Monday, May 30, 2022

Hastings, Sussex

Palace of the people

When I saw this building a bell rang in my memory. I’d noticed it before and admired it, but had forgotten for a moment what it was. The lettering on the front quickly reminded me: ‘Brassey Institute’. This time I let my eyes linger on its architectural details. I also tried to look at it as a whole, but this isn’t easy because the Victorian gothic pile is so crowded around by other buildings, and on such a narrow street, that it’s difficult to take in, and hard to photograph.* But here’s an image of much of the street front, to give you an idea of its mass of gothic detail – pointed arches, loggias, a landmark tower, and enough windows to make at least some of the rooms inside pleasantly light in spite of the densely packed buildings round about. And what is it for? Victorian institutes were usually multi-purpose buildings with some kind educational and community use. The Brassey Institute was built in the late-1870s to provide a library, assembly room, and school of art and science.

The name comes from the man who founded and paid for the building, Thomas Brassey. Brassey was the son of another Thomas, who amassed enormous wealth from the railways. Beginning as a surveyor, the earlier Brassey was involved in the construction of vast parts of Britain’s (and indeed the world’s) railway network and in the building of everything from steamships to sewers. He began to put up a palatial house near Hastings, but died before it was completed, leaving his son Thomas to complete the project. Thomas Junior, later Sir Thomas Brassey, became MP for Hastings and a notable philanthropist. His first wife Annie was a pioneering photographer, whose work is now being appreciated after being in the shadow of the achievements of her male relations. The Brassey Institute is an example of the way many of the Victorian newly rich put some of their money back into the places where they lived.

The architect Brassey commissioned for the institute was Walter Liberty Vernon. Although not one of the most famous Victorian architects, Vernon was clearly a man of great ability. Several features of this facade show the influence of the Gothic style of Venice: the large windows, the design of some of the arches, the small balcony on the left, the loggia on the upper floor – all are ‘Venetian’ features. Venetian Gothic was much in the air in the late-19th century. John Ruskin had published The Stones of Venice back in the 1850s and two decades on, the style was favoured by some Victorian architects as a form of Gothic they could adapt to domestic and civic buildings (leaving English or French Gothic for churches), lending a palatial aspect to public buildings. Vernon showed himself at home in the style, and he would be better known in Britain if he had not emigrated to Australia (for his health – he had athsma) in the 1880s. He produced for Hastings a building that is still used and valued, as the home of the town’s main public library.

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* The church in the left is Holy Trinity, designed by the Victorian architect S. S. Teulon, and the windows visible in my photograph give a hint of his ornate style.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Hastings, Sussex

Ragged girls

Before the 1870 Education Act, education for children in England was patchy. Some areas had free schools run by charities or by the church, but many did not, so those who could not afford to pay for education saw their children missing out. One notable movement of the 1840s aimed to address this problem by providing free elementary schools for children aged between five and twelve in areas that lacked provision. These schools were aimed specifically at poor families and the people who set them up provided additional help such as food and clothing for families who were in the most desperate financial straits. Because of the worn clothes in which many of the pupils turned up, these charitable free schools became known as ‘ragged schools’; the name stuck.

Probably the first body to use the term ‘ragged schools’ officially was the London City Mission, which founded five schools in East London in the 1840s. I passed the one in my photograph when I was in Hastings recently. Although its Gothic architecture, with pointed windows and fancy bargeboards, is far from untidy, it was apparently a girls’ ragged school founded in 1863. It was opened on 29 October that year, a boys’ school having been established elsewhere in the town about three months earlier. The school was designed for 80 children, although the average attendance was closer to sixty – an indication probably not so much of a shortage of poor children as of varying attendance in families in which one crisis or another prevented children from going to school every day. After the 1870 Education Act, the ragged school would have continued, eventually being absorbed into the system of state-funded schools.

No longer used as a school, the building seems to have recently been restored and the sign at the entrance repainted. I have not been inside, but through the window I could glimpse the large, high schoolroom in which children would have sat in rows, often divided into groups under the supervision of ‘monitors’, older pupils who were sometimes charged with overseeing a group of younger ones while they completed tasks. I hope someone has found a use for the building, so that this bit of architectural history can remain.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Winchelsea Beach, Sussex


Boxes by the sea

Not far from the railway carriage bungalow in my previous post, I admired a number of houses that displayed very different but equally distinctive designs. One, a large white box, struck me as something out of the UK television programme ‘Grand Designs’. My host and guide to this bit of coast immediately told me that that was exactly what it was. It was built in 2004 by Tom Watkins, former manager of the Pet Shop Boys and featured in that very programme. Only a couple of doors along from that one is the house in my photograph, a far smaller box, this time a box on legs.

Curiously, this more modest building called to me in a way that the more recent white box did not. Maybe exactly because it’s more modest. Perhaps also because it intrigued me with its demonstration of so many of Le Corbusier’s ‘Five Points of Architecture’. In the interwar period, Le Corbusier was a proponent of these five features: building the house on columns, which he called pilotis; strip windows; roof terraces or roof gardens; the ‘free facade’, meaning a facade that puts features like doors and windows where they work best, not where they need to be because of the constraints of structure or convention; and a ‘free plan’, in other words a floor plan that allows a flexible use of space not a plan that was drawn up to some standard predetermined idea of what should go where. Looking at this house from the outside, it certainly seemed to conform to several of the points – although one could only determine the plan by going inside.

So was this, unlike its recent neighbour, a genuine 1930s, Bauhaus period house, or a later recreation? Again, later, I was told – but from the 1950s or 60s rather than the noughties. While most 1950s builders were putting up buildings that looked less ‘modern’ (pitched roofs, brick walls, more restrained ‘modern’ elements), a few people still adhered to the old 1930s ways, as much because of what they looked like as anything else. Boxes like this, with flat roofs and many windows, can take a lot of maintenance to keep them weather-tight and pleasant to live in, but some think this is a price worth paying. After all, the sea views and balconies must come into their own in good weather. Even putting the main structure on stilts, in the light of recent coastal floods (and no doubt more to come), makes new sense of Le Corbusier’s love of pilotis. Maybe we’re not done with the 1930s quite yet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Winchelsea Beach, Sussex

The Wild East

‘Show me shacks and houses made from old railway carriages!’ I said to Mr W, my host in Sussex the other weekend. And soon we were speeding towards Winchelsea Beach where it is still possible, he explained, to glimpse such things. The southeastern coasts of England, and some in Eastern England too, were once festooned with a host of such opportunistic self-built dwellings, which represented an escape from London for many families who otherwise could not hope to afford a home of their own. Landlords would sell off unproductive farmland and bits of terrain vague, and people would buy up a site, camp on it, and eventually build themselves a house using cheap materials such as wood or corrugated iron. Meanwhile, railway companies were selling off old rolling stock for a song, and redundant carriages were sometimes hauled to these sites and turned into houses. This was mostly in the 1930s, before modern planning legislation had developed and plotlands, as these settlements were called, were frowned on by planners, architects, and those who wanted to preserve their local view. The likes of Clough Williams-Ellis (creator of the outré Italianate Welsh village of Portmeirion and author of preservationist books such as England and the Octopus) inveighed against them, lumping them together with ribbon development (‘bungaloid growth’), corrugated iron garages, and general untidiness. While I’d not want the whole of England covered with them, I admire plotland buildings, cherishing the ingenuity and effort their builders and owners put into them.

So I was pleased when Mr W took me to Winchelsea Beach and showed me such sights as this. Surrounded on at least two sides by verandas that look, with their braces and palings, like something out of the Wild West, this is a wooden house that seems to have at its core a trio of carriages, the curving roofs of which are visible when you look at the building from a slightly elevated viewpoint, as in my photograph. I recalled a colleague telling me about someone he’d been working with who lived in a house made up of a U-shaped configuration of three linked railway carriages. Perhaps this was something similar. A little online searching* brings up a suggestion that in this case the carriages are actually tram bodies, perhaps originating on the Rye and Camber Tramway, an old narrow-gauge railway connecting Rye and Camber Sands, not far away.† Whatever the source, I can’t help admire the mix of inventiveness, opportunism, and hard work that must have brought this dwelling about. My admiration extends to those who own and look after such gems rather than tearing them down and replacing them with more conventional brick bungalows, which to my mind would be bungaloid growth indeed.

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* There are more pictures on this website, which is my source for the theory about the tramway origin of the rolling stock.

† The tramway closed in 1939.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

St Mary in the Marsh, Kent

On the marsh, 2

Of the many churches on Romney Marsh, St Mary in the Marsh is now one of my favourites. Standing alone except for a pub and a small group of houses, it signals its presence with a lovely splay-footed spire, on which the shingles make the transition from the the upper steep slope of the spire to the lower splay with a satisfying curve. From a little nearer one can see a small church of grey stone and the red roof tiles so common in Kent and Sussex, mostly built in c. 1300. On either side of the porch, though, are two large later windows each with two round-headed lights and a dripstone in the shape of a shallow arch – the hybrid form of design is a feature of that late Gothic (but without pointed arches) that antiquarians used to sneer at and call ‘debased’. These two windows are said to have been inserted in around 1800. On making their acquaintance, I was inclined to ignore the antiquarians’ sneers and to like them, and to reflect that their clear glass should make for a pleasant, light interior.

And so it proves. Inside, the church is whitewashed, paved with quarry tiles, furnished with box pews, and topped with crown-post roofs. These elements suggest that there has been no Victorian restoration and that nothing much beyond discreet repair has been done to the building since the insertion of those two large windows. The arms of George III, vigorously painted on canvas, no doubt by a local artist, adorn the north aisle. The result is both beautiful and, as we stood there on a quiet spring afternoon, it exuded an atmosphere of spirituality that made one happy to be present.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

New Romney, Kent

On the Marsh, 1

Driving across Romney Marsh in Kent, near the border with Sussex, you cross a flat landscape, characterized by pasture, occasional drainage channels, and isolated, scattered settlements. Here and there the emptiness is relieved by a small medieval church and here and there you spot tiny buildings in fields, like stone or brick sheds. Too small to be houses or barns, they’re lookers’ huts, a unique phenomenon of the marsh, and one that might have vanished completely had it not been for the interest of a few enthusiasts.

The lookers owed their existence to the economic changes that occurred after the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The plague killed a vast number of people (estimates vary between a half and one-third of the population), and the remaining landlords on the marsh bought up small landholdings that no longer had owners or tenants and combined them into larger estates. Here they ran sheep in extensive flocks, and they employed ‘lookers’ to tend them. Lookers worked over a large area, and needed a base where they could store equipment and food, and that would sometimes provide a bed for the night. Hence their huts, which were basic in the extreme (one window, a door) but also had a chimney so that the looker could keep warm in the winter. The lookers’ huts that survive today are not as old as the 14th century – I’d guess most of them are 19th century.

The huts were useful all the year round and vital during the lambing season, when the sheep needled to be constantly checked and cared for, and during shearing, the shepherd’s other time of intensive hands-on work. By the early-20th century, agriculture and then transport were transformed, and there was no longer a need for lookers or their huts. Although robust, many of these buildings, left to decay, have now gone. Around 20 remain, some well maintained, others in ruins. The example in my photograph is a reconstructed looker’s hut at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, outside New Romney. It’s there to explain the story of the lookers and their buildings and, as long as a few huts remain in situ, to answer the inevitable questions of observant tourists, who want to know why these tiny structures were sited in the middle of Kentish fields.

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For an account of the similar ‘hovels’ of Worcestershire, see my earlier post, here.