The battle for Britain’s past

Heritage! The Battle For Britain’s Past is a welcome BBC Four series that charts the story of the movement to protect Britain’s heritage, from its early days in the 19th century right through to today.

Produced in partnership with English Heritage, the series is a reminder of the debt of gratitude we owe to the men and women who were instrumental in ensuring the passing of the Ancient Monuments Act in 1913. This recognised for the first time that there are physical remains of the nation’s history which are so special and so significant that the state has a duty to ensure their continued survival.

Of course 1913 was not the beginning. With last week’s programme we were in at the birth of the heritage movement as the long battle to defend the past was fought by figures such as Lubbock, Pitt Rivers, Ruskin and William Morris. It was Morris who, in 1877, founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) to counteract the highly destructive ‘restoration’ of medieval buildings being practised by many Victorian architects.

The battle was fought in the face of the industrialisation and urbanisation of Britain. What’s more, there was scant understanding of how the built environment represents more than bricks and mortar but memories that are a link to where we come from.

Back in January, when I attended the launch of the programme of events to celebrate 100 years of protecting England’s past, Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, pointed to the fact that the bill of 1913 was very forward looking. “It was jointly supported by the minister of education and the first commissioner of works. For, as well as making the first list of sites and monuments that would get legal protection – the first listed buildings if you like – they set out to create a great outdoor museum of national history. A collection of monuments that would tell to school children, families, and to adults, the incredible story of the nation, stone by stone.”

In last week’s programme Thurley stated that heritage isn’t just about the past, it’s about the future. How right he is and how important are the words of Morris who said: “We are only trustees for those who come after us.”

Image credit: English Heritage


  1. David Nolan (David73277) on March 14, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    An interesting programme, I agree.

    Did you see Simon Thurley of English Heritage was tweeting this week about a site visit to EH’s new HQ – a purpose built office building? One would have thought they could have converted a disused building at risk instead? Then again, such a restoration might not win the approval of SPAB.

  2. Roger Hunt on March 14, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    I missed that Tweet