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Letters From The SPAB Archive

July 27, 2023
by the gentle author

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These are letters I found in the archive at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in Spital Sq, confirming that my own modest involvement in campaigning has many noble precedents – as over the last one hundred and forty years, many writers and artists have sought to use their influence in a similar vein. Click on any of the images below to enlarge and read the text.

William Morris wrote to the Reverend H. West of the church at North Fordingham to express the Society’s disapproval about proposed building works and the letter encapsulates the founding principles of the SPAB in Morris’s own hand. They strongly objected to the Victorian passion for ‘restoring’ medieval buildings to an imagined state of antiquity. Believing this work to be pastiche and worse, Morris understood that it injured historic fabric as the guilty parties stripped and destroyed to achieve their own, largely inaccurate vision of what the building should have looked like. The word ‘restore’ is particularly significant as it implies putting back things that weren’t necessarily there in the first place. ‘Repair’ is still the Society’s operative word.

Reports of destructive activities came to the Society from many famous correspondents – here George Gilbert Scott ( Architect of St Pancras Station) writes of damage to the church at Mells in Somerset.

Edward Burne Jones write  to Thackeray Turner (one of the earliest SPAB Secretaries) regarding problems at Worcester Cathedral on February 9th, 1897


William Holman Hunt wrote with great passion to Morris about his concerns over proposed ‘extensive repairs’ to the Great Mosque in Jerusalem. He writes with dismay that the gates have been painted “a vivid pea green that would disgrace a Whitechapel Shop front.”

Thanks to the concern of Charles Robert Ashbee, designer & founder of the School of Handicraft in Bow, the magnificent seventeenth century Trinity Almshouses still stand in Whitechapel today..

Octavia Hill, social reformer and one of the founders of the National Trust, wrote this grief struck letter about proposed alterations to the West Front of Peterborough Cathedral.


In his professional guise as an architectural surveyor, Thomas Hardy was a committed SPAB caseworker protecting churches in the West Country. In these hastily scribbled cards he writes in anguish over Puddletown Church which featured in Tess of the D’Urbevilles.

George Bernard Shaw wrote to the Society on 15th July 1929, enquiring over the wisdom of restoration at the church in Ayot St Lawrence.

John Betjeman wrote to ask for SPAB’s advice on the Unitarian Chapel, Newbury, which was built in 1697. Three months previously, it was sold to the YWCA who were raising funds to ‘repair’ it.

As a SPAB council member, John Betjeman wrote this comic note signed pseudonymously – indicative of the humour that prevailed.

Letters courtesy of Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings

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The East End Preservation Society

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Gee Farrow permalink
    July 27, 2023

    I love these letters beyond words! This is the world that I was born into and, as much as I love the convenience of modern online modes of communication, I cannot help but look back and be sorry at what we’ve lost.
    You can picture the authors at their desks seething quietly as they wrote. Most had such beautiful handwriting, especially Morris for me although I adore Betjeman’s little additional drawing (also glad that they made a few spelling mistakes too – no auto correct!)

  2. July 27, 2023

    I was intrigued to read Burne-Jones’ comment on Worcester Cathedral ending in a reference to “Peterboro’ warfare”. Was this a well-known saying that had somehow passed me by? I think perhaps not although Octavia Hill berated alterations at Peterborough Cathedral in the preceding year. Did this result in a battle, even if just of words?
    I love a well-penned letter of complaint and may have written a few in my time. My late father used the pen as a weapon on several occasions, appealing against his council tax band, road closures and repairs, parking tickets and the general decline in standards. He worked his entire post- war employment with the Metropolitan Water Board, later Thames Water. I can almost hear his wrath at the current state of that organisation!
    Thanks GA, nothing like a bit of righteous indignation on my morning commute ?

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    July 27, 2023

    Dear GA,

    Thank you so much for sharing these letters written in the days when people could express themselves in beautifully handwritten scripts, the days when people were taught to spell, to use correct grammar, to lay out the text on the page and to be polite however angry they were. Such a reflection on society today when so few seem capable of writing a letter let alone being polite !

    My relative Frederick Greenwood, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, friend of some of the authors of these letters and all the ‘high and mighty’ in Victorian society, wrote copiously and used a quill pen. I would not be surprised to find that he wrote letters on this subject as well as I am sure he would have had an opinion about the Victorian vandalism in churches but his hand was not quite so legible as I struggle to read the one or two letters that I have.

  4. Pamela Bough permalink
    July 27, 2023

    During the late 20th century Charter Construction worked repairing some of the Trinity Almshouses. My husband, Brian Bough ( died 2021) was one of the Civil engineers involved with the project and he was very proud to have worked to save the buildings. He admired the construction of the original builders.
    Pamela Bough

  5. Hetty Startup permalink
    July 27, 2023

    Dear Gentle Author,
    These letters and notes to SPAB are quite wonderful. Apart from the very pertinent preservation concerns, they suggest the diverse range of people who were invested in this issue at the time. And hooray for Ashbee’s beautiful penmanship. Good handwriting today is practically an art form in itself. Overall, the letters prove it is important to protest. Thank you and I hope the tours and classes are all going well. Hetty

  6. July 27, 2023

    I am a born-and-raised letter-writer. Irate letters? – Definitely. “Atta boy” complimentary letters? — Absolutely. Letters to the Editor? — Yep. Letters to admired famous people who probably will NEVER write back? — Most certainly. (and, by the way, those famous people often write back and I have a whole sheaf of their letters.) I correspond with several good long-time friends and the sight of a letter from one of them fills me with joy.

    Anything to do with William Morris is totally welcome. To me, this gent was an “Influencer” before there was such a term. I once read that we are not immune to influences, but enriched and emboldened by them. If so, then I have been endlessly enriched AND emboldened by William Morris and I never hesitate to add a new book about him to my art library. Just yesterday, I attended a textile conference in the Berkshires and as we transitioned from meeting room to lunch, an earnest wall-paper hanger worked in an outer foyer. Yes, the pattern of the paper was one of the new re-boots of a William Morris pattern (Strawberries and Birds, etc.)
    done in a lovely off-white and soft grey colorway. Glorious. I stopped and chatted with her for a few minutes, and she commented that working with a Morris pattern always made her calm and happy to do her work. Morris is everywhere.

  7. Gillian Tindall permalink
    July 27, 2023

    Interesting what a preoccupation there was with churches (necessary, I’m sure) in the early days of the conservation movement, when there was much enthusiasm for making alterations to them.

    William Morris himself had a stand-up row with the Vicar of Burford in the Cotswolds, when some officious changes and `improvements’ had been made. The Vicar is reported as replying `I shall do what I want with my own church. I shall stand on my head in it if I like!’ As a result, that Vicar is today remembered, not for any good works he may have done in the course of his life, but for that one fatuous and mis-informed remark. The whirligig of time, as they say, brings its own revenge!

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