should be completed before repairs are carried out.

Past intervention

  • have there been any previous repairs?
    – have they improved the memorial’s condition or have they caused the work which is now necessary?
    – will the proposed new treatments be compatible with previous repairs?


  • are there any signs of failure caused by structural movement, such as cracks or fractures?
    – is any such movement current, or is it associated with past events?
    – what are the causes of such movement?
  • is the extent of any soiling such that it must be removed in order to judge the extent of necessary repairs?
    – what is the nature of the soiling or staining?
  • what is the general condition of the stone and/or brickwork?
    – to what degree has surface weathering occurred?
    – are there any perceptible problems associated with ferrous fixings (for example buried masonry cramps or retaining straps) such as iron staining, cracking, displacement of elements?
  • are the pointing and rendered surfaces sound?
    – what are their constituents and proportions?
  • what is the type and condition of any masonry paint?
  • is any stone or metal sculpture in sound condition?
    – are there any fractures/breaks/missing elements, or evidence of surface breakdown?
    – what is the nature and condition of the sculpture/base fixings?
  • what is the nature of the lettering (incised, filled, painted, gilded)?
    – is the lettering legible? If not, is the problem caused by soiling, deterioration of surrounding stone, or missing paint/gilding?

Proposed work

  • how are the causes of current structural movement to be rectified?
  • what types of repair are being considered and in which locations?
  • what types of cleaning or other surface preparation are required?
  • how will treatment/replacement (decorrosion, rust inhibiting coating, non-ferrous replacement) of corroded fixings be achieved?
  • will replacement materials be incorporated?
    – can correctly matching replacement materials be sourced?
    – what are the constituents and proportions of proposed replacement mortar or render?
    – are any missing features to be replaced?
  • how will recutting/regilding/repainting of lettering be carried out?
  • is any surface consolidation/protection proposed?
  • who will undertake the proposed works, and what experience do they have of the particular historic materials and techniques involved?


  • what is the future maintenance programme for the memorial?

Listed building consent
Listed building consent is normally required from the local planning authority for any proposal to demolish or alter a listed building in any way which would affect its ‘special architectural or historic interest’. The local planning authority’s conservation officer will advise whether a formal application for listed building consent is required for the proposed works.

English Heritage grants for the repair and conservation of memorials in England
English Heritage was created in 1984 by Act of Parliament to protect and to encourage people to understand and enjoy England’s built heritage. It is the lead body in England concerned with the conservation of the historic built environment, and has the power to give grants towards the cost of certain types of work to listed buildings, and within conservation areas.

In recognition of the significance of war memorials at the heart of virtually every community in England and to help ensure that they remain cherished for future generations, English Heritage has been actively involved in a number of initiatives over recent years. Together with the Imperial War Museum, it jointly initiated the establishment of the UK National Inventory of War Memorials in 1989; it contributes towards the cost of employing a Conservation Officer at Friends of War Memorials (FoWM); and it is responsible for the upkeep of six major war memorials in London, including the Cenotaph.

English Heritage’s grant scheme for the repair and conservation of war memorials, which operates in association with FoWM, has been in place since April 2000.

Which war memorials are eligible?
To be eligible under the grant scheme, a war memorial must be a free-standing monument in England which is listed in its own right at Grade II and is within a conservation area. The memorial must not be a building or part of a building, and must not have a beneficial use: memorial halls, hospitals, chapels and bridges, for example, are not eligible. Graves are also excluded.

Who can apply?
The scheme is not able to consider applications from Treasury-funded bodies such as government departments, regional health authorities, and non-departmental public bodies. Otherwise, anyone can apply. If not legally responsible for the memorial, prior written consent must be obtained from the person or body which is responsible; if unknown, applicants must demonstrate that efforts have been made to establish ownership.

What types of work are eligible?
The scheme can offer grants towards:

  • repairs to the fabric of the memorial, and to its associated hard landscaping where this forms part of the overall design
  • work to ensure that eroded inscriptions remain legible, including cleaning, recutting, repainting, releading and regilding
  • reinstatement of lost elements, particularly decorative features, where a memorial has largely retained its integrity of design
  • cleaning, where there is so much dirt on a memorial that it must be removed in order to judge the extent of necessary work, or where the surface build-up is damaging the fabric by chemical action. Cleaning to improve the legibility of the lettering may also be eligible

Grants will not usually be offered towards:

  • new work, such as new lettering or other alterations to the original design of the memorial
  • speculative reconstruction, or the reinstatement of features that were deliberately removed as part of a later phase in the history of the monument
  • the removal or relocation of all or part of the monument, unless an essential and unavoidable part of the overall repair strategy
  • soft landscaping and lighting

Eligible costs include the cost of the work, professional fees and VAT. Grants are normally paid at a standard rate of 50 per cent of eligible costs, up to a maximum grant of £10,000. Grant is not paid for works which are carried out before an offer has been formally made and accepted.

Grant applications are submitted to FoWM, and are considered by an assessment panel which meets four times per year, whose members include representatives of English Heritage, Friends of War Memorials, the UK National Inventory of War Memorials and the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association.


English Heritage has made a commitment to provide funding of £100,000 per year for the War Memorials Grant Scheme until at least March 2004. Further information and application forms can be obtained from Friends of War Memorials or English Heritage.

Further Information and Useful Contacts (Updated March, 2010)

The War Memorials Trust (formerly the Friends of War Memorials) is a charity established in 1997 with the dedicated task of monitoring the condition of war memorials and promoting awareness, especially amongst the young, of their historical and spiritual significance as part of the national heritage.
Contact: The War Memorials Trust, 42a Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 0RE Tel 020 7233 7356

The UK National Inventory of War Memorials is a research project set up in 1989 with the purpose of creating a new archive holding information on all war memorials throughout the British Isles. They have also produced a booklet entitled The War Memorial Handbook which offers guidance and useful contacts.
Contact: The UK National Inventory of War Memorials, Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ Tel 020 7207 9851/9863

The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association is an association established to bring together individuals and organisations with a mutual interest in public monuments and sculpture. It aims to heighten public awareness of Britain’s monumental heritage, including war memorials, through its publications, activities and campaigns for listing, preservation, protection and restoration.
Contact: Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, 72 Lissenden Mansions, Lissenden Gardens, London NW5 1PR

English Heritage For further information on English Heritage Grants for the Repair and Conservation of War Memorials, contact War Memorials Grant Scheme Co-ordinator, English Heritage, 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET Tel 020 7973 3715

To find out if a building is listed, contact your local planning authority or either English Heritage, Cadw or Historic Scotland.

If you wish to have a war memorial considered for listing
, you should write giving a full description of the memorial, enclosing good quality photographs of the structure and its immediate setting and a site plan, to one of the following:

  • England: The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Buildings Monuments and Sites Division 2 (Listing), 2-4 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5DH Tel 020 7211 6200 E-mail
  • Scotland: Listing Section, Historic Scotland, Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Edinburgh EH9 1SH Tel 0131 668 8600
  • Wales: Listing Section, Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, Crown Buildings, Cathays Park, Cardiff CF1 3NQ Tel 029 2050 0200


This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2002


JOY RUSSELL BA(Hons) DipArch RIBA is an Historic Buildings Architect at English Heritage, and chairs the Assessment Panel for the War Memorials Grants Scheme run by English Heritage in association with the War Memorials Trust.

Further information


Statuary and stone carving


Advisory bodies and associations


Cast iron

Fund raising services

Metalwork, bronze

Sculptors and statuary

Stone masons
Site Map