Embarrassing history

Just thought I’d post some history-related items that caught my attention.

First there’s the sinking of the “Lancastria” on the 17th June 1940, off St Nazaire in France, a few days after the Dunkirk evacuation. At this time about 100,000 British support troops and civilians were still stranded in France, and some of them had boarded the Lancastria in an effort to escape, when it was attacked by German aircraft and rapidly sank.  Only  about 2500 of those on board were saved, whereas the total number on board is thought to have been between 6000 and 9000.  By any standards, this was a terrible disaster, and the British Government did their best to hush it up by issuing a “D” notice to muzzle the press and threatening the survivors with court-martial if they talked.  Clearly it was thought at the time to be one piece of bad news too many, nor did the presence of so many stranded men fit with the freshly minted myth of the “Dunkirk Miracle.”   Even in later years the Government proved very sensitive on the subject, possibly because they feared legal action from families on the grounds that the ship had deliberately been grossly overloaded.


Then there’s the sorry fate of the “City of Adelaide”  which you must have heard of, as it’s one of  only two or three composite wood/iron sailing clippers still in existence (the other famous one being the Cutty Sark). You hadn’t? Anyway, it’s currently in Scotland, hauled up on a slipway after sinking at its moorings, and waiting for somebody to  secure its future.  Scottish funding dried up to the point where the current custodians, the Scottish Maritime Museum, applied to North Ayrshire Council for permission to demolish it and thus rid themselves of this burdensome relic.  A shameful tale. A historic building would not be treated in this shabby fashion.  Or would it?

Grand Hotel Glasgow image
Grand Hotel Glasgow (on left) demolished 1968

I just finished  reading “Britain’s Lost Cities” – a chronicle of architectural destruction, by Gavin Stamp.   The built-up centres of Britain’s major cities bear little resemblance today to their appearance in photographs taken before the Second World War.  You might be forgiven for thinking that the damage was mostly done by the Luftwaffe, but in fact it had its roots before the war began, and was carried on with enthusiasm during the Fifties and Sixties.  There was a burning zeal to knock down and replace anything old, regardless of merit.   It’s become a cliche to say that the post-war planners did more damage than the Luftwaffe, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Many fine and substantial buildings, burnt by wartime raids  but still restorable, were demolished almost before the rubble was cold.   During the destruction of Coventry in the notorious raid, the planners, who by 1939 had already smashed up many of the city’s medieval buildings, were said to be giving a thumbs-up every time an obstacle to their redevelopment plan went up in flames.

All this might be forgivable if the new was an improvement on the old, but in many cases the old looked very impressive while the new was often a ring road that smashed a hole through an old district, or was a  dreary shopping centre, or some other building that nobody would miss if it was demolished overnight. In many cases the  developments of the fifties and sixties are (like Birmingham’s Bull Ring) being redeveloped again because of their inherent dreariness, or because of building defects, while the Victorian or earlier buildings that escaped the vandals still stand.   One might say that there was outrage when the barbarians and vandals came by air from Germany, but indifference when they came from offices in Britain.  Contrast British hatred of the old with the civic pride of the Continentals, who in many places rebuilt their waist-high piles of rubble to look almost exactly like their pre- war towns.