By James Wisdom
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 2 (1981)
Earlier this year the Brentford and Chiswick Local History Society learnt of the proposal made by the Gunnersbury Park Joint Committee (GPJC) – a committee of 6 councillors each from the London Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow – to lease the stable blocks at Gunnersbury Park to Dimsdale Developments (SE) Ltd, for conversion into offices. If this were to happen it would be a direct loss to Gunnersbury Park Museum.
For a long time the Society has thought that the stables would be used by the Museum for the display of part of its large transport collection. Also the Museum needs a site suitable for the display and storage of the agricultural and horticultural equipment which is part of the pre-suburban history of the two boroughs. As the Museum is the local history museum for the Brentford and Chiswick area the Society felt it had to oppose the GPJC’s proposals.
The stables themselves are Grade II listed buildings. The East Wing was designed by Sidney Smirke for the Rothschild family when they bought the large mansion in the 1830s. Smirke also designed the nearby Orangery and made alterations to the mansion. The family sold the Park to Acton and Ealing Councils, with Brentford and Chiswick joining in, in the 1920s, placing on the land and buildings a covenant restricting their use to leisure and recreation. The price of the land would have been higher if it had been for housing, commercial or industrial use.
Over the years the Councils have failed to spend sufficient money to prevent many of the buildings in the Park falling into decay. They are all Grade II listed buildings. The East Lodge is now derelict, the unused Orangery has been left to the vandals, the Potomac Boat House is boarded up, Princess Amelia’s Bath House needs restoration and the stables themselves are in a state of disrepair. The one building that has been restored (with a contribution from the GLC) is the Temple by the round pond – a Grade II* listed building, and even that had been left to rot before repair work was started. The GPJC has stated that there is no money for the repair of these buildings and therefore that the only salvation lies in the funds which would come from office development. The implication of their statement is that they have repudiated responsibility for the buildings.
The legislation which protects historic buildings is enforced by the local Councils and depends for its success on their enthusiasm. A council which leaves its own historic buildings to rot loses the moral authority to enforce the legislation. It is legally extremely difficult to force a Council to act according to its obligations. In this particular case it places the Museum in a difficult position, for two reasons. Firstly the Museum often depends on trust for its acquisition of objects, and the breaking of covenants strikes at the heart of that trust. Secondly it is a hypocrisy to have a Museum devoted to the preservation of knowledge about the past surrounded by rotting historic listed buildings.
An alternative suggestion has been made for the future of the stable blocks, that they be used as a small riding school for children. A proposal has been put forward showing how the Councils could run this charging reasonable fees and producing a profit; at this moment Council officers are examining the scheme. It would blend very well with the extension to the Museum, as it would be an appropriate living backdrop to the carriages, ploughs etc, in the display.
Meanwhile Dimsdale Developments will soon apply for planning permission. If they are successful the GPJC will hold a meeting to put the scheme to the public, and then they will approach the Lands Tribunal to vary the covenant. Gunnersbury Park Museum has been in existence for just over 50 years and it has a very fine collection of material. Since the reorganisation of the London Boroughs in 1965 it has, in theory, been responsible for the provision of a museum service to all the inhabitants of the London Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow, but it does not have sufficient resources of money and staff to do this adequately. The GPJC’s proposals for the future of the stable block show that they have failed to understand what the Museum could and should be doing with its collections. If in the end “politics” is simply a matter of establishing priorities then it is about time that public pressure pushed Gunnersbury Park Museum higher up that list of priorities.