Mavis Batey: from codebreaker to campaigner for historic parks and gardens
- Written by Sarah Jackson
A national register begins
A national register of historic gardens was mooted and Mavis set forth to get official backing from Anthony Crosland, then Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment. ‘Of course, I got the usual answer: "No money, no staff". So I said to him: "Shall we do a pilot scheme, if you haven't got the money? We are all volunteers." He was slightly taken aback, but he agreed.'
Mavis was put in touch with Jennifer Jenkins, Chairman of the Historic Buildings Council, who set up an unofficial gardens committee. ‘The minutes were written up after hours, and we didn't even get an official cup of tea!' laughs Mavis, ‘But we must always be grateful to Jennifer Jenkins for the encouragement she gave to getting historic gardens into mainstream heritage.'
From this point, the GHS took the first steps in the process that would lead to the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England. A pilot survey of six counties was begun in 1977. Mavis herself surveyed Oxfordshire single-handedly, covering some 40 gardens and landscape parks over a period of years.
In 1983, the National Heritage Act set up a new body, the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England (later known as English Heritage), which was empowered to compile a national register of parks and gardens of special historic interest.
The recording work that Mavis and others on her team had been doing fed naturally into this, and in 1984 English Heritage published the first 10 county registers. Mavis became a member of the English Heritage Historic Parks and Gardens Panel for the next 10 years, helping to oversee the publication of further registers alongside her GHS colleague Christopher Thacker, who had become English Heritage's first Gardens Inspector.
The registers gave historic gardens official status for the first time, and have over the years strengthened the hand of those dedicated to their conservation. As Mavis wrote in 1991: ‘Our representations now fit[ted] into a recognized slot, whereas before we sometimes wondered if their destination had been the waste-paper basket'.
Despite her commitment to the protection of historic landscapes, Mavis has never been in favour of statutory protection for gardens of the same kind that covers historic buildings.
‘Gardens are an organic process, and that's what makes them so different from buildings to handle,' she says. ‘I wouldn't like to see any rigid policy: it's important that everything is looked at on its own merits. A lot of things can be done that keep the atmosphere and the designer's intention, but things may have to change.'
Fighting for funds
There was very little money available for gardens as the settings of historic buildings, and none at all for independent designed landscapes. A turning point came with the setting up of the National Heritage Memorial Fund in 1980, in which Mavis by chance played a pivotal role.
‘We were desperate about Painshill: the commercial people there were growing Christmas trees in Hamilton's lake,' she says. ‘After the war, Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton had inspiringly set up the Land Fund. Rather than the usual war memorials, he felt that acquiring scenic land in perpetual memory of the fallen would be more fitting. However, being the Treasury, the money allocated was never separately accounted for and it went into a black hole, which meant that Dalton's wishes were never carried out.'
In 1976, Mavis contacted the Treasury about the Fund, as it seemed that Painshill might qualify, but her enquiries were met with a blank. ‘You'd have to know how disorganised I am to know that this was a miracle, but I actually wrote down the time of the conversation, and the official's name,' says Mavis.
At a subsequent Government inquiry into the suppression of the Fund, the Treasury asserted that no-one had ever asked about it: ‘Then I appeared with my number and date and time and name!' she laughs.
It was to Mavis's great joy that Painshill was one of the first landscapes to receive grant aid from the new, independent National Heritage Memorial Fund when it was set up. ‘I was sent the National Land Fund Report by special messenger and I felt very important as it said on it "Not to be made public until noon on 14 June 1978", and it was then 10 minutes to!' she recalls.