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History of the Victorian Society

Dr William Filmer-Sankey takes a look back at the origins and early history of the Victorian Society, which was founded in 1958. This article was published in the first edition of our magazine, The Victorian, in 1998.

The catalyst for the foundation of the Victorian Society was Anne, Lady Rosse, the granddaughter of Edward Linley Sambourne, who had inherited the remarkably-preserved family house at 18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington, after the death of her bachelor brother Roy in 1946. On Guy Fawkes Night in 1957 she summoned a group of 32 of her friends, who included John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner, to consider the possibility of founding a Society for the preservation and appreciation of Victorian architecture and the arts. No doubt encouraged by the cocktails of legendary strength mixed by her butler, it was agreed that a Society should be founded, and the deed was done at a second meeting at 18 Stafford Terrace on 24 February 1958. From the start it was agreed that, despite the chosen name, the Society would also have within its remit the Edwardian period, up to the outbreak of the First World War. John Betjeman became the first secretary.

The founding of the Society took place against the background of an almost universal dislike of Victorian things, and the widespread destruction of Victorian buildings as the post war reconstruction continued apace. Threats to two particularly important buildings provided the Society with early battlegrounds. The first was Euston Station and the famous Arch that stood in front of it. The second was JB Bunning's wonderful Coal Exchange in the City of London. In both cases the battle was lost, but only after long struggles which increasingly attracted not just public attention but also public support for the fledgling Society.

It is for these campaigns that the early years are best remembered, but the Society's early members were always interested in much more that just the big buildings. Right from the start they championed those normal nineteenth-century buildings which, although not necessarily great architecture in themselves, nevertheless gave character and attractiveness to the surrounding area. John Betjeman's famous enthusiasm for suburbia found practical expression in the Battle for Bedford Park. By the early 1960s Jonathon Carr's groundbreaking planned suburb of the 1870s and 80s, with its houses by Norman Shaw, was a run-down area of bedsits, threatened with demolition and piecemeal redevelopment. One of the Society's earliest successes came when Tom Greeves, having enlisted Betjeman's support, finally managed to persuade the Ministry of Housing to list 356 houses in the area. This prevented further demolitions and laid the foundations for its revival: these days it is west London's most desirable suburb (and the home of the Victorian Society!).

Right from the start, the Society strove to avoid over-emphasis on London. Throughout the UK, the great Victorian cities were under perhaps even greater threat than the capital. Predating the current political trend for regionalisation by some forty years, Regional Groups were set up, initially in Liverpool and Manchester, to carry out casework and mount their own campaigns; we now have eight such groups, giving the Society its distinctive federal character.

After the initial failures at Euston and elsewhere, the tide gradually began to turn in our favour. When British Rail wanted to knock down St Pancras Station in 1966, the station was instead listed at Grade I. In Liverpool the Albert Dock was saved and converted.

The Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham was made a Conservation Area in 1981. As the shortcomings of the brave new planning of the 1960s became all too apparent, people began to regret the loss of the terraced streets and of the communities that had lived in them. Victorian art event became part of the 1960s with Biba taking up Art Nouveau designs and Oz magazine finding inspiration in the work of Beardsley.

As the Society's message got through and its influence grew, so the Society changed. In the first place its membership grew from an initial 28, to 1824 in 1970 and 3200 in 1980. The work of the Secretary quickly became too great for a volunteer and the post was made salaried. Casework similarly soon required the employment of the professional officer, initially one for the whole country, then a second for the north and now with a third to concentrate on churches. The Society also began to be taken seriously by the government. In 1964 it presented the Minister of Transport with a list of 60 railway stations worthy of protection. In 1969, following the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act, its was given a legal role in the listed building consent system when the Secretary of State directed that all applications involving demolition should be refereed to the Society for comment. In 1973 this role was partly supported by a grant from government funds.

You can listen to Lord Briggs’s 2008 jubilee lecture to mark the 50th anniversary of the Victorian Society here.

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