Lost Victorian Britain: How the Twentieth Century Destroyed the Nineteenth Century’s Architectural Masterpieces

Jeremy Black reads a well-researched and beautifully illustrated narrative of architectural vandalism

Lost Victorian Britain
Author: Gavin Stamp
Publisher: Aurum
Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Price (RRP): £25

Make sure you can cope with the depression induced by seeing the photographs of so many fine buildings now demolished before reading this well-written and keenly researched account of gratuitous vandalism – of how, in Gavin Stamp’s words, a climate of opinion, fuelled by self-hatred as much as utopianism, could be malevolently destructive.

The damage caused by those who mocked the Victorians is carefully discussed by Stamp in his thoughtful introduction, with the shallowness of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals held up for particular criticism. Others who followed suit in criticising Victorian architecture included GM Trevelyan.

As the architectural historian John Summerson wrote in 1967: “We forget how deeply Victorian things – especially Victorian buildings – were hated in those days. St Pancras Hotel, in particular, was loathed for its size and pretension, its colour and ornamentation.”

Fortunately, there are also heroes in the book, not least John Betjeman, a key mover in the foundation of the Victorian Society in 1958, and Nikolaus Pevsner, who, in 1950, had to tell his Cambridge students that their laughter at the Victorian subject of his inaugural Slade Lecture was not funny.

Alongside fashionable thinkers, government, both national and local, emerges repeatedly as a villain, for example in the 1960s’ plan to rebuild Whitehall. Indeed – encouraged by Macmillan, Wilson and a host of politicians, civil servants and businessmen – the 1950s–70s provided the worst cases of deliberate destruction, such as that of London’s majestic coal exchange, demolished in 1962, and of Norman Shaw’s Holy Trinity Church, Bingley, Yorkshire in 1974.

Yet, the process is scarcely over. As Stamp notes, the Middlesex Guildhall has recently been mutilated internally to make it the home of the Supreme Court.

Politicians who emerge with credit from this book are few, although Lord Kennet was instrumental in St Pancras being listed at Grade I in 1967. However a public enquiry had to be fought in 1980 to prevent the booking hall being spoilt.

Most of the text consists of the discussion of particular buildings and relevant photographs, with the book organised in terms of categories of building: Iron and Glass; Railways; Hotels and Buildings for Pleasure; Commerce; Industrial; Places of Worship; Public Buildings; Public and Private Institutions; Domestic Architecture; Country Houses.

What is less easy to capture is the sense of loss felt by contemporaries.

PD James did so in her novel A Certain Justice, in which, describing the building of London Westway dual carriageway in the 1960s she wrote of peoples’ worlds “crashing down with their houses… Soon there would be nothing but tarmac and the ceaseless roar and screech of traffic thundering westward out of London. In time even memory would be powerless to conjure up what once had been.”

Gavin Stamp, also author of Britain’s Lost Cities, suggests otherwise in his powerful indictment.  

Jeremy Black is the author of Britain 1851–2010: A Nation Transformed (Robinson, 2011)
 

The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century
previous book review Article
Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire
next book review Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here