Betjeman and the Battle of Bedford Park

Guest blog by Kate Bowes

“We sat around John Betjeman, on the lawn, in an adoring circle,” recalled Eleanor Greeves, wife of Tom Affleck Greeves, (architect and future co-founder of the Bedford Park Society), after having tea in May 1952 at Betjeman’s house, The Mead in Wantage, brought together by a mutual friend Peter Clarke.

Betjeman (poet, writer, broadcaster and later Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate) was becoming a prominent advocate of Victorian architecture, then widely despised, and would be instrumental in the foundation of the Victorian Society in 1957 for its defence. Eleanor and Tom Greeves had moved to Bedford Park in 1952.

Photographs above: Tabard pub; Tom Affleck Greeves; John Betjeman

Betjeman saw Bedford Park as the “prototype” of the suburbia he celebrated and satirised. He wrote six months later to Clarke: “I am thinking of little else than Bedford Park. I am going to try and get “Patmac’s” who now own the Tabard Inn, to allow me to decorate it in the Norman Shaw style”. However, things began to move in a very different direction and Greeves, a regular at the Tabard discovered that destructive plans were about to be implemented by the owner’s architect. He contacted the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who recommended Betjeman’s intervention but the latter’s call to the architect proved unproductive. The following day Greeves was at the Tabard and tackled the architect, who happened to be there, over the planned removal of an original fireplace with Walter Crane tiles. The protest resulted in the more drastic plans being abandoned and the Crane and De Morgan tiles were left in place.

Photographs above: Bedford Park chimneys by Barbara Chandler – barbarachandler.co.uk

When Betjeman started a weekly architectural column in the Daily Telegraph in 1960 his article ‘Suburbs Common or Garden’ would identify Bedford Park as “the most significant suburb built in the last century, probably the most significant in the western world,”. His recognition of its significance would provide a battle cry when Bedford Park came under threat.

He added that:” It is sad… that the fences so carefully designed as part of the whole composition are dilapidated or altered. But the spirit of Bedford Park is still there and it is probably one of our most charming and important monuments; nor is its usefulness past.” He described the Tabard as a place where “men could play the clavichord to ladies in tussore (fine silk) dresses and where supporters of William Morris could learn of early Socialism.”

Photograph above: Bedford Park architecture by Marianne Mahaffey

Need for statutory protection

At the time of Betjeman’s article, few buildings had been destroyed but in 1962 Tom Greeves was outraged when Acton Council demolished The Bramptons, a large house in Bedford Road, and built a five-storey old people’s home in yellow brick on the site. His first attempts to form a group to protect Bedford Park failed but his considerable research into the buildings of architectural interest reinforced the need to have them protected by statutory listing.

At this time, he was alerted to an article in the Acton Gazette by community activist Harry Taylor, who lived in Ramillies Road, declaring “war on Town Hall progress planners” who were “destroying the unique nature of Bedford Park with their barrack-like building and ugly developments,” and suggesting ”it is about time the Bedford Park people started a protection society like the one at Strand-on-the-Green.”

Greeves and Taylor got together and Betjeman suggested they should print some headed paper and start writing letters of protest as if the Society already existed. The first attempt to have houses listed was rejected; a sympathetic member of the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government’s listing committee described it as having “lost the battle over Bedford Park.” Peter Clarke and Tom Greeves were inspired to design a Christmas card with an illustration representing “The Battle of Bedford Park” (after the battle of Turnham Green fought during the Civil War), depicting Betjeman and others defending Bedford Park with umbrellas and sticks.

Photographs above: St Michael & All Angels Church, designed by Norman Shaw. Photographs by Barbara Chandler

At the first public meeting of the Bedford Park Society in May 1963, Tom became secretary and Harry vice-chairman. Betjeman accepted the invitation to be patron, saying: “God bless you for encouraging so excellent and vital a society. Afraid I am away such a lot I cannot do more than give advice.” Nonetheless, he made a speech at a party on 19 July 1966, held on the St Michael and All Angels’ lawn, to launch a campaign to restore the church roof, declaring: “We are standing right in the centre of the world’s first garden suburb” and praising the Norman Shaw church. He also continued to promote Bedford Park on television.

The turning point in saving Bedford Park was the 1967 Bedford Park Festival, when the Society organised an exhibition in the vicarage to highlight the history of Bedford Park and the dangers it faced. One visitor was a Ministry of Housing & Local Government inspector, Arthur Grogan, who was told by Betjeman, also present, “It’s scandalous that this place has not been listed.” Grogan was so impressed by his experience that he recommended the Grade II listing of 356 buildings, including the former Stores (now offices), the Tabard Inn, the Club (now the London Buddhist Vihara), St Michael and All Angels and its Parish Hall. The Church and Tabard have since been promoted to Grade II*.

The second Bedford Park Festival in 1968 celebrated this success and Betjeman’s “message from our patron” in the programme read:

“The dogs do bark in Bedford Park,
The Festival to praise,
There’s not a flaw in Norman Shaw:
The sunflower gardens blaze.”

Photographs above: Architectural detail in Priory gardens by Barbara Chandler

Conservation Areas were declared by the boroughs of Ealing (1969) and Hounslow (1970), who administer the two halves of Bedford Park. These areas were expanded to take in more non-listed houses: in 2001 Hounslow implemented an Article 4(2) Direction, which gives greater protection to the non-listed buildings and, similarly, Ealing in 2008. Bedford Park owes much to Betjeman for bringing his public fame to the “battle” and for keeping it in the public eye.

Kate Bowes is a member of the Bedford Park Society.

Material sourced from Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter by Bevis Hillier and Bedford Park Society archives.

bedfordpark.org.uk

Photograph above: Bedford Park in Spring by Jon Perry – Flickr

Read about the Bedford Park Society

Read how Bedford Park came to be built – inspired by the Aesthetic Movement and designed by leading Victorian architect Norman Shaw

Read about some of Bedford Park’s most famous historical figures.