William Morris and Thomas Hardy at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings: The Ethos of Cultural Conservation in the Later Nineteenth Century

Allison Adler Kroll  is finishing a DPhil on the Whig aristocracy at Merton College, Oxford. She completed a previous doctorate in Victorian and modern literature at UCLA and has lectured at UCLA, Loyola Marymount, and UC Irvine. She has published essays on Tennyson and Hardy, in Victorian Poetry and Nineteenth-Century Contexts respectively, and is currently revising her literary thesis, National Faith: Heritage Culture and English Identity from Tennyson to Byatt, for publication in book form.

Though they were only born six years apart, held remarkably similar views about cultural conservation, and contributed crucially to the imaginative and practical management of English heritage culture, William Morris and Thomas Hardy never met, and have rarely been discussed together. One of the connections I have been exploring in my own research is Morris and Hardy’s work at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Founded by Morris in 1877, and supported wholeheartedly by Hardy from its early days, the Society reflected their common interest in preserving the material past sympathetically.

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Ruskin’s ‘Seven Lamps of Architecture’. Source: Ferrochie Arts and Entertainment

As Fiona MacCarthy notes in her biography of Morris, the ‘germ’ of the SPAB was Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). In Seven Lamps, Ruskin articulated precisely the attitude toward conservation that both Morris and Hardy would take up, that of ‘tenderness’ and ‘reverence’ for historic buildings, and of caretaking for future generations. [1] ‘The principle of modern times, is to neglect buildings first, and restore them afterwards’ Ruskin declared. ‘Take proper care of your monuments’, he exhorted his readers, ‘and you will not need to restore them’ [2]. ‘Do not let us talk then of restoration’, he continued, ‘The thing is a lie from beginning to end’. [3] Ruskin, Morris, and Hardy all considered modern restoration, so much the product of a faux-antique fashion, to be the antithesis of conservationist responsibility; all three campaigned vigorously against what they saw to be the ruination of their historic environment by, for example, overenthusiastic neo-Gothic architects. That they took care to articulate their views publicly and regularly meant that later efforts to conserve ancient churches and other historic environments had an established and respected rhetoric, and one which continues to direct thinking about heritage management. Indeed, the National Trust, founded in 1895, adopted the conservation practices of the SPAB, and was supported by Morris’s organisation from its inception. [4] The Trust is now the largest conservation body of its kind, and it continues to work in conjunction with the Society to protect buildings of national significance.

Sir Gilbert Scott

According to Morris’s first biographer, J.W. Mackail, a society dedicated to combating ‘ruinous’ projects of so-called ‘restoration’ of ancient buildings had occurred to Morris in late 1876, but it was Sir Gilbert Scott’s plan to ‘restore’ Tewkesbury Abbey church which spurred him into action. [5] He wrote to the Athenaeum, decrying the impending destruction of the minster and called for ‘an association’ to ‘keep a watch on old monuments’. He then wrote a manifesto which was published as the Society’s founding document, in which he welcomed the ‘new interest’ in ancient monuments but dreaded the ‘strange idea’ of restoring them by stripping them of their ‘history’ and thus their ‘life’, leaving behind a ‘feeble and lifeless forgery’ of no interest to ‘our descendants’. [6] Like Ruskin, he advised that caretakers of ancient buildings ‘stave off decay by daily care’ and ‘raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one’. [7] Morris worked tirelessly (as was his wont in all things) both to gather support for the fledging Society and to promote its activities amongst those who might be willing to contribute to its work. [8] As its honorary secretary, Morris undertook not only to write ‘thundering’ letters of indignation against the destruction of the historic built environment under the aegis of ‘Anti-Scrape’, as the Society was more familiarly known, but he also ran its meetings, visiting buildings under threat, and helped to raise funds for the repair of ailing parish churches. [9]

Puddletown Church. Source: Victorian Web

Hardy began his relationship with the SPAB in 1881 and continued to support its activities as an architectural consultant, a concerned conservationist in the Dorchester area where he lived, and as a speaker for the Society itself. Hardy had himself participated in church restorations as a young architect, and later wrote a paper about his experiences for the Society in 1906, ‘Memories of a Church Restoration’. In it, he particularly emphasised ‘the human association of ancient buildings’, an aspect of their value ‘generally slighted in paying regard to artistic and architectural points’. [10] Like Morris, Hardy was concerned to preserve traces of the ‘life’ of these buildings, comprised of the histories of those who inhabited them. In a later letter to A.R. Powys, SPAB secretary (and brother of Wessex novelist John Cowper Powys), Hardy again echoed both Ruskin’s and Morris’s views on restoration, which he described as ‘usually the obliteration of the successive modifications in the features of a building that give continuity to its history’. [11] In a half-serious evocation of Morris’s SPAB Manifesto, Hardy suggested that the ‘ideal’ church restoration would see the ‘ruinous church [ . . .] enclosed in a crystal palace, covering it to the weathercock from rain and wind’, with ‘a new church built alongside for services’. [12] Hardy remained deeply committed to Anti-Scrape’s principles, and even used his literary authority in an attempt to save Puddletown parish church, the original for Weatherbury church in Far From the Madding Crowd, from restoration. He thought a letter from the Society to The Times ‘adding the fact that it is the church of this well-known novel’ might be ‘effective’. [13] Alas, this failed, but he continued his efforts for the Society, inspecting buildings and sending reports to the SPAB secretary, and always encouraging those concerned for the fate of their local built environment to enlist the Society’s aid.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings continues its work today and retains Morris’s original manifesto as its set of guiding principles. Both of Hardy’s houses in Dorchester, his birthplace cottage and Max Gate, are conserved by the National Trust.

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William Morris, letter from SPAB. Source: Spitalfields Life


[1]. Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London, 1994), p. 376.

[2]. Ruskin, Seven Lamps, 8. p. 244.

[3]. Ibid, 8. p. 244.

[4]. SPAB, ‘History of the SPAB’, <http://www.spab.org.uk/what-is-spab-/history-of-the-spab/&gt;

[5]. J.W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris, 2 vols. (London, 1899).

[6]. Mackail, Life, pp. 342-3.

[7]ibid, p. 343.

[8]. See MacCarthy, William Morris, pp. 375-8, 415-16; Mackail, pp. 338-46. E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (revised edition, London, 1996).

[9]. E.P. Thompson, Romantic to Revolutionary, p. 229.

[10]. Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (London, 1985).

[11]. TH to A.R. Powys, 18 Feb 1919, The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, ed. Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate, 7 vols. (Oxford, 1978-88), online edition, VI. p. 206.

[12]. Michael Millgate, ed., Thomas Hardy’s Public Voice: The Essays, Speeches, and Public Prose (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), pp. 239-40.

[13]. TH to Thackeray Turner, 10 Feb 1910, Collected Letters, IV. p. 74.

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