Men from the Ministry: How Britain Saved its Heritage

Richard Morris on a look at the project to protect Britain's heritage — and what its survival says about the nation

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Reviewed by: Richard Morris
Author: Simon Thurley
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price (RRP): £18.99

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Appuldurcombe, Belas Knap, Dunster Gallox, Skara Brae: a kind of poetry blooms from the very names of the 800-plus monuments and historic buildings held in care by the British state. Here, Simon Thurley sets out to discover how they were brought together – and why.

His finding that it was chiefly done by civil servants will, for some, be discomfiting. In these days when less government is preferred to big government, can it be that the selection and stewardship of the things “that let you know that you live in England, not France or Italy” has been determined by public sector officials? Thurley’s answer is an ardent ‘yes’. Other things, such as the effects of war, played a part; the process was not perfect, and some resented it, but it worked, and until the Department of the Environment was formed in 1970 the Office of Works was a prime mover. Its ancient monuments department was small, but the Office was well connected and correspondingly influential.

Hence, while figures including Stanley Baldwin and socialist George Lansbury stride through the book, its heroes are men such as Charles Peers and Arnold Taylor, whose strategies of selection and explanation have given us a common visual understanding of cultural identity. The abbeys and castles with which they began “represented the two great narratives of British history”: Protestantism as captured in the remains of Henry VIII’s suppression, and parliamentary democracy as preserved in the shattered fortresses of the Civil War. As historical interests broadened, so did the collecting.

In Thurley’s view, the primary audience for the monuments and buildings are “people who live and work in Britain”. The collection is uniquely accessible, he argues, rather than one maintained by government purely for foreign tourists and metropolitan visitors: “It is part of the very fabric of the nation, of society.” Thurley accepts that Britishness is difficult to argue “without sounding xenophobic or nationalistic” but does so anyway. In these days when the idea of Britain is contested, the relationship between political interest in national identity and state heritage spending is informative. While Scotland invests in the repair and interpretation of its monuments, with funding of around £10 per head in 2011, the equivalent figure for England was £2.

Thurley also looks at the far larger set of sites in private hands in which a public interest is recognised. He shows that since the 1940s ever more bodies have had a hand in them, and that, at each step, less was achieved than hoped for.

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Richard Morris OBE is a former commissioner of English Heritage