Philip Venning, The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings
I have always been captivated by the romance of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, sequestered behind the blue front door of the tottering old house in Spital Square. Even the name has a kind of poetry for me. Yet I was not disappointed when I made it through that front door into the crowded panelled offices, filled with good furniture, oil paintings and filing cabinets, arranged to suit personal usage like the chambers of some Dickensian lawyers that had been there for generations and refreshingly free of modish notions.
Upstairs, in the modest back room painted an appealing sage green, works Philip Venning, Director of the Society for nearly thirty years, and I had the privilege of paying a call upon him there recently in his quiet den. “By law, a copy of every application to demolish a listed building is sent to us,” he explained, sounding rather grand, before changing tone to add, “and we’re given the opportunity to comment, although there is no obligation for anyone to pay attention to what we have to say.” And he smiled knowingly at this circumstance, that reveals the essence of this tiny charitable organisation founded by William Morris in 1877, which gave birth to the modern conservation movement, but has the power only of influence, based upon the authority of its reputation and the specialist knowledge that can be drawn upon from its eight thousand members – comprising the leading professionals in the restoration and care of ancient buildings.
“We have always been interested in how buildings are restored,” Philip continued, emphasising the importance of traditional crafts and trades in sympathetic maintenance and repair, “since the nineteen thirties we have run a training course for young architects and surveyors.” Teaching is done by practitioners rather than academics, reflecting the Society’s practical approach and commitment to keeping the skills alive that are required to maintain old buildings. Recently this educational programme has been extended to include craftsmen through William Morris Scholarships and now to caretakers of churches too, who are invited to undertake courses to learn how to be the best custodians of their charges. “It can be as simple as clearing gutters, that sort of thing,” Philip declares, “They may be concerned about poor stonework, but we can say “If it’s been like that for four hundred years, it’s probably alright.”
The Society moved to Spitalfields in 1984 and renovated the building they now inhabit, one of the very few original structures surviving of the magnificent lost Spital Square. “It was a typical empty and derelict Spitalfields house of the time,” said Philip – unable to resist telling me that they found medieval stonework in the foundations, which may come from the original priory of St Mary or be part of the earlier houses that stood upon this site, one of which was once inhabited by Thomas Culpeper.“We were visited by a Jewish family whose forbears lived and worked here as leather dealers, and they gave us the brass plate that used to be beside the door.” he added, satisfied to fill in the recent human history of the house and fetching the plate for me to see.
Yet Philip himself is also part of the history of Spitalfields, although he did not know it when he first came. “I’ve worked here since 1984 and only recently discovered my family connections, and now I feel much more connected to the place than I did,” he admitted, telling me of his great-great grandfather on his mother’s side, Benjamin Duncombe, a dentist in Bell Lane with a house in Hoxton Square, whose daughter Ann married Thomas Mann at Christ Church in 1787. Puzzled that a mere dentist could afford a grand house in Hoxton, Philip believes he found the answer in the crypt of Christ Church when many bodies were removed and discovered to possess gold teeth, suggesting that this might the source of Benjamin’s wealth.
Our conversation glanced continuously between a discussion of the Society’s aims and swapping tales of Spitalfields, and I realised that for Philip the protection of old buildings from decay, damage and demolition is inextricable from respecting the lives of those who built and inhabited them. William Morris articulated a similar sentiment in his manifesto founding the Society, calling for the protection of, “those buildings, the living spirit of which – it cannot be too often repeated – was an inseparable part of that religion and thought, and those past manners.”
“I had only been contracted to stay for five years but I stayed for ten,” Philip Venning informed me with a sigh of amazement in a moment of self-realisation as we came to the conclusion of our chat, adding after twenty-eight years in the job leading the campaign to preserve our ancient buildings, “I stayed because I find it so valuable an undertaking.”
Philip’s ancestor Benjamin Duncombe, a dentist who had his surgery in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, and a house in Hoxton Square.
Benjamin’s daughter Ann Duncombe, who married Thomas Mann of Harbury, Warwickshire, on 5th July 1787 at Christ Church, Spitalfields.
Thomas Mann of Harbury, Warwickshire – Philip’s mother’s maiden name was Mann.
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, Spital Square.
The brass plate that was once fixed beside the door.
You may also like to read about Bob Crome, the window cleaner who saw a ghost while cleaning the windows of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.