Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Work of A Buildings Historian

Park Street, Mayfair 1901 (Survey of London)
I came to researching historic buildings by accident. All I knew was that I wanted to work with old buildings and play a part in their conservation. I had always loved history; I had always been interested in old buildings and always enjoyed the process of research. But it was only when I studied for a post-graduate in building conservation at the Architectural Association that I realised that there could be a career incorporating all these elements.

I started at the deep end, researching buildings for a firm of conservation architects. I was and am ostensibly an historian but my post-graduate in building conservation gave me that depth of knowledge required by architectural professionals.

Today my clients include architects, property developers, planning consultants as well as private home owners. The latter call on my services for many reasons; mostly just to find out the story of their house, but at other times it is to support a planning application or help settle a boundary dispute.

A house historian will look at dates, people and any stories surrounding the house and occupants. In my work, I also look at what was on the site before construction, who built it, how was it constructed, for whom and why? What was the building used for, what alterations had been made in the decades / centuries since construction? I scrutinise architects’ plans, identify alterations and piece together how the building has evolved. This kind of research aids the restoration, conservation and building process. For instance it can determine the historical importance and relevance of architectural features and whether they can or cannot be altered or removed. Particularly if a building is listed, an in depth knowledge of the building’s fabric is crucial.

One example of my work involved a house in St John’s Wood that had been lived in by a famous artist in the 19th century. It was assumed he had designed it himself and had had the entire building built in 1888. However, my research involving visual inspection and later documentary searches revealed the grand late Victorian house was built partially around a more humble but equally fascinating structure dating to 1825. The conservation / architectural result was that the intended extension had to be modified but in the end the owner achieved what he wanted without disturbing the earlier fabric of the building.

Another example was, a homeowner who had purchased a listed house in Cumberland Terrace in Regent’s Park, built in 1828 and wanted a swimming pool dug in the basement. The opinion was that the listed status was mainly for its external structure and appearance and that the house had been heavily altered internally and therefore the pool should be permitted. However, research revealed the basement floor to be virtually untouched since the late Georgian period and so the owner had to rethink his pool plans. My work is balanced between wanting to conserve the historic fabric of buildings and trying to achieve what the client wants. Ultimately, though, I can only report the facts and from that decisions can be made.

Cumberland Terrace 1938 (Survey of London)
While I work all over the country, I have often been asked to research a Georgian or Victorian townhouse in Belgravia or Mayfair with a view to converting the building back into a single residence (having been converted into flats in the 1950s). In these instances, I would be required to find out the original layout of the building in order to reinstate the plan form, its walls, doorways, windows and sometimes floor levels.

When I research the history of a house I begin by inspecting the premises and getting a feel for the structure. I will then source information at local libraries and archives e.g. maps, parish records, manorial records, electoral rolls, census returns and archived photographs of the building site or area. Depending on the building, a visit to the National Archives at Kew may be needed. In the case of an in depth architectural search, I always visit the Royal Institute of British Architects Library as well.

From these example sources, and many others I call on, I can build and write a history of the building, for the architects or owners. I often liken it to doing a jigsaw puzzle (but without a picture to guide you). Each piece is important, but it is only when you put them all together that the full historical picture of the house is finally revealed.

(This blog first appeared on

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Dead Interesting Building!

The Station Today

In honour of Halloween, I thought the following building may prove appropriate!

In London - if you drive down Westminster Bridge Road - on the south side of the river Thames, near Waterloo Station, you will pass an ornate but unremarkable Victorian building that may not encourage a second glance. But this red brick, terracotta and granite Grade II building had a remarkable purpose. It was once a necropolis railway station.

In mid 19th century London burial space was becoming scarce. In response to this grim demand, 1854 the London Necropolis Company opened a cemetery at Brookwood, in Surrey. Together with the London and South West Railway company they ran funeral trains between London and Brookwood carrying both coffins and mourners.

The LSWR line was used for most of the journey but at both ends of the route the Necropolis Company had their own sections of lines and their own stations. The London terminus was on York Street (now Leake Street), next to Waterloo station. When the LSWR needed this land for development in 1902, a new Necropolis terminus was built at 121 Westminster Bridge Road. The design is credited to Cyril B Tubbs, general manager of the Necropolis Company, and a Mr Andrews, engineer, of the London and South West Railway.

Despite the new building, though, the use of the service from London to Brookwood steadily declined in that first half of the 20th century. Slowly the cemetery line fell into disuse, not helped by the railway lines serving the station in London being heavily bombed in 1941. It never recovered from that attack. The building didn't close though. It continued as offices for the London Necropolis Company until the 1970s.

1941: Bomb Damage Behind the Necropolis Station
So next time you find yourself in London, south of the river heading into town – give this building a little thought, solemnly standing there as if waiting for a train .....

Thursday, 14 October 2010

10 Trinity Square and Sir Edwin Cooper - Civic Pride


10 Trinity Square

Last month it was confirmed that the 490,000 sq ft 10 Trinity Square in the City of London was ear-marked for redevelopment into a hotel, spa and flats. The building is located on a diagonal plot on Tower Hill, overlooking the Tower of London and the Thames. Designed as the headquarters of the Port of London Authority by the architect Sir Edwin Cooper, the building was opened by the then Prime Minister Lloyd George in 1922. This iconic building’s finest hour was when it housed the reception for the inaugural meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1946.

It is without question a truly striking building in the Beaux Arts style. The elements of this style of architecture can include; an imposing grand stairway, large arched openings, a variety of stone finishes, monumental columns, a classical ornamental entablature topped with a tall parapet, a balustrade or attic storey, a pronounced cornice and decorative swags, medallions, cartouches, and sculptures.
Sir Edwin Cooper

Initially I was horrified to hear that the redevelopment plan for 10 Trinity Square was to completely replace the rotunda that dominates the centre of the building, leaving only the facade (which I personally see as a lazy and ill-informed attempt to preserve the historic environment).

However, further research has revealed that due to significant bomb damage during World War II, the rotunda is in fact a post-war replacement and essentially it is only the exterior of this building that can be credited to Cooper. But not only is the building something of note – so is Sir Edwin Cooper. I researched one his other landmark buildings a couple of years ago – The Council House (otherwise known as Marylebone Town Hall) on the Marylebone Road, in London. In my opinion his architectural legacy is over-looked in the 21st century.

Marylebone Town Hall
Sir Edwin Cooper was born in Yorkshire in 1873. He studied architecture in Britain as well as France and Italy and was in professional practice from the 1890s. He became a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1903 and was knighted in 1923. In 1931 he received the Royal Gold Medal from the RIBA.

It has been said that Sir Edwin Cooper designed more buildings in the City of London than Sir Christopher Wren a few among them including the Old Lloyd’s Building in Leadenhall Street, No 1 Princes Street and No 40 St May’s Axe.
No 1 Princes Street
He was also the architect of the Royal Star and Garter Home in Richmond, Surrey, the Kingston-upon-Hull Guildhall and Law Court, The South London Hospital for Women (opposite Clapham South Tube Station), Devonport House, Greenwich and St Hilda’s College Oxford. As you can see, his reputation was in civic and public buildings. If his renown had extended to private residences he could well have been celebrated today as readily as his contemporary, another Sir Edwin – Sir Edwin Lutyens.

In 1937 he succeeded Lutyens as President of the Incorporated Association of Architects and Surveyors. The irony with such an impressive career record was that he was unable to describe himself as a registered architect owing to his refusal to pay the annual subscription of 6 shillings and 9 pence to the Architects Registration Council. Sir Edwin Cooper died suddenly “with his boots on” in his office in June 1942.

So while only the facade of 10 Trinity House is to be retained. It would appear we weren't meant to have it in its original entirety anyway. And at least we will continue to see Cooper's amazing Beaux Arts facade in the years to come, when the building has been given renewed purpose.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Blitz - Researching the Damage Today

The 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Blitz in London has reminded me what I have seen in my research of the city over the past few years. One of the key aspects of my work as an historian is the impact, literally, of World War II on buildings in the capital. No research into the history of a house or area can be complete without checking if there had been any damage sustained between 1939 and 1945. Most of the local borough archives hold records of “enemy action”. 

Some of these archives hold the original, hand scrawled reports, written by air raid wardens at the time; of the death and devastation as it happened and which streets had been hit, how many people were injured and how many were dead. I remember particularly searching the Tower Hamlets archive in Poplar and seeing these reports, noting hundreds of dead, one street after another. Even from my safe position nearly 70 years later in the peace and calm of an archive, I shivered at the horrible reality of what these people went through.

The most revealing source of information which I use for every research assignment in the capital is the series of London County Council Bomb Damage maps (held at the London Metropolitan Archives). These were commissioned to detail the extent and nature of bomb damage across London. Each building that sustained damage was coloured depending on the severity of impact. 

Black - Total destruction 
Purple - Damage beyond repair 
Dark Red - Seriously damaged, doubtful if repairable 
Light Red - Seriously damaged, repairable at cost 
Orange - General blast damage, minor in nature 
Yellow - Blast damage, minor in nature 

The map here shows the centre of the City of London. You can see the swath of purple denoting “Damage Beyond Repair”. It is impossible to think of such total destruction happening today, but it happened within living memory. If you get the chance to view the complete map collection in the London Metropolitan Archives, have a look at Stepney and the Mile End Road. That isn’t coloured purple, it’s black and covers acres of small back to back houses where ordinary working people were killed in their thousands.

I am often moved by the stories that emerge through my research. Cold official documents can reveal the human side of love and loss, triumph and disaster – but nothing achieves that more for me than the records and maps of 1939-1945.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

A Home Fit for Heroes (and Pirates)

A few months ago I researched the history of Hammonds Place for a client. I have written an article about my findings in the current edition of "Listed Heritage" the magazine of the Listed Property Owners Club. Here in Building Storeys is an abridged version of that article. I hope you find it interesting.

Hammonds Place, in Burgess Hill, Sussex, was described by Nikolaus Pevsner in his book Buildings of England, as “The Best Building in Burgess Hill”.

The untold story of Hammonds Place was scattered far and wide, in the form of maps, deeds, letters, drawings and photographs. My research took me to both the West and East Sussex Archives, local government records and libraries, as well as the Royal Institute of British Architects Library, the National Archives and the National Monuments Record in Swindon. Using these sources, combined with a personal inspection of the house and grounds, I was able to bring the full story of Hammonds Place together for the first time.

Hammonds Place was built in the 1400s as a hall house on a north-south axis. It was virtually rebuilt in about 1500 on a west-east axis, retaining some elements of the original hall, creating a larger timber-framed structure.

By 1566 the house was in the possession of the Michelbornes, an influential and well-to-do local family. The Michelbornes made some extensive home improvements to “Hamonds”. They added to the timber-framed structure three further additions in brick, to the east, south and west, to create a fashionable Elizabethan quadrangle. The house became a manor house befitting an estate of over 200 acres.

During the house’s Elizabethan heyday, its owner Edward Michelborne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I and was one of the founders of the East India Company. It was only when Sir Edward was accused of abusing his position by carrying out acts of piracy in the Pacific that his star waned. He was forced to leave Court and he retreated to Hammonds Place to live out the last years of his life.

My research found that the Michelborne family was associated with Hammonds Place until the 18th century and by the 1780s the house was considered to be one of the finest in the county and was drawn by the notable artist and engraver Samuel Hieronymous Grimm (see picture below).

By the 1820s the new owner, Robert Podmore, decided to build a new manor house on the estate called Clayton Priory, just south of Hammonds Place. It is thought that bricks and other materials were taken from Hammonds to help with the new construction and subsequently the old manor house fell into disrepair. It was occupied by tenant farmers during the latter half of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that a new tenant restored and repaired the house adding a contemporary extension to the 16th century timber-frame and brickwork. My research revealed this tenant to be Thomas Arrowsmith Meautys, a local JP, who is remembered locally for the fact that he lost all three of his sons in World War I. The house bears a small memorial to them on the wall of the 16th century porch of the house.

By1933 the Dutch Ambassador, Jonkeer Marinus Van Der Goes had taken a lease on the house, following extensive improvements in 1930. He lived at the house for about 5 years. In 1930 this part-medieval, part-Elizabethan, part-Victorian house was augmented with an Art Deco single-storey extension. The house is an unusual combination of eras but one that it seems to have grown into with ease.

Today Hammonds Place is no longer the manor house of a 200 acre estate. Over the centuries plots of land have been sold or reapportioned and now the house and gardens are a virtual island in a sea of 20th and 21st century developments. But it is a fine and beautiful building and it acts as an echo of times past, as every historic building does.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Ebullient Edwardian Baroque on a Roll!

One of the most fascinating buildings I have researched this year has been the London Road Fire Station, in central Manchester. The building is a rare Grade II* example described in its listing description as “Ebullient Edwardian Baroque”. In recent years this beautiful building has been sadly neglected but is now seeing a new  future, hopefully as an hotel. A great deal of restoration is required, but a significant amount of its original exterior and interior features are still in situ and will be retained.

The building, completed in 1906, was the design of architects John Henry Woodhouse, George Harry Willoughby and John Langham of Manchester.  It set the standard for quality of building design and technological innovation in fire stations around the world. In addition, one of the most eye-catching features of the building are the beautiful Art Nouveau sculptures that adorn the exterior. These are by the artist John Jarvis Millson and if it wasn’t for the technology setting this building apart, then the sculptures and reliefs certainly would.

The construction took two years and by early September 1906 forty men, thirteen horses and six engines had moved in.  But it didn’t just serve the firemen, it was also home to their wives and children. The building incorporated a laundry, gymnasium, billiard room and children’s playroom. Flats were provided for thirty-two firemen and their families and for six single men. The Chief and Second Officers were provided with lavish accommodation too. Electric bells and lights in the flats alerted the men in case of a turnout and they were able to reach the engine house by means of poles which lead directly from the flats above.

The fire station served as the headquarters for Manchester’s Fire Brigades in the first half of the 20th century. It also accommodated a bank, police station and coroner’s court. It finally closed all civic functions in the late 1990s. But in its heyday it was considered by its first chief  officer to be “The Finest Fire Station in This Round World”. 

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Simply Red House

One of my enduring passions is the architecture and designs of the English Arts and Crafts Movement. Feeding this fascination, I visited Red House last week. This is one of the finest examples of Arts and Crafts homes in Britain and certainly one of the oldest.

Built between 1858 and 1860 by Phillip Webb for the celebrated artist and designer William Morris it emerged during the height of the popularity for Pugin/Gothic that was the prevailing architectural style of the time.

The house is in Bexleyheath in Kent and is today surrounded on all sides by 20th century suburbia but the gardens of the house are still substantial and the plan and plantings are little altered since Morris, his wife Jane and his friends Dante-Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal and Edward Burne-Jones frequented the house. It was Burne-Jones who described the house as “the beautifullest place on earth”.

The house is an outstanding example of Arts & Crafts. Although currently sparsely furnished (it does not have examples of Morris’s famous fabric and wallpaper designs) it is the architectural detail, the decorated elements; the ceilings, murals, handcrafted stairs, stained glass and doors that make this building so special. There is an air of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s decorative style too and the ubiquitous hand-crafted “one off”, not mass-produced detail.

The design by Phillip Webb tries to show a house older than it is – that has been altered and extended over time, to have organically grown, while in reality it is one construction.

The house recently came under the care of the National Trust but on a day to day basis cared for by the Friends of Red House. These people are all highly knowledgeable about Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. If you visit, any question you may have about the house will be answered with a depth of knowledge only possible from true enthusiasts.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Strawberry Hill Forever

I received an email yesterday from my old building conservation tutor at the Architectural Association. It was a call to students present and past to come to the aid of one of this country's finest houses, Strawberry Hill.

The restoration of Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, the beautiful neo-gothic mid-18th century castle built by Horace Walpole, is nearly finished. It opens again to the public on Walpole's birthday 24th September. But before then there is still a lot to do to get the place ready in time.

I checked it out a little more and I found this link for the Friends of Strawberry Hill who are coordinating voluntary help. So, want to get your hands dirty? Want to help out with one of the most deserving and important restoration projects this side of the decade? Give them a call.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Update After A Long Gap

Apologies for not blogging for so long. The research into the C15th house in West Sussex went so well, I have been asked to write an article about it for Listed Heritage magazine. I will post a link to it when it comes out. All under wraps until then!

In the mean time, my work has taken me far and wide across the country researching a C17th barn in Hertfordshire, an Edwardian fire station in Manchester, a high Victorian 20,000 sq ft pile in Hampstead – complete with its own art gallery wing and a Brigadier General’s house on Woolwich Common dating to the late C18th. The image is of the house in Woolwich, taken in 1863.

My current “hot” assignments are both in London and also both in Westminster. Two mid-Victorian stucco town houses with complicated planning and alteration histories that need unravelling, before the conservation architects can start work. It isn’t the most exciting end of my work – but it is the bread and butter of what I do. I have worked on more houses of this type than any other. 

More anon.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Building Mystery

I’m researching a 15th century house in West Sussex. So right now I am in Chichester at the West Sussex Record office. The timber-framed building has all the evidence of having been a medieval hall but with a “modern” extension  ie 16th  century in limestone.
The records have revealed an estate map of 1783 which shows the building at its height with a limestone quadrangle, which is now sadly reduced to 2 sides. Victorian maps show it greatly reduced.
Now I have to find who lived there before 1566 and therefore when the oldest part of the building was constructed. But I also need to find out why most of the Elizabethan stone extension disappeared in the early 19th century.   
I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Black Act of 1774

I blog for anyone who is interested in old houses, looking after them or researching their history. Knowing and understanding the history of building in Britain goes hand in hand with that. It is the backdrop to the history of the country and those of us who live in it. So I thought I’d write a short piece about the intriguingly named “Black Act” of 1774.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Charles II realised how much the traditional construction of buildings had aided the spread of the fire. Specifically, the close proximity of buildings and the incendiary nature of building material (i.e. timber) had literally fuelled the fire.

The Rebuilding of the City of London Act of 1667 determined that the size of buildings had to correspond with the width of a street.  In addition they had to be built in brick or stone. Timber-framed buildings were forbidden. There could be no projections or jetties over the streets either, because they allowed fire to leap from house to house. Further legislation to standardise and improve the quality of construction in London was introduced in 1707, 1709, 1764 and 1772.

But it was the Building Act of 1774 that consolidated all previous legislation. The Act became known as the Black Act and defined construction of urban and suburban houses in the 18th and 19th centuries. Drafted by the architects Sir Robert Taylor and George Dance, the aim was to standardise the quality and construction of buildings and make the exterior of a building as fire-proof as possible. The Act restricted any superfluous exterior timber ornamentation,  except for door frames and shop fronts. Window joinery which previous legislation had already pushed back from the wall face was now concealed in recesses behind to avoid the spread of fire.

When researching the construction of an 18th or 19th century house in London the “rate” of the house is often found. This was introduced by The Black Act and determined 4 types of building construction graded by value and floor area.

  • A “First Rate” house was valued at over £850 and occupied more than 900 sq ft.
  • A “Second Rate” House was worth between £350 and £850 in ground rent and occupied 500-900 sq ft. These buildings faced notable streets, and the Thames.
  • A “Third Rate” House was smaller and worth around £150-£300. It occupied 350-500 square feet and faced principal streets.
  • Finally, a “Fourth Rate” House was valued at less than £150 per year in ground rent and occupied less than 350 square feet and would be found in minor streets.

Each “rate” was given a structural requirement for foundations and walls. But the real importance of this grading was setting the standard for speculative building. The limitation of size and value tended to create standards from which there was little or no variation.

The result of was the development of the London terrace, creating the simple elegant uniformity so admired today and reflected in the premium paid when purchasing a “Georgian” property. However, at the time it was loathed for stifling creativity. Benjamin Disraeli blamed the Act for "all those flat, dull spiritless streets all resembling each other, like a large family of plain children."

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

What Was The Window Tax? (Letting Light In On Blind Windows)

I remember, from a very young age, being fascinated by and looking out for old buildings with blocked up or blind windows (my love of historic buildings began early). I was told by my father that these features were a result of the long-loathed Window Tax. Such a ridiculous-sounding imposition only made me seek them out more.

It is widely thought that the phrase “daylight robbery” originates from opposition to this levy (it was certainly viewed to be a tax on “light and air”). Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this assumption. But what exactly was this unpopular revenue-generator and how does it play its part in unravelling a house’s history?

The Window Tax existed from 1696 to 1851. It was introduced during the reign of William III as part of the beautifully named “Act of Making Good the Deficiency of the Clipped Money”. It was considered by the law-makers to be fair as the greater demand was placed on the better-off, living by default in larger houses and therefore with more windows and those of very meagre means were exempt.

When the Act was passed in 1696 it was a tax for the occupiers of the house, not the owner. Only if the property was empty would the owner be liable to pay. There were 2 parts to the levy. First, a flat-rate house tax of 2 shillings and the second payment was determined by the number of windows. Properties with between ten and twenty windows paid a total of 4 shillings, and those above twenty windows paid 8 shillings. The minimum number that could be taxed was reduced to 7 in 1766 and increased to 8 in 1825. The flat-rate tax was changed to a variable rate in 1778, when it became determined by the property’s value, not simply its existence. Scotland was spared the tax for nearly 100 years. However, William Pitt brought it in there in 1784. To this day, blind windows north of the border are called “Pitt’s Pictures”. It has to be said though, that not every blocked up or blind window is necessarily so because of the Window Tax. Some were built that way to provide an exterior decoration or symmetry to a building. Good thorough research can determine which it is.

As a house historian, however, window tax records are very useful to understand the full history of a house. They may not have survived as comprehensive or complete, but in the parts of the country where they do still exist the records can give a clue as to the size of the property at the time of the tax demand. Most telling is when there are changes in the amount due from one year to the next, which could indicate whether there had been a demolition or addition to the property. If you are lucky enough to find the window tax records of a property they can prove to be a key chapter in the story of the house.

This article can also be found on (The UK's premier resource centre for period and listed buildings projects).