Report of the First Annual Meeting - SPAB

By William Morris

In putting forth this First Annual Report since the institution of our Society, the Committee cannot but regret, considering how widely-spread and rapid has been both the destruction and falsification of our ancient monuments during the last twenty years, that some such society as this was not long ago called into existence; a society with the principal aim of guarding the life and soul of those monuments, so to speak, and not their bodies merely; a society that might have impressed upon the public the duty of preserving jealously the very gifts that our forefathers left us, and not merely their sites and names.

This lack heretofore of such a body as ours (the result among us, who love art and history, of timidity, or despair) perhaps is, the Committee thinks, all the more to be regretted as its existence for the past year has brought out the fact that there has been lying, little expressed, a great amount of public opinion in favour of the principles which it represents. Some part of this opinion has already attached itself openly to the Society, and more, we doubt not, will every day be attracted to it, and will express itself by its means. But apart from this open and obvious support, we think that the Society will act upon a much greater body of the public, so that its views will grow steadily and insensibly, and become more or less the views held both by the guardians of our ancient buildings, and also by those professional gentlemen in whose hands the fate of these works of art to a great measure lies.

The Committee therefore thinks that the main business of the Society, and surely a very useful one, is this putting forward a rallying point for the collecting and expressing of that rational opinion on this matter, which it once hoped, and now knows for certain, exists abundantly in this country.

As for the means by which the Committee has tried to keep itself before the public; it has taken in hand a great deal of work, which has hitherto necessarily been of a more or less tentative nature, but has certainly sufficed to show how much it may find to do, which may help its purpose of turning public attention to the intrinsic value of our ancient buildings, and the grievous loss we incur by their destruction, and of teaching how much that value, both artistic and historical, depends on their being preserved in a genuine condition. As the sphere and influence of the Society spreads, new channels will doubtless be found in which to direct its energies. One of these, for example, the Committee may be allowed to suggest even now. Up to the present time the Society has confined its efforts to the defence of the monuments of our own country, but, of course, it cannot be unconscious how much such efforts are needed for the preservation of the interest that is yet left to the ancient buildings of the rest of Europe; in many parts of which there has both been more to destroy and more ignorant and reckless destruction than in England. The magnitude of the undertaking only has prevented the Committee from taking active measures in this most important matter, in which, for the rest, it is convinced that there is little time to be lost, if anything is to be done.

To go into details as to the direct work of the Society since its foundation, it has received a great number of letters from various parts of the kingdom relating to demolition and so-called restoration, contemplated or in progress. Every case thus brought under the notice of the Committee has received its careful attention, and where there has seemed to be a possibility of the Society using its influence to any good purpose, steps have been taken to carry out their views, protests have been written and sent to the proper authorities in about forty instances of contemplated restoration or destruction. Members of the Committee have reported after personal visits in many cases, and have used their personal influence to prevent harm being done. It is difficult to tell what direct effect the protests of the Society may havehad, but in some cases have come without our notice where the Society's protests have been directly success, and we are satisfied that in most we have strengthened the hands of those who were opposing the proposed so-called restorations, and have minimized the harm done, and have made it more difficult to tamper with other works of art in the neighbourhood.

It is obviously most important to the Society in carrying out its work, nay, it is a foundation as it were of that work, that it should have correct and detailed information concerning those ancient buildings left more or less untampered with. As one convenient and direct way of obtaining such information, the Committee has had printed a tabular form for giving the complete description of a church, which will shortly be in the hands of every member of the Society; and it hopes to obtain, also, additional help in this matter by sending these out to the clergy far and wide. By this and other means it expects to get a tolerably complete list of all the unrestored churches in Great Britain; and it is to be hoped that every member of the Society will take up the matter as one of personal interest to himself. It may be mentioned here that a member of the Committee, Mr. Coventry Patmore, has suggested (by letter) the publishing of a pamphlet, to be made up from the materials so collected, and has offered to subscribe the sum of £10 towards a special fund for this purpose. As the Committee thoroughly approves of Mr. Patmore's suggestion, and as the ordinary funds of the Society will not allow of devoting money to such a publication, it gratefully accepted Mr. Patmore's munificent offer, and is glad now to lay the fact before the Society at large. As to the information already collected on this head, the Committee has information of 749 ancient and quite unrestored churches in England and Wales. Of these the greater number are situated in the counties of Buckinghamshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, and Oxfordshire. They have at present not been able to collect much reliable information respecting the unrestored churches in the counties of Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland, Durham, Lancashire, Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Herefordshire, Rutland, Huntingdonshire, and Hampshire, or the counties of Wales; nor has their present information dealt much with Scotland nor Ireland. The subject is, however, being attended to by your Committee, and it is hoped that by next autumn a body of information will have been obtained about these localities that may put most of them on the same footing as the counties already dealt with. It is encouraging to remark that so great has been the mass of fine architecture left us by our ancestors, that in spite of all the damage done by restoration and destruction, there is still much left quite untouched, besides what has been left not utterly falsified. The county of Surrey has suffered most - almost, indeed, to the extinction of genuinely ancient buildings; Essex (a county of small and unpretending, though often most interesting, churches) has perhaps suffered least; and Norfolk may be set beside it, a happy fact when we think of its riches in furniture, stained glass, and the like.

The Committee would call attention here to the immense help that the various archaeological and architectural societies throughout the kingdom would be to us in this collecting of information, if they would consent to set their hands to the work - a work, we should think, very congenial to many of their members.

The Committee has devoted much attention to the dissemination of pamphlets bearing directly upon the evils of restoration, thinking that by this means the aims and scope of the Society will become more generally understood and appreciated. Many of its members have been most active in expressing its views publicly, and these utterances your Committee has made it part of its business to circulate. Of these we may mention Mr. J. J. Stevenson's paper, read before the Institute of Architects last year, and which excited much attention at the time. Last March Mr. G. Aitcheson read a paper on the subject before the Social Science Congress at Aberdeen, and last September another paper before the Art Club at Liverpool. The Rev. W. J. Loftie contributed an article to MacMillan's Magazine in Juneof last year, which brought out much discussion, and Professor Colvin last October did as much in the Nineteenth Century. All these papers have been widely circulated, together with the now famous and most eloquent passage from Professor John Ruskin's "Seven Lamps of Architecture"; a protest unfortunately as much needed now as it was years ago. As a matter of course, also, the paper first put forth by the Society has been sent on every occasion calling attention to the Society's existence.

The Committee is happy to call the attention of the Society to some causes for congratulation. It has had encouraging correspondence in many cases, both with the clergy and patrons of livings, who have asked for advice in dealing with the necessary repairs of the buildings under their care. The Society has already been much noticed by the Press, always with respect, and generally with unqualified approval. The Athenaeum, which has the honourable distinction of having for years past steadily and courageously resisted the follies of Restoration, has never failed in its support of the Society; Punch has given us good help both with pen and pencil; and a clever artist in Fun has seen his opportunity in the subject, and seized upon it with goodwill. There have been serious and for the most part sympathetic articles on the Society in the Globe, Daily Telegraph, Daily News, Guardian, Architect, Whitehall Review, Graphic, Truth, &c., besides many of the leading country journals; and we have every reason to believe that these articles reflect a growing feeling in favour of our principles, both among men and women, throughout the country.

Nevertheless, the work to be done is heavy; and even now mere cynically brutal destruction, not veiling itself under any artistic pretence, is only too common. It is still only too commonly assumed that any considerations of Art must yield if they stand in the way of money interests. In fact, it is hard to convince people in general that the art in our ancient buildings is a real solid possession. The Committee thinks it timely to call your attention here to the threatened gradual destruction of what is left of the old churches in the City of London. We have only to think of London deprived of the interest and variety that their steeples give to it, to get an idea of how grievous their loss will be. Historic, curious, characteristic, and in many cases beautiful, there must be few people indeed of any cultivation who will not regret them. Scarcely anyone, we think, of any feeling for art, history, or civilization, who will not echo the following words of one of our greatest authors, which the Committee is happy to insert in this Report:

Mr. Thomas Carlyle writes to us thus on the subject: "I can have but little hope that any word of mine can help you in your good work of trying to save the Wren Churches in the City from destruction; but my clear feeling is, that it would be a sordid, nay sinful, piece of barbarism to do other than religiously preserve these churches as precious heirlooms; many of them specimens of noble architecture, the like of which we have no prospect of ever being able to produce in England again."

We do find it strange, indeed, that the richest country and city in the world grudges to the Arts the few feet of ground that these ancient monuments occupy; and the Committee thinks it a worthy work of this Society to rouse public opinion on the subject, and call the attention of the public to the loss that they are sustaining in the demolition of these buildings, which are nearly all doomed, and are coming down quietly but surely, church after church; it is the intention, therefore, of the Committee to publish a pamphlet, and to take other measures with this object, shortly.

Before making an end of this report, the Committee would like to call attention both of members of the Society and of the public generally to two points especially on which the Society is likely to be misunderstood. We have probably all of us heard our Society accused, in the face of the declaration of the first paper we put forth, of being ourselves the favourers of that ruin and destruction from which we profess to defend our ancient monuments. Weshould like to protest once more against this misunderstanding, and to declare what a grief it is to us to come across the results, the unfortunately irreparable results, of neglect and brutality, and what a pleasure to look on a building which, owing to reverent and constant care, still stands trim and sound, with no wilfulness of which to accuse the hand of man, with nothing to regret except the inevitable lapse of time, and the slow and gentle decay it has brought with it; and how slow that may be, the most ancient buildings in the world yet bear witness, and will do so for many a hundred years.

Again, to look facts in the face once more, we have many of us met with a tendency to saddle on us an undue regard for certain forms of art, certain styles of architecture; an accusation (as we must call it) founded on the necessity our principles enforce upon us to protest against the wholesale contempt, and consequent widespread destruction, of all the architectural works accomplished in this country after a certain date. We desire to declare emphatically that the Society neither has the will nor the power to enter into any "battle of the styles;" and we beg to inform the public that it counts amongst its members persons of every shade of artistic opinion, and differing widely in their artistic sympathies, whose common bond is earnest opposition at once to neglect and meddling in matters concerning all buildings that have any claim to be considered works of art. Our enemies are the enemies of the works of all styles alike, ignorant destruction and pedantic reconstruction.

To conclude: if only we can get a little breathing-space we believe that this Society will be of at least some service; we think that there are many among those who have to deal with ancient buildings, who do really feel the force of our reasoning on this matter, and that already restorations when they take place stand a good chance of not being so sweeping as they once would have been. Many other persons of cultivation also we believe do really at heart fully agree with us, and probably no few of these would openly join the Society if they did not belong to that class of mind which the enunciation of any principle frightens. These last, men rather too logical to be thoroughly practical, we would remind of the necessity of having some distinct rallying-point for collecting the genuine feeling on this subject, hitherto scattered and helpless; and then, that necessity being admitted, we would further remind them of the need of some wide but distinctly enounced test, to serve as a bond for that unity of thought and action, which alone can impress the public with the sense of a growing feeling, founded upon reason and common sense.

Bibliographical Note


Annual Report of the SPAB - I (1878).


1. 21 June 1878: Before SPAB at the Annual Meeting held at the Willis Rooms, King Street, St. James's, London. Earl Cowper was the chairman.


1. The Times, 22 June 1878, p. 7.


1. `The Anti-Restoration Movement', The Architect, 13 July 1878, pp. 17-18.


1. The Architect, 6 July 1878, pp. 7-8.

2. As `The Report' in The First Annual Report of the Society. Report of the Committee Thereat Read, (London 1878), pp. 9-18.

3. As `Address to the First Annual General Meeting of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings' in William Morris on Architecture, ed. Chris Miele, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 1996), pp. 56-63.

The reference to this piece of work in the Chronology