Britain’s Lost Cities – Gavin Stamp

This has to be the most depressing yet fascinating books I have read in a long time. Gavin Stamp was an architectural historian and for many years was president of the Twentieth Century Society, sadly he died in 2017 aged just 69. He wrote many books and hundreds of articles on architecture including almost forty years as a columnist for Private Eye under the pseudonym of Piloti and was for a time professor of architectural history at The Mackintosh School of Architecture, part of the Glasgow School of Art. As you can tell from the brief biography he was an expert in his field and despite his long time association with the Twentieth Century Society this book is excoriating about the wanton vandalism to major cities undertaken by city planners in the 1930’s to 1970’s. The book looks at nineteen cities in England and Scotland and with the assistance of old photographs shows some of what has been lost including the Lion Brewery which features on the cover and which stood on the south bank of the Thames in London and survived WWII only to be pulled down in 1948 to make way for the Royal Festival Hall.

I assumed, like probably most people in Britain, that most of the soulless centres to British cities were down to thoughtless rebuilding plans after the Luftwaffe bombing runs of WWII done in the years of austerity following the war. But this book makes it clear that at least for some of the cities the destruction of ancient thoroughfares and the buildings that made them often happened long before the bombers made razing what was left so convenient for the planners involved. I have travelled over large parts of Europe and seen the wonderful rebuilding of old cities, often reconstructing the lost or damaged buildings from before the war not the awful mediocrity of Britain’s reconstruction forcing inappropriate new ring roads through what was largely repairable, or even worse undamaged, buildings. The page shown above dealing with Coventry includes one of the most damning quotations from a city planner.

We used to watch from the roof to see which buildings were blazing and then dash downstairs to check how much easier it would be to put our plans into action.

Donald Gibson, City Architect for Coventry from 1938

The photograph of Bull Street in Birmingham at the top of the page reproduced above is amazing as every building shown in the picture no longer exists. I chose to illustrate this blog with Coventry and Birmingham as those are the cities I know best but I have to say that the pictures in the book for these Midlands industrial centres are completely unrecognisable. Quite what St George in the Fields church in Hockley (one of the northern districts of central Birmingham) had done to offend the local planners before its demolition in 1960 I don’t know but it looks a fine large building with an important history and where it stood is now just an open parkland so it clearly wasn’t in the way of some grand design. According to Wikipedia it had a capacity of almost two thousand people so it was a substantial church apparently needlessly lost.

Birmingham had its heart ripped out in the 1950’s and 60’s to make way for the car with underpasses and flyovers running right through the centre with little thought for pedestrians and is now undergoing further massive rebuilding largely removing structures thrown up sixty years ago. It’s too late sadly to restore the city centre but what is going up now does seem to be an improvement on what was done in the middle of the twentieth century.

Sorry about the wobbly images of the inside pages, trying to photograph these whilst holding the book open without breaking the spine really called for at least three hands, possibly four which is definitely more than I have available at the time. The copy I have is the 2010 first softback edition, the book was originally published in 2007 as a hardback, both versions are by Aurum Press which is now a division of The Quarto Group. I also have the first hardback edition of his follow up book Lost Victorian Britain, sadly both of these books are now out of print.

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