Survey of London Monograph 3, Old Palace, Bromley-By-Bow. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1901.
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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.