Fiona Skrine, the Sit-in at Spital Square
Architectural historians, Mark Girouard and Colin Amery, with Fiona Skrine and Joanna Price during their sit-in, December 1981
Fiona Skrine came to Spitalfields as a student and left as a married woman with three children, and in the midst of this sojourn she found herself photographed for a national newspaper as part of a sit-in organised by the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust to save St Botolph’s Hall in Spital Square from the bulldozers in December 1981.
During the post-war boom in fresh fruit & vegetables in the nineteen fifties, the expansion of the market had destroyed some of London’s finest Georgian houses in Spital Square, which had otherwise survived almost unchanged since Dickens visited a silk warehouse there a century earlier. But now, emboldened by a saving a couple of eighteenth century weaver’s houses in Elder St by occupying them, the Trust decided to challenge the trustees of the Central Foundation Girl’s School who wanted to demolish their school hall without entertaining the possibility that it might have a future.
It is a measure of the success of this protest, in which Fiona is proud to have played a part, that last week she was able to return to Spital Square, almost thirty years later, to admire the handsome red brick edifice in the Flemish Renaissance style which is now home to the celebrated La Chapelle restaurant, and one of the few original buildings left to grant a significant gravitas in what might otherwise be a soulless corner. In retrospect, the occupation of St Botolph’s Hall marked a change in public opinion, as the moment when the unquestioning demolition of old buildings became unacceptable. And, today, the Spitalfields Trust, which stemmed the tide of destruction in Spitalfields that began in the nineteen sixties, is itself a venerable institution, even though when it was started by a group of architectural students who adopted the tactics of radical intervention – through squatting, occupations and sit-ins – they were, as the Director Douglas Blain recently admitted, “street fighters.”
“My sister Anna saw the bulldozers moving in, so she rang around to get enough people into the building and have it occupied so they couldn’t knock it down.” recalled Fiona, filling with enthusiasm to savour the memory, “I took a day off college, and my friend Joey (Joanna Price) also took the day off to support me. It was so dark and cold in December. The place had been stripped out, with no floorboards, and we wished we had brought warmer clothing and a thermos. We were there for one night, and then others took over and I’d done my bit. Although next day I had to justify it because you had to sign in at college, but fortunately it was very much in the spirit of the place, (the City & Guilds Art School in Kennington where I studied decorative art techniques) and when my teacher said, ‘Where were you yesterday?’ I said, ‘I was saving a building!’”
I could not tell whether spending a freezing night in St Botolph’s Hall in December with the threat of bulldozers outside, while locked in by the police for her own safety, was a rite of passage for Fiona. Yet in spite of living in a rat-infested house at first, she developed a great affection for Spitalfields – becoming drawn into the close knit society of young people of limited means and great imaginative enterprise who set about restoring the dilapidated eighteenth century houses with their own hands. Fiona’s sister Anna Skrine and Fiona’s husband photographer Simon de Courcy Wheeler were portrayed by ceramicist Simon Pettet in the famous fireplace of delft tiles that he made for Dennis Severs’ House illustrating Spitalfields personalities of the day. So it was highly appropriate that Simon made a delft fireplace as a wedding present for Fiona and her husband, when they took on the renovation of a house in Wilkes St as their family home.
“We bought an eighteenth century house with no floors or walls, and we threw a party with candles and that was how it began.” said Fiona, proud to recount the exuberant folly of her youth, “Wilkes St was pretty grotty in those days, the smell of the hops from the brewery at the end of the street was overpowering and these huge lorries of produce for the market thundered past. The house was in bad repair, it needed to be gutted, re-roofed and the panelling put back, although there were enough original fireplaces and surviving panelling to work out how to restore it. The house cost £40,000 and my father put aside another £40,000 for the building work. I was still at art school then, but I scraped and filled and painted every inch of that house myself, I did all the manual work once the builders had left.
We bought most of our furniture on Brick Lane, it was a tremendous adventure, getting up early and carting old chairs and chests of drawers back. The early eighties were a great time to be in Spitalfields with the excitement of everyone doing up their houses. We did it ourselves because we didn’t have much money, and there was always plenty of gossip and shenanigans going on. We were endlessly in and out of each others houses in those days and the Market Cafe in Fournier St was were we all met up. I had a lovely time because, in between having three children, restoring the house in Wilkes Street was the springboard for my career as a decorative artist and my first couple of commissions were auspicious.
English Heritage asked me to reproduce the colour ways of twenty Pugin wallpapers for the Palace of Westminster that was being renovating at the time. So I spent a few months at the V&A, reproducing the colours as accurately as I could with my gouaches, and then I was commissioned to paint replicas of old wall hangings for the Tower of London. I enjoyed these historic commissions, although later my work involved me in creating new decorative schemes around London and in Europe too.
Each Summer, I’d take the children to Ireland and it would be a shock to return to this soulful little house in this dark street, where you hardly saw the light and there were no trees – really quite grim, yet with lots of life too. All my children were born in the house, three home births. The midwife came on a motor bike when I had my first child, and it was 1987, the night of the hurricane, she was dodging falling chimney pots and trees.”
“I couldn’t go back to the house after we sold it, because I put too much of myself into it.” she confided in conclusion, as the emotion of the story dawned upon her.
Fiona came down from her home in North London to spend a morning with me before driving one of her grown-up children to university in Sheffield, and as well as walking over to Spital Sq in the rain, we visited the houses that the Spitalfields Trust is currently renovating in Fournier St. I realised it was a sentimental pilgrimage for Fiona Skrine and I was delighted to accompany her because, as the photos above reveal, she carries the same bright energy today and still cherishes her moment of youthful protest.
Ann Skrine, as portrayed in Simon Pettet’s tiles at Dennis Severs House
Simon de Courcy Wheeler, Fiona’s husband.
Fiona at St Botolph’s Hall