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Heritage groups warn that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former home may lose its listed status

The Victorian Society, English Heritage and other heritage groups have voiced their objections to the latest plans to turn Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former home in Surrey, ‘Undershaw’, into a special school

The Victorian Society, English Heritage and other heritage groups have voiced their objections to the latest plans to turn Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former home in Surrey, ‘Undershaw’, into a special school. Planning permission was granted earlier this year to use the late 19th century home as a school with minimal changes. However, Waverley Borough Council is currently considering a controversial further application which would see Conan Doyle’s former home dwarfed by a new building which campaigners fear would ‘destroy Undershaw’s significance’ and potentially see it lose its Grade II listed status.

Undershaw was built on the South Downs at Hindhead Surrey in 1896 to designs by Conan Doyle’s friend Joseph Henry Ball. Although Conan Doyle himself is known to have had a hand in the design of the house - sketching out a similar plan in a letter to his mother. The house was designed with caring for Conan Doyle’s wife, who had tuberculosis, in mind. The house’s shallow staircase and south facing verandah would have made her life easier and enabled her to receive the fresh air and sunshine doctors at the time advised. Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902 while living at Undershaw and wrote many of his most famous works, including Sherlock Holmes novels in the building. Doyle only left Undershaw in 1907 following his wife's death.

The Victorian Society, the national charity campaigning to save Victorian architecture, English Heritage, the Ancient Monuments Society and the Undershaw preservation Trust have all voiced objections to the latest plans from the DFN Charitable Foundation to covert Undershaw into a special needs school. The changes include alterations to the bedrooms and the servants’ rooms, the removal of the back staircase and  the creation of a huge new glass wing. The Victorian Society considers that such a change of use must be a last resort from a heritage perspective. However, a recent report commissioned by Waverley Council concluded that there had not been a ‘robust’ marketing campaign to try and sell Undershaw as a family home. Given that Surrey is the heart of the stockbroker belt, many believe that a buyer with the financial means to restore Undershaw could be found if the house was properly marketed.

Victorian Society Conservation Advisor, James Hughes said: ‘until we can be sure that there is no possibility of use for a single family dwelling, we are unlikely to support an alternative use, particularly not where this would require very large extensions to the building. Undershaw is an important building due to the insight it provides into the life and work of one of England’s leading literary figures.

Architecturally, the building is charming and it retains a good number of fixtures and fittings relating to the Conan Doyle family such as family coats of arms in the stained glass. The large extension, combined with the alterations proposed to Undershaw’s listed interior, would cause serious harm to the significance of the building. The proposed extension would obliterate the building’s setting and would overpower its modest appearance with its conflicting style, materials and scale.

English Heritage has suggested that the degree of harm would be such that the building might no longer warrant its listed status. The substantial harm is not demonstrated as necessary in this case as the school could just as easily expand on another site.’

The Ancient Monuments Society (AMS)  and the Undershaw Preservation Trust are also urging Waverley Council to listen to and act in accordance with the strong objections to the proposal.

While Doyle is most famously known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a prodigious writer of many different genres, his first career was in medicine. Doyle trained and practised as a doctor during the 1870s and 80s. As a result he took an interest in developing theories on the transmission and treatment of tuberculosis (TB), a disease which afflicted those of every class. Despite increased numbers of specialised sanatoria in the 1890s, TB’s prevalence ensured that the majority of TB sufferers were treated at home. The success of such treatment was reliant in part on the conduciveness of the home environment to recovery. In 1893, Conan Doyle's wife Louisa (known as Touie) was diagnosed with TB. In line with the best advice then available, Conan Doyle installed Touie and other members of the family in Davos, Switzerland - a well-established destination for TB sufferers because of the clean, dry, air and favourable climate.

The following year Doyle’s literary friend, Grant Allen, drew his attention to the health-giving location of Hindhead, Surrey, where Allen himself had recovered from TB. Seizing the opportunity to accommodate his wife's treatment, as well as returning to London society, Conan Doyle purchased the elevated but sheltered plot next to the London to Portsmouth Road, on which Undershaw was subsequently built. To the south-east of the house, above the main lawn, and presently surrounded by thick undergrowth, is a small timber building open on three sides  with 'Sherlock'-themed decoration. This building, which would be demolished under the developer’s plans, is possibly what Conan Doyle referred to as the 'hot house' - an airing shed which allowed Touie to sit outside in the fresh air, whilst also being under cover. 


Sunday 14 December, 2014

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