The Hall Affair resulted in the temporary halting of the demolition of The Hall, Gosport, Hampshire, England in January 1965 and marked a landmark change in attitudes towards conservation in post-war Britain. The events empowered ordinary people to take a stand against the senseless and relentless destruction of their heritage in the name of ‘modern development’ or ‘redevelopment’.
Gosport is a town situated on the west side of Portsmouth Harbour on England’s south coast. It has, since the 18th century, been the repository of large establishments connected to Portsmouth’s Royal Naval Dockyard, which were not able to be accommodated within the Dockyard or within the crowded City of Portsmouth which surrounds it. These establishments included the R.N. Armaments Depot of Priddy’s Hard, the Clarence victualling yard, Haslar Royal Naval hospital, HMS Dolphin submarine base and the Lee-on-Solent Fleet Air-Arm base. The town of Gosport was always destined to be a satellite of Portsmouth, with almost all its workforce working either in the town’s Naval establishments or in the Dockyard itself. In the 18th and 19th centuries the town was crowded with public houses and was set in elaborate fortifications protecting it from a landward attack.
During the Second World War the town miraculously escaped much of the destructive bombing of both Portsmouth City and Dockyard. Soon after the Town and Country Planning Act came into force in 1947, a large number of buildings in Gosport were listed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government as being ‘of architectural or historical interest’. The town was highly significant as a surviving Georgian seaport. However, in the early 1960s the politics of the town were dominated by a socialist Labour council which was determined to sweep away the old seaport and replace it all with a series of tall ‘system-built’ blocks of flats, inspired by seeing similar buildings on a junket to Moscow.
By 1965 the redevelopment of the town centre had included the demolition of picturesque groups of buildings at Clarence Square, Chapel Row and The Green – and in the path of the next phase of tower blocks was a little enclave to the east of Holy Trinity Church comprising, in the last moated ravelin of the town’s fortifications, the former military governor’s house (an 18th century building once visited by Jane Austen whose uncle had been Governor, and then in use as Holy Trinity’s vicarage) and The Hall, an imposing Regency house, built for a shipyard proprietor c. 1830, in yellow brick with a gallery and cupola designed to catch views of the open sea beyond the harbour. The Hall had been purchased by Gosport Borough Council, and had been used as offices for the Borough Engineer.
Born in 1948, Stephen Weeks – whose childhood was lived mainly in Portsmouth – was early on fascinated by the past. In 1959, aged 11, he became a member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies in London in order to pursue his then interest in Roman Britain. In 1960 he became the youngest member of the archaeological team under Barry Cunliffe which discovered then uncovered (over the next 2 years) Fishbourne Roman Palace, Chichester. At Fishbourne Weeks met a Cambridge student of architecture, Nicholas Taylor – who later wrote for the Architectural Review – who convinced Weeks that he should take in interest in threatened 18th and 19th century buildings – particularly as in 1962 Weeks’ family moved to Gosport, but not before he had identified a very important building in Portsmouth. In 1962 he found, buried in later construction, The King’s Storehouse – the store commissioned by King Henry VIII to store, amongst other things, the masts and tack of his new flagship, The Mary Rose. Weeks – and at 14 without any connections – tried unsuccessfully to fight its demolition by a neighbouring power station, which needed to extend its coal heaps. This was reported by ‘’Hampshire Magazine’’ in 1963. In filming the building, a demolition worker broke his nose.
Weeks discovered that no less than 56 ‘listed’ historic buildings had been demolished by Gosport Borough Council without Ministry permission since 1947, and he was determined that The Hall would not be the next. In the autumn of 1964 he sent a warning letter to the Mayor, which was duly ignored. At this time he was a pupil at Portsmouth Grammar School. However, Gosport Council took the precaution of starting the demolition of The Hall on a Sunday (January 3, 1965) when the town centre would be mostly deserted. The council did not know that Weeks attended Holy Trinity Church, so he immediately saw the roof of the building being broken up and timbers being burnt. Not confident that his schoolboy voice would carry any authority, he telephoned a sympathetic councillor in Portsmouth, who in turn phoned the mayor. In the call, the mayor confused the reference to the Ministry with the Minister himself, and immediately ordered the demolition to stop. By the early afternoon, the wreckers were called off.
The Ministry of Housing intervenes
Weeks decided to skip school the following day and took a train to London, determined to meet the Minister of Housing, Sir Duncan Sandys. He met with a very polite and intrigued Ministerial staff, and eventually he was able to state his case to the Senior Investigator of Ancient Monuments, Antony Dale. The Ministry at once phoned Gosport Council and officially ordered the demolition to cease. When Weeks arrived back to Portsmouth Harbour Station that evening, he saw newspaper placards already heralding him as the ‘Sixteen-year-old Schoolboy’ hero of the hour. The following Friday, Mr. Dale was shown not only The Hall by Weeks, but also the sites of the other buildings which had been illegally destroyed – as well as other buildings which were threatened by Gosport Council’s brave new world.
For several weeks this story was headline news – ‘’The Times’’ carried a piece under the headline ‘Youth Blocks Demolition by Council’.’’The New Daily’’: ‘Man versus the Machine. How helpless the individual so often feels in the face of the all powerful state machine!’ ‘’The Daily Telegraph’’ reported: ‘ Mr. Dale, who later met Gosport Council officials, said: ‘I can make no comment. I can only report to the Minister. I have never known a young lad with such a detailed knowledge of this kind…’ The boy said: ‘I have already had many letters from local people pledging their support to this campaign, but nothing from the Council. I am writing to the Town Clerk offering to address the Council: perhaps some kind of policy can be adopted to prevent further historic buildings disappearing.’ The next day ‘’The Sunday Telegraph’’ published a leader: ‘The boy who challenged his elders’ – followed by ‘’The Guardian’’ with a piece ‘Schoolboy’s Initiative’ by John Grigg.
It was clear that the partially demolished Hall, which was deteriorating rapidly, would be an impracticable proposition to restore. But, with the national spotlight turned on Gosport, the elegant Holy Trinity Vicarage was spared. ‘’The Portsmouth Evening News’’ understood the importance of what had happened: ‘Few tears are likely to be shed at Gosport or elsewhere should the partial demolition of the 150-year-old Hall be eventually completed. But the incident will have been worth every blush of embarrassment if a somewhat apathetic public is jerked into a realization of what can happen. All about us fine trees are being swathed, nature reserves eroded, familiar paths built over and every spark of interest or individuality threatened with extinction by the advancing tide of bricks and cement.’
Weeks appeared on TV (in one case ridiculing live the Mayor of Gosport, Councillor Coollie, who had come to Southern Television’s studios ill-prepared and unfortunately wearing his mayoral robes for a nearby function), and received letters from many parts of the world as the story spread. Sir John Betjeman, who up to that time had been the lone public voice of ‘preservation’, wrote to Weeks and they met. Later, Lord Kennet – the environmentalist Wayland Young – wrote up the case in his book on the early history of the preservation movement.
An amenity society in Tavistock Devon was formed, inspired by Weeks’ action. Most importantly, the matter of The Hall had given encouragement to thousands of other people who began to challenge that their historic environment should be destroyed ‘in the name of progress’. And because Weeks was young, it signalled that conservation wasn’t the preserve of the old and fuddy-duddy.
While the national battle may have been given impetus, his local battle was far from over. Gosport Council next made a concerted to demolish as much of old Gosport as it could before further listing of buildings took place. Included in this destruction was the first forge building of Henry Cort, the ironmaster whose twin inventions of the puddling furnace and the rolling mill fuelled the Industrial Revolution. Weeks identified a derelict building on The Green, Gosport, as Cort’s forge where puddling had been experimented. At Fontley Iron Mills, near Fareham, Hampshire, in the summer of 1964 Weeks and a schoolfriend conducted the first industrial archaeological excavation as they uncovered the site of Cort’s first rolling mill. In October 1965 Weeks appeared in the first TV programme ever made on Industrial Archaeology, ‘’What’s It All About?’’, made by the BBC. Despite this national coverage, stating that Gosport had a site of international significance on its hands, the Council demolished the building.
Gosport Council remained unrepentant throughout the fuore, continuing to describe its listed historic buildings as ‘eye-sores’, and over the next few years it demolished many more buildings which would have been listed (and protected) in the climate of a growing public appreciation of 18th and also 19th century architecture.
Weeks also tried in vain to save the Gilkicker, a unique 17th or 18th century triangular tower which was built as a navigational marker for ships at sea. Realising the value of publicity, Weeks was all prepared to scale the tower (it was solid), and camp on it in protest. But as Weeks admitted many years later: “I started to climb, but after about 30 feet I realized I had no head for heights! Rather embarrassed I abandoned my attempt. The beautiful structure of brick and stone was demolished.”
The wider aftermath
Weeks’ action with the Hall Affair was only one small piece in the large mosaic of changing attitudes to the conservation of Britain’s architecture. The Victorian Society had been founded in 1962, at a time when Victorian buildings were routinely demolished (as portrayed in the ground-breaking exhibitions at the Victorian & Albert museum, ‘’The Destruction of the Country House’’ in 1974, which showed that large, and mainly 19th century, country mansions were being demolished then at a rate of more than one a week, and ‘’Change and Decay – the Future of Churches’’ in 1977, which demonstrated that historic churches were at no lesser risk than mansions). The country, in 1965, was still reeling after the catastrophe of the demolition of the Euston Arch in London, the monumental portico of the world’s first capital city railway terminus. A bitter battle raged 1958-61 had failed to save it, even though almost every architectural specialist in the country – led by Sir John Betjeman – had spoken for it, only to be vetoed in the end by prime-minister Harold Macmillian. However, January 1965 was only three months in to prime-minister Harold Wilson’s new Labour government, promising a sea change in ideas. But the Hall Affair showed that direct action by an ordinary person could effect change, especially when a local authority was acting in a cavalier – and in the Gosport case, illegal – manner. It encouraged vigilance.
The Hall Affair highlighted the disconnect between democratically elected local authorities, concerned with commercial and political interests, and the spirit of the people, who wanted conservation and redevelopment on a more humane scale. It also highlighted the terrible damage inflicted on other historic towns – Poole, Worcester, Salisbury, Leek and many more – which was worse than that inflicated by German bombing in World War II. It wasn’t to be until the 1980s that conservationists began to permeate elected authorities, and for conservation to become a serious part of local authorities’ agendas. In the meantime, the Hall Affair certainly directly encouraged the establishment of several local amenity societies, and these then seeded many others. These organisations exist to keep local authorities in check, and now they play significant roles in planning applications. Also, membership of national conservation societies grew exponentially in the two decades which followed, including the National Trust, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society and the Civic Trust.
The Portsmouth councillor, Freddy Emery-Wallis, who had helped Weeks in 1965 went on to lead Hampshire County Council, which itself led the way in becoming an exemplary authority in its conservation and environmental policies and practice. However, the Borough of Gosport, despite being in Hampshire, remained steadfastly backward.
Stephen Weeks after The Hall
In 1971 Weeks rescued a church in Wiltshire, Highway, from demolition at the eleventh hour, to be converted into the first house under the then new Pastoral Measure. His ‘’Calendar of Redundant Churches’’ drawn and published by him in 1970 had focused attention on the plight of many closed churches.
In 1973, when Weeks was 25, he went on to buy and restore a 12th Century castle on the Welsh border, Penhow– which he ran with scholarship and imagination combined for many years. In 1991 Weeks set up a trust to preserve and find new uses for redundant British railway viaducts, 4 of which are now in use as Sustrans cycleways. In 2003 he moved to Prague, to focus on the plight of castles in the post-Communist Czech Republic. His exposure to the media over The Hall affair led to his being given a directorial assignment for Southern Television’s ‘’Day by Day’’ programme, announced in the national press as soon as January 12th 1965. His first cinema feature film, ‘’1917’’, was directed by him aged 20 in 1968. Today he mixes conservation, film and book projects. He is still campaigning. In the Czech Republic today he is concerned by the hundreds of closed churches there which have no future.
- The buildings of England – Hampshire / Gosport – Prof Niklaus Pevsner and David Lloyd, Penguin Books, 1967
- ’’Gosport From Old Photographs’’ – John Sadden, Amberley Publishing, Stroud 2012-10-24
- Monthly leaflet of Holy Trinity Church, Gosport – January 1965
- Archive of Fishbourne Roman Palace Museum, Chichester
- ’’Hampshire Magazine’’, article by Roger Mills, July 1963
- ‘’Portsmouth Evening News’’ – January 5th 1965
- ’’The Daily Telegraph’’ – January 9th 1965
- ’’The Times’’, London – January 7th 1965
- ’’The New Daily’’ – January 8th 1965
- ’’The Daily Telegraph’’ – January 8th 1965
- ’’The Sunday Telegraph’’ – January 10th 1965
- ’’The Guardian’’ – January 11th 1965
- ’’Portsmouth Evening News’’, leader – January 9th 1965
- ’’Preservation’’ – Wayland Kennet, Maurice Temple Smith, London 1972, pp 153-162
- TV programme: ‘’Industrial Archaeology, 1 – What’s it all about?’’ BBCtv 1965
- ’’Portsmouth Evening News’’, letter from a Councillor Graham Hewitt – January 9th 1965
- Archive of Portsmouth Grammar School, 2012
- ’’A Calendar of Redundant Churches 1971’’ – Stephen & Joelle Weeks, London 1970
- ’’Penhow Castle – Souvenir History and Guide’’ – Stephen Weeks, Penhow Castle Publications, Wales 1997
- ’’Opus Magazine’’ – Portsmouth Grammar School, Autumn 2012
- ’’The Daily Mirror’’ – January 12th 1965
- ’’Internet Movie Database’’ IMDB.com
- ’’Church Buildings – Their Future’’ – text by Stephen Weeks of lecture to Charles University Prague, Centre for Theoretical Studies, February 2009
- Portsmouth Evening News – January 5, 6, 9th, 11th, 12th, 15th, 20th 1965
- The Times, London – January 7, 1965
- The New Daily – January 8, 1965
- The Daily Telegraph – January 9, 1965
- The Sunday Telegraph – January 10, 1965
- The Guardian – January 11, 1965
- The Daily Mirror – January 12, 1965
- Hampshire Magazine, article by Roger Mills, July 1963
- Opus Magazine (Portsmouth Grammar School) Autumn 2012
- TV programme: ‘Industrial Archaeology, 1 – What’s it all about?’ BBC 1965
- ‘Preservation’ by Wayland Kennet, Temple Smith, London 1972 pp 153–162
- ‘The Buildings of England – Hampshire’ – Prof Pevsner & David Lloyd, Penguin Books 1967
- ‘Gosport From Old Photographs’ by John Sadden, Amberley Publishing, Stroud 2011
- ‘A Calendar of Redundant Churches 1971’ published by Stephen and Joelle Weeks, London 1970
- ‘Penhow Castle – Souvenir History & Guide’ by Stephen Weeks, Penhow Castle Publications, Wales 1997