Before listed buildings
The second world war, and aerial destruction on a
massive scale, provided the pivotal impetus towards
identifying specific buildings as worthy of protection
by the state. Emergency lists were produced in 1940–42
to identify those buildings to which priority would be
given for repair if damaged by enemy action. These
were subsequently incorporated in the Town and
Country Planning Acts of 1944 and 1947, when listed
buildings officially began. However, listing did not
happen in a vacuum. Recording and protecting historic
buildings had been taking place over the preceding
century in the voluntarist sector, sometimes with state
backing. This emerged with the transformation in
Britain’s urban and rural environment that occurred
with widespread industrialisation and urbanisation.
Interest in historic buildings as evidence for the past
was fed by a growing desire for educational leisure, by
tourism from home and abroad, and by international
trends. A desire for social stability and sometimes
housing design and urban planning, encouraged this
interest in buildings from the past. While private indi-
viduals and amenity societies recognised the change,
government in Britain was slow to act. Consequently,
protecting historic buildings began in the voluntarist
sector. The work of the fledgling National Trust for
Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty, a
very different organisation to today’s National Trust,
deserves greater recognition in this area, as we shall
see. This article considers several contexts that helped
to build a constituency for protection and legislation.
Interest in material evidence for the past grew as a
specialised leisure pursuit. A more scholarly approach
to recording ancient monuments and historic build-
ings developed within antiquarian, archaeological and
arts societies. Regional and local antiquarian and
archaeological societies flourished from the mid-19th
century. Most published journals, and augmented the
work of the well-established Society of Antiquaries.
Initial attempts at protection focused on monuments,
but came to little.
The Antiquaries compiled a list of historical tombs
and monuments worthy of protection in 1869–71,
at the request of the First Commissioner of Works.
The well-known advocate of art, architecture and
beauty, John Ruskin, gave money to the Antiquaries
to start a fund for architectural preservation, although
that foundered. The (Royal) Society of Arts initi-
ated the blue plaques scheme in 1866. Although
the plaques marked buildings, the focus was biog-
raphy. William Morris founded the Society for the
Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877, with
a focus on ecclesiastical buildings, regional types, and
John Ruskin gave money to
the Society of Antiquaries
to start a fund for
architectural preservation.
(Drawing: Rob Cowan)
William Morris founded
the Society for the
Protection of Ancient
Buildings in 1877, with
a focus on ecclesiastical
buildings, regional types
and craftsmanship.
(Drawing: Rob Cowan)
C O N T E X T 1 1 2 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 9
More systematic recording of buildings began in the
voluntarist, societal sector; from the late 1880s, pho-
tographic societies began seriously recording historic
buildings. Architect and arts and craftsman Charles
Robert Ashbee began the Survey of London in 1894.
Institutionalisation through parliamentary acts, local
authority intervention and voluntarist organisations
with state backing began in the 1880s, as the state
became willing to legislate for more aspects of national
life. Sir John Lubbock’s Ancient Monuments Act
1882 passed after several attempts, although inhabited
buildings were exempted.
George Godwin, editor of The Builder , encouraged
broader middle-class interest by a more pragmatic
appeal to concerns of taste and hygiene. As the middle
classes came into closer contact with social deprivation
in cities, their daily lives were affected. In his influential
‘As the Homes, so the People’, in Town Swamps and
Social Bridges (1859), Godwin associated values of
social stability with attractive historic buildings. He
sought solutions to good hygiene in past design.
Pragmatic interests underpinned more recreational
associations with old buildings, and helped to build
a constituency for their charms. Tourism, especially
romantic and literary tourism, helped to develop inter-
est in quaint and charming rural buildings, especially
those that were recorded by writers, poets or artists.
The aristocracy jumped on the bandwagon of a grow-
ing taste for ‘the olden times’ by opening secondary
homes and ruined castles to the public.
Arguably it was a combination of leisure interests
and social interests that brought about the formation
of the National Trust in 1894–5, although it had
been a decade in gestation. The need for such an
organisation was first proposed in 1884 by (Sir) Robert
Hunter (who had helped Lubbock draft the Ancient
Monuments Act) at a meeting of the Association for
the Promotion of Social Science. It was prompted by
town and county council reforms which allowed for
much greater change to the urban and rural landscape.
This would include new buildings for education and
housing, as well as roads and reservoirs.
Hunter’s was a liberal (and largely Liberal) solution
to an establishment concern whereby a voluntarist
organisation would work in conjunction with govern-
ment. Of the trust’s initial 45 council members, some
15 were either Liberal MPs or Liberal members of
the House of Lords. This included preservation activ-
ists Sir John Lubbock, George Shaw-Lefevre (later
Baron Eversley, founder of the Commons Preservation
Society) and James Bryce.
The trust aimed to work with arts and amenity
societies and universities, inviting representatives to
join its council. Most important, it aspired to influence
the new County Councils Association, represented by
the Liberal Sir John Hibbert MP. The fledgling trust’s
initial campaigns and collecting practices were mark-
edly different to its later activities. Its early collection
represented institutions of community life which at the
time were diminishing in importance or disappearing.
These included clergy houses (with school rooms), a
manor house, a guild hall, a market hall and a court
house. Most dated prior to the 17th century, most had
antiquarian appeal, and several had already caught the
eye of the SPAB. This group of buildings suggests a
unifying concept of English values that encompassed
social, educational, religious, literary, trade and labour
traditions. Crucially those traditions of governance
were very much in the public mind during the 11 years
(1884–95) it took to get the trust off the ground.
The fledgling trust was an important campaigning
organisation, aspiring to influence preservation and
planning legislation. In particular it tried to work with
the Church and corporations to find alternative uses
for interesting historic structures that were becoming
unsuitable for their customary uses. When the College
of Seamen wanted to dispose of the Trinity Almshouses
in Mile End, London as unsanitary, the trust stepped
in. It worked with London County Council, which
intervened to provide new drainage and, eventually,
purchased them.
In Newbury, the trust helped a local group acquire
the Cloth Hall, to convert to a museum as a Jubilee
memorial. The trust’s campaigns reflected interest
in biography, English literature and tourism (as did
listed buildings, half a century later). It campaigned
to protect the home of poet and hymnist William
Cowper, Turner’s House, and Dr Johnson’s birth-
place in Lichfield. It acquired Coleridge’s cottage at
Nether Stowey, but not as a museum. Assisted by the
Royal Automobile Club, the trust campaigned to save
Pontiscale Bridge. The bridge had been condemned by
Cumberland County Council, but the trust managed
to promote it as a tourist amenity and eye-catcher for
In 1897, the trust cooperated with the Cockburn
Society, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Foreign
Office to promote legislation. The white paper of 1897
was based on its information about initiatives from
abroad. The Edinburgh University art history professor
The fledgling National
Trust helped a local group
to acquire the Cloth
Hall in Newbury, to
convert it to a museum.
C O N T E X T 1 1 2 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 9
historic houses came in 1847, when American show
business entrepreneur PT Barnum attempted to buy
Shakespeare’s birthplace. He had hoped to remove
it from Stratford-upon-Avon to exhibit in the United
States, but English national interest was just sufficient
to raise subscriptions and retain it in Stratford as a
Some 60 years later, Lord Curzon intervened to
prevent an American syndicate transporting Tattersall
Castle to the USA. The building was transferred to the
National Trust. Counter-balancing a growing trade
in architectural salvage, Americans helped acquire
Carlyle’s House (1894), Harvard House in Stratford
(1907) and Sulgrave Manor, George Washington’s
ancestral home in Northamptonshire (1902; 1914).
Canadians purchased Quebec House as a museum to
their origins (1913–18). These two approaches reflect
a wider international debate about moving interest-
ing but redundant buildings to open-air museums.
Although there were calls for such a museum in
London (1904 and on), the English preference was to
keep buildings in situ.
A range of publications amplified interest and
knowledge at home and abroad. The Victoria County
Histories of England began in 1899. At the more popu-
lar bourgeois level, magazines devoted to the home,
particularly Country Life (founded 1897) reflected a
growing taste for old homes. German architect and
diplomat Hermann Muthesius’s Das Englischehaus
(three volumes, Berlin, 1904-5) affirmed English taste
and style. PH Ditchfield’s Vanishing England (London,
1910) focused on a disappearing resource; Clough
Williams-Ellis’s England and the Octopus (1928) railed
against urban sprawl.
However, the American Wallace Nutting found
buildings aplenty for England Beautiful (New York,
1928). Belatedly, the aesthetic qualities of build-
ing groups were protected, and again there were
American catalysts. The Royal Society of Arts began
the Campaign for the Preservation of Ancient Cottages
(1926), working with the SPAB to acquire and conserve
Arlington Row, Bibury, Gloucestershire (preventing
Henry Ford acquiring it for his outdoor museum at
Greenfield Village, Dearborn, MI), and West Wyckam
village, Buckinghamshire (both 1929).
This partial overview of preservation up to the
outbreak of the second world war has emphasised its
gradual development through the private, voluntarist
and professional sectors. Inculcating taste, suggesting
social stability and community life and, occasionally,
promoting design principles in building and planning
are all underlying factors. So too was the growing
understanding that Britain lagged behind many coun-
tries in legislating to protect buildings as a national
Perhaps England’s historic buildings evoked a sense
of Englishness that resonated beyond Britain’s shores
with its powerful ally and the Dominions. It took a
crisis before this liberal, quasi-laissez-faire approach
was altered to a statutory and regulatory regime.
The Campaign for the
Protection of Ancient
Cottages prevented Henry
Ford from acquiring
Arlington Row in
Bibury, Gloucestershire,
for his outdoor museum
at Dearborn.
Gerard Baldwin Brown (Trust Council, Cockburn
Association) published The Care of Ancient Monuments
(Cambridge, 1905). This assessed the most effective
means by which historic monuments, cities, and
landscapes were protected abroad.
Brown drew three conclusions. First, that an inven-
tory was essential, and Britain lagged behind its
European neighbours in providing this. Some amenity
societies had begun to provide inventories of historic
buildings. But the trust’s attempt to coordinate this
activity, in conjunction with the publishers Constable
and Co, had been unsuccessful. Second, that voluntar-
ist preservation action offered the most promising
means for protecting landscapes and historic buildings
in Britain, but working in conjunction with local
authorities. Third, that legislation was needed to
protect buildings from private owners, especially in
historic towns. Few British towns had any protective
legislation. The Chester Improvement Act (1884) was
unusual in that it prevented buildings abutting the
town walls. London County Council was empowered
to hold buildings (1898), acquiring Prince Henry’s
Lodgings in Fleet Street with trust assistance.
Brown’s book was timely. Between 1906 and 1910
more powerful political debates emerged, centring on
the acquisition of land by local authorities for working-
class housing. A Parliamentary Standing Committee
(1906) resulted in the Town and Country Planning Act
1909. The act allowed local authorities to consider ‘the
preservation of objects of historical interest or natural
beauty’ in town planning schemes. Proposed by John
Burns (MP, Liberal), it was instigated by Patrick
Geddes (National Trust, Cockburn Association).
Noting the political wind, the trust consolidated its
position with the National Trust Act 1907. This act
curtailed the trust’s campaigning activities, although
gave it powers to hold land and buildings inalien-
ably. In 1908 the Royal Commission on Historical
Monuments (England) was established to consolidate
lists of ancient monuments.
One further influence on England’s attitude to its
historic buildings is worth noting, as it came from
the USA. Often overlooked, this deserves recognition.
American interest took two distinct forms. On the
one hand, America posed a threat to those parts
of England’s heritage that it saw as its own. An
early instance of American interest in England’s
Melanie Hall, professor
of art history at Boston
University, was formerly
employed by English
Heritage on listing in
the north of England.
C O N T E X T 1 1 2 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 9