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Mark Girouard, Architectural Historian

June 18, 2013
by the gentle author

Mark Girouard

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

Fiona Skrine, the Sit-in at Spital Sq

Neville Turner of Elder St

19 Responses leave one →
  1. John Montague permalink
    June 18, 2013

    Gentle Author,
    You have finally induced me to reply to one of your posts. Mark Girouard, Dan Cruickshank, Colin Amery, and all the others who had the conviction to stop the bleeding of destruction of important pre-industrial buildings in Spitalfields and elsewhere are clearly worthy of your outstanding blog. When I read Survey of London volumes from the 1950’s and 1960’s and realize how many 18th century buildings have been demolished since the publication dates, your vivid description of the work of Mr. Girouard and friends has even greater impact.
    From across the pond, thank you so much for your daily insights into one of Britain’s great places…Spitalfields.

  2. Glenn permalink
    June 18, 2013

    Thanks to Mark Girouard and others Elder Street is very beautiful and well preserved now.
    It is often used for filming.
    A modern day pic GA?

  3. June 18, 2013

    What a hero! Yes, Mark Girouard was on my undergraduate reading list too, but I had no idea he was such a resilient fighter. Thank you for telling us his story.

  4. Marianne Isaacs permalink
    June 18, 2013

    I found his book in a second hand shop in Port Fairy, a tiny seaside town in Victoria Australia . I read from cover to cover, fascinated, even though I am not an architect or historian . It is a remarkably accessable read and allows the reader to walk in the shoes of all the occupants of these houses. What a wonderful man . Thank god he did what he did to save that precious heritage in the East End .

  5. June 18, 2013

    A marellous poignant piece…now you’ve exposed the heroes int it about time you exposed the villains?…name and shame!

  6. Susan Goldman permalink
    June 18, 2013

    Another person who was instrumental in saving what’s left of our old school, St. Botolph’s Hall, which was part of the Central Foundation Girls School. It’s now a very beautiful restaurant. Thank you Mark Girouard!

  7. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    June 18, 2013

    I love Mark Girouards books.I remember reading about the efforts to save Spitalfields in the 70s what vandals they were & sadly it seems they are still around.This was a fascinating piece,loved it!

  8. June 18, 2013

    Well done Mark Girouard, I’m glad you are recognised here

  9. June 18, 2013

    Life in the English Country House was on the reading list for a course on the decorative arts during my undergraduate art history studies. I’m glad to finally learn more about the author of this work and join in the praise and appreciation for his work in historic preservation!

  10. June 18, 2013

    This is a fascinating piece. It’s wonderful that these people could see the value of these fine buildings and were able to help them be preserved. I have Mark Girouard’s book, ‘Life In The English Country House’, but haven’t read it yet, now I feel inspired to start on it right away.

  11. Peter Holford permalink
    June 18, 2013

    A proper hero – I bet he doesn’t get the awards that are dished out for fun in political and business circles.

  12. Terry Fitzpatrick permalink
    June 19, 2013

    Interesting discussion on this theme going on at Ted Jeory’s blog.

  13. Faith Brabenec Hart permalink
    June 27, 2013

    I have always been proud that the first book published after I started working for Yale University Press in London was Mark’s ‘Life in the English Country House’. It put YUP on the map in the UK, attracting booksellers who would never before have paid attention to the YUP list. The reception was so amazing and enormous that we couldn’t then handle the paperback and sold those rights to Penguin. It also gave me lifelong friends, in Mark and Dorothy and Blanche.

  14. Neville Turner permalink
    July 21, 2013

    It was good to see pictures of my family home where our family lived for 43 years from 1931 to 1974,being the last family to be rehoused from Elder st.The picture clearly shows how the property owners let the houses decay in the hope of selling them of for the land value. This area of Spitalfields was known as the forgotten zone,it’s residents being among the last
    to be considered for rehousing.Mark Girouard with the Spitalfields Trust saved No 5 and 7 which were saved and restored.A more forward thinking council could have saved this heritage a lot earlier and just maybe the local residents could have stayed knowing more of their historical heritage – good sanitation conditions and maintenance was all that was needed.

  15. Murray Gellatly permalink
    August 7, 2013

    I knew Mark Girouard from the late 1970’s though to the early 1990’s, in all
    that time he never mentioned his pivotal role in saving these
    important buildings, very typical of a softly spoken gentleman.
    I remember many a happy time in the top of his house where his writing sofa
    was beneath a stupendous Byrne Jones pastel that Mark
    told me he had bought in the 1960’s. I so envied that foresight.
    Stumbling over this article has awakened so many memories of
    Mark and his generous gifts of so many books I am now
    inspired to contact him and renew our old friendship.

  16. April 1, 2014

    I have just returned from Spitalfields. I am so thankful for these men who salvaged this area. I wish more of the area had survived, but I am thankful also for these few photos and sketches.

    My ancestors lived in this area for only a few months in 1708 while they were waiting for transport to America.

  17. ant parker permalink
    February 15, 2015

    I was wondering if you remember someone who i think was called Henry who squatted the house to the left of the bombed out house in Wilkes street, and who salvaged lots of wood etc and piled it up in the area of the bombed out house. He later became the owner of both plots. The house he squatted had a large workshop area at the back. I was at college with him and am trying to remeber his name.

  18. juliet mckoen permalink
    February 18, 2015

    his name was charlie (forget his second name)
    there are still people around Wilkes st who are in touch with him

  19. Mark McLoughlin permalink
    April 20, 2016

    Dear gentle author

    I am, as you are, descended from Rev. Edward Solomon (3X great grandfather). I was fascinated by your chapter on the Solomon family in “Enthusiasms”, particularly as the St Helena detail, in particular the death and funeral of Napoleon tied up precisely with the (I thought apocryphal) account from my grandmother recounted about 55 or 60 years ago.

    I am resident in Somerset West near Cape Town. I shall be in London from 3rd May to 5th May. I would very much like to meet you. If this is possible then would you please leave a telephone number at my e mail address.


    Mark McLoughlin

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