The 1913 Ancient Monuments Act

2013 was the centenary of a landmark moment for England’s heritage. The passing of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act in 1913 recognised for the first time that there are physical remains of the nation’s history which are so special and so significant that the state has a duty to ensure their continued survival.

Old Ministry of Works panel

An old Ministry of Works panel highlighting that the ancient monument is protected under the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act. This panel was at Chysauster Ancient Village in Cornwall.

In 1911, Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, built in around 1440 by the Lord Treasurer of England and considered the finest example of medieval brickwork in the country, was sold. It passed between several owners before catching the attention of a consortium of American businessmen who removed the beautiful stone fireplaces, used as models for those in the Palace of Westminster, and planned to ship them to the USA.

There were fears that the castle would either be demolished for the value of its materials or dismantled brick-by-brick, transported across the Atlantic, and re-erected on American soil. An attempt by the Office of Works to gain control of the Castle came to nothing and the National Trust turned down the chance to buy it.

At the eleventh hour, Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India and restorer of the Taj Mahal, stepped in and made an offer to buy the Castle and land around it, which the Americans accepted. Using his connections, he had the ports watched so that the fireplaces could not be smuggled out of the country. After a tip-off, they were found in a mews in London. Draped in Union Jacks, they were mounted on horse-drawn carriages, and triumphantly returned to the castle in 1912.

Tattershall Castle with peacock in foreground

Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire today
© National Trust / M.Kennedy

The dramatic rescue of Tattershall was taken as the prime example of the need for action when in 1912 Parliament was preparing to strengthen protection for historic buildings and monuments. Speaking in the House of Lords on 30 April 1912, Lord Curzon declared:

"The whole attitude of this country and of the civilized world in general has changed towards archaeology in recent years. We regard the national monuments to which this Bill refers as part of the heritage and history of the nation…they are documents just as valuable in reading the record of the past as any monument or parchment deed…there is the case of Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire…In these cases the government in the existing condition of affairs is absolutely helpless. All it can do is to sit still and look on while these acts happen; the only power it possesses being the limited and almost futile prerogative given it by the legislation of 1882 and 1900."

Earlier Heritage Legislation

There were three Ancient Monuments Acts before the 1913 Act. The first in 1882 included a list of 68 mainly prehistoric monuments in Great Britain and Ireland that, with the consent of their owners, would eventually be brought into the nation’s care.

The Act also provided for the appointment of one or more Inspector of Ancient Monuments to oversee and provide advice upon the protection of monuments. An editorial published in The Times in 1882 noted that the Act in its current form would be of limited interest to the wider public: ‘England will not go mad yet on clay funerary urns, flint heads and scrapers.’

Immediately following the passing of the 1882 Act not a single owner voluntarily came forward to place a monument under Government protection. Fortunately a visit by the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, General Pitt Rivers, to Kit’s Coty House, the surviving burial chamber of a Neolithic long barrow in Kent, drew a positive response from the owner. Thus in 1883, Kit’s Coty House became the first site to gain consent to be taken into guardianship and join what is today known as the National Heritage Collection.

Burial chamber at Kit’s Coty House

The burial chamber at Kit’s Coty House in Kent, complete with the 19th century railing installed by the Office of Works. Still there today, the iron spiked railing is itself a monument to early approaches of protecting and presenting historic sites.

By the end of the following year Pitt-Rivers had obtained 14 more monuments. However by the late 1880s progress had significantly slowed. As the process was voluntary, Pitt-Rivers had to stand aside whilst monuments were destroyed. Among these were prehistoric cup-marked stones at Ilkley, Yorkshire, carted off ‘probably to some rockery’.

Despite its shortcomings, the first Ancient Monuments Act did set a precedent. By the turn of the century several groups were campaigning for revised legislation. Among these were the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the recently founded National Trust (1895).

The Ancient Monuments Act of 1900 resulted in a major transfer to the Office, later the Ministry, of Works (English Heritage, Historic Scotland and Cadw are the Office’s direct successors) of historic buildings and monuments in the care of other Government departments. A further, minor, Act in 1910 allowed the government to receive monuments as gifts or bequests from their owners. Nonetheless there were still no compulsive measures to protect the physical remains of the nation’s history.

The 1913 Ancient Monuments Act or – to give the Act its full title – the 1913 Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act changed all that. Given Royal Assent on the 15th August 1913, the Act repealed everything so far established and started again – its provisions essentially governed protection of ancient monuments until 1979.

Preservation Orders and Scheduling

The Act did three new things. It introduced a system whereby the Office of Works could issue a compulsory ‘Preservation Order’ when a monument or building of sufficient ‘historic, architectural, traditional, artistic, or archaeological interest’ was at risk of demolition by a private owner.

Each order would need an Act of Parliament to confirm it, making it an unwieldy instrument, but the Act did at least establish the principle that some buildings in private ownership might, if they were important enough, warrant the intervention of the state to save them.

The second major innovation was the ‘scheduling’ of monuments. This involved compiling a list, or schedule, of monuments which were deemed by an expert board to be of ‘national importance’. Once a site was on the list and the owner informed, it became a crime to damage it.

Under the Act, the Office of Works could give free advice to an owner regarding the treatment of an ancient monument on their land and could oversee any works free of charge. Scheduling considerably widened the scope of protection to the thousands of monuments on private land rather than just those in Government or local authority care.

These two initiatives – the preservation order and scheduling – established the statutory protection of those parts of the nation’s heritage in private hands. It would develop in future years through the listing system and a rapidly evolving planning system.

A National Heritage Collection

Finally under the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act, the powers of the Office of Works to collect, or take into guardianship, monuments of outstanding importance were strengthened. Public access was made a right for all new guardianships.

Four historic sites were acquired under the new Act that year:

  • Lindisfarne Priory, an important centre of early Christianity in Northumberland;
  • Yarmouth Castle on the Isle of Wight, the last and most sophisticated of Henry VIII’s coastal forts;
  • 12th century Framlingham Castle in Suffolk; and
  • Finally on the 19th December 1913 – the sandstone ruins of Penrith Castle in Cumbria, home of the future king, Richard III.
Framlingham Castle

Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, a magnificent 12th century castle and one of the first historic sites to be acquired for the nation under the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act.

The 1913 Ancient Monuments Act created the idea of a great national collection of monuments for public edification. Education was one of the main motivations behind the Act, second only to preservation.

In 1912, the Education Minister Charles Trevelyan argued that the bill was not simply an antiquarian issue ‘but that it should be realised that part of the character of the nation which depends upon the appreciation of the past may really be affected by the preservation of these monuments…the nation ought to learn about its past through what is left of its monuments’. Museums, he said were important, but ‘a thing in a museum does not strike the imagination of a young person nearly as vividly as a building.’

Since 1913, the National Heritage Collection has grown considerably and is today Europe’s most ambitious outdoor museum, consisting of 880 historic monuments and properties. English Heritage looks after 413 sites as well as their contents and archives, ranging from prehistoric stone circles to a 1960s nuclear bunker and including Stonehenge, Hadrian’s Wall, Charles Darwin’s diaries and the Duke of Wellington’s boots.

The most recent addition to the National Heritage Collection was the medieval Harmondsworth Barn in west London – dubbed by poet John Betjeman as ‘the Cathedral of Middlesex’ – and rescued by English Heritage in 2012 from years of neglect and decay.

Interior of Harmondsworth Barn

The cathedral-like interior of Harmondsworth Barn in west London – one of the latest additions to the National Heritage Collection.

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