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When Marcus Binney first clapped eyes on Calke Abbey in 1978 it was one of the most unknown and inaccessible country houses in England, and one of the very few never to have been featured in Country Life. This obscurity however was not destined to last; Calke was soon to be catapulted into a national debate.
In 1982, Calke with all its contents, it park and enough land to endow it had been offered by the owner, Mr Henry Harper-Crewe, to the nation in settlement of some £8M transfer tax. It was hoped that the government would accept the whole package and hand it to the National Trust. After lengthy negotiations the treasury finally agreed to accept the house, its contents and the surrounding parkland but not the endowment. Without this endowment the National Trust could not accept the house.
It seems hard to imagine now that the National Trust's country house scheme had not started until 1936 and that in 1939 they had only one great house. In the 25 years after the Second World War the system of accepting great houses in lieu of death duties bought the National Trust many of its finest country houses.It would be hard to over estimate the important contribution to the nations heritage that these houses make. Yet no houses had been accepted through the in-lieu process in England since 1977 and Scotland since 1978 and since then there had been the break up of a series of great country house collections.
One of the problems in making the case for Calke Abbey was that it was so unknown. This was soon to be remedied as in the summer of 1983 Mr Harper-Crewe agreed to a series of articles in County Life and a photographer, Alex Starkey, was sent off to the house and quickly built up quite a comprehensive record of it. By a piece of luck Howard Colvin, author of the Dictionary of British Architects,had been piecing together the history of the house and agreed to write three scholarly articles in a very short time. Marcus Binney was able to alter the country house schedule for Country Life and print the first of these on the 20 October 1983 and the next two in the following weeks. Calke was no-longer unknown but its future was getting gloomier and Colvin conclude his articles with the words "unless fiscal policy can be induced to bow to public opinion, these articles are likely to be Calke's obituary and these photographs its principal record".
Calke abbey was in a Catch 22 situation, the government while accepting the heritage value would not make it possible for it to be accepted. SAVE saw the immediate need to mobilise public opinion and set out to achieve this through a lightening leaflet This magical house must be saved intact. Now! which was issued on 21 November. Large numbers were sent to Members of Parliament and to peers as well as to SAVE supporters encouraging them to write to the Secretary of State for the Environment championing Calke's cause. On the same day Lord Gibson launched a correspondence in The Times forcibly setting out the Trust's desire to save the house. This was followed by a letter from a conservative MP Challenging Lord Gibson's plea and another rebuff came in Question Time when the government had restated that they would not accept the land in lieu of tax.
There followed a further flurry of press activity with The Times publishing a leader championing the cause of Calke on the 9 December with the clear message that "…Calke Abbey is without question worth preserving intact.".
The Government remained unmoved but over Christmas and the new year, a time when the press are traditionally thirsty for news, the coverage grew including a lengthy piece on the Channel 4 news just before Christmas and prominent feature articles in the Guardian, The Times and The New Standard.
The Outlook began to brighten. Lord Montague, chairman of the new Historic Buildings and Monuments commission was taking an interest and the Heritage Fund issued a press release announcing their meeting entitled "Calke Abbey - Towards a solution". The statement issued after this meeting on the 10 January was even more encouraging. The Department of the Environment had agreed to look again at the extent of the 'heritage land' surrounding the house which they might accept in lieu of capital tax. Meanwhile the National Trust, with the help of anonymous benefactors was hoping to come forward with a financial contribution and the Harper-Crewe trustees were examining ways in which they could help to bridge the gap.
Everything went silent for two months and there was little anyone could do until the middle of march when a decision was expected. Then on the 4 March Lord Vaizey, a member of the parliamentary Heritage Group launched a counter attack in The Times Decrying Calke Abbey and asserting that is was filled with junk. This was swiftly answered the following Sunday by Howard Colvin who extolled the value of the collection at Calke which amongst other things contained Bronze age swords and eighteenth century Chinese silk hangings in mint condition.
By this time however a decision must have been made one way or another. On Tuesday 13 March 1984 the new chancellor, Mr Nigel Lawson, in his first budget speech announced the Government was providing the National Heritage Memorial Fund with additional funding to save Calke Abbey. This unprecedented singling out of a particular building was a spectacular triumph for SAVE who had demonstrated how the force of public opinion could be used to save fine historic buildings.
More information on Calke Abbey can be found on the National Trust site.
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