‘The temporary requirements of mere fashion’
Dorset’s record in preserving its ancient buildings has not always been as distinguished as it might have been. Jo Draper recounts a particular example.
Published in January ’11
In the late 19th century there was no listing of buildings of architectural interest (this started in 1908 but was ineffective) and so owners could do pretty much what they liked with their properties. Of course, that had always been true, but with an increasing interest in old architecture and the study of it right through the 19th century, there were those who were beginning to think that losing historic buildings was bad for the county. However, property rights were an even stronger issue in such a conservative county as Dorset.
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (more succinctly, SPAB) was founded in 1877. Its aim was to preserve old buildings, but also to make sure that repairs were done properly, rather than the horribly thorough Victorian ‘restorations’; these often involved demolishing whole buildings – in Dorset, generally churches – and rebuilding them.
Until 1898, the long, handsome frontage of the 17th-century White Horse inn and the stump of the old market cross (which survives today) made the centre of Maiden Newton. In 1897 the owners, Devenish Brewery, proposed to demolish the White Horse, and the vocal opposition to this proposition shows how much picturesque old buildings were being appreciated by then. Sadly, it equally shows how ineffective opposition to demolition was.
It was exactly the sort of building SPAB wanted to see preserved. They wrote to Devenish and then asked Thomas Hardy (former architect as well as novelist) to visit and suggest how at least the front of the building could be preserved. Hardy was not hopeful: ‘The roof, floors etc. are so bad that something must soon be done to them to keep the building together; moreover the landlord’s contention that no ordinary traveller likes to occupy the bedrooms as they are is obviously true.’ He suggested repairs to floors and ceilings, with re-thatching, but found that the building was actually very sound. He had long admired the White Horse; when he had visited in 1888, the landlady had told him that when attics that had been boarded-off for years were opened up, a suit of clothes were found ‘supposed to be those of a man who was murdered’. Very Hardyean.
SPAB co-operated with the National Trust, which had been founded only two years before, but the owners refused to allow the Trust even to look at the building. The Society thought about writing to the newspapers and tried to enlist the architectural practice where Hardy had received his training, Crickmay & Sons, on the side of preservation, but all was in vain. In September 1898 demolition began. The landlord and Devenish wanted higher rooms, a building not cut in half by the entrance arch and no expensive-to-insure thatch. They got all that from the rather undistinguished new building, which looks more like London than Dorset.
SPAB’s annual report regretted the loss of ‘a characteristic and most beautiful example of a West Country inn, the chief feature of interest in the village …. It might be thought that even from a commercial point of view, the owners would have decided to retain the building, as there are many who spend their holidays in travelling about to see such buildings as this.’
The same point was made by the Bridport News in a long article on 19 May 1899 which provides a revealing insight into contemporary attitudes towards both the preservation of buildings and the growing number of visitors to the county: ‘…the picturesque old “White Horse” at Maiden Newton, with its quaint low-pitched rooms, its stone-moulded windows, its gable above the archway, and its old yellow-gray thatched roof …. It “was” such, I write. For the chance visitor now, alas! looks in vain for the old house. It has disappeared.
‘Why, think you? Because, as I take it, the visitors of past years had not cared enough for it to make worthwhile the keeping of that ancient house in good repair. “It was certainly very pretty to look at from, an outsider’s point of view, but to live in, quite another thing,” writes to me one who knows, “for it was really past repair.”
‘There are still many such within “wold Darset”, many a good old house of entertainment … which one may reckon as amongst those things of beauty which are “a joy for ever”. Do Dorset folk regard the same, however? I hope so. Do outsiders value them? They would – aye, indeed they would – did they know of their existence.
‘I would not see Dorset overrun and spoilt by “the ’Arrys and the Hemmers” of Bank Holiday renown. But there is no need for fear of that. Not the slightest, believe me. Just the best folk who want the rest and recuperation, and peace and old-world life and quiet, who would take runs to and rambles in Dorset if they gave the shire a thought or knew what it would afford them. But they do not. And why, forsooth?
‘I’ll tell you – and mark the words. Because “Dorsettians” themselves are not enough alive to the value of their strangely old-world and beautiful countryside. They are a homely and lovable and warm-hearted folk, as I’ve before remarked, and – passively – they love their home-county with a very genuine love. Let them do so actively!
‘I do not mean “Let them advertise it,” in the ordinary acceptation of the word. But let them more conspicuously take a greater and more lively personal interest in each and every matter – be it never so trivial – connected with towns and villages and highways and hedgerows of Dorset. By doing so they will unconsciously make known the resources of the county and attract the visitor to her. And – directly or indirectly – scarce any Dorsetshire locality but will benefit thereby.’
‘The “thin population” and their old-world ways are what makes the county so charming. But ’twould be none the worse for visitors of the right sort. And there should be a regular influx of such, you know, to the prosperity of the shire. Such dear old houses as was the quaint “White Horse” would have their contingent of just the class of tourists as would suffice to veto their disappearance, and much that is picturesque might be saved. And – and I deliberately repeat the words – scarce a locality but would benefit.
It is intriguing that the writer’s affectionate but patronising assumption is that Dorset people cannot produce the pressure needed to preserve old buildings themselves – the ‘best folk’ and ‘visitors of the right sort’ need to come on holiday to Dorset, and ‘just the class of tourists as would suffice to veto’ the demolition of buildings like the White Horse. It certainly was true that in the 1890s, the only part of the county involved in tourism was the coast, where the ‘best folk’ had been coming for more than 150 years. Inland Dorset was little known and, despite SPAB, there was little pressure inside the county to preserve its heritage.
The Weymouth architect, Wamsley Lewis, founded the Weymouth Civic Society in 1942, when the National Buildings Record was just being established (leading to a proper ‘listing’ from 1947), and his article on ‘Buildings and Preservation’ shows that little progress had been made since the 1890s: ‘In our towns, countless fine buildings of past periods have had to give way to commercialism or the temporary requirements of mere fashion; in the country, thousands of square miles of our beautiful land have been lost to bad and ugly building development …. Foreigners when visiting our country are amazed that a country with a history of which we are so justly proud should carelessly destroy so much that is worthy of preservation and the very evidence of our history.’
Lewis thought that ‘Among the minor domestic buildings in Dorset worthy for preservation are numerous simple farmhouses, cottages and inns which exhibit a tradition in local workmanship and design …. By the local materials used in their construction and the shapes of their plans and roofs, they exhibit the local characteristic so strongly that one is left in no doubt as to which county one is in.’
Like Hardy, Wamsley Lewis would have loved the picturesque old White Horse, but let us leave the last word to the Bridport News writer: ‘Let nothing Dorsettian, therefore, be lost; cherish each “oddment” tenderly; let love for the sweet countryside be a something ever growing warmer and yet more warm; induce “outsiders” to love it too. And a benison both on shire and people!’