Pictured: The historic Grade II-listed Pump House that has been saved from developers
Published: 27 April, 2012
ONE of the most historic buildings in London – dubbed a “Globe Theatre of engineering” – was dramatically plucked from the jaws of developers after a saga of cock-ups and blunders almost led to it being turned into luxury flats.
The Grade II-listed Pump House, between Rosebery Avenue and Amwell Street, Clerkenwell, was described as a heritage site of national importance at Tuesday’s planning committee.
It is the site of the New River Head, an artificial waterway bringing fresh water into the city.
Built by Sir Hugh Myddelton and completed in 1613 the river and the industrial buildings at its head laid the way for the growth of London into a world city and the creation of Islington.
Yet in November planning officers were all set to allow the building to be turned into flats.
They had forgotten that when Thames Water began selling off the complex 20 years ago – many other buildings have been turned into flats – the utility company had promised to hand the Pump House over to the council as a heritage centre once it was no longer in use.
Instead, in 2009, Thames sold it to a private developer who wasn’t told about the pledge.
A spokesman for the developers, Turnhold, said on Tuesday that through all their dealings with Islington’s planning officers over the past two years there had been no mention of the promise of a heritage site.
In their report to the elected councillors who make final planning decisions, Town Hall civil servants claimed that the promise of a heritage centre was not legally enforceable.
Turnhold had, however, agreed two weeks ago to create a narrow path around a wind pump base and on to an upstairs room for public access.
A passionate appeal not to allow the development to go ahead from conservation groups – including the Heritage of London Trust and the Islington Preservation Society, who are working on plans to create a museum at the site – led to councillors throwing out the plans.
Hugh Myddelton – an ancestor of Sir Hugh Myddelton – also spoke out against the plans, arguing that his relative would be “turning in his grave”.
Opposition also came from the Amwell Society, Clerkenwell Parochial School and the Islington Society.
Speaking on behalf of the Amwell Society and the Parochial School, David Sulkin said that previous promises by other developers to allow public access to the gardens had proved false as they were “rarely open”.
“Sir Hugh Myddelton was a master of engineering,” he said. “A heritage centre should be opened to celebrate that. The New River Head is a Globe Theatre of Engineering.”
Lib Dem Councillor George Allen, who represents the area, said that in his 30 years in the community he had never “felt the sense of outrage as I have looking at this application”.
He added that to allow the proposal would destroy the reputation of Islington Council. “There has been no public consultation whatsoever,” he said. “This application will wreck the chances of a heritage centre. Will anyone take seriously our planning briefs again? Developers will think that if they leave things long enough we’ll forget and officers will slag off their predecessors.”
David Gibson, chairman of the Islington Society, told the committee that plans were being drawn up by the Heritage of London Trust and Islington Preservation Society to create a proper museum.
Islington’s former legal officer Deborah Cluett argued that the council was within its legal rights to refuse the application because the heritage value of the building was of national significance.
Speaking on behalf of the developer, architect Kevin Goodwin said that when the site was bought in 2009 there had been no mention of any previous agreements or promises.
He went on to say that over two years of dealing with officers, including site visits, while the terms of the development were negotiated, the subject of a heritage centre or museum had never come up.
He added that he had subsequently been told in writing that the development “did not require the Pump House to be used for heritage purposes”.
“We do not agree that [the plans] harm the buildings,” he added.
The councillors on the planning committee were vehement in their denunciation of the proposals, however.
Councillor David Wilson said it was “disappointing that Thames Water was the lineal descendant of the people who built the New River Head”.
“They don’t seem to have any idea what they’ve got here. There is no affordable housing and no benefit to the public.”
Labour councillor Robert Khan added that the site had huge potential for a heritage centre.
“This is a site not just of regional significance but national significance,” he said.
In a letter of objection, Islington’s former conservation officer Alec Forshaw, wrote that Islington’s officers “simply didn’t understand” the importance of the New River Head.
“I simply don’t believe that the officers understand the significance of the heritage assets they are dealing with.
"The implication is that officers consider the application site to be a heritage asset of local importance, when in fact it is of London-wide, regional, indeed national importance.”
THE New River is considered a masterpiece of pre-industrial revolution engineering.
It runs for 38 miles from its source in Ware, Hertfordshire, to Clerkenwell, relying on gravity – the river falls at five inches a mile.
It now ends in Stoke Newington.
It was built by Sir Hugh Myddelton, who overcame objections from the landowners through which his canal was to run by co-opting the King into the project. He took a 50 per cent stake.
Harley Sherlock, of the Islington Society, said: “As the original terminating point of a new water course that provided London with fresh drinking water for the first time, the site played a significant role in the health of the City of London’s population, and therefore, on both its social and physical development, played a significant role in the founding of Islington.
It has remained in continual use and the surviving industrial historic structures, the wind pump base and the engine house, date from the 18th century.
The surviving core of the Engine House was designed by the outstanding 18th-century civil engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792), additions to which were made by the notable architect and engineer, Robert Mylne (1733-1863), both as engineers to the New River Company.”