Mark Girouard, Architectural Historian
If you take a particular turning off the Portobello Rd and cast your eyes up, as you walk east, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the celebrated architectural writer Mark Girouard sitting reading at the window, high up in his old house on the corner of the square where he has lived since 1971, surrounded by a lifetime’s collection of books and pictures. At the very top of the house is a long room extending across the entire width of the terrace, where peace and quiet prevail, and the hubbub of the market recedes. This is where Mark Girouard retreats to write, in his silent eyrie high above the street.
I first became aware of Mark’s writing when I arrived at college as an undergraduate and my tutor had a copy of the newly-published “Life in the English Country House,” upon his desk and proceeded to eulogise it. Many years passed before I came to understand the significance of the book and appreciate how it changed our understanding of history, by acknowledging the endeavours all those whose existence was bound up with stately homes, not just the owners.
Mark’s work is based upon the premise that architectural history cannot be separated from social history. Previously, the emphasis was solely upon the aristocrats who owned country houses but his scholarship delineates a more complex picture which includes those who laboured below stairs and the craftsmen who devoted their skills to the realisation of the magnificent architecture that distinguishes these buildings. Consequently, if you visit one today, you will likely find that the kitchens and living quarters of the servants are given as much emphasis as the grand reception rooms, and this is due, in greater part, to Mark’s writing.
Mark’s key involvement in the saving of the old houses in Spitalfields in the seventies is less well-known, and it was this that I came to hear about, when I took the Metropolitan line over from Liverpool St to visit him one afternoon recently. “It was so extraordinary, the blindness of people, that they couldn’t see that these eighteenth century house within walking distance of the City were of any value, and it was taken for granted that they going to be redeveloped,” he admitted to me, still incredulous, more than thirty years later.
“I think Pat Trevor-Roper gave us ten thousand pounds to get started, although it may have been a loan but he never asked for it back,” Mark recalled absent-mindedly, outlining the origins of The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust of which he was the first Chairman, “I was working at the Architectural Press at the time and Dan Cruickshank was there too, and then Douglas Blain applied to be Secretary. He had fallen for Spitalfields and been grief struck at the demolition of Spital Sq.”
In the summer of 1977, British Land, who had acquired the old terraces in Elder St, sent the bulldozers in and Mark and his colleagues discovered they had no choice but to take matters into their own hands. Pursuing a brave course, they squatted numbers 7 & 9 Elder St, two eighteenth-century weavers’ houses which had already had their roofs removed in preparation for demolition. “British Land intended to clear the site for a bigger development, two houses had already gone and two more were slated to come down.” Mark recalled, “So we moved in and we started negotiating. After a fortnight, we briefly left the building empty and they sent in the demolition men who started work. But I managed to get hold of the Planning Officer and he stopped them because they didn’t have the correct permission, and we moved back in.”
It never struck me before that architectural historians might be distinguished by physical courage in defence of their beliefs, yet the events in Elder St prove otherwise. “We weren’t brave, we were just very confident, and aggressive,” Mark confided to me, “We went as a deputation to British Land, and we’d had quite a bit of publicity, and they gave up and sold us the houses.” This auspicious victory set The Spitalfields Trust on its way and, over the past forty years, they rescued innumerable old houses in the East End. The policy was to buy buildings of historic significance and sell them with covenants to people who undertook to restore them, investing the money from the sale back into more buildings – and thus it has gone on through the decades. “If any building that was important to us came up for sale, we bought it irrespective of whether we had the money, in the hope that we could find the money – and we always did.” Mark confessed with a mischievous grin.
Emboldened by their success in Elder St, in December 1981 members of the Trust locked themselves into St Botolph’s Hall in Spital Sq, formerly part of the Central Foundation Girls School, but in contrast to the earlier occupation which extended for months this was resolved in weeks. “It was set for demolition but we saved it!” Mark informed me simply, in his characteristic softly-spoken tone.
These two highly-publicised events, spanning Mark’s seven years as Chairman of The Spitalfields Trust, were highly influential in shifting public sympathies towards the preservation of old buildings at that time and today Mark looks back on his time in Spitalfields with affection. “There was a very nice atmosphere in those early days, because the houses we saved were sold to people who didn’t have much money and they restored them with their own hands,” he concluded fondly, “and we all met for lunch together in the Market Cafe.”
Mark Girouard among a deputation from Spitalfields who staged a sit-in at the headquarters of British Land in protest at their plan to demolish eighteenth century houses in Elder St, September 1977.
Douglas Blain, Secretary of the Spitalfields Trust with Mark Girouard at 9 Elder St.
The deputation to the headquarters of British Land, Mark Girouard stands centre with social historian Raphael Samuel, second from right.
Elder St, 1977
“We Shall Not Be Moved” read the sign over the doors of 7 & 9 Elder St.
Rear of 7 & 9 Elder St
First floor of 9 Elder St
Mark Girouard, Colin Amery, Fiona Skrine and Joanna Price during the sit-in at Spital Sq, 1981.
Wilkes St in the seventies, with gaps from bomb damage still unfilled.
You may also like to read about