Speech Moving the Adoption of the Annual Report at the Eighth Annual Meeting of SPAB

By William Morris

Ladies and gentlemen, - In this, the eighth anniversary - the eighth birthday of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, I do not intend to take up your time for very long, especially as our friend Mr. Norwood is prepared to give us a very interesting address; and what I do say will be mostly with regard to what may be called the business of the occasion. We are now past that stage in our history when we were troubling ourselves with too many hopes and fears about this matter. It is possible that some of us - though not myself - may have begun to agitate on the subject of the preservation of ancient buildings in rather a sanguine spirit. It is probable that that over-sanguine hope with which some of us began has been by this time a good deal dashed. It is probable also that there may be some of us who, when they began, had no hopes at all except the purpose of saving their own souls from complicity in the destruction of those monuments of antiquity. Now it seems to me that by this time neither the optimists nor the pessimists amongst us need trouble themselves about anything further than going straight through their business. We have already seen by this time so much that is for us and so much that is against us, that I do not think anything in the way of stupidity or Vandalism - though I do not like the word Vandalism, because after all the Vandals may have been a decent set of people - I do not think anything in the way of stupidity would astound us. On the other hand, we are perfectly convinced of the faith that is in us - we are perfectly firm on that point; so that I think the matter has passed out of the domain of sentiment into that of business. We know, if we stick to it doggedly enough and work hard enough, we shall, at all events, save a few ancient buildings from destruction. In point of fact, it is a kind of race between the mere carelessness and ignorance of people and the amount of influence we can bring to bear on public opinion. No doubt in the long run we shall conquer; and all I can say is, I hope by the time we have conquered there will be something more than mere regret left to those who will be then universally of our opinion, that these buildings ought to have been taken care of in the most sedulous manner possible. It seems to me, in looking at this Report, - which we will take as read, as you have all got it in your hands, - that, in the main, there are two or three classes of cases amongst the very numerous cases we have dealt with. In the first place, there are those cases which are here, I may say "gibbeted" as examples of that astounding and amazing stupidity which possesses the people of this country, who are supposed to be educated. On the other hand, there are some of which we can simply say we have done so much work, and we can only hope there will be some return for it. The first set of cases are merely the protests of this Society against certain action in matters in which we are entirely beaten, and in which we could do nothing. Then there are cases in which there is still some hope, and in which the pros and cons are still proceeding. The third and last set of cases, which are really the encouraging ones, are those in which it is obvious we have done something. I am not at all the person to stand here and prophesy smooth things. We must admit that there is, on the whole, very little attention given to this most important subject of preserving our national monuments. Nevertheless, in spite of that, I think in this past year the Society has somewhat scored. There are decidedly more cases of people requiring or accepting definite help and advice from this Society than there have hitherto been. Take the case of Acton Burnell Church, in Shropshire, which is a very important church, and a very beautiful one. The Report says about that, that "it has been visited and a report sent to the Rector and churchwardens and to the architect, at his own request." That is surely very important. Then, again, there is the little church at Brentor, in Devonshire, and on this the Report says: "The Committeereceived a request from his Grace the Duke of Bedford that the Society should report on the condition and proper treatment of this curiously situated and interesting church. The church was visited, and a report made about it, and his Grace has expressed his satisfaction and concurrence with the view taken by the Society, and has further asked for advice as to the treatment of Thornhaugh and Wansford Churches in Northamptonshire, which are also reported on here." I think that is something like progress. Again, there is the church of Cherry Hinton, in Cambridgeshire. This church has been so much restored, that the whole of it, with the exception of the chancel, has been practically rebuilt. Whether that was absolutely necessary or not is another matter; at any rate, the chancel still remains, and we have reported on it at the request of the Master and Fellows of St. Peter's College, and our report has been favourably received. That also is important. Then we have also reported on Filey Church, at the request of the Vicar, and, I believe, have saved it from virtual destruction. South Hanningfield Church, Essex, we have gone through for the second time, at the Vicar's request, to see if we could give him any help at all. Then, again, there is a church at St. Mary's, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, which is a very important church of its kind, and upon this a correspondent says: "The architect has most carefully preserved every inch of the old work which is possible: indeed, most of the Committee think he carries this spirit too far. Of this I feel pretty certain, that if he were your servant entirely he could not carry out your wishes further in the work done." So you will see that there are certain signs of the thing spreading. I might here mention a little church in a most beautiful and picturesque place - I mean Llandanwg Chapel, near Harlech, Merionethshire, which the Society visited, and made attempts, if possible, to keep standing. It is a deserted church, and is quite worth taking a little trouble with. We thought we should have to give up dealing with it altogether, but fortunately a member of the Society liberally placed a sum of money at the disposal of the Committee for the purpose of repairing any building recommended, provided his name was not mentioned. We suggested this case to him for his approval, and he has allowed us to spend the money on it, so that this church will be preserved. Then there is the important case of Peterborough Cathedral. That is one of those mixed cases of which we have been speaking. Some of you will remember that when we urged the Restoration Committee there to do their utmost to preserve the old tower as it was, those engaged in the work were very emphatic in stating that the tower as it then existed would be simply rebuilt, and nothing would be done to it except that. I must tell you that among ourselves we all said, "Oh, yes! We know what will be done. Mr. Pearson will come forward with a design, and some of his own twelfth-nineteenth century work will be put in its place." Well, that has been attempted, but there has been going on at Peterborough, I am glad to tell you, a very sharp contest on the matter between the Restoration Committee and the Canons of the cathedral. The Canons of the cathedral were very emphatic that this promise, which was a very definite and distinct promise, should be kept by the Restoration Committee, and that the tower should be rebuilt exactly as it was. On the other hand, the majority of the Committee were in favour of the substitution of something of Mr. Pearson's for this piece of work. The Canons have held out pertinaciously, and I believe I am justified in saying that they have conquered, and that the cathedral, at all events, will not be disfigured by a piece of fancy work built in the nineteenth century by an architect superintending masons, who cannot by any possibility have any real feeling in them for the spirit which built the tower, that of the Norman architects of the twelfth century. That, to a certain extent, is satisfactory, though it is such a grievous thing that the old tower should have been pulled down that we can hardly rejoice much in the matter. With regard to the things we feel most keenly as defeats, I think I must first name what is a very important building, viz., Westminster Hall. I think all my colleagues will agree with me when I saythat we have done our very utmost in trying to prevent a piece of absolute folly being committed there. That is the only word for it. The money of the nation is to be expended, nor merely for no purpose at all - considering how the money of the nation is spent, that would be nothing very new or astounding - but besides that, it is to do a decided harm to this relic of the past. We have fought it in every way we could; but at present, I must say I do not think there is much hope. In point of fact, instead of the ancient remains of the old hall, which the pulling down of the miserable shanty called the old Law Courts has disclosed to the public view - instead of that, we shall have a brand-new building of the nineteenth century, which will express what Mr. Pearson's ideas are of what the old hall looked like at the latter end of the fourteenth century, and that, of course, you will have to put up with. You will also have to pay for it. We cannot help that; but I feel all the more indignant at this proceeding because of the farce - I cannot call it anything else - which has been enacted of a Commission sitting on the spot, which has been passed off on the public, when we all knew perfectly well from the very first that it was intended to carry out Mr. Pearson's designs as they were presented to the First Commissioner of Works, or rather to his Secretary. I attended myself twice to give evidence on the subject, and when I saw this circle of "potent, grave, and reverend signors" sitting round in a ring to settle a matter upon which most of them confessedly knew absolutely nothing, it did not increase my respect for that venerable institution the House of Commons. So I am afraid we must put down the exterior of Westminster Hall as a thing of the past. There is another thing over which we can do nothing except lament - that is, the destruction of almost the last obvious piece of ancient London which now exists, viz., Staple Inn. That Inn was sold by the possessors, who were one of those curious quasi public bodies which exist in this wonderful and astounding country - and it seems they were able to dispose for private purposes of property which was supposed to be public corporate property. They have sold the building and the site, and they have divided the money and pocketed it. I hope it will do them good. However, that is only a piece of spite, which does not console me, because of one thing I am certain, their proceedings will not do us any good, as it will probably come to this, that all the buildings will be pulled down: the price put on it is an absolutely commercial price, and the buyer, I suppose, has to make his money out of it. The only thing I can suggest is that some rich Englishman, or better still, perhaps, some rich Yankee, should make up his mind to draw his purse-strings and try if he cannot make a bargain with Messrs. Pickford to buy their property of them. I don't suppose he would lose all his money. I don't suppose it is any use suggesting it to an Englishman, because it would not get him a single extra vote at the coming election - not even my own, because I shan't vote. But with a Yankee, I think it might win him a little glory amongst a certain portion of the human race, including ourselves, who would stand by and applaud another man doing our duty. It is too bad to think that almost the last piece of anything like serious beauty which exists in London, should be looked on as a matter to be bought and sold, simply for the value of the site, and whatever there is charming, or beautiful, or historical about it should be treated as if it were worth nothing at all. I think we may say that as things now are, such a building, with all its memories and associations, is absolutely invaluable. On these grounds I say that whatever else is bound to go through the supply and demand market, with all that goes on betwixt buying and selling, buildings like that ought to be exempt from it. If there is a particle of spirit in the nation they ought to make up their mind that, come what will, they will spend a little money - which would not be very much, really - in preserving for ever these relics of the past. Whatever may happen to any civilised country - to this country of our own - whatever success it may achieve in the future, however much it is possible for it to do, there is one thing which, if lost, is irretrievable. Most mistakes we may make we may retrieve,but there is one thing we cannot get back if we once lose, and that is, the ancient buildings we are here to-day to protect. Whatever else happens, whatever glories or happiness befalls the English people in the future, these things, if we once lose them, we can never get back again; and yet they are treated just as if they were so many lumps of stone and gravel lying along the street; as if they were so much merchandise or cattle, to be bought and sold for the purpose of accumulating money. It is a shame to the English nation, and to us who belong to it, that by this time we have not produced more effect on public opinion than that the destruction of Staple Inn must go be default. Although we have done what we thought we could in the matter, we have always been hampered by the eternal difficulty of people saying, it is private property and you cannot touch it. I say, once for all, it is an absolute disgrace that such buildings as these should be considered to be private property at all. I just ask you to take this set of buildings merely for a type. The worst of it is that we cannot get at the careless, that they are not present here now; for I know that all present agree with me from the first to the last in what I am saying, so that I am really only preaching to the converted. Well, my business here is to move the adoption of this Report; and I think you will admit on the whole we have worked pretty hard during the year in trying to carry out the objects we have at heart, viz., the protection of our ancient buildings. I am just reminded that there is one other subject I should mention, and that is, that the Society has taken up the question of the protection of the ancient churches in the city of York. Lately a Commission has been sitting, and a schedule has been got out for the union of benefices in that city. In the schedule certain churches were mentioned which were either to be pulled down or removed into the country, or were to be deserted, which simply means that they would be allowed to tumble down instead of being pulled down. They would be allowed to become ruinous, and then, one fine day, the local surveyor would could and say: "You must pull that building down, because it is dangerous." Dealing with our correspondents about York we found there was a considerable feeling in the city against this monstrosity, and we saw that there was an opportunity for a public meeting there to protest against the proposed action. A meeting was accordingly held last Saturday. I have to report about that meeting that, on the whole, it was very successful. It was held on a Saturday, which, it seems, is a bad day, and thinned our audience somewhat; but though there were not so many people present as would otherwise have been the case, the meeting was thoroughly enthusiastic - surprisingly so to me: I could hardly imagine that the meeting was held about such a simple affair as allowing the property of the people to be destroyed - it almost seemed to me as if it was a meeting about some important foreign question, or about a political matter. The opposition to the meeting was exceedingly futile. It entirely ignored the question of which we were speaking, and was content to hymn the praises of the Archbishop of York, on account of his having had this delightful idea of the union of benefices. Well, we did not object to this idea; it was not our business to interfere with ecclesiastical arrangements. All we wanted was that in carrying out the scheme the churches should not be destroyed. We tried if some modus vivendi between us and the opposition at the meeting could not be hit upon, and it was suggested we should pass a vote of confidence in the Archbishop and the Commission, but add that it would be a good thing to put into the schedule a clause which would ensure a small maintenance fund for each of the churches which is was proposed to desert. That the opposition would not have, and they brought their arguments to the crucial test of a division, but very few people supported them. Altogether it was a very successful meeting. We did not go down to get a little applause, or to snatch a division, but to do what I think we have done: take the whole subject of these churches out of the hole and corner into the daylight, which is what we desire. I have now to move, ladies and gentlemen, that the Report be adopted.

Bibliographical Note


Speech Moving the Adoption of the Annual Report at the Eighth Annual Meeting of SPAB (1885).


1. 4 June 1885: Before the Annual Meeting of SPAB held in the rooms of the Society of Arts, John Street, Adelphi, London. Morris was chairman.


1. The Architect, 13 June 1885, p. 335.

2. The Artist, VI (July 1885), p. 218.


1. [Untitled] in the SPAB Report, 1885, (London 1885), pp. 45-55.

The reference to this piece of work in the Chronology