Intro

When the author started this voyage down memory lane, he was concerned whether there would be sufficient information recorded in documents or through human recollection. Would there be enough for a whole book? He knew that an attempt ought to be made to record the service the Society had rendered to the community of Lancaster over the years. So much service by some very special people. The memories of some pivotal early members and others had to be tapped while the memory was still there. Sadly, he was already too late in respect of some key players.

Phrases started to form, like “there is only circumstantial evidence for this, but it is possible to speculate that…” He need not have worried. There only had to be a hint to the committee that someone might be volunteering to take on the job, when boxes of documents arrived on the doorstep. If the author has managed to contrive a half decent account of the Society’s doings, it is down to the care with which the members who have had custody of some precious archives and not only preserved them, but handed them over in impressive order.

Having taken some small part in the early activities of the Society, the author thought he had an idea of the many ways in which it has enhanced and protected our precious city. But when he started to try to devise some sort of structure for a book, he had no idea of the mountain he would have to climb. He hopes that readers will be as impressed as he was at the range of challenges the Society has risen to over the years. In fact, one certain criticism which will surely be voiced is “why on earth did he miss that out?” It may well be that a future author will have to add the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to produce a truly definitive account.

The author is largely ignorant of the histories of other civic societies, so it is perhaps foolhardy to speculate how many societies will have achieved for their communities what the Lancaster Society has achieved for its city, so consistently and over such a long period. However, whether Lancaster is a pygmy compared with others, a history would not be complete without trying to find out why it has been so successful.

There are many reasons why some civic societies flourish and others wither. For success, there must be an underlying core of citizenry in an urban settlement who respect and love their town so much that they seek a focus for preserving the best and condemning the worst. That begs the question of whether there is anything worth preserving in the first place. Lancaster came late to the possibilities of civic aspiration compared with the well established and venerated city centres with whom it is sometimes compared: York, possibly, or Chester come to mind. The author suspects that an immediate post war Lancaster would not have appealed to many civic well wishers. But as prosperity gradually returned to a war bankrupted country, civic design became something of a buzzword nationally and initiatives started to emerge. Town planners achieved credibility as well as scorn. Planning departments in town halls started to have some clout, given them by increasing regulations. Despite the negative publicity town planners have always attracted, they were there essentially to encourage good and discourage bad design.

It was seen that Lancaster had the potential to be a very attractive city. The Scots may have plundered its medieval centre but its footprint remained. It was replaced by the buildings we enjoy today, a comfortably Georgian/Edwardian/Victorian mix of solidly built stone buildings. Its slums had largely gone. It had many landmarks of civic significance: the Ashton Memorial, the Quay, the Castle, the Priory Church: Harrison’s bridge over the Lune – and of course, the river itself. The contrasting topography of the flat lands of the estuary, and the hills rising above it, added to its potential. Although it had been a Lancashire mill town, it had always been detached from the rest of industrial Lancashire. No one industry had ever dominated the town with the dark satanic mills typical of the cotton era. Its wealth base, having started as a port and a shipbuilding town, was to be fortuitously continued by linoleum manufacture, itself tucked away from the historic centre where, in its turn, it could rot away without attracting too much notice.

So Lancaster did not have to suffer a disintegrating cotton-dominated industry as did some of the other Lancashire towns. It had always diversified. West Indies trading, then furniture making, and latterly as a centre for the care of the mentally sick – the Moor and Albert Hospitals. What is less obvious today, but equally important to its claims to be a city worth preserving was its establishment in medieval times as the region’s centre for the dispensation of justice. From this it owes its title of county town and status of city. More recently it has become a centre for education in the form of St. Martin’s Teacher Training College, followed by a large and internationally respected University. Such developments and the increasing popularity of the area as commuter territory produced an emergent middle class which might be expected to demand a pleasant town to work in, live in, shop in and spend leisure time in.

Whether, at the time the Amenity Society was formed in 1962, there was already this burgeoning middle class demanding a better civic environment, is perhaps a little fanciful, but the seeds must surely have been there. But there had to be a few more factors necessary to produce the critical mass of a successful civic society. The first, the author would submit is prosperity, a constituent which may need some explanation. To argue that a civic society can flourish in hard times and argue for civic improvement is not usually realistic. However, it was a fact that the formative years of the Society coincided with a period during which there was growing awareness of the need for good design, but not a lot of money to achieve it. There was little taste by the commercial sector to build, compared with the honey pots further south. Lancaster’s economy was tenuous and unemployment was high. So, everything was slow, and, broadly, there was time to plan for and achieve value for money. Thus, Lancaster escaped most of the appalling early examples of mass demolition and retail excess, although it did not escape the Arndale disgrace. There was time for city and citizens to come together to plan what could be achieved from a limited resource. Real pressure for the scale of retail development which the Market Hall fire of 1983 triggered was probably the first (and since then only) example of commercial ambition of a scale with the potential to destroy entirely an ancient town structure. The important point the author is trying to make here is that when the post Market Hall fire boom exploded on Lancaster, we had an established civic society, with the influence and know-how to temper the later commercial pressures for massive re-development.

This brings the author to his final, and not least important reason for the Civic Society’s initial success: the Town Hall. As we will explore later, Lancaster was fortunate to have a Town Hall sensitive of the need to preserve the civic scene. A half-open door was there, waiting to be pushed.

The substantial material the author has sifted might suggest that there is nothing of civic importance to have escaped the Society’s enthusiastic attentions. But two surprising subjects have received a decidedly mute attention: the Storey Family, and the University. Lancaster was dominated by two families in the 18th and 19th centuries: the Williamsons and the Storeys. Broadly, Williamson and his son who became Lord Ashton, gave linoleum to the world, and Storeys gave it oilcloth. In the annals of the Society, Williamson pops up everywhere: the town hall, t’ Structure – how could we avoid the family? Yet the Storey family, also one of the City’s great benefactors, hardly gets a mention. This may be partly because they gave us fewer dramatic memorials, there were more Storeys than Williamsons spread over more generations, partly because there is a lesser archive and partly because the family’s benefaction was less public than Williamson’s grandiloquence. But the Storeys deserve some recognition, if we are to complete the reasons for Lancaster’s civic importance. It is surely ironic that the future of the only prominent building in Lancaster with “Storey” in its title is so fragile.

Considering its size, and the prominence of its buildings, the University’s relative low key treatment by the Society is noteworthy. Out of sight and out of mind? A different community? Not until recent years with the Ruskin Library and the building of the controversial new residences at the southern end has there been the briefest mention in the Society’s archives of this expanding township. This puzzle is dealt with at greater length elsewhere, but its absence from the Society’s attentions deserves a mention in setting the scene for this account.

(c) 2009 Malcolm Taylor

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