The Office of Works. It’s almost a cartoonish name, like the Daily Mash’s Institute of Studies. To those of us of a certain age it has a black-and-white, Andy Capp, post-war era quality. Its staff, we might imagine, would probably be middle-class improvers with a modest terrace house, a modest car and a mousy wife. Its an organisation from a bygone age and nobody knows what it was or probably few people did back then either. In reality, it was far more exciting that its name suggests, particularly if you appreciate history and heritage issues.
The Office of Works was an ancient department dating back to the 14th century. Its job was the maintenance of Crown property; it also participated in organising Royal ceremonies: weddings, coronations, funerals. In 1882 the Ancient Monuments Act gave it the job of acquiring and maintaining prehistoric monuments; from 1900 this was extended to historic buildings.
But this side of the Office’s duties changed fundamentally into something we would recognise today on 15 August 1913 with the passing of the The Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act.
The Act gave the Office powers to 1) list protected monuments which could not be altered without reference to the Office; 2) issue a Preservation Order where a monument was under threat and 3) take a monument into the care of the state, with or without the owner’s agreement.
Hence the Office of Works became the predecessor of English Heritage. In the first 20 years after the Act a small cadre of workers who included historians, restorers, builders and archaeologists and led by the formidable Charles Peers, rescued 229 monuments.
These include Rievaulx Abbey, Furness Abbey, Richborough Roman Fort and Goodrich Castle.
Peers, the first Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, was one of those leaders who seem to have disappeared from public life: driven, determined, competent and insistent to have things as he would have them. He reminds me in that way of his contemporary Frank Pick over at the London tube.
The other prime mover in this story was George, Lord Curzon. While Viceroy of India at the turn of the twentieth Century, Curzon had restored the Taj Mahal and its gardens. Back in England, and shocked by the state of our monuments, in 1912 he personally intervened using his own money to prevent Tattershall Castle from being wholly exported to America. The government’s powerlessness and his example created the momentum which led to the Act.
The centenary of the 1913 Act and its aftermath is celebrated in a wonderful exhibition at the Quadriga Gallery within Wellington Arch, appropriately run by English Heritage. It includes lots of objects saved from rescued monuments, plus many photographs, portraits, paintings and plans.
A Monumental Act: How Britain Saved its Heritage
1 May – 7 July 2013, Quadriga Gallery
Entry: £4. English Heritage Members: Free.