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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Parallels: 2013 vs 1933

Chatting with Mark Wells about old paint and building materials spurred a discussion with National Trust curator Oonagh Kennedy. Oonagh shared some parallels between today’s conservation work and the 1930s project by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA).
Front and back cover of a journal by the RSA in 1933, enlarged view below.
Before and after pictures of cottage 24, RSA 1933.

NV: Thanks to your digging and research we have an actual journal written by the RSA about West Wycombe Village in 1933. You’ve discovered it was in fact quite a major conservation project for the RSA. What aspects of today’s conservation work parallel with what was performed nearly a century ago?
OK: A few weeks ago I found a document they wrote up about their project work which they called a ‘reconditioning’ of West Wycombe Village. So we started investigating the work they had done and began to see some parallels in the refurbishment work now and the RSA’s over 80 years ago.

After the RSA purchased the village from the Dashwood family they started on the project in 1930 and they finished in 1933 - that’s roughly the same time scale as this project.

Similar time scales and goals but what about building materials, Mark described the importance of lime wash instead of paint, what did the RSA use?
Just as Mark is using lime wash instead of vinyl paint so did the RSA. From our research we know that the aspiration of the RSA was to maintain the character and the atmosphere of the old cottages but to make them fit for people to live in, so they went and sourced the best possible insulation materials that they believed were available to them at the time.

Mark is sourcing the most modern and up-to-date insulation board. Similarly the Royal Society of Arts was also looking for new developments in building technology which could be incorporated into a historic setting. In 1929 this meant that they imported from the United States an insulation board which went under the trade name Maftex.

What was Maftex made of and is it still sold and used?
Maftex is actually made of a natural substance, liquorice root. This discovery is quite interesting and amusing to me. I’ve learned how they made it to create dead-air cells which are naturally occurring in the fibre which of course is a further insulation and I suppose has similarities to the insulation materials used today. I’m certainly not an expert but I’m definitely learning.

Maftex was marketed in the United States as a thermal insulation board that had structural strength. This meant that if for example the RSA wanted to amalgamate two cottages into one – and they did – then they could then use Maftex like a stud partition wall.

The RSA under the direction of architect William Weir sourced what they believed to be the best materials in the upgrade of historic buildings and Mark is doing the same today.
Why we’re still not using MAFTEX I don’t know. Maybe it had a life and was overtaken by another. I haven’t found anything about it being hazardous. The fact that it was insulation material derived from a natural substance like licorice root makes toxicity concerns unlikely. So the parallel here is Maftex to Mark’s sustainable insulation boards called Pavaflex which is sourced from a Buckinghamshire-based environmental construction materials company. You sort of think everything changes but nothing changes at the same time.

What else can you compare with the work completed nearly a century ago?
Thanks to the RSA’s detailed account we can see that like Mark, they did a lot of work on the roofs, namely: they stripped the roofs down, they tried to source local handmade tiles, they tried to reuse as many old tiles as they could, but where they were not available they brought in the local handmade tiles.

Interestingly, findings today are confirming what the RSA accounted. For example they described that when they were re-roofing cottages that they laid the tiles onto a bed of wheat straw. Some of that wheat straw was found this year when the roofs were removed. Looking at the RSA’s old recordings have helped inform what we are finding and help tell the story, like the evidence of straw that had been there for over 80 years.
Adverts in RSA Journal for West Wycombe 1933

Adverts in RSA Journal for West Wycombe 1933
This journal is only about a dozen pages but you’ve learned so much. At a glance, what do you think about these pages which look like adverts and they credit their suppliers and contractors?
How they used local firms was very interesting to me. Who took the photographs, who did the electrical wiring, where did they get their paint from. And in one section it says where they got their distemper paints from - the company Walpamure which was a Lancashire company. It’s finding out things like that.

Would these pages be the equivalent of today placing a banner on a website or billboard to thank all the contractors from the tile artisans to the electricity company?
It would if you think about it, and maybe when the project finishes and when we’re assessing it for ourselves we will want to keep a log of who were the involved contractors and the suppliers like the RSA did. 

Looking at this I don’t think it was done in an advertising way – well it may have done, but it was also a way of just explaining what was used, and where they got it from. It tells historians like us how paint was bought and sold. Like the distemper paint from Walpmure in Lancashire – it is interesting and nice to learn that those cans which the distemper came in went back to the manufacturer after they were used. They were washed out with caustic soda and then refilled. So in the 1930s you returned your paint can and then it came back. Refilled and replenished.

Is this paint bucket recycling evidence of environmental awareness in the 1930’s?
Yes, or maybe it was just how things were done at that time. It could have just been the convention since disposables and the idea of throw-away had not quite developed yet.  Most people returned their lemonade bottles, their milk bottles and had them refilled. So this must’ve been a little extension of that.

On a personal level, turning old cottages into cosy homes for families is another parallel you mentioned, what did the RSA do about making the village liveable?
This conservation project is focussed on the tenants – and sometimes that means doing new bathrooms and new kitchens. The RSA did that in the 1930s, too. They documented their addition of new glazed sinks, draining boards, ventilated larders; they even added new washing lines with hard paths underneath in the gardens so that as you hung up your washing you were not standing on mud or lawn. It’s in the detail that we can see that they really considered how the cottages would actually be used by families. And there’s a lot more we can do to understand what the RSA did.

In their closing paragraphs of the 1933 journal they wrote that they believed the work they had done would be far reaching, saying “it proves beyond all question that all cottages can be reconditioned to provide homes for our fellow countrymen, women and children. And when so reconditioned these houses are second to none.”
This shows they were genuinely happy and pleased with the work they had done and felt they really contributed not only to the village but to the lives of the people in West Wycombe.

This rings true with what I’ve heard at the building project team meetings with Mark and FWA that after completing a cottage they’ve often individually said that they would happily live there.
Yes and I think the RSA felt proud of what they did and justifiably so. 
But another parallel, I think is that this is the kind of thing the National Trust is quite good at. The National  Trust is very good at taking on a project and managing it. For example taking on something like a 17th century cottage to conserve it but in a sympathetic way so that it is also a comfortable home, and so that its occupancy, its use and the life of the house is part of its conservation.

Enlarged views of above.
More discussion with curator Oonagh Kennedy about West Wycombe village and it's sale to the RSA is to follow. The full journal is available to view online upon request to ninavillaroman@nationaltrust.org.uk

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