The National Trust is 125 – so here are 12 urban properties it’s preserving

Sutton House, Hackney, London. Image: Ethan Doyle White/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Grand designs

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.

Back-to-backs, Birmingham

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.

Working sites

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.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.