MGM 2008 - The Victorian Society Celebrates 50 Years - At RIBA

By Caroline Lewis | 06 May 2008
Black and white photo of the ornate gothic style St Pancras station

St Pancras would have been flattened if not for the Victorian Society.

Exhibition preview: Saving a Century - Fifty Years Of The Victorian Society at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London, until May 29 2008

The Victorian Society, which campaigns for the preservation and restoration of the 19th century and Edwardian historic environment, celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2008.

In honour of the charity's half a century of fighting to save some of the nation's best buildings from the wrecking ball, a photographic exhibition is being mounted at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Curated by leading architectural historian Gavin Stamp, it illustrates some of the Society's most remarkable battles, such as that to save St Pancras, Liverpool's Albert Dock, the Foreign Office and Euston Arch.

Archive photographs and material charts the successes as well as the defeats (like the Euston Arch), and looks at how the Victorian Society has changed public attitudes towards the years that gave us Gothic Revival, classic redbrick School Board buildings and the Arts and Crafts movement.

Black and white photo of an unusual church building with large Victorian tower and thin turret attached to one corner

St Stephen's, Rosslyn Hill, was derelict for years and is now being restored by a trust.

In the post-war period of the 1950s, Victorian architecture was looked upon by many town planners as stuffy and unfit for purpose in the new world of modernist and functional design. As a result, many fine old – and then unfashionable – buildings found themselves under threat of not just neglect, but demolition.

In 1958, faced with the destruction of swathes of heritage from the past century, the Victorian Society was formed with the aim of countering this zeitgeist and also to study and appreciate Victorian craft and design. Its early members included Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Sir John Betjeman, Hugh Casson and Christopher Hussey.

While defeated in 1962 when the Euston Arch was knocked down, the Society did manage to gradually have an effect on the public mood through publications and educational events. It is the Victorian Society we have to thank for the spectacularly revived St Pancras International – the whole complex would have been pulled down if not for its campaigning in 1966.

Black and white photo of a large classical gateway with columns and pediment

The Euston Arch, demolished in 1962.

The Society was also successful in its long-fought campaign to save the Albert Dock, today one of the proud assets of Liverpool in its year as Capital of Culture. When the government vacillated over finding money to restore the Albert Memorial, again, the Victorian Society saved the day.

Other photographs on show illustrate buildings long-lost – the Crystal Palace (burnt down 1936), Trentham Hall in Staffordshire (abandoned by the Duke of Sutherland in 1906 and then demolished), and Queen's Park Church, Glasgow (lost in WWII). And yet more show what has been saved, including victories in Whitehall - George Gilbert Scott's Foreign Office, Richard Norman Shaw's New Scotland Yard and Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square (all once earmarked for demolition).

Black and white photo of a large church with a very tall spire, surrounded by more modern buildings

St Walburge's in Preston was one of the Society's Top Ten Endangered Buildings in 2007. Despite being a Grade I-listed building by JA Hansom with an enthusiastic congregation, the Catholic Church's Lancaster Diocese is planning to close it without any plans for its future.

Even today, when fine architecture and rare examples of historic structures are given protection by listing, the work of the Society is far from over, with many buildings still in danger. Municipal swimming pools are being closed, handsome old school buildings are victims of new policies and thousands of solidly built terraced houses go unprotected.

Another monumental challenge is the guarding of places of worship in an age of dwindling congregations. Moreover, they are exempt from the secular planning system, making deconsecrated spaces vulnerable to insensitive change.

It seems the Society will be going for a long time yet.

This is an exhibition preview. If you've been to see the show, why not let us know what you think?

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