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.”


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.

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.