The Victorian Society

Image above: Victorian Society magazine, February 2023, with articles written by younger members 

“We don’t do dressing up”

The Victorian Society is based in Chiswick, at 1 Priory Gardens in Bedford Park, opposite the vicarage of St Michael & All Angels Church.

The organisation, which champions Victorian and Edwardian architecture, is a national body which campaigns across the UK, and is a registered charity.

“We don’t do dressing up” director Joe O’Donnell told The Chiswick Calendar. We were talking about fundraising and I had asked the question which apparently many people ask them. They have dinners and talks but decided it did not really give the right image for a serious campaigning organisation to be swanning about in top hats, crinolines and capes, he told me (rather wistfully, I thought), even for fundraising events.

What they do is to try and stop developers tearing down Victorian and Edwardian architecture, or modifying it to the extent that they might as well have demolished it. As we talked in February 2023, they were trying to stop the developers who gave London The Shard, from enveloping Liverpool Street Station in a modern construction, adding 16 storeys to the existing five and changing it beyond recognition.

Image above: Proposal for Liverpool Street Station by Herzog & de Meuron

“The Victorian Society regularly sees high quality historic buildings demolished”

Apart from the campaign against the development of Liverpool Street Station, they have also been involved in the ‘Levelling Up’ legislation which, somewhat counterintuitively, involves planning law. Currently planning permission is not required to demolish a building, provided it is not listed or in a conservation area. The Society argues that needs to change.

“The Victorian Society regularly sees high quality historic buildings demolished through permitted development rights” Joe told me. “The Government’s perverse tax regime of 0% VAT on demolition and rebuild vs 20% VAT on repair and maintenance, further stacks the odds in favour of existing buildings being swept away.”

Construction, demolition, and excavation activities generate approximately 60% of the UK’s waste, according to the Green Building Council, and the material manufacturing and construction processes required for creating new buildings create new emissions.

“It is bizarre that in a climate emergency and a housing crisis you can just get rid of buildings. I am concerned about blanket development.”

Image above: Victorian Society, 1 Priory Gardens, Bedford Park

Bedford Park connections

Though a national organisation, the Victorian Society has strong local roots.

Its headquarters at 1 Priory Gardens was built in 1880 for the radical Liberal MP, Llewellyn Atherley Jones and was home to the Bedford Park Printing Press (briefly in the early 20th century) before being divided into flats. It houses a unique collection of books about architecture, among them a collection of the original drawings of a number of houses in Bedford Park.

Tom Greeves, a local architect, was a founding member of both the Bedford Park Society and the Victorian Society, with the aim of preserving the architecture of Bedford Park and applying the same passion for preservation to the whole country.

Bedford Park is acknowledged as the earliest garden suburb. Its creator Jonathan Thomas Carr (1845-1915) was inspired by the Aesthetic Movement of the 1870s and influenced by men such as John Ruskin and William Morris. He wanted to develop an ideal suburb for the artistically inclined middle classes who could no longer afford Chelsea.

Images above:  Front, side and rear elevations from the original architectural drawings for 1 Priory Gardens

The revival of ‘Poverty Park’

There were several architects involved in the building of Bedford Park, the most famous of whom was Norman Shaw, who designed the Church of St Michael and All Angels. The late Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman famously described the beautiful Arts & Crafts houses as “the most significant suburb built in the last century, probably the most significant in the Western World.”

By the 1960s Bedford Park had become a rundown area, known as ‘Poverty Park’, with properties sublet into bedsits and falling into disrepair. As Victorian architecture was out of fashion, the local council started knocking down houses and replacing them with blocks of flats.

The Victorian Society was formed in 1958, the Bedford Park Society in 1963. John Betjeman was both a founder member of the Victorian Society and a patron of the Bedford Park Society.

Image above: Semi-detached villas for the Bedford Park Estate, designed by Norman Shaw, from the Victorian Society’s collection

Since there has been such a revival in interest in Victorian and Edwardian style since the 1960s, it is hard to understand now the strength of feeling at the time against all things Victorian, but  academic Dr William Filmer-Sankey says:

“The founding of the Society took place against the background of an almost universal dislike of Victorian things, and the widespread destruction of Victorian buildings as the post war reconstruction continued apace.”

The Society lost two of its early battles – Euston Station and the Coal Exchange in the City of London. Tom Greeves’ campaign to save Bedford Park was one of their early successes. With the help of John Betjeman he managed to persuade the Ministry of Housing to list 356 houses in the area.

Image above: Semi-detached villas for the Bedford Park Estate, designed by Norman Shaw, from the Victorian Society’s collection

A revival of interest in all things Victorian

The tide began to turn in their favour when British Rail was prevented from knocking down St Pancras Station in 1966 and the building was listed as Grade 1. Albert Dock in Liverpool was saved from demolition in 1952 and now has the largest single collection of Grade I listed buildings anywhere in the country. The Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham was made a Conservation Area in 1981.

The Society set up regional groups in Liverpool and Manchester initially, but now have eight regional centres. Its importance was recognised by the government in 1969, when it was given a legal role in the listed building consent system.

Following the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act, the Secretary of State directed that all applications involving demolition should be referred to the Society for comment.

Image above: Semi-detached villas for the Bedford Park Estate, designed by Norman Shaw, from the Victorian Society’s collection

When we met for tea and cake (a delightfully regular occurrence with which the team at the Victorian Society demonstrate their old-fashioned ways, valuing the opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues in a civilised manner), they explained how they worked.

Joe O’Donnell, a former lawyer, takes the lead on policy. As we met he was in the process of writing the amendment to the Levelling Up bill, to be introduced in the Lords by Baroness Andrews, a former chair of English Heritage.

Other members of the team are case workers, dealing with councils, developers and property owners in different parts of the country. One specialises in church architecture, while the others each have a caseload for a different part of the country.

They organise social and fundraising events (listed on our What’s On pages if they are local) and are always on the look out for volunteers to do everything from helping with research for the casework to helping on the bar at social events.

Image above: Architect’s drawing for Tower House, a detached residence in Bedford Park, from the Victorian Society’s collection

“We are back to where the Society was in 1974”

Despite the official recognition by government, there is a sense of Groundhog Day about the work they do. Developers are nothing if not persistent, especially as there is a lot of money at stake, and the Society’s case workers find themselves revisiting some of the same battles.

They work in partnership with Historic England, and also the Georgian Society and the 20th Century Society, with whom they often make common cause. Although by definition they are conservationist, they are also forward-looking Joe told me, and their work could not be more relevant.

“What we do is inherently what we need to do for a sustainable future” Joe told me.

Railway stations feature prominently in their work. Liverpool Street Station was under threat of demolition 45 years ago.

“We are back to where the Society was in 1974” said Joe.

“They are trying to cantilever a huge edifice over the top of it”

But he said, “there is an unprecedented coming together of heritage and conservationist groups to oppose it.”

If you would like to get involved with the work of the Victorian Society, to volunteer, to help with funding, or just to find out more about what they do, you can contact them at 1 Priory Gardens, W4 1TT. Tel: 0208 747 5897.

Image above: Collection of books of architects’ drawings in the Victorian Society library; Interior at 1 Priory Gardens

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Bedford Park

See also: Betjeman and the Battle of Bedford Park

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