Caring & conserving

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings

History of buildings

Matthew Saunders By Matthew Saunders Published 11 December, 2012

Matthew Saunders is Secretary of the Ancient Monuments Society and Hon. Director of the Friends of Friendless Churches

Know Your Building

The History of Architecture is an enormous, if richly interesting, subject and here we can only give signposts.

Historic buildings tend to be divided into “vernacular” and “polite”.

Vernacular structures are those which have been constructed as part of a folk tradition, whether by the occupier or craftsmen (itinerant or local), and nearly always using indigenous materials with construction by hand or handheld tool not machine. They can be highly sophisticated as in the great timber framed tradition and they vary and develop with time but they are not driven by the dictates of taste. They have been called “architecture without architects” and, by definition, are pre-19th century, after which time mechanisation came to dominate.

Polite design on the other hand nearly always needs an architect or literate builder, whether for a cathedral, Georgian country house or Victorian Town Hall. Style is the great influence and, speaking very simplistically, the two principal schools have been Gothic, the medieval language based on the pointed arch, which enjoyed revivals in the 18th and 19th century, and Classical, the language of the Temple taken from ancient Greece and Rome, introduced into Britain from the 16th century. In the 20th century some Modernist designers attempted to dispense with style altogether.

Many thousands of other structures and buildings, for example those built for the various transport systems or to serve industry, such as viaducts, windmills, factories or mills, have been constructed as part of “The Functional Tradition” – designed to meet need, rather than for display, but still very often with architectural character and occasionally panache. All of this is loosely called “Industrial Archaeology” and the key coordinators are The Council for British Archaeology and The Association for Industrial Archaeology

With all buildings a good starting point to learn more is the National Heritage List for England and the Listed Building Search facility operated by Historic Scotland There is no officially approved equivalent in Wales. The website at “British Listed Buildings” is useful but is not compiled by the State agencies and the provision of listing descriptions is not comprehensive. By definition these websites only cover structures that are already listed (and, in England’s case, scheduled).

The locally-maintained Historic Environment Records, formerly known as Sites and Monuments Records, will go beyond protected structures to give you a broader coverage – but they vary in quality and the degree to which they are updated. The Heritage Gateway website gives hyperlink access to all English examples. Your Local History Library can be very useful and should give you direct access to primary material such as paper records and books. Similarly the local Record Office, normally run by the County Council, will have much, often precious, material including title deeds, estate papers, tithe maps and the archives of builders and architectural practices. will tell you where you can find your local one. Remember that there are rules to be observed – the taking of pencils only, not pens, into the searchrooms and the wearing of cotton gloves for handling photos these will be provided.

The best guide to the buildings of a given county are the “Buildings of England”, “Buildings of Wales” and “Buildings of Scotland”, known as “Pevsners” after the great German-born academic who first began to compile them in 1951. There are first editions for all English and Welsh counties and Scotland is about to be completed. Nearly all English counties now have greatly expanded revised editions. Michael Goode has compiled an index which includes nearly all of the volumes. However the Pevsner volumes cover only “polite” architecture and avoid virtually all mention of moveable contents or fittings.

The Victoria County History, started in 1899, is slowly  embracing the whole country, parish by parish, and the more recent volumes are especially impressive in their coverage of historic buildings, including information on occupants that is almost entirely lacking in the Pevsners. “VCH Explore” on the website gives you free online access to a vast amount of material including maps and audiofiles. The capital benefits from the magisterial “Survey of London” volumes, all of which, with the exception of the most recent volume, are now available online

The leading national societies, geared to study rather than direct conservation campaigning, all of which have major annual publications, are the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, The Society of Antiquaries, founded in 1717, The Royal Archaeological Institute and the British Archaeological Association ( )

The greatest architectural library in the world, that operated by the Royal Institute of British Architects and now known as The British Architectural Library at 66 Portland Place London W.1. used to levy swingeing charges for outside users. However since 2008 entry to see its 4m items has been free. Much associated photographic information is also available on . Its collection of architectural drawings, again without rival in the world, is now housed at the V and A, where it is open to visits. All the RIBA collections are searchable through an online catalogue.

“Historic England Archives” ( is the new generic term for a huge variety of material, text and photos, including those formerly termed The National Monuments Record, now accessible online. The equivalent in Wales is available at and that for Scotland at (although in both countries there are moves, in 2012, to merge the Royal Commissions with Cadw and Historic Scotland, respectively).

Much research is commissioned by Local History societies and you can find the relevant one for you through


To learn more about vernacular structures you will find that much ongoing research is being carried out by your local archaeological society. The Council for British Archaeology publishes a comprehensive list of such organisations on Many issue regular journals. National coverage is given by The Vernacular Architecture Group

Vernacular is easier to move than polite architecture and you can learn much from the various open air musems where threatened buildings have been resited and opened to the public. The best known are the Weald and Downland, near Chichester, Avoncroft near Bromsgrove, that for the Chilterns, Beamish in Co Durham and St Fagans at Llandaff near Cardiff.

Vernacular structures are as likely to be dated by counting the tree rings of timber through dendrocronology and noting jointing patterns as by documentary evidence.

Know Your Designer

The online catalogue of the RIBA will tell you whether there is an article or book on the architect or artist you are trying to pin down. The biographies in Wikipedia will have their uses but are variable.

There are invaluable published compendia as follows but only the last two are available online.

“English Medieval Architects: a Biographical Dictionary down to 1550” by John Harvey (substantially revised 1984)

“A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840”, by Sir Howard Colvin, last revised in 2008

“Directory of British Architects 1834-1900”,  published by The British Architectural Library and Mansell in 1993 (not very satisfactory in that it omits most of the executed works)

“Edwardian Architecture: A Biographical Dictionary” by A Stuart Gray, issued 1985

“A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland 1500-1830”, edited by Skempton et al, 2002.

There are also excellent regional biographical dictionaries covering Reading (Sidney Gold 1999), Suffolk (Brown, Haward, Kindred 1991) Wiltshire (Wiltshire Building Record) and an ongoing one for Derby compiled by Derby Civic Society in successive editions of their newsletter. The Victorian Society has published largescale books on the architects of Leeds and Birmingham respectively.

The Dictionary of Scottish Architects is available online. It covers non-Scots who worked north of the border and Scots who worked in England and Wales.

Also available online, from 2011 is "The Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851" and, from 2009, a comprehensive study of sculptors and related businesses in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951

A very small number of architects – Voysey, Alexander “Greek” Thomson. Pugin, Sylvanus Trevail (in Cornwall) and the stained glass artist, C.E.Kempe - have their own dedicated societies to keep the flame flying. Some counties have organisations of established authority like the Devon Buildings Group (and its counterpart in Cornwall).

Know Your Building Type

The information on Churches and Houses is so extensive as to defy any sort of summary. But for more concentrated building types the following are the most authoritative guides or sources.

Almshouses – “Almshouses. A Social and Architectural History” by Brian Howson, 2008

Banks – “Temples of Mammon. The Architecture of Banking” by John Booker, Edinburgh University Press 1990

Barracks – “British Barracks 1600 – 1914” by James Douet, English Heritage 1998

Catholic Churches –  “ A Glimpse of Heaven” by Christopher Martin, reissued in paperback by English Heritage, 2012

Chapels – the 4 volumes of “Noncomformist Chapels and Meeting Houses” published over a number of years by RCHME

Cinemas – “Cinemas in Britain” by Richard Gray, Lund Humphries in association with Cinema Theatre Association, 2012

Farmsteads – and “The English Model Farm” by Susanna Wade Martins, Windgather Press, 2002

Icehouses – “The Icehouses of Britain” by Beamon and Roaf, University of Chicago Press 1990. with a catalogue of all known examples

Lodges – “Trumpet at the Distant Gate. The Lodge as Prelude to the Country House” by Mowl and Earnshaw, Waterstone’s  1984

Market Hall – “The British Market Hall. A Social and Architectural History” by Schmechen and Carls, Yale University Press, 1999

Masonic Halls – 3 volumes on “Masonic Halls of England” wriiten by Rev N.B.Cryer, published by Lewis Masonic, 1989

Mausolea – the newsletters and database of the Monuments and Mausolea Trust

Piers – the publications of the National Piers Society

Post Offices – “Built for Service. Post Office Architecture” by Julian Osley, published by British Postal Museum, 2011

Public Houses – “Licensed to Sell. The History and Heritage of the Public House” by Geoff Brandwood, published by English Heritage, 2011 (building on an earlier major work by Mark Girouard)

Public Sculpture and Statues –

Schools – “England’s Schools : History, Architecture and Adaptation” by Elain Harwood, English Heritage 2010, building on earlier works by Malcolm Seaborne and Nicholas Orme

Shops – “Shops and Shopping” by Kathryn Morrison, Yale University Press, 2003

Swimming Pools – “Great Lengths- the Swimming Pools of Britain” by Gordon and Inglis

Synagogues – “Jewish Heritage in England”, by English Heritage 2006 and “The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland”,  Yale University Press and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2011

Theatres – see Theatres Trust database

(Decorative) Tiles, secular and ecclesiastical – to access The Tile Gazeteer