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SPAB At Eastbury Manor

July 13, 2018
by Kate Griffin

Kate Griffin author of the celebrated  Kitty Peck novels, who works at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, introduces this year’s annual working party held at Eastbury Manor in Barking

Lime-washing the lintels

Every year in high summer, the Society For The Protection of Ancient Buidings leaves its Georgian home in Spital Sq for one week to put its expertise into practice at a building in need and enlists a horde of volunteers to help for its annual working party. This week they are at Eastbury Manor in Barking, which is currently a hive of conservation activity where around a hundred enthusiasts are working on a variety of projects under the watchful eye of expert craftspeople.

Since it was established by William Morris in 1877, the Society has acquired more than a hundred and forty years  of knowledge and experience in the care of old buildings. Director Matthew Slocombe told me, “In the past, we have visited a variety of locations including the cradle of the industrial revolution in Derbyshire, an ancient barn in Sussex and a medieval church at Greatham in Hampshire, so this year we are delighted to be working near to home on a building close to our heart and history.” The Society was a key player in the campaign to save Eastbury Manor from demolition in 1918, which made this invitation exactly a hundred years later irresistible.

The working party offers a rare opportunity to gain direct experience of traditional building skills in a collaborative environment and volunteers range from architectural professionals to those with a keen amateur interest, including participants as young as fourteen. This year’s activities include repairing the brickwork of the garden wall, lime-washing and renewing broken panes in the leaded lights. Carefully supervised, this work will help maintain the fabric for another century.

Yet a hundred years ago, the outlook for Eastbury Manor was quite different. It had declined from a grand Tudor mansion to a ramshackle farm and, by the middle of the nineteenth century, it was semi-derelict.

From its very beginning, the Society took a particular interest in East London, through connections with the East End Preservation Society set up by Arts & Crafts designer C.R. Ashbee. In 1894, while campaigning to save Trinity Green Almshouses in Whitechapel, he established the Survey of London to record the capital’s historic buildings and Eastbury Manor became the subject of an early monograph published by Ashbee’s Guild & School of Handicraft in 1917.

When World War I began, the Society was actively considering a better future for Eastbury Manor but the international conflict brought new threats. The war resulted in shortages of domestic materials, including timber, and by 1917 there was concern that the building’s panelling might be stripped out. In a stroke of bad luck, a lightning destroyed one of the impressive Tudor chimney stacks too. Further damage was caused when the army commandeered the house as a convalescent home. Yet, although this nearly proved to be the manor’s final undoing, it ultimately helped deliver its salvation.

Meanwhile, public recognition of Eastbury Manor’s importance was growing and the press called it ‘the Hampton Court of East London’ in 1917, even if the army had no qualms knocking it about. It was at liberty to do so, but fortunately an insider was present to look out for the house. That  ‘insider’ was Society member Norman Wilkinson. In the army, he was a lowly lance corporal but in civilian life he was far more noteworthy – well-connected and a leading stage designer. His costumes for Twelfth Night at the Savoy Theatre in 1912 can be found today at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Wilkinson appreciated the building’s beauty and significance, and he made it his business to encourage his commanding officer to ensure it was treated properly by supplying his own copy of the Survey of London’s monograph. His foresight bought time and allowed for a long-term solution to be found. After fundraising by Society and others to raise the £1500 required for purchase, a deal was struck with the owner and the house was passed to the National Trust.

Sadly, this did not include much of the surrounding land or the large barn and farmstead – all of which were lost to a housing estate in the twenties – but it was still a remarkable outcome. In 1918, the National Trust was still in its formative years and had only acquired a few properties. Taking on Eastbury Manor was a bold move that reflected its national importance and the deal proved to be the beginning of a long partnership between the National Trust, SPAB and Eastbury Manor. The Society put forward William Weir, one of its leading architects, to manage the repair for the National Trust, completed in 1920.

The Society had been in communication with Barking Council about the manor since WWI but it was not until the mid-thirties that they were prepared to take the bold step of securing a hundred year lease from the National Trust. In 1935, it was described as the “Real Civic Centre of Barking” when Barking Council acquired the lease on Eastbury Manor.  This allowed Eastbury Manor a community function for the first time and it was opened with an exhibition of the English Arts & Crafts.

Ever since, this wonderful house has been an important focus for the people of Barking and this summer, exactly a century after it was saved, SPAB is delighted to play a continuing role in its story.

Learning bricklaying skills

Repairing the Tudor garden wall

Hugh Conway Morris, Limeburner

William Weir, architect of the repair of Eastbury Manor

Visitors to Eastbury Manor in 1935

Archive images courtesy of SPAB

Readers are invited to this Sunday’s free open day at Eastbury Manor. Visit between 11am and 4pm to see conservation in action and enjoy a range of family activities

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At Eastbury Manor

3 Responses leave one →
  1. John Barrett permalink
    July 13, 2018

    A worthy cause a super place let them repair the old schoolhouse after in Clapton a greater need here ok. Poet John The Poetry Soc & Bus Pass Poets.

  2. July 13, 2018

    A positive outcome for the ancient house. It looks terrific

  3. Celeste permalink
    July 15, 2018

    It is so heartening to hear that there are some who care enough to get out and do something about the sorry state of much heritage property in London. After a recent visit after many years, I was saddened to see the state of many lovely old buildings, to say nothing of the crass demolition that has gone on. I saw an ancient church in the City which had a well- known coffee shop built into its side! An exception —-the old wharves and warehouses it Bermondsey and Wapping , which have been given new life .
    As a Canadian I so appreciate the long history of which Britain can be proud, and so from a visitor’s view it seems such a shame to let it go to neglect.

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