Heritage body demands an urgent change to conservation law as Bristol Jacobean ceiling is vandalised by developers

The destruction of an irreplaceable Jacobean ceiling at a former merchant’s house in Bristol ear-marked for development has highlighted a failing in English conservation law. If 15 Small Street, the 17th-century property at the heart of this shocking act of vandalism, was located just 17 miles to the west in Wales it would have been protected.

Britain’s oldest conservation body, SPAB (The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), is demanding an urgent change to English heritage protection legislation to ensure that these kinds of deliberate and irreversible acts of destruction of rare and precious works of architecture and design cannot happen again.

SPAB calls for English government to follow the example set by Wales where the Interim Protection that could have saved the Bristol ceiling applies.

Listed buildings are given special protection by law. Crucially, in Wales any building being considered for listing is granted the same protection as if it was actually listed whilst the decision to list the building or not is occurring. This is called Interim Protection and was introduced in the Historic Environment (Wales) Act 2016.

Despite its age and the rarity of the surviving ceiling, 15 Small Street was not listed when, in June, proposals were submitted to Bristol City Council to convert the building into 5 student flats. However, the discovery of the remarkable ceiling prompted a request to Historic England for spot-listing of the building. This request was still under consideration at the time of the destruction.

Even if Historic England had decided against listing, the intervening period of interim protection would have allowed Bristol City’s Council’s conservation team to negotiate on the proposals for the building to ensure the ceiling and special interest of the property could be protected while allowing the developers to achieve their plans.

To date, despite lobbying by the SPAB and other heritage bodies, the Government has failed to introduce this important and necessary measure to protect buildings in England. Welsh legislation is now more progressive and robust and the Government must answer why interim protection is conceivable in Wales, but not in England.

Interim Protection could have saved a Jacobean masterpiece, which is now lost forever. Once our built heritage is destroyed it cannot be replaced or replicated.

SPAB director, Matthew Slocombe says:

“An ornamental Jacobean plaster ceiling is a rare and precious thing.  Unlike some later plasterwork, it is not mechanically produced but a hand-modelled work of art, distinct to the craftsmen involved and the area in which they worked.”

15 Small Street has early 17th century origins and stands at the centre of Bristol’s medieval core. It is one of the few buildings on Small Street that retains 17th century fabric, primarily in the form of a rear parlour block which included the plasterwork Jacobean ceiling and vaulted cellars. The parlour, built by prominent city merchant Humphrey Brown in the 1620s, would have been the house’s principal entertaining space. Until 30 August 2017 a ribbed plaster ceiling of geometric design with pendants, a moulded cornice and a decorative frieze from the 1620 decorative scheme survived.

Emma Lawrence, SPAB’s Head of Casework says:

“This kind of destruction in anticipation of listing is not new and it happens across the UK. Perhaps the most notorious case of this kind of unnecessary loss is that of the Art Deco Firestone Tyre Factory which was demolished in 1980 in anticipation of being listed; it is a sad fact that unlisted buildings can still face the same fate as they did nearly forty years ago.”

15 Small Street was one of 30 buildings included in a definitive survey of Bristol’s most important medieval and early-modern town houses, published by Historic England (formally English Heritage) in 2014. The survey identified the building as a candidate for listing. That this building was not subsequently assessed in the intervening three years is deeply regrettable, but perhaps the product of spending cuts that have left Historic England’s resources greatly reduced. We urge Historic England to look at remaining candidates for listing from this survey, and the government to consider the resources it makes available to HE for this work.
This sad case represents a failure to protect a building of national special interest on a number of levels and we call on those with the powers to protect our heritage to act now to ensure this is not repeated.