An England That Might Have Been

Great Britain

‘We have chosen as targets the most beautiful places in England,’ said the German radio broadcasts on May 4th 1942. ‘Exeter was a jewel. We have destroyed it.’

Exeter was indeed an unusually beautiful Georgian city, because as its town planner said, ‘The character of the place depends less on its monuments than on the common run of its buildings.’ The vernacular warehouses and homes made Exeter special, not pompous architectural pieces. The RAF failed to jam guided German bombers heading for Exeter, and because the city was not of military importance it was defenceless. But its destruction wasn’t entirely down to the Luftwaffe. Town planners had been keen to get rid of the crowded Victorian streets for years. Bombing was often used as an excuse to remove troublesome buildings in the way of progress – the motor vehicle.

Something similar happened in Liverpool, once described as ‘the principal gateway from the West into Europe’. The mediaeval port had already been lost, but a combination of ignorant planning and bombing entirely removed many of the most astonishing baroque buildings that had remained from early Victorian times. The destruction of cities like Coventry, Hulls, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester took away their unique character, established in their founding and growth, and replaced it with standard commercial street layouts.

London was particularly transformed. The Pantheon in Oxford Street was removed in 1937 with a plan to re-erect it after refurbishment, but the war put paid to that plan. Paternoster Row, a street of bookshops where my father worked in his teens, ran behind St Paul’s and was entirely destroyed by firestorm because there was so much paper to to ignite.

Cities change, of course, but up until the Second World War the changes had taken place around the buildings and streets that were already there. Water, transport and railways had meant the loss of traditional urban layouts, and speculators followed in their wake. Cars and planes were the future – one plan shows a circular flyover built above busy King’s Cross on which planes were meant to land! And although ‘garden cities’ appeared on cleared land they were always mundane and devoid of any aesthetic grace.

German pilots had been involved in tit-for-tat bombing because of Churchill’s decision to bomb Germany. But they effectively put an end to the British architects’ worship of the appalling Le Corbusier, who had said that cities needed to be destroyed to ‘extricate them from their misery’.

What would it have taken to save the old cities of England? One answer is suggested by the Polish city of Gdansk, all but wiped out in bombing raids. Thanks to a complete set of city plans detailing every building, Gdansk was put back brick by brick as it had been, but with improvements to light, power and ventilation behind the facades. I walked around the town without realising it had ever been bombed.


This approach was frowned upon by British architects as a compromise, in the same way that Quinlan Terry became hated by a now-politicised architectural class who preferred brutalism over classicism. But Terry’s buildings were publicly adored because they gave a sense of continuity, and only recently has a brutalist building like London’s South Bank Centre started to become appreciated. The rebuilding of facades was accused of falsity, but the South Bank Centre could face exactly the same criticism; its back and sides are a blank wasteland. The truth is that England did not overly value its old buildings, and it took the war to make us realise that cities need protective legislation.

I would not want to see too many of our lost buildings restored – perhaps the overbearingly monumental Euston Arch (above) is best forgotten – but tearing down every damaged building for commercial gain was morally wrong. And for all the glitzy vulgarity of Mayor Johnson’s free-for-all skyscraper building era, a strong sense of vernacular London remains. I was walking down Gower Street last night when about fifty Chinese tourists gathered to take photographs. What, I wondered, were they looking at in their viewfinders? There was nothing there!

There was, of course; a very long unspoiled 18th century terrace complete on either side, not showy or particularly beautiful but I suppose oddly representative of London, the windows lit golden in the rain. Often it’s the things we don’t notice that need protecting.

And here’s a building in London that didn’t get bombed, a graceful facade of black and white tiles hiding a rather mundane hotel. I wandered past it yesterday in a backstreet just behind Oxford Street.

I am indebted to Gavin Stamp’s superb ‘Britain’s Lost Cities’ for this article.


16 comments on “An England That Might Have Been”

  1. DJS says:

    The top picture which the text suggests is Exeter, is not. It is more likely Bristol where Parry Bros Tobacconist was on the corner of High Street and Wine Street.

  2. DJS says:

    It should also be noted that your second image is of buildings that still exist in Exeter High Street, and not lost during the war. If you visit exeter memories website you will see what WAS lost during the 1942 exeter bombings, and not stuff that either never existed or survived.

  3. DJS says:

    I stand corrected, Chevalier House was destroyed in 180942, although there are very similar buildings still standing in the high street a few yard away from that site.

  4. davem says:

    Frankfurt was much the same with most of the old town bombed and decimated.

    It was rebuilt to the original plans and, in certain parts, such as around Romerberg, you would not realise that the buildings are post-WW2.

  5. Brooke says:

    Thought-provoking post. Deserves more attention and conversation,e.g. last photo suggests eastern influence on popular architectural style. Similar building sits on our Independence Square, site of historic colonial buildings and publishing businesses. My impression–we’re giving more attention to how our urban areas are developed–building and commons? Or am I just seeing too many urban planning gurus running their mouths?.

  6. Denise says:

    Decimated means 10 per cent!

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Decimated also comes from a Roman Army punishment to a Legion that had not followed orders or whose men had shown cowardice. They were put on parade in their ranks, and then, starting at one end, every tenth man would be killed. It was also perpetrated on civilians, by later armies.

  8. John Griffin says:

    Exeter (my family home) is a hotch-potch of remnants and concrete brutal. A new shopping centre has further contributed to the mess. My mother (just about) remembers the old city in its cluttered splendour. There are, like another brutalised city Nottingham, a couple of reminders of grace; the only redeeming features more or less are the Cathedral Green, the Mud Dock and the Iron Bridge. Tragedy.

  9. Adam says:

    @John Griffin – I was dismayed to find my old student haunts have gone (Artful Dodger, Jolly Porter, et al). However, Exeter is still one of my favourite cities, and (at least to an occasional visitor like me) has a defined sense of identity.

  10. Peter Tromans says:

    Strangely, the word decimated has long been used by mathematicians and engineers to mean chopped into many (not necessarily ten or factors of) pieces.

    As a non-Londoner, I’ve always appreciated Gower Street. The terraces are so pleasant and I’m already in a good mood from wherever I’ve visited, especially Dillon’s (Waterstones). As a non-Londoner, I’ve never appreciated the South Bank. Most of it is so awful that it manages to make the old Shell Centre offices look good.

    I think ‘motor car friendly’ was an excuse. Continental cities, Vienna, Frankfurt …, that were restored closer to pre-bombed seem more motor car friendly than London or most of the UK.

  11. admin says:

    The photographs are arranged more aesthetically than for their relevance to the closest paragraph, DJS – I know where they’re from because they’re not off the internet but from books I own.

  12. SimonB says:

    Funny thing, the Euston Arch is always held up as a classic example of vandalism by planners and usually with face-on shots that make it look graceful. From this angle I can suddenly see the appeal of not restoring it.

  13. Davem says:

    Historically, the meaning of the word decimate is ‘kill one in every ten of (a group of people)’.

    This sense has been more or less totally superseded by the later, more general sense ‘kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of’, as in the virus has decimated the population.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    My late father just missed the war, being called up early in 1946. After training, he was posted to Germany – he told me that Luneburg Heath was the coldest place he’d ever been – and he was sent to Cologne, which he said that the place was bombed flat, most of the people gone, with the Cathedral sitting like an exclamation mark. It was something he never forgot, and when I asked him what it felt like, there, he just said “Terribly lonely and sad”. If wartime footage was ever shown on TV, he would always say: “Terrible.” I think that he knew how badly London was bombed – his parents had moved to a little town (Ongar), which lies between Chelmsford and London, and was occasionally bombed due to it’s proximity to Chelmsford, where the Marconi Radio and Radar works were, and North Weald Aerodrome, and the important Epping Ongar radio station, but I think that seeing utter devastation in immediate post-war Europe horrified him. A lot of what he saw there he would never talk about.

  15. Roger says:

    “As Mr. Osbert Sitwell remarked at the time of the ‘Baedeker raids’—how simple-minded of the Germans to imagine that we British could be cowed by the destruction of our ancient monuments! As though any havoc of the German bombs could possibly equal the things we have done ourselves!” – George Orwell

    There was no “mediaeval port” in Liverpool. It rose to prominence via the slave trade in the eighteenth century.

    Years ago I used to wander round the city with a camera and binoculars in the period between Xmas and New Year when you could look at buildings peacefully. I gave it up when I was questioned three times by policemen who thought I was a terrorist or (unsoecified) criminal plotting something,

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Chris, readers assume (possibly wrongly) that illustrations belong to the nearby text. If this is not so then there should be explanatory captions, even though this may not be easy to do.
    I, too, like Gower St., or at least the part I saw.
    That top photo is actually of Bristol? Another city with masses of new builds, but if that building exists I would go far out of my way to see it.

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