The conservation of an exceptional Regency shopping street – Part IV


9. (top) and 10. (bottom left) Nos. 4-18 Woburn Walk before the restoration work of 1956-8. (The Borough Engineer’s Report)


11. (bottom right) No. 18 in foreground with shop window and doorway reversed before restoration works of 1956. (Metropolitan Archives)






This was a thoroughgoing restoration project, the likes of which, according to St Pancras Borough Engineer, had not been undertaken by a metropolitan borough council before. Given the condition of the terrace, much of the work was unavoidable, as much of the original external fabric had already been lost to the rampages of time and neglect. (See images 9 & 10.)


A brief specification and order of works is held at the National Archives in Kew.[1] On it are some hand written comments against the use of cement-lime-sand mix for the re-rendering of the external stucco, and the use of cement mortars in pointing the brickwork on the parapets and rear elevations. The post-restoration report states that two coats of Roman cement had been used. The terraces would have originally been rendered in Roman cement to a precise specification by Cubitt, and possibly produced at his own works. The copy of the specification belonged to the file on Woburn Walk kept by the Ministry of Works (intriguingly suppressed for 30 years before being released to the Archives), and the notes are likely to be by the Department’s Dr M Craig, who was also asked to comment on the proposed alterations to the north terrace (discussed below).


The following information is taken from the Borough Engineer’s Report[2], which is supported by photographs of the terrace before and after the restoration project.


External works

Above the second floor, all external materials were removed, including slates, (chimney stacks of 16 & 18), dormer windows and framework, brick pediments and scroll detailing. Serviceable materials were set aside for re-use.


Dry rot was the cause of decay to both joinery and structural timbers including the floor joists and stud partitions of the ground floor of no 18, together with the bressummer over the shop front. The particular shop front had previously had the window and door configuration swapped over, which was rectified in its renewal. (See image 11.) Movement between nos. 14 & 16 resulted in the elevation of no 14 being rebuilt at an earlier time.[3] This is the fourth elevation from the right on images 9 and 10 opposite.

12. (top) Detail of no. 4 shop window believed to be original.


13. (middle) The Holyoake balcony at no. 4 as restored in 1956. (The Borough Engineer’s Report)


14. & 15. (bottom) Bonding timbers in brickwork to the right; propping elevation, and wall being rebuilt at basement level. (ibid.)


Most of the shop windows were remade (having been renewed with coarse glazing bars in an earlier intervention) including new frames in some cases. One shop window was retained, and after inspection I believe this may be that of no. 4. (See image 12.)


The missing ornamentation to the shop fronts and front elevations was re-cast.


The decision was clearly taken, though not stated, to conserve the later addition of the wooden porch over the balcony at No. 4 Woburn Walk, installed by Holyoake, founder of the Co-Operative Movement. (See image 13.)

Probably the most questionable aspect of the restoration was the major structural works to the basement elevations at front and rear. Having identified that the front and rear elevations were slightly bowing, and found in these walls ‘timbers…nailed together at angles and returned into the party wall…for a reason which is no longer apparent”, these timbers were carefully removed and filled in “…having outlived whatever usefulness they had originally served” .[4](See images 14 and 15.)


Quite how else the walls were supposed to be tied in does not appear to have been questioned.  An “extraneous length of timber” can be clearly seen in image 15 to also have once tied the timber stud flank wall to the rear elevation, giving bracing support to the structure.


Rotten floor joists at ground level (which attach to the bressummer and tie in the front elevation) also seemed to provide no further clue to the real cause of the problem. No mention is made in the specification of tying in the party walls back to the front and rear elevations. Instead, the whole of the basement front and rear walls were re-built and underpinned using concrete footings 5ft square and 6ft deep under the intersections of the party walls and the front and rear elevations, joined by a ground beam running beneath the basement floor level. (See image 16 overleaf.)


The entire side elevation of no. 18 was similarly underpinned and the basement wall re-built. A new bituminous felt damp proof course was laid on the excavated basement floor, covered in a waterproofing compound and screeded. Two courses of damp proofing slates were introduced at the ground level of the basement.


We can only assume that the cause of the bowing was attributed to a concentration of load through the masonry either side of the doorway and window openings at front and rear, rather than the more likely cause of failing tying of the walls and of the ground floor joists and bressummer. This assumption also overlooked the buttressing effects of the cellars that spread the load from either side of the shop fronts. Whilst the work has


16. (top) Author’s sketch showing underpinning in the specification for the works to 4-18 in 1956-8. (Elevations by AA students A. Cooper & F. Skinner in 1929. National Monuments Record)


17. (middle) New bathroom at no. 18 (The Borough Engineer’s Report)


18. (bottom) example of fine cornice detail revealed after cleaning in 1956-8. (Ibid.)

not had a negative effect on the visible structure, merely knowing it is there for no good reason gives cause for lament for any sensitive conservationist.


“Stabilisation may occasionally be called for, but the attempt to ‘correct’ all movement and iron out every unevenness can trigger more problems than it solves – as well as eroding the interest and authenticity of the fabric.”[5]


Internal works 

Apart from the underpinning works, the external repairs were largely necessary and retained wherever possible existing materials. Internally, the general works were arguably just as substantial but not as necessary.

Details from the original specification state that all joinery, not just visibly damaged joinery (doorframes, doors, windows, skirting, staircases, wainscot etc) was to be removed and set aside for cleaning back to bare wood, re-fixing and re-painting. All plaster was removed and lathes replaced and re-plastered. The extent of likely damage to the original timbers in undertaking this level of intervention makes it highly surprising that such a direction was carried out on site. However the close supervision of the project by the Borough Engineer supports a view that it was.


Other than the extensive internal works to the timber and plasterwork, the buildings were fitted with new boilers and water tanks, new heaters, bathrooms and re-plumbed, re-wired and re-painted. Marble fireplace surrounds were cleaned back, and the cornice of one living room was cleaned right back to the original, uncovering a fine pattern in keeping with the style of the shop fronts. (See images 17 & 18.)




19. (top) During the work of 1956-8. “ There were long periods were the work could only be described as squalid, slow, laborious and even dangerous.” They weren’t kidding. (The Borough Engineer’s Report, p. 10.)


20. (bottom) After works were completed in 1958 “…the south side of Woburn Walk now stands as it did in 1822” (Ibid.)


Conclusions on the work of 1956-8

In reading the final words of the Borough Engineer’s post-restoration report: “As nearly as research, planning and craftsmanship can make it, the south side of Woburn Walk now stands as it did in 1822”; and looking at the finished article opposite, I was reminded of the philosophical debate concerning the nature of authenticity, succinctly expressed in an Only Fools and Horses sketch concerning Trigger and his road sweeper’s broom which he owned for 20 years. In that time the broom had 17 new heads and 14 new handles:


“How can it be the same bloody broom then?” asks Sid the café owner. Trigger

produces a picture of him and his broom and asks: “what more proof do you need?”
From ‘Heroes and Villains’ (1996)


There can be no doubt that whilst much of the repair work was necessary, it has clearly had a substantial impact on the fabric of the buildings and has affected the authenticity of the buildings as an original record. Despite the accolades for the Georgian Group advisor to the project, John McGregor, as an expert of non-interventionist conservation,[6] the project of 1956-58 was quite clearly a belt-and-braces restoration project, not of the kind that would generally be recommended today, and certainly not a under the banner of conservation. In his defence, his wishes may have been overridden an over enthusiastic borough engineer, despite the latter’s assertion that the partnership was one of “close-co-operation”.[7]


Whilst a clear desire to use matching materials is laudable, the tolerance bar for replacement was set low – if it can be described as being set at all (there is no guide for judgment in the specification). Also, the necessity to remove and strip off every stick of timber amounts to an unnecessary disturbance of original fabric. At worst, such extreme intervention could be misinterpreted by contemporary conservationists for later replacement, and at the very least, both the patina of age and the authenticity of original construction have been degraded.


When considering the motivations and philosophy of those behind the work, it might be compared with a vintage car enthusiast stripping out an engine, cleaning every part, replacing what is worn out and rebuilding the whole. Of course with a car engine, the need strip out and clean is closely connected with the mechanical necessity to work.  I’m not sure the gentlemen involved were not vintage car or radio enthusiasts themselves.


21 & 22. (top) Rear of nos. 1-7 before work to connect it to the hotel from 12 Duke’s Road. (Planning application to St Pancras Council)


23. (bottom)  Front of 1-9 Woburn Walk (left) and Duke’s Road (right) after restoration of the facades in 1960.s. Note new entrance to hotel under fourth bay along Duke’s Road.


The importance of recognising the value of, and preserving (in situ), old fabric should be at the heart of any restoration programme.



On a more general note, this work, carried out by the borough council, is quite extraordinary when viewed in context of the wider conservation issues of the day. An incredible amount of attention was given to this small street in Bloomsbury, when at the same time, the London County Council agreed to the demolition of the Euston Arch, a mere stone’s throw from Woburn Walk. In point of fact, the destruction of the arch began in late 1961, the same year a Civic Trust award was presented to St Pancras Borough Council for the restoration of Woburn Walk.[8]




In 1961 an application for Listed Building Consent was submitted by the owners of the Ambassadors Hotel (adjacent west of the north terrace which it also owned at this time) involving alterations to the rear of 1-7 Woburn Walk, and 12 Duke’s Road, the back of which attached to the back yard of No. 7 at right angles. The rear wall of the north terrace was to be taken down and replaced with an extension over the backyards  (see images 21 & 22) physically connecting the hotel to the back of nos. 1-7 Woburn Walk and the back of 12 Duke’s Road to construct a link between the hotel and a ballroom immediately to the rear of the terrace. This was done by creating a corridor along the entire length of 1-7 at the rear of the ground floor. The front elevation at the ground floor of 12 Duke’s Road was to be removed entirely to provide a wide entrance to the hotel’s ballroom. (See image 23.)


The proposal would also allow the ground floors to be used as lock up shops. This was not their original purpose as they communicated directly with the upper floors, however, this was deemed to be a better use than their current vacant state in hotel ownership.


A proposal to replace the stucco and renew the decoration of the front elevation of 1-7 was also included.


In granting permission for the alterations to no 12 Duke’s Road, the owners were restricted to an entrance size within 12 Duke’s Road to be no wider than the existing bay window, thus preserving the size of the aperture within the overall elevation. The request to remove the back wall of nos. 1-7 was refused. Instead, the infill was to be built against the original wall.

24. (top) Balcony on the right above the entrance to the hotel has been altered (together with the rest of the north terrace). The original balconies of the north terrace would have looked like the two to the left of the picture, which are also slightly different at the sides to those of the south.


25. (middle) Proposed plans for the extension to 1-7 Woburn Walk with double doors at ground floor. (Planning application to St Pancras Council)


26a. & b. (bottom) Rear of the north terrace today, and the interconnecting corridor at second floor.


The applicant was also required to restore the bow-fronted bay windows to their original appearance with thin glazing bars. Proposals to replace the balconies with new ones to ‘match’ the south terrace were rejected on the grounds that the balconies were in any case original. However, on inspection of the current balconies, it is clear that they were in fact replaced, or at least restored, by inserting the front trellis section into a new iron surround, as the vertical bars to the sides are without the trellis detail of the others on Duke’s Road, or the small boss detail seen on the south terrace. (See image 24.)



Change of use of upper floors of 1-7 Woburn Walk

In 1981 permission was granted to convert and use the first, second and third floors of 1-7 Woburn Walk for office space, and the shop at no. 1 as an office reception. This was supported by the claim that the upper floors of the buildings were no longer suitable for private residence. The application was originally rejected and dismissed on appeal, however in the appeal report by the Department of the Environment the officer stated that the proposals would have been wholly acceptable if the shop at no. 1 was retained. The Council were hamstrung by the unfortunate remark and decided they had little option other than to grant permission for the change of use when the subsequently altered application arrived. (See elevation in image 25.) We can only wonder why the original decision did not use listed building policy guidelines to reject the change of use on grounds of inappropriateness and unavoidable loss of original fabric in conversion.  It also begs the question why, if the buildings were deemed to be unsuitable for residential occupation in their present configuration, a proposal to alter the buildings for another purpose was acceptable!  The buildings are now divided laterally between the offices of the upper floors (which all interconnect at each floor) and the shops at ground and basement level; 3 and 5 interconnecting at ground level and 1 to 7 all connected by a corridor at the rear of the basement floor. (See images 26a. & b.)


As a result of these internal alterations and extensions to the rear elevations 1-7 Woburn Walk are of limited historic value behind the facades. The basic plan form of the shops, visible from the pavement at ground floor level, is however still broadly in place.




A further Local Authority restoration project was begun in 1986 to separate the upper residential floors from the shops and basements of nos. 6 to18 Woburn Walk, and to conduct modernisation works and any repairs required since the work of 30 years before. As the tenants were now permitted to purchase their properties under the Right to Buy Scheme, and the council intended to let the shops separately, it seems likely that these enabling works became a necessity.


27. (top) The devil’s in the detail. The sash windows have horns, a later architectural detail either side of the centre of the frame.


28. (bottom) A compelling mix of 1950’s repair of penny-struck porridge re-pointing and 1980’s modern cement ribbon pointing. Pre-formed concrete coping stones complete the look.


Sadly it seems safe to assume that little or no maintenance work had been carried out to the roofs of the terrace since 1958. On the application for English Heritage funding, the project is described as required in order to: “arrest deterioration of a Grade II* Listed terrace of buildings”.  The lack of maintenance had clearly reached a chronic stage as all the dormers had to be renewed. In a report detailing necessary conservation work, R. L. Connelly, an advisory architect to English Heritage, described the maintenance of the buildings to be of ‘a minimum standard’ since the last restoration project.[9]

The project received funding of £36,000 from English Heritage towards the conservation element of the work. The architects were Hadley Design Associates, and the contractor was a local company, Ricketts and Sons. The total cost of the project was £347,909. A copy of the complete specification is held by the London Regional Office of English Heritage in Holborn.


This time, no. 4 was excluded from the programme of works owing to the terms of the lease being different (the whole property being leased as one) and has not subsequently been included in any programme of Council repairs to the south terrace.



External works

The specification included entire removal of the roof coverings (again, sound materials set aside and reused); ‘piecemeal’ repairs to the timber framework of the roofs; the chimney pots replaced; and repairs to the masonry of the parapets and stacks. [10] (See image 28.) Many windows were also renewed on the south-facing rear elevation, and the upper two floors of the front elevation, though a small detail like the addition of horns to the sash window frames has unfortunately crept in. (See image 27.)


Possibly most disheartening is the specification for ‘plain’ cement renders and cement mortars. Modern plain cement would not be a fair replacement for the original renders. In 1956 the surveyor was suitably aware that the render should be replaced with matching materials. It is noteworthy that the conditions of Listed Building Consent stated that the materials used in external repair should “resemble as closely as possible in colour or texture those of the existing buildings” rather than stating that matching materials should be used. The wording was either very poorly constructed, or purposely chosen to afford the greatest flexibility to the Local Authority.


On the positive side, the specification notes that little repair was necessary to the timber shop fronts or doors, a credit to the work done in 1956-8.

29. (top) All the replacement ceilings in the attics are of plasterboard.


30.- 33. (middle & bottom) Photographs of original architectural features at 6 Woburn Walk.

Internal works

The modernisation work primarily involved new plumbing, boilers and bathrooms, new electrics and kitchens, and a partition wall created at ground floor to enable the complete self-containment of the upper residential area from the commercial units for the first time. Metal balustrades and steps down to the back gardens connected the residences with the gardens and completed the separation.[11]


Dry rot continued to haunt the terrace; the entire staircase from ground to first floor of no 6 requiring complete replacement.


The uniformity of plan forms within the terrace was broadly retained.[12] However, fibreglass insulation and fireproofing to the ceilings was deemed necessary, no doubt in line with building regulations for separating the shop from the residential floors. Again we may wonder if its listing status might have allowed some leniency toward the buildings in this respect. The specification also allows for replacing lath and plaster for plasterboard where works were required, such as the attic and shop ceilings. (See image 29.)


Encouragingly, having surveyed the interior of no. 6, there is still much of character and interest reflecting the original plans and fixtures and fittings of the houses.[13] (See images 30-33.) This is an important aspect to appreciate now, before time and a lack of awareness eventually removes all vestiges of original fabric. Architraves, doors and doorways were largely retained even where they were no longer used, and the function of rooms was retained, although some justifiable alterations had been previously made, such as the removal of the basement kitchen to the rear of the first floor.


Conclusions on the work of 1986-8

The specification for the work of 1986 to the south terrace shows how lightly practical issues of conservation appeared to be considered at this time – notably less so than 30 years before. Interventions unashamedly involved modern techniques and materials, ignoring the effects these materials would have upon the original fabric, or how aesthetically appropriate they were. Taken as a whole, the specification very much reads as it might for the refurbishment of any building; but certainly not a conservation specification for an important Grade II* listed building.


Conversely, the approach to internal modernisation and re-arrangements showed a greater consideration for the original plan form and many of the existing materials. What a pity that the earlier specification was not – we would assume – sought out by those undertaking the work in 1986.


34. A very attractive view of Woburn Walk taken in the late-1980’s after the last major works. The extent of piecemeal alteration to the elevations and the streetscape since then has had a significant impact. (Camden Local History Library)

The issue these more recent works have highlighted is the importance of working considerately with original materials. That is, when renewing materials, to ensure historically appropriate replacements are used; not in parody of obsolete materials and methods, but to respect the building’s original and intended appearance and help preserve whatever remains of the fabric by repairing with the same. However, regarding modernisation works, unless the street should be declared a museum, it is in the interests of its welfare that is remains in use. As residential buildings, modernisation has preserved their value as homes, and they still work, with limited interference with the original materials.


It is noteworthy that McGregor’s obituary was written in this era of the later restoration. Although his approach may seem heavy-handed by today’s self-conscious standards, his work showed far greater understanding with regard to preparing a restoration specification and the importance of using original materials. It rather seems as if his work was looked back upon in the 1980’s with a sort of misty-eyed regard for a bygone time when this level of detail in repair work was once feasible.



General conclusions on the restorations of Woburn Walk

It is almost universally held amongst conservationists and anyone who takes in interest in historic fabric of the built environment that, in stark contrast to the way we value human beauty, physical weathering imbues a beauty to historic fabric, which we call patina. But in addition, and more akin to how we value a lifetime of human experience, there is a distinct pleasure in experiencing the original fabric of a building, how each piece was shaped and fixed, how it has developed in the atmosphere, and how it has worn with use of those who lived or worked around it. This imbues historic fabric with a quality that contemporary replacement is entirely devoid of. Woburn Walk has certainly lost a great deal of its patina, and more than what was necessary to save it from complete loss.


However, there is another side to the argument. The philosophy of previous repair has not been stated, although it has evidently been one of reconstruction in the pursuit of restoring uniformity. To which end the practical defence of past and future repair work could be that restoring the street preserves its aesthetic, if not physical, integrity. (See image 34.) The other entirely practical argument is that the materials in the buildings and their design were inherently prone to decay. Portland cement render; rainwater downpipes enclosed in walls; mansard roofs with numerous roof junctions; all contributed to an ongoing call for repair, albeit one that has been answered too infrequently.


The object lesson to learn from these restoration works to Woburn Walk is that a picture-perfect postcard image does not give licence to wholesale reconstruction. Each intervention should assess what is absolutely necessary to remove or renew.

[1] It is re-produced in Appendix V

[2] The Borough Engineer’s Report is highly illuminating and reproduced in full in Appendix VI

[3] The Borough Engineer’s Report records the movement at 16 & 18, and the rebuilding of the elevation of no 15. I believe this was erroneous and he meant to refer to 14 and 16, as: a) there is not a no. 15 on the south terrace, and b) the pre-works photograph shows a new front at no 14, and if the subsidence affected two adjoining properties, this would rule out no 18. The effects of historic settlement are still clear between 14 & 16 today.

[4] Bainbridge, C. (1960) p9

[5] Earl, J. (1996) p75

[6] Mac Gregor was described in his obituary (The Daily Telegraph, 2nd February 1984) as the foremost architect in recent times in the protection of ancient buildings. He was described as possessing the “insight into the essentials of how to remedy the effects of age with the minimum of restoration”. He lectured for SPAB; was the Georgian Group’s architect; was highly instrumental in the creation of the listing system to protect our heritage and received an OBE in 1964.


[7] Bainbridge, C. (1960) p10

[8] The Civic Trust Award is included in Appendix VII

[9] Report reproduced in Appendix VIII

[10] See excerpts of specification in Appendix IX

[11] Appendix IX contains copies of the existing plans and a ’typical’ proposed layout. It also contains some highlighted elements of the specification for the works.

[12] See existing and proposed layouts in Appendix IX

[13]See Table of Significance and Conservation, Appendix II