COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

A statue of Queen Victoria on the clock tower in Ripon. (S)
A statue of Queen Victoria on the clock tower in Ripon. (S)

David explores the legacy of Victorian architecture in the present day.

We’re living in the age of the Victorians.

That might strike you as a very odd opening to a column. It is 111 years, and counting since Queen Victoria died and we entered the 20th century. Now here we are in the 21st. Think of the technological advances that have been made since then.

Anyone born in the very early 1900s was born into an age that did not know powered flight yet is likely to have lived to see men on the moon. It was an age when many illnesses were likely to be fatal and life expectancy was 45 for men and 49 for women. And 63 per cent of people died before the age of 60. Penicillin had not been discovered and other antibiotics were years away.

These statistics can be multiplied almost indefinitely, and for each we can say that today we have progressed far beyond the aspirations of our Victorian forebears. Yet, to repeat, we live in a Victorian age.

Walk around the streets of any town or city in the country – with the exception, of course, of the ‘new towns’ like Milton Keynes, Peterlee and Redditch – and you will be in what is essentially a Victorian landscape. Ah! You may say. What of historic places like Stamford or Ledbury, Lavenham or Bath? Surely they are not Victorian but much earlier.

Yes, many of the buildings that you see are from the 18th, the 17th or even the 16th centuries. Yet the vast majority were ‘restored’ in the 19th century (and some, of course, again in the 20th), so we are seeing them through a prism of 19th century taste and belief. No building ever remains exactly the same throughout its life, unless that life is a very short one and it is demolished a few years after it has been built. Buildings are repaired and adapted, whether through changes of ownership or of fashion. What suited one owner may prove troublesome to the next; new windows and doors would add more convenience, a change of roofline could help accommodate more servants, that former stable could make a nice coal shed.

So if we walk round Ripon, for example, we shall see many examples of how the 19th century treated our buildings, whether it’s just putting a new opening in a Georgian wall or refacing a whole building. And then, of course, the Victorians demolished and rebuilt, or expanded the city with new houses on the periphery. And even the city’s most iconic structure, the cathedral, is as much a Victorian building –thanks to thorough 19th-century restorations, particularly that of George Gilbert Scott from 1862 – as it is medieval.

So visually we have much of the Victorian age still around us. Yet our Victorianism goes deeper than that – sometimes literally. For beneath our feet, wherever we are but especially in our cities, towns and villages, we have a great Victorian legacy. In our 21st century comfort we forget that it is only thanks to our Victorian ancestors that we can rely (or usually rely, barring accidents and the effects of the passing of years) on the infrastructure that supports our lives.

Apologies if you’re reading this over your meal but first we must mention sewerage.In the 1840s that was a great debate, given more impetus when Parliament was affected in 1868 by the ‘Great Stink’ of the polluted Thames, that led direct to the great London sewerage scheme built under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette.

In Ripon the matter was discussed as early as the late 1840s but it was not until a little later in the century that the city council put a city-wide sewerage scheme into practice. These underground systems of pipes and drains and sewers, and the treatment works to which they were eventually linked, was a mammoth undertaking – but also a vital one if the health and living conditions of the people were to be improved. As Asa Briggs in Victorian Cities wrote, it was “one of the biggest technical and social achievements of the age”.

Piped water to all houses was also a Victorian initiative, though it took somewhat longer to become standard. Although it had already begun in a small way, the provision of gas for lighting and, later, cooking, was also taken up strongly by the Victorians. By the late 19th century every city and town – and many villages and country estates – had their own gas works. The site of Ripon’s, on Stonebridgegate, is still visible – and still empty.

Railways, of course, were pre-eminently a Victorian status symbol and had a huge effect on the mobility of the population as well as on the growth of cities. Dr Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School, said that the railways were responsible for “destroying feudality for ever” by giving people the chance to take their labour elsewhere – mostly to the centres of large and growing cities. That the 20th century reversed this trend because of ubiquity of the motorcar may yet prove one of its worst errors.

Less tangible but no less important reminders of our Victorianism are to be found in some of our institutions. We take it as vital that our children go to school – yet it was only in the 19th century that schooling became compulsory. And the basis of our local government, imperfect as we may think it, was really set up by successive acts of Parliament in the time of Queen Victoria.

However much you think of yourself as living in an exciting modern world, you are essentially an inheritor of the foresight of Victorian ancestors. So next time you pass Queen Victoria sitting in state on Ripon’s clock tower, give her and her subjects a salute. They deserve it!