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.


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.


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!

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On Ruskin’s Birthday


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

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.”


Sonia Rolt OBE, a heritage pioneer

Sonia Rolt

SPAB communications manager Kate Griffin recalls a memorable meeting with a very memorable woman.

I met Sonia Rolt on an icy day in February 2010 when cold grey light threw the ancient features of her wonderful 14th century home, Stanley Pontlarge near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire into sharp relief against sheep-spotted fields and hills.

Although into her 90s, she was still formidable, in the very best way, fizzing with purpose and excitement. During World War Two she was one of the women who took the place of working men on Britain’s canals and when we spoke she was one of the last survivors of this unique ‘crew’.
The Inland Waterway (IW) women (or Idle Women as they were unflatteringly dubbed by the remaining old hands on the network) took on the back-breaking work of ensuring that essential cargoes of grain, oil, coal and even jam continued to be transported by water between major cities when the men who usually did this were conscripted. Sonia explained: “I fell into really. I was sharing a flat in London with two friends. It was in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, which wasn’t at all smart in those days. If only people now could see what it was like they would be very surprised.
“At the time we were all employed under the Government’s directed labour programme and I was at the Hoover factory at Perivale working on the insides of Lancaster bombers. I was quite bright at it, actually. One day we spotted a small Ministry of Transport advertisement announcing: “women may volunteer for the carrying of goods by canal”. The advertisement indicated that volunteers would be free of management and very much in charge of their own work. Of course, this appealed to us frantically,” Sonia grinned, “even though I’d never seen a canal in my life!”
Despite facing enormous disapproval from ‘higher ups’ at Perivale who were loathe to lose a talented worker, Sonia was eventually allowed to join her friends on a working boat.
It was the beginning of a life-long affair.
“I fell in love with the waterways,” said Sonia, who continued to live and work on narrowboats after the war ended. She freely admitted that the warmth of the working canal people and the strong sense of belonging appealed strongly to a young woman whose own colonial roots had led to a somewhat nomadic childhood.
Travelling by secret, watery, back door routes into the hearts of great industrial cities also awoke Sonia’s keen instinct for architectural observation. She recalled: “I think it was then that I began to look at buildings in a very serious way. I looked at the modest ones, the working ones, and I saw beauty in them. Going into Birmingham, at the end of some dark, blackened channel you’d see flaming red and men working with shovels. What I saw was highly industrial and totally alive.”

When we met in 2010, Sonia was still the revered Vice President of the IWA, the Waterways Trust, and other waterways bodies. In 1997 she published A Canal People: The Photographs of Robert Longden, an evocative reminder of a lost ways of life, reissued in paperback in 2009.

The house Sonia shared with her husband Tom Rolt, an early campaigner for England’s heritage, was the catalyst for Sonia’s long and valued involvement with the SPAB. “We arrived to live here with paraffin lamps, no heating except for a coke stove and open fires. Many things were failing including the big roof, whole sections of which would slip with a clattering roar into the lane.”
Disappointingly, the house was initially refused a local authority grant, but almost miraculously, with SPAB’s intervention and guidance from SPAB Scholar David Nye, the Historic Buildings Council made a grant of £500, estimated to be half the cost of re-roofing the oldest section.

Sonia Rolt's home in Stanley Pontlarge near Cheltenham

Sonia Rolt’s home in Stanley Pontlarge near Cheltenham

“And from there a relationship began for us with some of those concerned with the real care of and attention to historic buildings,” Sonia told me. Sonia cemented the bonds with the SPAB, possibly through meeting something of a kindred spirit in Monica Dance, the legendary SPAB Secretary.
Sonia recalled: “I was in London one day and wanted to check on our SPAB membership. I also had some questions about the house. I knocked on the door at Great Ormond Street and Monica immediately invited me in to her office.” In their own spheres, the two women espoused a direct and very practical approach to all things and soon Sonia was attending courses and meetings, always asking questions and eager to learn more.
“I think I was practically a SPAB Scholar without actually being one,” said Sonia, who went on to host many parties of SPAB Scholars at her fascinating house.
As a longstanding member of the SPAB Main Committee and also Chairman of SPAB’s Education Committee from 1991 to 2005, she continued to bring her practicality, inspiration, enthusiasm and wisdom to the charity. Her passionate commitment to both Scholarship and Fellowship programmes gave them an enviable impetus over many years. And it was this contribution that led to her being given the Society’s Esher Award.
Her involvement with buildings was not restricted to her work for the SPAB.  From 1985 to 2003 she was a member of Gloucester Diocesan Advisory Committee, offering incisive comments on a flow of applications for works to churches. She remained a stalwart of the Institution of Structural Engineers History Study Group, and with her friend Clayre Percy spent over 30 enjoyable years choosing the carefully selected libraries and furnishings to be found in Landmark Trust properties. She also worked with the National Trust, advising on repairs to old ships.

Sonia Rolt OBE died in October 2014 at the age of 95.