AN INTRODUCTORY NOTE ON
THE FOLLY OF DESTROYING
THE OLD PALACE.
It is useless to cry over spilt milk, but if the destruction of what, in
a sense, was the finest building in East London did nothing else, it at
least awakened the public conscience and was the immediate cause
of the founding of the Committee for the Survey of the Memorials of
Greater London, under whose auspices this monograph, the third of the
series, is now presented.
The fairly complete record which we have already given perhaps makes
it needless here to go over the same ground again; it is to be assumed that
those who subscribe to the present volume will already have become
possessed of the former which this Committee prepared for the London
County Council, but in so important a building as the Old Palace there
was necessarily much that it was impossible to record in the limited
space at our disposal in the larger volume.
Mr. Godman's records of the old Palace, therefore, together with the interesting collection of drawings which he succeeded in making before
everything was cleared away, will give some idea of what was lost to
Greater London by this most shameless piece of destruction; but I would
like here to say a few words from the point of view not of the antiquarian,
but of the citizen who holds that national history expressed in the local
records of building is too sacred a thing to be lightly ignored by public
bodies; and who believes that the time has come for us to ask of those
whom we elect to manage our affairs, a more educated and enlightened
view in regard to what is still left to us. It is an axiom with the average
Englishman that he may do what he likes with his own;—one of the
sacred rights of private property, it would seem, is, that if you have anything beautiful you may destroy it. But this does not extend to public
property, nor is it a point of view that can be held by public bodies.
Mr. Godman has confined himself, therefore, to giving a concise description of a series of the pictures here following, some from drawings,
some from photographs made by members of the Survey Committee, and
some by the South Kensington Museum. Leaving these to tell their own
story I would here merely like to point out what might have been done
with a little enlightened action on the part of the London School Board.
We now have on the site of King James' Palace a well built Board School,
and by well built I mean of course built in accordance with all the ordinary regulations, sanitary, solid, grey, grim, and commonplace. What we
might have had with a little thought, and with no extra expense to the
rates, would have been an ideal Board school with a record of every period
of English history from the time of Henry VIII. as a daily object lesson
for the little citizens of Bromley, a school-house that contained panelling
of James I., carving of William III., the modelled plaster work of the
Scotch craftsmen of the early Jacobean time, rooms all the more gracious for the sumptuous additions of the later Stuarts, records of the time
of Queen Anne, fireplaces, overmantels, and panelling of the Georges,
Adam's work, and the black and white marble flooring laid down by the
rich merchants of wealthy Middlesex who lived in the Palace up to the
time of the expansion of London in the beginning of this century,—a
school-house to be proud of. When we see records of this kind at Eton,
at Marlborough, at Harrow, at Haileybury, we say how blessed are our
English public schools to have such a historic background for our sons
to grow up amongst. It perhaps does not occur to us that to the little
Board school child, who surely needs it much more than the sons of our
aristocracy or our bourgeoisie, such historic associations are infinitely
more necessary, more valuable, more refining. I know of few records at
any of our great public schools that would come up to what the London
School Board here destroyed, and I am sure there is not a public school
in England but would have been proud to have as its central building
the Old Palace of Bromley.
I shall be met no doubt with the argument that modern Board schools
have to be built according to certain regulations, and that these do not
admit of the modification of old or historic buildings. Possibly this may
be so, if it be, it is high time the Board devoted itself to getting those regulations altered. To urge them in this instance is mere excuse for want
of imagination. Even the notorious Board, now fortunately defunct, in
whose reign the old Palace was removed, had among its members several
gentlemen who were genuine educationalists, and no educationalist of
any repute would dare nowadays to dispute the value of historic record
and noble building.
It may be urged, and no doubt with some truth, that the majority of the
members of a body like to the London School Board are not educationalists and do not profess to be, that their object is to fulfil functions of a
financial character relating to the rates, and to see that certain laws with
regard to the teaching of children in a certain direction are carried out.
This argument does not go far. To admit that the having a noble schoolhouse is a wise objective for a School Board, as for a higher grade school,
is tantamount to admitting that the objective might in this instance
have been attained without any appreciable addition to the rates; all
difficulties of a structural or architectual nature in preserving a building
like the Old Palace as a nucleus, were quite easy to surmount.
The Board, in short, did not know what it was doing, it was in the hands
of advisers who were equally ignorant; it committed a foolish action and
has had to take the consequence. Like other public bodies that from time
to time have acted similarly, it has been pilloried for its folly. Meantime,
however, the Palace is lost to us.
C. R. ASHBEE.