Victorian architecture

Ten endangered Victorian buildings

Normally ‘Top Tens’ are celebratory, but there is something both sad and inspiring about the Victorian Society (VicSoc)’s annual list of the most threatened buildings from the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Inspiring because the buildings that feature in the list are often stupendous. This year’s list includes Icknield Street School, Birmingham: an astonishing architectural fantasy in brick and tile the colour of a robin’s breast, with multiple gables and steep-pitched roofs tumbling around a slated Rhenish spire bristling with subsidiary spirelets.

LEFT The exterior of Icknield Street School in Birmingham. photo: Stephen Hartland
The exterior of Icknield Street School in Birmingham. Photo: Stephen Hartland

The school, which opened in 1883, is one of several designed by Joseph Chamberlain, who set out his manifesto in clear terms: he wanted his schools to inspire pupils by being the best-looking buildings in their neighbourhoods. The designs, for all their aesthetic appeal, are also functional: the big windows lighting tall airy rooms and the central tower (rising in three stages separated by wooden louvres) are all designed to maximise sunlight and circulate fresh air.

The school and its adjacent headmaster’s house are listed Grade II* and are owned by Birmingham City Council. The ground floor is used as a Hindu temple, but blocked gutters and missing roof tiles – the usual culprits – are causing damage to the roof and walls. The building has great potential, says VicSoc President Griff Rhys Jones, because ‘the school is in a convenient location and the potential for repurposing is clear’.

Something similar could be said of the Grade II-listed Healings Flour Mill, which occupies a very prominent site beside the River Avon in Tewksbury, disused since 2006. Various schemes have come and gone since then, and meanwhile this pioneering mill is quietly deteriorating. It would be very sad to lose such a powerful structure, the largest and most advanced flour mill in the country in its day, and a major architectural asset for the town. ‘The riverside location and grand scale gives it the potential to become a focal point for the community, with space for small businesses, homes, leisure facilities, or even a museum,’ Griff Rhys Jones said.

And a third building in the VicSoc Top Ten was featured in this magazine only two issues ago (CA 382): the Oldham Equitable Cooperative Society store, completed in 1900 and singled out by Lynn Pearson as one of the best examples of a Co-op that retains its community spaces, including two ballrooms, an educational department, a newsroom, a library, and a ‘conversation room’. It remained a popular dance and entertainment venue until the 1980s, and is fondly remembered by many in the community, but with so much retail activity shifting to sites on the edge of town, or to the internet, it is difficult to find anyone wanting to take on such a large building.

ABOVE Healings Flour Mill on the River Avon in Tewkesbury. photo: Nicholas Jones of The Photo Studio Tewkesbury
Healings Flour Mill on the River Avon in Tewkesbury. Photo: Nicholas Jones of The Photo Studio Tewkesbury

An architectural change of heart

Some members of the architectural profession have in the past argued that we give too much protection to historic buildings and that there are many second-rate Grade II listed structures that would not be missed if those same architects could be let loose on the site – they claim that they can ‘build back better’ (to borrow a slogan). The tide is turning, however. There is a growing realisation that the solution to the climate emergency is to retrofit existing buildings, with all their embodied carbon and energy, rather than to build new ‘environmentally sustainable’ structures in place of the old.

The Welsh Government, for example, has just announced an additional £1.5bn for the next phase of its 21st-Century Schools and Colleges Programme, which involves replacing many of the educational buildings constructed in the post-war period, designed in response to developments in teaching theory and practice and in architectural design. Typically, schools of this era were pioneers of the curtain-wall method of construction, with a steel frame from which prefabricated panels were suspended, and staircases at each end of the block giving access to a central corridor and classrooms on either side lit by large windows.

Hot when the sun shone and freezing when the wind rattled the ill-fitting windows, they don’t bring back happy memories for those who were educated in these buildings, but that can be fixed and, as BBC Energy and Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin reported recently, Britain’s top engineers are now urging the government to halt the demolition, re-use existing buildings, and employ more recycled material.

A report compiled by the Royal Academy of Engineering says that people are unaware of how much carbon dioxide is emitted through the process of making new bricks and steel: cement production alone causes 8 per cent of all global emissions. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors estimates that 35 per cent of carbon from a typical office development is emitted before the building is even opened. The Architects’ Journal says that ‘this staggering fact has only been properly grasped in the construction industry relatively recently: we’ve got to stop mindlessly pulling buildings down’.

Repurposing historic mills

This call to rethink the way we view existing buildings will be welcomed by conservation bodies such as the 20th-century Society and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, who have now been preaching the embodied carbon and energy message for at least three decades. So too has Historic England, which recently published a report exploring the potential of under-used and vacant mill buildings.

The title of the report – ‘Driving northern growth through repurposing historic mills’ – carefully avoids using the phrase ‘levelling up’, but it argues that redundant mills can make a useful contribution to ‘rebalancing the country’s economy’ and improving environmental stability. We can expect to hear more on this shortly when the Treasury invites bids for the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund to support regeneration, using money that previously went into the EU’s European Regional Development Fund.

The British Library has already announced that the Grade I-listed Temple Works, in Leeds, is under consideration as a possible home for the new British Library North. This former flax mill has a stone façade with 18 columns based on the ancient Egyptian Temple of Horus at Edfu. Marcus Binney, Executive President of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, has hailed it as ‘a glorious piece of Egyptian Revival architecture which Napoleon Bonaparte himself would have saluted’ (Boney being a great fan of ancient Egyptian art and architecture).

Preferring to describe the number of vacant mills as an opportunity rather than a problem, the Historic England report says there are 688 buildings with ‘repurposing potential’ in Manchester, Yorkshire, and Pennine Lancashire alone, offering 2.3 million square metres of vacant floor space – enough for 42,000 homes or a mix of office and light industrial uses that could generate 84,000 jobs. And reusing these characterful buildings generates a much lower level of carbon than an equivalent new-build.

The Linotype Company

Vigilance is still required, however, because even re-use can have its downsides, especially if developers are only interested in the most profitable parts of a site. SAVE Britain’s Heritage won a notable victory in 2021 when it campaigned for the listing of the Engine House and chimney base at the former Linotype Works in Altrincham, Cheshire, which was threatened with demolition by the company that has already converted the main office block to flats.

The Linotype Works formed what today’s master planners would call the ‘pathfinder’ development on the Broadheath Industrial Park, created in 1885 by the eighth Earl of Stamford. A dubious claim to fame is that the 101ha estate was Britain’s first planned industrial park – the precursor, in other words, of the ubiquitous 20th-century industrial estate. This one, however, had a leafy workers’ village built alongside, laid out with curving roads, tennis courts, football and cricket fields, and allotments.

If you are 60-plus years of age and worked in publishing, you will remember the smell and clatter of Linotype machines, which speeded up typesetting by producing a complete line of type (hence the name) in lead alloy (‘hot metal’), where compositors had previously to set each individual character, letter space, and punctuation mark by hand. The company employed 10,000 staff at its height, making linotype machines that were exported worldwide. The basic design of the linotype machine remained unchanged for 100 years until computer typesetting took over. Now it can be hoped that the Engine House, which proudly displays the name of the works and the date (1897) on the principal façade, will survive for at least 100 more years as a reminder of Altrincham’s proud role in revolutionising the book, magazine, and newspaper publishing industries.