In the spirit of Halloween

In a Halloween themed post for the SPAB, Lynne Pardoe, writer and SPAB Regional Group organiser, shares a tale of the intangible in an old building in east Devon.

People have many different reasons for loving ancient buildings, for some it’s the magnificent craftsmanship and construction skills – so often using skills that are now increasingly difficult to find. For others it’s the integrity of the components. Many buildings have stood for centuries and are constructed from nothing more than materials found locally.

Yet for others the reasons are less tangible. With interest in history as strong now as it’s ever been people love knowing more about the building’s occupants. Their day-to-day lives can be just as enthralling as the architecture. For some buildings, such as palaces and stately homes, the research will be easy with details of occupants, at least those above stairs, easy to find. Although with many smaller, lesser houses hard facts are less easy to discover.

The availability of resources online has done much to enable the curious homeowner to discover the past. There is one source of information, albeit unconventional, that if available promises to put flesh on the bones of what can be a very bare story. I am referring to the long-standing history of ghosts associated with ancient houses, especially those that may have been the scene of a bloody or traumatic event.

Margells1_Landmark Trust

It was through my mother that I had any indirect experience with spectres. My mother Margaret and her sister Betty were visiting friends in Branscombe, East Devon, around the time of the Second World War. Their stay was to be quite a lengthy one and they quickly made friends with some local people.

My aunt was especially friendly with a chap called Terence who lived in a cottage west of the main village. His home, known as Margells, was thought to be the oldest house in the area. It was reputed to have belonged to a local abbey, prior to the Reformation, and to have been used as a retreat house for the monks.

This story is validated by a magnificent medieval wall painting still in evidence on a bedroom wall. Terence was a serious, hard-working young man not inclined to tell fanciful tales yet he would often tell the story of Margells because it had moved him so much.

Margells4_Landmark Trust

As a young man his grandmother had come to live with them for her final years and slept in a bedroom next to Terence’s. For as long as he could remember he had heard just before going to sleep muttering and murmuring that he attributed to his grandmother. Eventually his grandmother died but the sound continued, every night he would hear the same noises. He told his father, since he was puzzled about the cause. His father told him the sound was always thought to be the chanting of a monk. He said that someone had once witnessed a monk coming down the stairs with a bloodied bandage wrapped around his head.

Fast forward a few years and Terence took over running Potbury’s the local auction room and Margells was sold to the Landmark Trust. When planning a holiday together the sisters came across this information and booked it for a short stay. They were both aware of these stories, but being strong-minded brave women they dismissed these as rumours, relishing the chance to stay in such a beautiful building. But they hadn’t been there long until unusual events had them puzzled. At first they heard footsteps going up and down the stairs, and pacing in empty rooms. The women put these unusual sounds down to the house’s atmosphere. When the heavy cast-iron door knocker knocked of it’s own accord they shrugged their shoulders and ignored it.

Not long afterwards they were surprised to hear a party going on in the house. They could hear laughter, chatter and the clink of glasses as if in celebration. The antics continued, with something that sounded like the lash of the whip striking between them. This time the couple couldn’t ignore it, but all they could do was puzzle about the origins of the sounds and leave it at that. But they very strongly felt that if there was spirit in the cottage it wasn’t malignant, it simply wanted to be left alone.

Margells3_Landmark Trust

It was their last night in the building that convinced the couple that they were hearing the sounds from a different era. By this time both women were wary of possible spiritual occupants and agreed to sleep in the two single beds in the same bedroom. They put the light off and lay down ready for sleep, but something kept them awake. After a while my aunt spoke, “I wish you’d stop that snoring Margaret so I can get some sleep!”

My mother replied: “I’ve been lying awake listening to that!”

The women froze as they realised there was no other explanation for the sound than a spiritual one. “Leave us alone and will never come back here again,” called my aunt.

At that point all noises stopped and the house was quiet for the rest of the night. The following morning the women left the cottage as agreed, totally convinced they had heard the spectre of a long-dead monk. Knowing my mother and aunt as down-to-earth women these events convinced me that there just might be something otherworldly about some places.

If you’d like to share your own haunting experiences in old buildings leave a comment below. Margells is owned by the Landmark Trust.

Advertisements

SPAB Ireland Working Party 2017

by Tríona Byrne, 2016 SPAB Scholar

In February this year, a group of Irish Scholars, Fellows and Guardians banded together to found an Irish branch of the SPAB. Shortly afterwards, we were fortunate enough to secure funding from the Heritage Council to host the first Irish Working Party as part of Heritage Week, which takes place in August every year.

SPAB Ireland Working Party1

Our Working Party was scheduled to run over 4 days, from 24-27 August. From early June, we began planning in earnest. We knew we would need to raise an amount of match funding in order to claim the Heritage Council funding. Our newly-formed Events Committee rose to the challenge, organising both a social event and a fundraiser in the form of a table quiz. This event was a resounding success – over 20 teams such as ‘The Coarse Aggregates’ and ‘Cobbled Together’ battled it out over the evening to answer questions on a range of topics, including several built heritage rounds, of course. We raised more than enough money to cover our funding shortfall and it was a brilliant social gathering of conservation enthusiasts in Dublin too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From there, the preparation continued with gusto – our wonderful committee, led by SPAB Scholar and project manager for the event, Mary Kerrigan, put in hours and hours of time organising every last detail. Eventually on 23 August, we decamped to Derry-Londonderry to begin.

SPAB Ireland Working Party

As this was our first time hosting a Working Party, and we had little to no event organisation experience, we started small; the focus of the work for the four days was the repair of a rubble stone garden wall running alongside an end-of-terrace house on the beautiful De Burgh Terrace. We had 12 participants on each of the 4 days, two different sets of 12 people for two days each, plus lots of SPAB Ireland committee members, local neighbours and volunteers taking part so we were full to capacity for the small site.

Our principal goal for the Working Party was for people to learn how to prepare and work with hot-mixed lime mortars, and to feel confident using and specifying the material in future. It was also an excellent opportunity to spread the SPAB philosophy, which has thus far been relatively unknown in Ireland.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We were led by SPAB Fellow Eoin Madigan, a sixth generation stonemason, and SPAB Scholar & Guardian Conor Meehan, who shared their expertise with the enthusiastic volunteers. We were well looked after by the lovely local community who provided delicious meals and roofs over our heads, and everyone took part with great spirit in our evening activities. These included a tapas dinner one night and a garden BBQ another night provided by the owner of the garden wall, walking tours of the both the Clarendon Street Conservation Area and the City Walls, along with a BBQ on the final night in the beautiful Dunmore Gardens, Co. Donegal. The great community spirit of the local neighbourhood was so evident and the fact that they welcomed us with open arms made sure the event exceeded our expectations.

Overall, we are delighted with how well the Working Party went and was received by everyone who took part, and it has proved to us that there is a great appetite for the work we are doing with the SPAB in Ireland, which is hugely encouraging. Watch this space!

Follow SPAB Ireland on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

On Ruskin’s Birthday

ruskin-watercolour-belonging-to-spab

On this day 198 years ago John Ruskin was born. One hundred and forty years ago this March William Morris formed the SPAB. Ruskin’s influence was instrumental in the founding of the SPAB.

An innovative thinker, art critic and philosopher, John Ruskin’s writings laid the foundations for the conservation and Arts & Crafts movements. His writings on restoration profoundly affected William Morris. Morris took Ruskin’s passion and philosophies and turned them into action.

In Ruskin’s “Lamp of Memory” from the Seven Lamps of Architecture he writes: “Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end… Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them. A few sheets of lead put in time upon the roof, a few dead leaves swept in time out of a water-course, will save both roof and walls from ruin. Watch over an old building with an anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation”

Of old buildings he said “We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generation of mankind who are to follow us”

Launched by a letter to the Athenaeum in March 1877 the SPAB was set up to become Ruskin’s watchdog. With an impressive committee including leading artists and figures of national importance, including Ruskin himself, the Society began campaigning against restoration and demolition of old buildings. During the Society’s first year a campaign was launched to save Wren’s City churches. By autumn 1879 the SPAB was busily campaigning to save the west front of St Marks in Venice from harsh treatment.

Ruskin’s influence can be seen in the SPAB Manifesto written by William Morris and Philip Webb, in 1877:“put Protection in place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof…show now pretence of other art.” Morris closes his Manifesto, which is still followed by the Society today, with an impassioned plea to protect our ancient buildings for those that come after us.

Women in Conservation: House of Garrett

Garrett sisters, second book

These two inspirational women were cousins who worked together to form the first all-female design and decorating company in Britain and were tireless campaigners for women’s suffrage.

Agnes (1835-1945) was born in Suffolk to a large and wealthy merchant family that encouraged the education of women. Two of her sisters were also pioneers and campaigners for women’s rights. Her sister Millicent went on to lead the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and Elizabeth was the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor. Her cousin Rhoda (1841-1882) was the daughter of an impoverished Derbyshire vicar. Rhoda worked as a governess, the only occupation open to ‘genteel’ women, to help support her siblings. This was for a short time however, as Rhoda was desperate to become an architect but was unable to find an architectural practice willing to take on a ‘lady pupil’. Rhoda was determined and joined forces with Agnes, who was keen to escape domestic duties in Suffolk, and in 1971 together they were apprenticed first to Daniel Cottier and then into the practice of J. M. Brydon. They worked under Brydon for 18 months and then carried out a tour of the country to visit and sketch interiors and furniture.

In 1875 they set up their own business ‘A & R Garett House Decorators’ from their home at 2 Gower Street, Bloomsbury. In their book Suggestions for House Decoration (1876) they explained they were keen to live amongst houses “which were built in the solid and unpretentious style so much in accordance with best characteristics of the English people”. The house is now owned by the University of London, and their frieze and ceiling of the first-floor back room are still in place – a design of sensitively painted portraits of poets around a pattern of flowers.

Both Agnes and Rhoda had very successful careers, winning many high-profile commissions in public and private buildings. Sadly very few examples of their work survive today, though some of the furniture they made for James and Margaret Beale’s house in Holland Park is now in their home at Standen in Sussex, a house designed by Philip Webb. One of their earliest commissions was the Kensington home of the composer Hubert Parry and the most comprehensive descriptions of their work are found in Parry’s diaries. Rhoda was a founding member of the SPAB and encouragingly Parry notes the attention they paid to drains as well as decorations. He describes their house in Gower Street: “to live there is a very great deal of happiness in itself. The quiet and soothing colour of the walls and decoration and the admirable taste of all things acts upon the mind in the most comforting manner.”

In the 1870s Agnes and Rhoda did several women’s suffrage speaking tours together and were committed members of the cause. Rhoda argued to an audience at the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1876 that “the woman’s sphere and woman’s mission is one of the most important problems of the present  day, but here, at least, in the decoration and beautifying of the house, no one will dispute their right to work. If a woman would rightly undertake this work and would study to understand the principles upon which… it is based, they would not only thereby increase their own happiness, but in thus extending the gracious influence of the home, they would help to raise the position of household art, and thus render a real service to the nation.”

Agnes specialised in the design of chimney pieces of panelling – perhaps the closest a ‘decorator’ could be to architect – and one of her designs survives in what was her sister Elizabeth’s New Hospital for Women installed in 1890. Only one example of their wallpapers was photographed and from this ‘Garrett Laburnum’ was recreated in the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery, a museum which incorporates some of the women’s hospital on the Euston Road. Some of their carpets and wallpapers are known to have been made by women, presumably part of an informal network of patronage between early women-only firms.

EGA-EGA GALLERY-Photo3-Garrett Corner

Rhoda died of typhoid in 1882 and is buried in Rustington, Sussex where the cousins rented a cottage with the composer Ethel Smyth. Agnes once said “Rhoda has had more pain in her life than was good for her”. Rhoda’s obituarist in the Englishwoman’s Review wrote: “Many delicate harmonies and beautiful forms adapted to house-hold comfort are due to her taste and talents. If this useful and congenial pursuit is in future open to women, it is due in large measure to her courage and enterprise.”

Agnes was a director of the Ladies Resident Chambers Company when it was formed in 1888 which built safe and comfortable accommodation for working women in London on Chenies Street, near Tottenham Court Road. After Rhoda’s death Agnes continued their business and her widowed sister Millicent moved into their house – the reason for the blue plaque outside the building today.

Images: Agnes and Rhoda Garrett; Garrett Corner, showing their recreated wallpaper design at the Elizabeth Anderson Garrett Gallery. For more information about the Garretts, please visit womanandhersphere.com

Women in Conservation: Inspiring historic buildings

Old buildings can be infinitely inspiring, we asked several women working in the conservation and heritage sector what buildings they find exciting and thought-provoking. We spoke to Rachel Morely, estate officer for the Churches Conservation Trust, Jane Kennedy, a senior partner at Purcell, and Gillian Darley, a writer on architecture.

 

Rachel Morely

“The buildings that most inspire me are vernacular buildings. There’s one in particular I can think of which is Wolmer House in Much Wenlock. It was built originally in about 1435…what I love about it is that as you go around you can really see the lives of all the people who have lived in it over centuries and how this house has bowed to every whim and change of function. It’s just gorgeous how this house has evolved.”

Jane Kennedy

 

“I love medieval churches and cathedrals and I’m lucky to work on quite a lot of them. But I think what really excites me is the way they work in their settings… historic houses in parkland, cathedrals in cities, churches in villages and how the immediate setting affects the appreciation of the major building.”

 

Gillian Darley

“Quite recently I found myself in Great Coxwell Barn. It was beloved of William Morris, it was beloved of Betjeman. It is the guardianship of the National Trust. It is a truly inspiring building. It’s a building of every time and any time. It’s just thrilling, the way that it was built, its materials, its grandeur, its ambition. Everything about it.”