History and Stories
Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Reviewed: 100 Years in Care

In the early 20th century, the way we view heritage began to change. For many years, it was only prehistoric buildings that were deemed worthy enough to protect and manage. But in 1913, the landmark Ancient Monuments Act was passed. This act expanded the definition of ancient monument and strengthened the powers of the Office of Works – English Heritage’s predecessor.

In the first 20 years after the act was passed, around 229 sites came into the care of the Office of Works. One of these was Rievaulx Abbey, England’s first great Cistercian church.

To celebrate the centenary of its guardianship, find out more about Rievaulx’s journey to becoming one of the nations most visited outdoor museums.

19th-century view of Rievaulx Abbey
19th-century view of Rievaulx Abbey. This image is part of a stereogram – or a stereo view photograph – which, when viewed through a stereoscope, shows the image in 3D.

Shifting Perspectives

Today we take it as given that important monuments, which attest to the nation’s history, should be protected and accessible to the public. But this was not always the case. Many monuments, now open to the public, were originally held in private hands.

It was towards the end of the 19th century that attitudes began to change. The Ancient Monument Protection Act of 1882 was passed, which encouraged those who owned significant historic sites (although initially only prehistoric sites), to hand them over to the guardianship of the state. Once placed in guardianship, the government – through the Office of Works – would take on any financial responsibility for the monument.

A view of the ruin of Rievaulx Abbey infirmary Cloister, 1918
A view of the infirmary Cloister, 1918. This was one of a number of survey images taken just after Rievaulx Abbey was taken into care.

Impact of the 20th Century

Attitudes towards heritage continued to evolve in the 20th century. This was a time of tremendous political, cultural and social change, punctuated by the catastrophe of the First World War. The old political order was questioned, and new government initiatives, like the 1909 ‘Peoples Budget’, which targeted the lands and incomes of the wealthiest to fund social reforms, emerged.

It was in this cultural landscape that the 1913 Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act was passed. This gave the Office of Works new rights to place protective measures on any monument they deemed worthy of protection, with or without the owner’s consent. Sites of national historic importance were no longer something to left to the fortunes of individuals.

William Duncombe, 1st Earl Feversham with his great-grandson who would become 3rd Earl Feversham in 1916
William Duncombe, 1st Earl Feversham with his great-grandson who would become 3rd Earl Feversham in 1916
© The Helmsley Archive

The Guardianship of Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx is perhaps the most beautiful of our ruined abbeys and its permanent preservation is a work which would meet with everyone’s approval.

(Charles Peers)

Rievaulx Abbey, located on the Duncombe estate, was one of the Office of Works earliest acquisitions. It came to the attention of Charles Peers, the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, in the early 1900s and in 1912 he made his first official visit to the site.

Peers was a man determined to protect and preserve sites like Rievaulx.  However, where others could only advise and cajole, with the passing of the 1913 Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act, Peers could exert real pressure.

Negotiations to take on responsibility for the abbey were halted by the outbreak of war in 1914. But on 20th July 1917, following the death of the estate owner Lord Feversham at the Somme, Rievaulx was officially transferred into the guardianship of the Office of Works.

A view along the nave in the early 1920s
A view along the nave in the early 1920s. By this point, much of the spoil had been cleared and the ruins laid out much as we see them today. Wooden scaffold poles had been erected in 1919, when an explosion in a Morecambe munitions factory provided the second hand timber.

A New Aesthetic

The decayed monastery, which before treatment is generally the most meaningless jumble, regains the orderliness that was, in fact, the keynote and background of the Rule.

(Edmund Vale, 1939)

Since the monastery dissolved in 1538, soil and rubble settled over its ruins and its ivy clad walls had come to characterise its crumbling silhouette. But as part of the representation of the abbey, the Office of Works commissioned the vegetation to be stripped from the walls and 90,000 tonnes of debris cleared away. The outline of the cloisters and church slowly became visible in the grass for the first time, revealing the original plan of the medieval monastery.

The intention behind this work at Rievaulx was to move away from the romantic to the instructive presentation of buildings – to enable a monument to be read like a manuscript or map.

Two masons stand in a mason’s shelter
Two masons stand in a mason’s shelter. Each carries mallets for working the fresh stone used to stabilise the ruins. On the right is John Weatherill

Excavating Rievaulx

The clearance work at Rievaulx was not carried out by archaeologists, but by a team of local workmen. Many of them were returning from the battlefields of the First World War. Their role was to consolidate the ruins and clear the site of spoil.

Over the course of 20 years 120 men worked on the site, some returning repeatedly whilst others were retained full-time. For some the conservation of Rievaulx became their life’s work.

The employment record and wages book from 1919 to 1947 still survives, allowing biographies of some of the men to be explored.  Amongst the men who contributed to clearing and consolidating the ruins at Rievaulx are:

Four labourers pose with mining trucks
Four labourers (c.1920) pose with mining trucks. In the background are timber scaffold poles. The second from the left is Robert (Bob) Cornforth.
© Thirsk Museum

John Weatherill, Mason, b1881-d1960
John was a local man who lived in Rievaulx village with his wife and family. He had come from generations of masons and began his career as an apprentice mason with the Duncombe Estate aged 14. After military service, Weatherill returned in 1919 to employment with the Estate, transferring shortly after to the Office of Works. In 1950 he was one of the founders of Helmsley Archaeological and History Society and a major contributor to its book ‘History of Helmsley, Rievaulx and District’.

Amos Dickinson, Scaffolder, 1883 - 1927
Born in Scarborough, Amos worked as a general labourer and gardener before enlisting in the Northumberland Fusiliers.  He was employed at Rievaulx from 1919 to 1926 and was the main scaffolder.

Robert (Bob) Cornforth, Labourer, 1894-1971
Born locally in Hawnby, before the war he worked for his widowed mother. After demobilisation he was first employed at Rievaulx in 1920, lodging weekly in Rievaulx before his marriage. He eventually served most of his adult working life for the Ministry of Works at Rievaulx Abbey and Byland Abbey and was awarded a Civil Service medal.

Document recording coins and relics rewards
During the clearance project at Rievaulx, a system was established to ensusre that those who handed in ‘coins and relics’ were rewarded.

A Hidden Collection

During the work at Rievaulx over 10,000 finds were recovered, ranging from personal possessions, coins, ceramic vessels, window glass to architectural stone and sculpture.

A system was devised – and meticulously kept by the site foreman Mr Duncanson until 1927 – which mapped where each find had come from. It also ensured every object was labelled with its find number and context. Wooden work sheds were constructed east of the abbey church, one of which became the site’s first museum.

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