National Treasure: The Old Bluecoat School, Thatcham

SPAB member Mark Thomas writes about a local Berkshire landmark. This article first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of the SPAB Magazine. The magazine is only available to members of the SPAB.

Alongside the A4 in Thatcham, Berkshire, is a small building now known as the Old Bluecoat School. Although it was a school in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the building’s history is much longer than that. The style of the east window shows that it was once a chapel and it is believed to have been built in 1304 as the Chapel of the medieval Borough of Thatcham.

National Treasure_Bluecoat2
Living in Thatcham for over 30 years, I could not avoid noticing the rather tired old building by the side of the main road. Having a background in construction I volunteered to help the trustees during the refurbishment in 2014 and quickly got co-opted onto the committee. Like others before me, I started to investigate the history of the building and became fascinated by how the ancient building had survived through cycles of decay and repair.

A Victorian historian, Samuel Barfield, discovered the original licence from the Bishop of Salisbury dated 3rd May 1304 granting a local landowner and later Lord of the Manor, Sir Richard de Fockenham, and the parishioners of Thatcham the right to hold chantry services in the chapel which they had already built at their own expense.
Later authors speculated about why the chapel was built, although, from its location adjacent to the historic London to Bath road, one likely use could have been as a wayside chapel situated at the boundary of the newly created Borough. The promotion of Thatcham town to Borough status appears contemporary with building of the chapel and it is tempting to see the new chapel as a prominent civic status symbol for the new Borough. The national rarity of a surviving free-standing wayside chapel accounts for the building’s Grade 1 listing in 1983.

National Treasure_Bluecoat interior

Interior of the Old Bluecoat School, date unknown

Between 1304 and 1707 little is known about the chapel other than that, somehow, it survived. There is a single reference from 1446 saying that it is dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr. Another mystery is that there is supposedly no record of it at the 1547 Abolition of the Chantries during the Reformation. It appears in the records again in 1661 as “the Chapel of this Borough” almost as if it was still in use.
From 1707 we are on firmer historical ground. Lady Frances Winchcombe bought the “old decayed chapel” to convert into a charity school for 30 local poor boys, although it didn’t properly open until 1794. The charity’s surviving account books from that year record the clothing bought for the boys, but do not specifically describe the coats as blue until 1900. (A “Blue Coat” school was a popular unofficial name for one of many similar charity schools.)

The school closed in 1914 when the master was called up for military service. From the end of the First World War until 1964, Berkshire County Council rented the building for school cookery lessons. After 1964 the trustees of Lady Winchcombe’s charity could not find a new use for the building and its upkeep was unsustainable. It was sold to Newbury District Council in 1969 for £2500. The building was used as an antiques shop during the 1990s but fell empty again. In 2003, local Councillor Barbara Collins-Wootton, saw that the Council was proposing to sell the building by public auction as surplus to requirements. Mrs Collins-Wootton set up a committee with other Thatcham residents and succeeded in transferring the building to a new charity with a long lease from the Council to manage it for community use.

After ten years of fundraising, and thanks to the generosity of local businesses, a start was made on refurbishing the exterior of the building in 2014. Modern cement render was removed from the flint walls and replaced with lime render and limewash. Temporary acrylic window panes, which had been there for over 30 years, were replaced with leaded lights in the original wooden frames and were based on an old photograph from 1897. The roof was re-laid, while saving 75% of the old tiles.
Currently the interior is suffering from the 1973 refurbishment of cement rendered walls, a concrete floor slab and varnished plywood dado panels that cover up damp. The most striking feature is the attractive scissor-beamed roof. Described by some as Victorian or Tudor or, more credibly, as 15th century with an older tie-beam, the roof structure is an obvious candidate for more scientific dating.

The building is now in daily use by local clubs and societies. Classical music concerts have been very successful, with many performers commenting on the excellent acoustics. Longer term plans, money and permissions permitting, are to refurbish the interior by removing the concrete floor and cement render and replace them with more appropriate materials. The challenge for a historic building in daily use will be to include sympathetic modern facilities, such as a catering area, so that the building is attractive to hirers and will continue in community use for the foreseeable future.

For more information about the Old Bluecoat School pleases visit the website.

 

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On Ruskin’s Birthday

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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: 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.”

 

Women in Conservation: Career advice

We asked Joanne Needham, SPAB caseworker, and Sam Peacock, a freelance stonemason what advice they would give to someone wanting to work in conservation. Here’s what they said.

Joanne Needham

“My advice would be to find your group, find a group of people with whom you can share your passion and who similarly have the same fire in their belly because they are the people that will support and guide you.”

 

Sam Peacock

“I think the advice I would give to someone looking to get into a trade is just to persevere sometimes. It can be a long slog to get trained up but just keep at it.”

Women in Conservation: Hermione Hobhouse

Hermoine Hobhouse. Credit: Harriet Graham

Hermoine Hobhouse. Credit: Harriet Graham

Architectural historian Hermione Hobhouse (1934-2014) had an extremely impressive career in campaigning for building conservation. She described herself as an urban historian and journalist, and she used her considerable connections and writing talents to lobby for historic buildings, most particularly in London.

She was born in Somerset into a political family – she was descended from the social reformer Emily Hobhouse, who exposed the British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer war and her father, the Liberal Arthur Hobhouse, played a key role in the establishment of national parks. After graduating from Oxford and working in television, her first book Thomas Cubitt: Master Builder (1971) won the Hitchcock Medal of the Society of Architectural Historians.

This was followed by Lost London (1972), which was published at a time when there was a growing panic about the seemingly-mindless loss of historic buildings in London to make way for redevelopment. It is a fascinating book, filled with archive photographs exposing the loss of important buildings and a shared history irretrievably lost. Turning its pages you wonder, as Hobhouse does, “How much richer would London be today, if some control had been exercised over demolition in the past hundred years?”. What would a current edition include?

Her introduction, an engaging and prophetic argument for preservation contends that “London is threatened with the grim prosepect of a Manhattan-like future, of becoming a city of the very rich and the very poor… the retention of historic buildings…can do a great deal to keep London human in scale”. On the demolition of Newgate in 1902 Hobhouse quotes the SPAB: “Those who have not already hear this will sympathise with us in our disappointment, and it really seems no building of value is safe in London”. She also decried the loss of public and open space, something which remains on the agenda for campaigners in London.

This book, and her role of secretary of the Victorian Society from 1976 to 1982, did much to inform and stimulate the public about famous losses including the Euston Arch in 1961. Under her aegis, important Victorian buildings like Linley Sambourne House in Kensington were saved and opened to the public.

Following her work at the Victorian Society, Hermione Hobhouse also served as general editor of the Survey of London between 1983-1994, which had been founded by CR Ashbee in 1894. In the 1970s she was also a tutor in Architectural History at the Architectural Association School. Her other published works included books on Regent Street, the Crystal Palace and Prince Albert.

She was appointed MBE in 1981 and was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.