HL Deb 07 March 1962 vol 237 cc1150-5

2.39 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to prevent the destruction of the Coal Exchange.]


My Lords, part of the site occupied by the Coal Exchange is required for the improvement of Lower Thames Street for the major new traffic route from Blackfriars to the East End which is now under construction. Possible ways of retaining this important and interesting building have been most thoroughly investigated since 1958. In April, 1961, three fresh schemes were put forward and while they were being examined the Corporation agreed not to demolish the building. However, my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government recently decided, after further and detailed consultation with the Corporation of London and the London County Council, that he could not reasonably ask for the adoption of any of these schemes. He has accordingly released the Corporation from their undertaking to defer demolition of the building.


My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the beautiful interior of this building is of the greatest architectural and historical interest; that it is indeed unique, and that its destruction would not be allowed in any other civilised country? Does he know that the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, has devised a perfectly practicable scheme for saving everything essential at an estimated cost of £125,000? If, in these circumstances, the Court of Common Council decide on demolition, will their vandalism not injure the credit and reputation of the City of London at home and abroad?


My Lords, I hope I can remember all the questions which my noble friend has put to me. In answer to his first supplementary, I would say that the Government, at any rate, fully recognise the importance of this particular building, with its very great historical and architectural interest. It is precisely because of that that all possibilities which might have avoided the demolition of this building have been so very carefully examined. In answer to my noble friend's second supplementary question, I would assure him that we are perfectly well aware of the scheme of the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. In answer to his third supplementary question, I would only say that that is now a matter for the City Corporation.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend, arising out of his reply, whether he could give the House the further information that I was able to acquire by contacting the surveyor of the City Corporation this morning and by visiting the site also this morning? Is it not a fact that the access is quite out of date? The only entrance to the building is on a corner. The only entrance to the offices on the ground floor and on the first floor is by a circular stone staircase; and for getting up to the second, third and fourth storeys the only access is from the first floor by angular iron staircases. Is he not further aware that the office accommodation is entirely a question of dark cubbyholes with little stairways, thoroughly out of date with anything any of us have seen in the way of modern offices? As my noble friend Lord Conesford was allowed four questions, I beg the indulgence of the House to say two more words on the matter about which I took this trouble this morning. If the cultural uses which are being suggested here were found for this building, would not the smell of fish from Billingsgate Market immediately opposite be as objectionable as it would be in the concert auditorium provided for us—I do not see the noble Lord in his place—by the person once inadvertently referred to as "Lord Festival"?


My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his researches and I am sure that the information which he has brought to your Lordships' attention is, broadly speaking, accurate. I would also confirm what my noble friend has said about the inside of the building at present. This is one of the difficulties in obtaining any alternative use for the building.


My Lords, have the views of the Royal Fine Art Commission been sought on this question and, if so, could we know what they are?


My Lords, I understand that the Royal Fine Art Commission have commented and that they were very anxious to avoid the demolition of the building, if possible. Failing that, they were anxious that a full record, photographic and otherwise, of the building should be preserved and that the interesting Victorian ironwork in the inside of the building should be presented to a museum. I assure the noble Lord that if the building is demolished, full records of it will be preserved and it is hoped to find a home for its ironwork.


My Lords, may I ask how Her Majesty's Government came to the conclusion, as stated in the OFFICIAL REPORT, that under the Mottistone scheme for preserving the Coal Exchange its external appearance would be greatly altered and that the problem would be aggravated by an irrecoverable loss of overall accommodation, without consulting the author of the plan since he first put it forward in outline, when it was declared to be workable?


My Lords, the information was obtained from the London County Council and from the City Corporation. It is my understanding that the noble Lord's scheme would involve the pulling down of the façade of the building facing Lower Thames Street and its re-erection ten feet further back, and the addition of an arcade. I would suggest to the noble Lord that, if you pull something down and put it up in a different place, you are changing its appearance.


My Lords, may I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether Her Majesty's Government realise the greatly increased interest in Victorian architecture and the growing view that many fine buildings were erected at that time, some of them masterpieces? Do Her Majesty's Government realise how great is the concern that, first of all, the Euston Arch should be demolished, in spite of the protests from all those most qualified to express a view about its architectural importance; that now the Corn Exchange is going, and that, in the evening papers yesterday, we now hear that the Shot Tower, which has come to be regarded as an important and, I may say, a much beloved landmark in London, is also to be demolished? Are Her Majesty's Government prepared to do something to preserve the great monuments erected in the nineteenth century, which are coming to be regarded with every year that passes as of greater importance?


My Lords, I am afraid that I have not "mugged up" the Shot Tower as yet, but I would assure my noble friend that we are well aware of the growing interest in Victoriana.


My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that, although prob- ably the Government cannot help themselves on this matter, except by encouragement, there would be a great deal of sympathy throughout the country among people interested in these things if the City Corporation could see their way to do something to preserve this building?


My Lords, I am sure that the City Corporation will take due note of my noble friend's observations.


My Lords, can the noble Earl say how the Government and those responsible for these things draw the line between buildings which are called out of date and those which are referred to as "ancient monuments"?


Jolly high.


My Lords, as this scheme would take a good many years, at least ten, may I ask whether there could not be some delay while more research went on into the question? Many people consider the building to be of unique importance, and surely the Government would agree that it would be unnecessary and deplorable vandalism to pull it down without more thorough research?


My Lords, I assure the noble Earl that this matter has been very fully looked into and very many possibilities have been examined. The City Corporation have been deferring demolition for five years already. I would also inform the noble Earl that the road-widening scheme is due to reach this particular site by 1964.


My Lords, can the noble Earl give any specific reassurance about Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, both of which are frightfully old-fashioned?


My Lords, I think that neither of those two buildings is Victorian.


My Lords, can the noble Earl tell us whether, in the deplorable event of the demolition of the Coal Exchange, the very important Roman remains which are in the basement of that building will be preserved; and whether, at the same time, the public will be able to enter and inspect them?


My Lords, I am afraid I do not know the answer to that question, but I will certainly see that the noble Lord's observation is brought to the attention of the City Corporation before they consider this building at their meeting to-morrow. I would agree entirely about the importance of what I think is called the hypocaust.


My Lords, if the City of London should find themselves unable to raise the sum of £125,000 in order to save one of their unique treasures, is the noble Earl aware that an Amenity Society will do their best to raise a fund to relieve them of their humiliating poverty and to save this building?


My Lords, if there is so much interest in a matter of this kind that it warrants reading out prepared supplementary questions, would it not be desirable for the Government to give a day or half a day to a debate on this subject rather than to deal with it in this way?