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Considerations on Replica Ruins

By Andrew Stevens.

The structure had called my attention on several occasions. On walks through the Snaresbrook suburb in which it sat I would often peer through the locked gates and contemplate its use and history. It was not, as one local account had suggested, a disused cattle shed, but of a more residential character, albeit as a ruin. However, on one such occasion a laminated yellow planning notice skittered in the breeze, mounted by the council planning department and declaring the landowner’s intentions to seek permission to develop the site. It gave the address as ‘Forest Lawn’, which would later provide more clues towards its real identity and purpose.

To the passer-by, the site is a parcel of sylvan land on the edge of Epping Forest, bounded by Hollybush Hill in Snaresbrook. The houses on Hollybush Hill are all large detached interwar residences with several, mostly, sports cars on the drive, though one solitary derelict house remains in a boarded-up state. Christopher Hibbert’s London Encylopaedia notes that the area largely consists of the “villas of City gentlemen”. The road serves Snaresbrook Crown Court, Europe’s busiest judicial facility, and nearby is the Eagle pub, now a popular carvery but once the Spread Eagle coaching inn on the London to Newmarket road. An 18th century obelisk believed to be the ‘Leyton-Atte-Stone’, from which the neighbouring and decidedly shabbier area in which I live derives its name, is situated on the approach. The pub now acts as a focal point for those interested in the drinking habits of the former local MP and putative Duke of London, Winston Churchill, while the court has since become more associated with the tabloid excesses of such famous defendants as Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty. In 2012 it was reported in the national press that a disgruntled employee of the outsourced catering firm serving the court had laced the judges’ food with urine in a suspected act of malice against the criminal justice system.

The court building had been designed by architects Sir George Gilbert Scott and W.B. Moffatt, an early commission for the prolific workhouse and church-builders, in the mock Elizabethan Jacobean style. Gilbert Scott and Moffatt had worked from 20 Spring Gardens, since home to, at various stages, the London County Council, the headquarters of the British Council and the Trafalgar Hotel. Their commission was for an Infant Orphan Asylum, opened by King Leopold I of Belgium in 1843, matchmaker of Victoria and Albert and mentor to the young queen, to house the charitable institution sponsored by the social reformer Dr Andrew Reed, aimed at providing an Anglican education for children of respectable families, before its eventual closure and judicial appropriation in 1971.

Attached to the school was Forest Lawn, also of Gilbert Scott and presented in the similar ‘Jacobethan’ style, built as an ancillary building to the infant orphan asylum to house the school’s chaplain. The 1881 census records the inhabitants as the chaplain William Norman, his wife, daughter, three sons, seven child boarders, a visitor and four domestic servants, while in 1891 only Norman, his wife, daughter, one son and three servants remained. Several entries exist in the London Gazette for the purpose of land registry and probate, the last of which was the death of school chaplain Arnold Wilkinson on August 13 1963. The building became the school headmaster’s house, as the infant orphan asylum was renamed the Royal Wanstead School in 1938.

On our visit, as had happened previously, we did not see Gilbert Scott’s house, only the fenced-off ruin. My enquiries to the council planning department at the town hall had produced a stack of documents associated with the planning application, including a full history of the building and associated points of planning law related to this.

The ruin had been caused by near-destruction of the house by fire in 1974, after which only parts of the ground level remained. As the land was separated from the court buildings by a metal palisade fence and a freehold existed separate to that of the Crown, subsequent development had been denied on several occasions by the council, though the house itself had in fact been converted to two flats in 1946 on account of permission granted by the council’s predecessor, an urban district of Essex rather than London. It had since become part of the Metropolitan Green Belt and a conservation area designated in 1970. Its proximity to Epping Forest would also prove a material factor in the landowner’s plans for redevelopment and enabled our access, via bushes to the rear, to the fenced-off site.

The forest, in a typically Victorian civic gesture, had been protected from enclosure by profiteering landlords of the minor gentry by the Epping Forest Act of 1878, which placed it under the stewardship of the City of London Corporation for public benefit and enjoyment. The corporation itself had been described by John Stuart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government as “a union of modern jobbery and antiquated foppery”, a charge which in the intervening 150 or so years it had done little to diminish, as shown by the short-lived Occupy protests of 2011. A recent attempt to elect a group of reformist candidates to the Common Council of the corporation had also fallen flat, though two had managed to secure election to the body, which has existed since the 12th century.

The corporation had statutory consultation rights under the scheme, but an official confirmed by email that it had no objection to any of the proposed works. My own recent dealings with the corporation had been limited to reporting on an address in the Guildhall by the Japanese prime minister, who had tried to convince the audience that his own brand of Big Bang regulatory reform in the vein of Thatcherism would reboot his country’s economy after two decades of slump. In the reception that followed I met a young American who was somewhat evasive about his employment and a bald bespectacled official from the City Remembrancer’s office who seemed perturbed at my level of knowledge about the corporation’s workings, before making his excuses and introducing himself to a group of dark-suited Japanese diplomats.

The remnant dwelling on Forest Lawn is acknowledged as a Gilbert Scott design, though the heritage consultant employed by the landowner as part of his efforts to develop the site had concluded from Scott’s posthumously published writings that it is probable that Moffatt was responsible for the less decorative elements, such as the layout. Their partnership was dissolved a mere two years after the 1843 opening of the infant orphan asylum. Scott’s ostentatious design for the house features flourishes such as ogee-shaped ‘Dutch’ gables and two tall chimney stacks, placing it in the same style as the neighbouring court buildings, but not the neighbourhood overall. This is at odds with Scott’s career history and reputation of the ‘Middle-pointed’ Gothic style with which he is most associated, such as the Midland Grand Hotel at St. Pancras and the Albert Memorial, which gives it some idiosyncratic value as an architectural curiosity.

There are no surviving drawings or photographs of the house in its designed state, other than the drawings provided by local firm Tooley & Foster for the 1946 conversion, which provide a good indication of its form and appearance.

On our visit the planning notice on the gate issued September 4 2013 stated that the landowner was seeking the council’s permission to “Demolish remains of existing building. Erection of new five bedroom dwelling with associated landscaping and a separate garage block comprising of a garden store, bin and bike store.” The documents I had obtained showed that the landowners had been frustrated in their efforts to develop the site on account of the council’s objections, beginning in 1982 with proposals for a riding school and several other larger housing schemes at intervening years until 2008.

The council’s principal objection had been that any new house built would contravene both the Green Belt and conservation area designations and that alternative uses for the land had not been explored, such as camping and caravanning, war-gaming and paintballing, markets, Christmas tree sales, allotments and grazing for animals. The owners had attempted to market the site through advertisements in publications such as Estates Gazette, Farmers Weekly, Horse and Hound and Practical Caravan, with over 100 expressions of interest received, all of which soon evaporated when informed the site had no planning permission. The council was particularly aggrieved that the owner had not made any effort to market the site for any of the suggested alternative uses, though the necessary upfront cost of demolishing the ruin and the relatively low future return meant it was not economically viable in any case.

Stood on the one hectare or so site, it remained hard to imagine any meaningful kind of paintball or war game being played. The government’s Planning Inspector also agreed with our on the spot assessment, as the frustrated landowner had eventually asked the central government to over-rule the council’s 2008 decision. The inspector and central government issued their instruction in August 2010, directing the council to approve any application, provided the plans conformed to “an erection of a replica Victorian house, in an Elizabethan/Jacobean style as originally designed for the site by Sir George Gilbert Scott”.

Andrew Stevens is Cities Editor of 3:AM and lives in London, where he works as a researcher.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 8th, 2013.