Monday 13 July 2020

'Stunning' Doncaster Victorian landmark building saved from demolition

source - The Demolition Register

'Stunning' Doncaster Victorian landmark building saved from demolition

One of the few periodicals that I regularly subscribe to is the satirical/ current affairs news magazine Private Eye, which takes a critical look at fortnightly events in both British and international politics and society in general.  Since my college days I have long found it equal parts amusing, insightful, revelatory and provoking as well as being a good counterbalance to the reporting of the mainstream media (all of whom come in for their fair share of stick in its pages).  My grandfather was often fond of saying that anything you read in the papers is, essentially, one person's interpretation of events and that is a view that has never left me.  I always try to make a point of reading the news from various sources and am frequently struck by how the same story can be reported so differently depending on whether it is by, say, the conservative right-wing Daily Telegraph or the more left-wing, Labour-oriented Guardian.  Indeed it seems to me that in the last few decades the news has become increasingly politicised, although maybe it has always been the case and it is just something I've noticed as I've got older.

Anyway, although it doesn't always do my blood pressure much good, among many of the interesting columns to be found within the Eye is a regular half-page spread called Nooks & Corners, which focuses on all too common abuses of building and planning regulations and various travesties related to historic buildings throughout the British Isles.  It was through this, about six weeks ago, that I was first made aware of the plight of the remarkable building mentioned in the Doncaster Free Press article.

At the time it's fate seemed all but sealed, with approval in principle for demolition and the ubiquitous modern development of flats due to go up in its place.  The shortsighted views of the developer and Doncaster council - that the building was not of "sufficient interest" and would therefore be left to fall into a state of even further disrepair (a rather dubious statement open to interpretation in my book) - were not shared by campaigners including the Doncaster Civic Trust and The Victorian Society, the latter of whom have been successful in applying to Historic England (formerly English Heritage) for Grade II listed status.  Although its future is still far from assured this does at least mean it is no longer at risk of being torn down, which is wonderful news and gives hope that for other buildings facing the same misfortune. Here's hoping that it will also encourage the developer to consider his options in the renovation of this striking and important local landmark.

source - The Guardian

This story has reminded me of several similar incidents from down the years - a couple quite close to home - beginning with the tragedy that was the Firestone Tyre Factory in Brentford, in the west London Borough of Hounslow.  Designed and built in 1928 by the noted architectural company Wallis Gilbert and Partners, who were responsible for many beautiful Art Deco inspired buildings including the nearby Hoover Factory (still standing albeit now as a Tesco supermarket and recognisable in a couple of early episodes of Poirot) it stood for over half a century as the Firestone Tyre Company's UK head office.  All that changed in November 1979 when Firestone announced it would be closing the factory and selling the building, which was subsequently bought by a British conglomerate, Trafalgar House Plc.  Mindful of its historical importance to an area rich in Art Deco industrial design, in August 1980 the then-planning minister Michael Heseltine moved to have the building listed but was obliged to inform Trafalgar House in advance of the impending decision.  What happened next was the worst sort of underhand cultural vandalism.  With the listing due to come into effect at the end of August, Trafalgar House simply got the bulldozers in over the Bank Holiday weekend and before anyone could do anything about it had demolished this stunning building, leaving only the entrance gates as any sign of its existence.  Outrage quite rightly followed, with the then-fledgling Thirties Society (now The Twentieth Century Society) up in arms at what had happened.  Heseltine wasn't best pleased either and in conjunction with the Civil Service introduced legislation which made sure that such a disgraceful occurrence could never happen again; the Hoover Factory was quickly listed as a result.

source - Yesterday's Racers

Fifteen years later and a similar and equally lamentable occurrence took place - albeit on a much smaller structural scale - in my old home town of Canvey Island.  Overlooking Canvey Lake for the best part of one hundred years was the quaint architectural oddity known to all and sundry as the Oysterfleet Lighthouse.  While its resemblance to such a building was obvious, it was in fact a little one-up one-down cottage built in the traditional 17th-century Dutch style common to the area (Canvey having been reclaimed from the Thames Estuary by the Dutch in the 1600s) by a Captain Gregson in the late 1880s.  He lived in the house on the left of the picture, below, and supposedly designed the Lighthouse for his mother-in-law to live in!

The Oysterfleet Lighthouse
source - The Original Canvey History Website

This charming local landmark stood unmolested for the best part of a century and was just on the verge of having a preservation order applied to it when - well, you can guess what happened next.  The land it was on had been purchased by a developer with his own ideas for the site and in the night leading up to the day the listing was due to come into force the bulldozers moved in and by the morning all that was left was a pile of rubble.  The shock and sadness felt by everyone in the community is still fresh in my mind over two decades on.  A large pub-hotel complex now stands on the site, with its "Lighthouse" restaurant the only nod to the little piece of local history that was sacrificed for its existence.

Elizabeth Cottage, Billericay, prior to its restoration
source - geograph (Robert Eva)

To end on a happier note a similar incident to that in Doncaster took place in Billericay, a town near me, involving a charming early 20th-century cottage that stands in a conservation area along the main high street.  Elizabeth Cottage has a fascinating history, but the story of its last 20 years has been rather tortured.  More or less left to decay over that time by its elusive foreign owners, it made local news (and appeared in the Eye) in 2017 when it emerged that mysterious builders had begun demolishing the roof - this three years after the owners' original planning permission for shops and flats had expired.  The local heritage society swung into action and to their credit Basildon Council acted swiftly to serve an injunction on the absent owners but were eventually forced to take over ownership and protect the structure from any further damage.  Subsequently the property was sold at auction to a local developer who I am pleased to say is obviously more sympathetic to the cottage and its importance to the local conservation area, having renovated it into several apartments while keeping the traditional frontage.

While there will always be wily owners and investors keen only to make quick money without giving thought to the historical or architectural importance of a building, it is thanks to groups like The Victorian Society and The Twentieth Century Society - as well as local community history groups - keeping the pressure up on councils and planning inspectorates that we are seeing more and more historically beautiful designs preserved and restored, to be given new life for future generations.  Although there is still some way to go in protecting significant traditional buildings from the ravages of decay or the attentions of unscrupulous developers, I do believe that we are as a society becoming more appreciative and protective of our communities' early buildings and I very much hope this means we will see more good news stories like this one from Doncaster in the future.

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