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So Long, Mark Girouard

August 19, 2022
by the gentle author

Next tickets available for my walking tour this Sunday 21st August



Mark Girouard

Architectural Historian, Mark Girouard, died on 16th August aged ninety.

If you took a particular turning off the Portobello Rd and cast your eyes up, as you walked east, you might have been 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 lived from 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 retreated 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 was 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 delineated a more complex picture which included 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 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 visited to hear about when I took the Metropolitan line over from Liverpool St to visit him one afternoon. “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 forty 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 proved 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 Mark looked back on his years 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

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Catherine permalink
    August 19, 2022

    To see the photos of the Elder Street houses in such a derelict state really brings home the vision of Girouard and his comrades in fighting for and eventually restoring these priceless and historical houses. Here’s to his long and productive life.

  2. Susan permalink
    August 19, 2022

    How interesting – I have his book. I bought it years ago, probably not long after it came out in 1978. Nice to know that he lived a long life, and that he was responsible for helping safeguard Spitalfields.

  3. August 19, 2022

    What appears from the story is: Mark Girouard fought for the good cause. May he rest in peace. — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  4. paul loften permalink
    August 19, 2022

    Why is it that the very things that we are closest to in our daily lives become invisible ?
    Here we have the essence of history. Buildings that we live in , work in, pass by every day are not noticed and their significance is reduced to almost nothing and when the time comes to make a buck they are wiped away as if they were chalk on a blackboard. Not only are they history these buildings are our saviours because they give us another dimension that separates us from the bland square concrete and glass structures that have come to dominate our life and our feelings . Because you cant help feeling things when you see monstrous structures rise before your eyes as you pass them by in the street. People dont know why they get depressed and feel angry . I think its because their vision has been delibertely blinkered by the developers who dissmiss the history and everything that Mark Giroud fought for as insignificant next to their desire to make a fortune

  5. Gillian Tindall permalink
    August 19, 2022

    Mark Girouard lived as he always had done, right to the end, ever politely ready to note and discuss any new threat from developers. Less than three weeks ago, he was scheduled to give a talk for the Victorian Society in the Notting Hill area, near where he lived. There were some anxieties in the weeks beforehand as to whether would be fit enough, but in the end he duly gave it and also answered questions afterwards.

    Many of us will miss him very much. He was indeed one of the original savers of Spitalfields. `Si monumentum require, circumspire’ – “If you seek a monument to him, look around.”

  6. Lizebeth permalink
    August 19, 2022

    I totally agree with the comments so far. Most of us don’t notice until it is too late the ongoing destruction of our historic structures, and the horrible, uniformly similar, monstrosities that come more and more to dominate our streets. It is people like the Gentle Author, and those he eulogises, who have made the difference and saved so many important places from forever loss.

    I urge all of his readers to write in, walk in, protest as you feel you are able, to keep big business and government staff with their hands in its pockets from as much demolition of worthy buildings as possible. Your children will thank you.

  7. Mary permalink
    August 19, 2022

    What a wonderful man and how fitting Gillian’s last sentence.
    May he rest in peace and long may he be remembered.

  8. August 19, 2022

    Not sure how, but a friend of my late wife. One weeps for people and places lost

  9. Alison Felstead permalink
    August 20, 2022

    He was kind enough to write a nice preface to a reference work on Victorian architects that I helped to compile whilst working at the British Architectural Library (RIBA). I can almost believe that I see it on his bookcase … RIP Mark Girouard.

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    August 21, 2022

    Such a brave move by Mark Girouard, and the many passionate ones who have followed in his footsteps. RIP Mark.

  11. Steve Elliot permalink
    August 22, 2022

    It should also be noted that Mark wrote a book on Victorian pubs. A splendid volume. I shall visit one or two of the establishments featured, and raise a glass to Mark’s memory. A great man.

  12. Antony Spawforth permalink
    August 24, 2022

    His book on the French country house is a masterpiece. Written with extraordinary authority; revelatory. To my knowledge still a first in any language.

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