The Shocking Case of Sarah Trimmer School, Brentford.
This sign adorns the street-side wall of 367 Brentford High Street, widely known as Mrs Trimmer’s School Room. Built in 1806, it is Grade II listed and historically highly significant. First, as recent research by historians James Wisdom and Val Bott has made clear, it is probably the only surviving example of a Georgian industrial school. Second, its association with its founder, Mrs Sarah Trimmer, a well-known educationalist of the time. It survived in its primary role – and also as a Sunday School – deep into the 19th Century, long after its founder’s death. Hence the building’s importance and heritage is unquestionable and something of which Brentfordians can rightly feel proud.
This view is not shared by the developers IDM West London Limited.
These developers who – to the consternation of many locals – have caused severe damage to the fabric of the building over the past two months, violently removing chimneys and roof and causing cracks to at least two of the main walls. Following the unauthorised removal of the roof, a Hounslow enforcement officer ordered them to protect the building with a cover and to cease further work. It was only after several downfalls that the cover was installed, a good 10 days later. Late last week and in breach of the order, the builders on site sand blasted the paint from two of the outside walls, forcing the council to intervene again on 9 June, this time with a Temporary Stop Order. The problem is that breaking the order can result in a maximum fine of only £20,000, hardly a deterrent to a rapacious developer.
A horrible extra side effect of the roof destruction is the loss of an interesting structure in the beams which was probably a flue of some sort – long disused – from an earlier incarnation of the roof. There can’t be many examples around – but now it’s gone. (see pictures below)
The truth of the matter is that the workers on this site have been attacking this poor old building like a troop of drunken chimpanzees with jackhammers. As a lay person it’s difficult to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the structural integrity of this building has been compromised as a result of its violent treatment.
Some weeks ago, I contacted IDM West London to see if they could adequately explain their actions. To be fair, their Project Architect, Bal Heer, returned my call, chatted at length and sent me quite a detailed email of what they had done and why. Subsequent events have caused me to revisit it and this leapt off the page:
“2nd week of May the main contractor commenced temporary support of the chimney structure as recommended by the Structural Engineer. It is clear to see the extent of the chimney leaning into the roof in the photo below: Leaning chimney. During this propping process the large double chimney became unstable and had to be removed from the existing roof. Further investigation showed the extent of the damage to the roof structure and the decision was taken to remove as much of the load from the damaged roof structure, ie the tiles were removed carefully so they could be used again.”
Aha! Did they tell the council or seek advice? Of course not. This is the old oh-dear-what-a-shame routine beloved of developers when they wish to justify wrecking something inconvenient to themselves. It was used by another outfit very recently less than a mile up the road to smash down the frontage of some Victorian terraced houses (that’s a whole other story).
Sadly this case is by no means unique. But it typifies what developers get up to and, most of the time, what they get away with. Their sole ambition is to build ’em high and sell ’em high. They will milk the last penny from every square inch of a site, regardless of the consequences for our heritage or for local people. If an opportunity arose, say, to smash down the Cenotaph itself and put up a unit of “luxury apartments” called The Warrior Quarter, believe me there isn’t a developer in London who wouldn’t do it.
I am not a Nimby. We have to build new things and replace old things. But developers want it all. How do we stop this desecration of our heritage? As in this case, it’s vital that local people especially, and Londoners generally, continue to be vigilant and kick up a fuss immediately when they see or suspect heritage vandalism by developers. But more importantly – because they are able actually to do something – local authorities must intervene with maximum and swift vigour. Westminster Council did exactly this recently when a developer smashed down the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, a viable and thriving pub.
Well done them. All councils have a duty of care for their local heritage. I’d like for my council – London Borough of Hounslow – to build a fearsome, rottweiler reputation against developers who swan in here and smash up the fabric of our historic structures. Play by the rules and you’re very welcome. Do not, and you’re in big, big trouble. I’m hoping for more from them in this case. Let’s see how they go.
To repeat: if IDM West London contravenes the stop order, the maximum potential fine is £20K. Puny. This isn’t going to slow down any developer whose massively profitable project is held up by pesky council officers. More sanction need to be made available against law-breaking developers, and that must be jailtime. Go to Jail. Go Directly To Jail. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect 20 million. That’ll learn them to have some respect.