William Morris

The Proposed Addition to Westminster Abbey

Those who care about the remains of the ancient art of our country may well be somewhat anxious about the scheme which is before the public for the building of a memorial chapel at Westminster to hold the monuments of distinguished men in the future, since it is now admitted on all hands that there is no more room for them in the Abbey church. As representing the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, it is not my business to criticize the various proposals, except from one point of view, that is: as to how they may affect the existing ancient buildings. I beg you to allow me a word or two on this point, while there is yet time to say anything concerning the scheme. What I have to say will be very brief. It seems to me that all the proposals err in this respect: that, whereas in this matter the welfare of the noblest building ever raised by Englishmen ought to be the first thing considered in all these schemes, it is considered last, if at all. They all seem to assume the necessity for the new building being connected with the Abbey church: a necessity which for the life of me I cannot see; while, on the other hand, if this connexion be desirable, surely its desirability should not weigh for a moment against any chance of damage to the ancient historical buildings of Westminster. There is a site which is obviously the best one for the memorial chapel, the place in Abingdon Street now occupiedby quite uninteresting modern houses, which would give the best chance to the new building, as it would be well seen there, and might group well with the Houses of Parliament opposite: while - and this is really the important point - it would obviate the risk of damage to the ancient buildings, which are almost certain to be tampered with and altered if any connecting link between the old and the new is attempted.

We in the metropolis have treated our most beautiful building but ill for centuries. We have allowed its lovely interior to be cluttered up with a huge mass of the ugliest and vilest undertakers' masonry that can anywhere be seen. We have patched and cobbled its exterior with restorations, and restorations of restorations, till it has been half destroyed as a work of art; we keep the interior, again, in a state of sordid dirt, which is disgraceful both to the Government and the Chapter. But there is still some of it left, and what is left is of the utmost importance, and we profess to think it so. Would it not be well if we were to show some of our boasted `practical common-sense' by now throwing the remains of this treasure away, at the dictate of mere inconsiderate whim? Common-sense surely would tell us that whatever modern building we may erect near the Abbey can always be connected with it, if after long consideration it seems desirable to us or our descendants. But the same common sense forbids us to say that the building shall be a part of the Abbey, whether it damages it or not. Yet this is the plain meaning of these proposals.

Letter to the Times, 11 February 1891.