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Remembering Gavin Stamp

December 30, 2022
by Gillian Tindall

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Contributing Writer, Gillian Tindall, remembers Gavin Stamp on the anniversary of his death

Gavin Stamp, Christ Church, Spitalfields, April 1977


On this, almost the last day of the year, my mind turns to my friend Gavin Stamp (1948-2017). It is five years exactly since Gavin, architectural historian and writer, university lecturer, contributor to television and magazines, and passionate defender of good buildings against crass re-development, died at his home in Camberwell.

Until a year or so before he had always appeared young for his age, full of vigour and determination. The very day he died he had gone out to take photographs. He was still in his sixties, and it was less than four years since he and his second wife, the historian Rosemary Hill, had actually been able to marry. He should have had many more years ahead of him.

He disliked cars, perceiving correctly that the post-War conviction that motor vehicles must dictate the future shape of cities had been responsible for wrecking many venerable town centres. One of his most successful books was Britain’s Lost Cities (2007), which pointed out in heartfelt terms the damage that planners of the sixties, seventies and still more recently, have done to Birmingham and Bristol, to Glasgow, Liverpool and many other places.

He never learnt to drive and was a tireless walker. I recall taking him to look at one of the last remaining old houses on Bankside, about which I was myself writing. We and the owners spent a happy hour or two there, discussing the house’s history. Then Gavin and I set off back along the south bank for London Bridge where we would go our separate ways. Soon, like a small child, I found myself running, and clutching at his jacket. Striding along, he simply had not realised I could not keep up.

Yet in spite of his busy life and his constant need to keep the earnings from his writing coming in, no one could be more responsive than Gavin if one alerted him to some fresh conservation battle that might need his support. He was also immensely knowledgeable, not just on buildings and cities at home and abroad but on railways, on the First World War, on old photographs, on statuary and memorials, on the lives of Lutyens and on the Gilbert Scott dynasty of architects, and much, much more.

Because Gavin dressed conventionally, had been a boarder at Dulwich school and then to Cambridge, many people assumed that he came from a well-to-do background. This was not the case. Although he had one or two distinguished forebears, in more recent times a family grocery business failed. Gavin took the eleven-plus exam for a place at Grammar School, and did so well that, under a scheme then in operation, Dulwich offered him a free place. Indeed it was at Dulwich that he found the very first subject for what a friend has described as his ‘combination of passionate enthusiasm and righteous anger.’ At the beginning of one term the stone capitals of the cloisters by the school chapel had been hacked off and replaced by glazing, which Gavin – surely rightly – regarded as vandalism.

He was still a child when the Victorian Society was founded in 1958 to try to save the heritage of fine and often well-loved buildings that were then being unnecessarily destroyed, but years later he wrote as fervently as if he had been there, with Betjeman and Pevsner, trying in vain to get the Euston Arch preserved – ‘There are some crimes which cannot be forgiven or forgotten… Ultimately the murderer was the Prime Minister, that cynical Whig politician Harold Macmillan… The whole affair was an example of the conventional, blinkered prejudice against nineteenth century architecture still prevalent among the ostensibly educated establishment in Britain.’

Later, as public opinion had shifted more in favour of the Victorian heritage, Gavin was a founder member of the Twentieth Century Society. As he pointed out later, ‘the history of conservation has been the art of keeping one step ahead of public opinion.’

Although readiness to understand and forgive was not one of Gavin’s virtues, he was unafraid to change his own mind on a building and to say so. Once implacably opposed to ‘the straight-jacket of modernist ideology’ with its commitment to flat-roofed concrete, he was able to admit ‘I have come genuinely to admire structures I once saw as brutal, insensitive intrusions.’ At his funeral, one of the speakers remarked ‘He said what he thought and didn’t mind people getting cross with him… He wasn’t always trying to be liked – he did not care – and this made him lovable.’

The last time I saw him was when I had invited him to a party to celebrate a book of mine, without much hope that he would appear. I knew he had been ill, and in treatment, and he lived on the far side of London. But he turned up, having come all the way by tube, in a becoming fedora hat to cover what we both supposed would be just a temporary period of baldness, and we sat and talked for a while. I do not think that either of us thought that this would be our last chat.

He was a churchgoer and a believer. So if you are there Gavin – somewhere beyond the constraints of this place and time – I am sure you are pleased that there is now hope for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and also that the battle is being waged to save Brick Lane from becoming entirely a shopping centre. Your work is being carried on.


Gavin Stamp’s last, unfinished book, on architecture between the Wars, will be published in 2024, and there are plans for an exhibition about his life and work this coming year at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art.

Euston Arch, demolished 1961

London Coal Exchange, demolished 1963

Lion Brewery, Waterloo, demolished 1949


Gillian Tindall’s The House by the Thames is available from Penguin

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall 

The Bones of Old London

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    December 30, 2022

    Well done to this man Gavin

    Let his soul rest in peace.
    Well done Gentle Author keep the fights going against obstinacy and ridiculous politics set against all my values.

    I wonder what will we become of the East London Federation Synagogue in Nelson St Whitechapel? .

    The only purpose built synagogue left in Tower Hamlets?

    Constrained by headquarters in North London.

    Perhaps a fitter fight is hard to come by

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 30, 2022

    What a hero for the built environment! I look forward to the book and exhibition.

  3. Bernie permalink
    December 30, 2022

    EustonArch: I assume that there is nowhere in the approaches to the station that it could be reconstructed and that leads too the obvious next question– is there not somewhere in central London that it could be placed? One of the Royal parks, perhaps? I would contribute my widow’s mite to the cost.

  4. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    December 30, 2022

    Thank you, Gillian Tindall, for your lovely tribute to Gavin Stamp.

  5. Mary permalink
    December 30, 2022

    Thank you Gillian for keeping alive the memory of this wonderful man who was taken far too early. The world is in even greater need of Gavin Stamps.

  6. Jack Montrose permalink
    December 30, 2022

    Thank you for this tribute. Gavin Stamp was one of the Young Fogeys of the early 1980s and served as a great inspiration to me all the way across the Atlantic in the suburban United States.

  7. Lew Tassell permalink
    December 31, 2022

    Lovely words Gillian, I look forward to the book and exhibition

  8. David Beevers permalink
    December 31, 2022

    Gavin was indeed a great man, fearless and tireless in all the causes in which he fought. On a lighter note, he once told me that his favourite film was Carry on up the Khyber. Amongst his many interests was a fascination with Garibaldi.
    He is much missed.
    David Beevers

  9. January 1, 2023

    How moving. Thank you for this. Ms Tindall’s books are themselves treasures. Leeds City is one of those ruined by highways. I lived there between 1967 and 1971. El

  10. January 1, 2023

    How moving. Thank you for this. Ms Tindall’s books are themselves treasures. Leeds City is one of those ruined by highways. I lived there between 1967 and 1971.

  11. Dr Ruth Richardson permalink
    January 3, 2023

    THANK-YOU so much, Gillian, for writing your tribute to Gavin Stamp, which I’ve just seen.

    He was a really stalwart helper during the fight to preserve the Cleveland Street Workhouse – he visited and understood the serial phases of architectural development of the site from the 18th century to the 21st which embodied also the history of the healthcare of the poor.

    His book on the great monument to the Missing is a wonder.

    I last saw him at a party for James Stevens Curl, and he had on a lovely little black vevet smoking-cap, and of course I hoped it would be temporary, too.’

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