What built architecture do we value? What should we save for future generations? The properties held by the National Trust, which turns 125 this month, provides a history of how hard it is to shift a conservative concept of preservation.
Octavia Hill was a social housing reformer and one of the founders of the Trust in 1895. She sought to preserve access to green spaces, and coined the term green belt. The first acquisitions were rural by nature and in scale. The Trust borrowed an artisanal approach to restoration from William Morris’s arts and crafts movement.
However, in the post-war period the Trust rapidly gained lots of country estates as owners offset death duties by donating their ancestral homes. The alternative was demolition. This is where the image problem for the Trust really kicked in. Preserving the country estates meant preserving symbols of privilege – and helping their former owners out of a financial hole.
By 1967, 4,000 members were so concerned about the lack of diversity in the Trust’s governance that they called an Extraordinary General Meeting to threaten a vote of no confidence. Ironically, one of the key recommendations from the subsequent Benson report was to allow more tearooms on their sites. The tearoom and gift shop are now part of the stereotype of a Trust member.
In 2019 the Trust published a ten year strategy to address the risk to urban heritage, and estimated that there are some 3,000 Grade II properties ‘at risk’ and with potential for the Trust to help preserve. That report states that urban properties simply don’t get the same visitor numbers as the rural ones, and that there remain diversity issues across the heritage sector.
We, as a nation, simply don’t see the same value in the everyday built environment – or at least, those of us with a disposable income to spend on visiting heritage don’t. How many of the half a million visitors a year who traipse through Cliveden would as happily donate the same entrance fee to see a former squat or a suburban terrace? We prefer stories about great estates falling into decay to more complex stories around people’s everyday lives.
Tucked away on the Trust’s list of properties and sites, there are some urban places, reachable by public transport. These tend to be a lot more diverse than the country estates – so below are twelve properties I think highlight how the Trust are trying to change the stories we tell about our history through what we choose to save.
Three urban properties provide very different approaches.
Treasurers House, York
Back in 1930, this was the first house complete with contents to be gifted to the Trust. The interior is laid out as a giant cabinet of curiosities exactly as the owner, a wealthy industrialist, stipulated. He threatened to return as a ghost should anything be moved, but he’d need to compete for attention with the ghostly Roman centurions in the basement.
Sutton House, Hackney, London
From the outside this is a Tudor house with a courtyard garden. Inside, the tour timeslips to the 1980s where the Hackney property was a squat complete with a gig space. The Trust have just worked with local schools and artists to explore how the house was built on profits from the colonial East India Company.
Rainham Hall, London/Essex
This may be the most traditional building on this list, being a classic Queen Anne style merchant’s house. It’s been occupied by over 30 families or organisations though, so has no contents passed down. Instead the Trust works with local makers to create exhibitions about different historical occupants. It’s also been used as Scrooge’s house in the recent BBC adaptation of Christmas Carol.
Our house, in the middle of our street
The Trust have a variety of everyday domestic homes. All of these are only accessible on limited guided tours. These are also often time capsule sites, where they are dressed to make you feel the occupants have just stepped outside, like beached Mary Celestes.
The Birmingham back-to-backs. Image: NotFromUtrecht/Wikimedia Commons.
This court illustrates how people lived in one of the biggest cities in the UK between the 1850s and 1970s. It includes the George Saunders tailoring collection, amassed by a tailor who arrived from the Caribbean in 1958 and ran his workshop in the buildings until 2001.
Mr Straw’s House, Worksop
Another outwardly normal suburban house, but this time a very British Grey Gardens. A shopkeeper and his wife moved in and decorated in the 1920s. After their deaths, their two remaining sons lived there until 1990 without modernising. The decaying house was left, along with its contents, to the Trust.
2 Willow Road, London
Willow Road is a 1930s modernist terraced house designed by architect Erno Goldfinger. He went on to design more iconic Brutalist buildings for local authorities, such as the now-listed Balfron and Trellick Towers. Ian Fleming hated it so much he named a Bond villian after the architect.
The Beatles’ childhood homes, Liverpool
The Trust has both Lennon and McCartney’s teenage homes. These are a 1930s semi and a council terrace house respectively and have been decorated to replicate their state in the late 1950s. The Trust had initially declined to buy Lennon’s home, and it was being literally sold off brick by brick as souvenirs. Yoko Ono bought it and gifted it to the Trust to stop it vanishing.
575 Wandsworth Road, London
This is outwardly ordinary, an anonymous Victorian terrace on an A-road. The inside, however, is so delicate only 2000 visitors are allowed a year, and you need to bring your slippers. Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist, philosopher of mathematics and civil servant, decorated every surface with fretwork and paintings.
The majority of Trust buildings are residential properties, but there are a handful of industrial sites. A few still actually operate as designed. This feels a long way from trudging through a great house’s kitchen to look at pretend food.
George Inn, Southwark, London
The George Inn, Southwark. Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.
This is a working Southwark pub, built in 1677, off Borough High Street and about five minutes’ walk from London Bridge. It’s a galleried coaching inn, mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit.
The Crown, Belfast
It’s a Victorian gin palace with mosaic tiles and gas lighting, with original booths (i.e. a snug bar). As with George Inn, it’s a working pub you can actually just use.
City Mill, Winchester
This is a centuries old working watermill that has been bought back into use this century, after decades as a youth hostel.
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
The only working theatre on the Trust’s list, and is the last working Regency theatre in the UK. You can go to the panto and check out the building at the same time. Theatres are stupidly expensive buildings to maintain, as the recent building failures in the West End have illustrated.