What’s the future of Victorian Schools?


What's the future of Victorian Schools?

A current case (November 2013) has highlighted the issues facing us with regard to preserving beautiful buildings for future generations. A Victorian school in prosperous South Kensington has been earmarked for demolition because John Lewis wish to develop the site. They will be relocating the school to a temporary building close by for 4 years while a permanent school along with commercial office buildings, private apartments, town houses and affordable housing are built on the site.

At a Major Development Planning Committee meeting, councillors voted in favour of the demolition of Marlborough Primary School and associated planning applications for the site by John Lewis. 

Julian Lloyd Webber, English Heritage and The Victorian Society are all vociferously against this plan and feel that the new school will be completely out of character with the area. It is widely believed that the original Victorian school building not only enhances the area but that there is no reason why it cannot continue to serve as a fully functioning school for the foreseeable future. It’s suitability for further expansion was even confirmed by the Chair of the School governors who had previously looked into how the school could be extended and modernised when ideas were initially raised about incorporating a nursery and specialist autism centre into the school. Historic schools typically offer strong adaptable fabric with wide corridors, high ceilings and large halls which give them a flexibility to adapt to changing educational needs. However, surprisingly the School Governors are in favour of the demolition of this building rich in history and architectural features. Why could this be? According to what they have said, energy efficiency was a problem with this old building as it is with any old building.

This horror we feel at the destruction of beautiful old buildings is not a new phenomenon and Gavin Stamps book “Lost Victorian Britain: How the 20th Century Destroyed the 19th Century’s Architectural Masterpieces” is interesting though depressing reading. It’s main purpose is to list the fabulous Victorian buildings we have lost. Gavin has felt strongly in this regard ever since in the early 1960s he saw workmen hack off the stiff-leaf column capitals in the cloisters at Dulwich College. I’d like to make this book compulsory reading to anyone considering a career in planning. Hopefully this would then serve as a cautionary tale to any but the most stupid and arrogant of planners.

In most cases I have read about, residents seem to be in favour of preserving old buildings and raising the money to do so where this is necessary, whether they live in the North or the South, in a rural community or a city, are rich or poor. Those in favour of the demolition of our architectural heritage quote reasons like rationale and lack of sentiment.

So are we condemning valuable historic buildings in the name of energy efficiency, rationale, lack of sentiment? Or are these reasons just being banded around as an excuse for those who stand to make money as a result of such demolition. What’s next – killing off the elderly and the disabled in the name of productivity and creating a more efficient world? That sounds familiar somehow…

As communities, we need to stand up for our heritage and what we find to be life affirming and enriching. Otherwise we will look around one day and be surrounded by masses of energy efficient, space efficient, non sentimental boxes that we are told to call home.

A great way to lend weight to the argument against these demolitions is by getting the building listed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (acting on advice from English Heritage)
before it is demolished. The way that listing works is that English Heritage assesses the building and any material provided to support an application, and then makes a recommendation. The Minister has discretion to accept or reject English Heritage's recommendation.

What criteria does a building need to fulfil to apply to be listed?

  • are interesting works by major architects or important examples of the work of local architects of merit.
  • form an important part of an architecturally sensitive streetscape or are part of a larger group built to a single design or purpose.
  • are very complete and/or early example of specific building type or built with a pioneering form of construction.
  • are very rare survivals of a specific type. Such should be a historically important part of an area or an industry's history.
  • are of definite architectural quality, or are an expression of a technical or social innovation of the period, such as pumping stations or lunatic asylums.

The Victorian Society has on many occasions urged English Heritage to list a school to protect it from demolition. The Society feels that too many historically important English schools that could easily be adapted for modern educational needs have already been lost. It blames the effect of the flagship £2bn-plus Building Schools for the Future programme and the vogue for private finance initiative (PFI) schemes - by which schools are built by private developers and leased back to the local authority - for the rush to demolish historic schools.

There have been many councils around the country that have managed to bring old schools in line with modern day requirements. All it takes is a little imagination and care. Many of Britain's most prestigious schools were designed in the Victorian era and staff and pupils take great pride in their historic settings within these Victorian Schools – which can only be good for inspiring learning.

Categories: General, Preservation   Tags: furniture

Posted by Irene - May 31, 2015 - 10:54

This sounds so naive: ‘All it takes is a little imagination and care.’ Anyone who is involved with school building understands that while Victorian buildings have a great many merits, and attraction value, it costs MONEY to bring them up to 21st century educational and building standards. In fact many BSF schemes were able to retain the historic existing building. This was actually encouraged!  But with budgets tighter than ever and building regulations becoming more onerous, risk adverse contractors shy away from these projects, and there is a question about value for money. I am not saying this is an excuse but it is the ultimate conundrum and moaning about the same issues as ever won’t resolve the problem of how to reuse these buildings in a respectful, practical and affordable way.

Posted by Jane Solomon - Jun 03, 2015 - 21:18

Please sign this petition (and add your comment) to help save Marlborough School building on Draycott Avenue SW3 from demolition!


Thanks for your support!

Posted by Octavia - Oct 17, 2018 - 12:05

Greetings! Very useful advice within this article!
It’s the little changes that make the biggest changes. Many thanks for sharing!

Hepburn (Felix)