History of the SPAB

1877 ~ March 22 William Morris and other notable members of the Pre Raphaelite brotherhood hold the inaugural meeting of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in Queen Square, Bloomsbury. The founding members are deeply concerned that well meaning architects are scraping away the historic fabric of too many buildings in their zealous ‘restorations’.
1879 ~ With Ruskin in decline Morris and the SPAB pick up the baton of the international campaign to save St Mark’s, Venice. This is supported by both Gladstone & Disraeli.
1880 ~ Membership was 372 – although at £1 a year subscriptions were somewhat prohibitive (according to the RPI £1 then is over £400 now). Today the Society has approximately 6000 members.
1896 ~ SPAB hosts a conference in conjunction with London County Council on the preservation of ancient buildings in London. Given that ‘Londoners are by no means well informed as to the architectural treasures they possess’ it was resolved that a register of ancient buildings would minimise the threat to such edifices. It will be another 62 years before Listed Building status as we know it becomes law.
The SPAB advised the National Trust on its first repair project Alfriston Clergy HouseAlso in 1896 the National Trust is founded and adopts the SPAB’s approach to conservative repair. For many years the SPAB defends the Trust from its detractors, promising that it will become successful.
1903 ~ ‘Notes on the Repair of Ancient Buildings’ was issued as the first technical pamphlet. The Society’s mail order specialist book service now carries over fifty of its own and others publications.
1912 ~ SPAB urges Kitchener to take care of Arabic Art during his campaigns.
1913 – The SPAB’s Hon. Sec., Lord Crawford of Balcarrs introduces into Parliament the first effective historic buildings law on behalf of SPAB and the National Trust.
1913 ~ A delegation led by SPAB member Lord Curzon lobbied the Church of England to take seriously its wealth of mediaeval and later architecture, which resulted in the establishing of Diocesan Advisory Committees (DACs). The Society now employs a full time church caseworker to help parishes adapt their church to modern needs, while preserving the integrity of such historic buildings. Ecclesiastical, architects, builders and surveyors are regulars on SPAB sponsored courses and we are developing training days for churchwardens.
1914 ~ SPAB asks the American President to make representations to the German Government to protect works of Art in the war area. The Committee expressed relief that with Cyprus under British control its ancient monuments would be better protected than under the Turks. At home WWI is a quiet time for the Society with many ‘restoration’ projects being put on hold.
1920's ~ After the war SPAB is again very busy defending ancient churches against the crass insertion of ill conceived war memorials and a ‘tidal wave’ of stained glass windows. However the conservation message is catching on as local preservation trusts and allied societies spring up, lending valuable weight to SPAB’s message.
The advent of the motor car threatened ancient bridges with demolition and widening. The SPAB established a fund to protect them and undertook a massive survey of every bridge in the country.
1927 ~ Thomas Hardy, novelist and architect dies. He had been a very committed SPAB caseworker and worked particularly hard protecting churches in the West Country.
1929 ~ With support from The Daily Mail and The Times the Society undertook a survey of ancient wind and water mills. Today the Society’s Mills Section is devoted to protecting mills, educating millwrights and encouraging public access.
1930’s ~ many houses are lost in the name of ‘Slum Clearance’ and SPAB urges the authorities to think laterally about repairing and reusing seemingly hopeless cases. Today through its case work the Society encourages owners and local authorities to be imaginative in the re-use of buildings.
1930 ~ David Nye becomes the first young architect sponsored by the SPAB to travel the length and breadth of the country learning ancient building crafts. Today 115 assorted architects, building surveyors and structural engineers have been through the SPAB Lethaby Scholarship. They make up the core of Britain’s leading building conservationists, such as Donald Insall who led the conservation work at Windsor Castle after the fire and Louise Bainbridge, the most recent scholar to be appointed Surveyor to the Fabric at an Anglican Cathedral.
1936 ~ A Georgian Group is established to meet the needs of Georgian buildings, the Group has now grown into an independent body with its own offices.
1939 ~ 1945 SPAB’s principal concern is the damage caused by Baedeker Bombing, air raids and subsequent vandalism. The Society despises hasty demolition of damaged buildings and asserts that most cathedrals and other buildings can be repaired. SPAB also hopes that planning and civic re-development will not ‘think in terms of a narrow utilitarianism.’ The Society asks that the RAF be sensitive to continental monuments during allied raids.
1944 ~ The Town and Country Planning Act introduced the listing of historic buildings on a national basis.
1947 ~ SPAB and others criticize proposals to erect a power station at Bankside, opposite St Pauls.
1951 ~ After the war, many skills seem in danger of extinction so the Society holds it first annual week long Repair Course for professionals. This is now CPD accredited and run twice yearly training up to 100 people in current building conservation practice.
1952 ~ John Betjeman joined the Main Committee.
1955 ~ With assistance from Country Life, the Threatened Buildings List was first published to find sympathetic owners for buildings in need. It is now issued quarterly, called the ‘Properties in Need of Repair and For Sale’ list and features about 700 – 800 buildings annually.
1968 ~ Town and Country Planning Act changed listing by emphasising need for preservation. SPAB became a formal consultee on all listed building applications affecting pre 1720 buildings. Today SPAB’s caseworkers see about 2,000 applications per year, with several hundred needing in depth negotiation and discussion.
1976 ~ The first SPAB Lime Day was held in Bristol. By now the SPAB had a body of technical knowledge on various ancient building materials and recognised the importance of lime. After near extinction in the ‘70’s there are now over 70 lime suppliers in the UK, thanks largely to SPAB championing the stuff. In 2002 the Society is running nine Lime Days around the country for builders.
1980 ~ With the fad for converting barns into domestic dwellings threatening to obliterate these magnificent buildings forever, SPAB members undertake a massive survey of the remaining ones. Thanks to lobbying and awareness raising by the Society, planning departments now try to encourage solutions for empty barns that don’t involve the insertion of endless doors, floors and windows into these rural gems.
1981 ~ SPAB News the glossy quarterly must-read for conservationists is launched.
1983 ~ The Society formalised its advisory service, with a conservation building surveyor taking telephone queries in the mornings. In 2000 the free technical advice line helped over 2,500 people and their old buildings.
1984 ~ The first weekend homeowners course, called An Introduction to the Repair of Old Buildings is held in London. Up to 350 people a year now attend these courses, run all over the country.
1987 ~ The first four William Morris Craft Fellows set out on a journey similar to that of the Scholars. The Society organises this course for young craftsmen to pass skills on from one generation to the next, to raise the status of craftsmen and to encourage dialogue and respect between trades and professions. 52 Craftsmen and craftswomen including thatchers, roofers, glaziers, stonemasons, plasters and flint knappers have now been awarded Fellowships.
1990 ~ John Betjeman Award for exemplary repairs to churches launched.
1993 ~ Philip Webb Award for Part II student architects, launched to encourage good quality new design and historic building repair.
2001 ~ 120 regular volunteers gave time to the SPAB and many more gave time sporadically. The Society employs 20 people, including several part-time specialists in Edinburgh, Yorkshire, London and Bristol.
2002 ~ Using mass media and its massive network of allies the SPAB celebrates its 125th anniversary with a number of events throughout the country to continue its battle to educate people that technically and aesthetically there is a right way to repair an old building.
2005 ~ February University Challenge
2006 ~ HLF funded Faith in Maintenance project begins