Mavis Batey: from codebreaker to campaigner for historic parks and gardens
- Written by Sarah Jackson
Mavis Batey, literary and garden historian, talks to Sarah Jackson about how she became interested in historic designed landscapes, and involved in campaigning to conserve them.
Mavis Batey has always been one for a cause. As Honorary Secretary, and then President, of the Garden History Society (GHS) for almost 30 years, she has been at the forefront of the movement to protect historic designed landscapes, helping to ensure the survival of many important gardens for the future.
Born Mavis Lever on 5 May 1921, the young Mavis grew up in Norbury and was educated at a convent in Croydon. She was deep into studies on German Romanticism at University College, London when the Second World War broke out. Realising the sobering connection between her subject and Nazi nationalism, she abandoned her studies and applied to the Foreign Office to do war work instead.
Code-breaking at Bletchley
Mavis was sent to Bletchley Park, the centre of code-breaking operations which were crucial to the allied victory in the war. Here she met and married her husband Keith in 1942, and together they kept the secret of their war-time intelligence work, forbidden like everyone else involved from speaking about it for the next 30 years.
Since her involvement at Bletchley became known, Mavis has been in great demand from researchers wanting inside information. Actress Kate Winslet wanted to know what it was like to be a woman at Bletchley for her part in the film Enigma. Most recently Mavis has been helping researchers to establish how much of the action in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels was based on his career in naval intelligence.
After the war, the Bateys had a spell in Canada, where Keith was in the Commonwealth Relations Office. A transfer brought them back to England, and in the 1960s they moved to Oxford, where Keith was appointed Secretary of the University Chest and later Treasurer of the Oxford college, Christ Church.
The beginnings of activism
Mavis had long taken joy in the natural landscape, escaping to the Shirley Hills beyond Croydon as a child. In Oxford, she fell under the spell of the influential William Hoskins, author of Making of the English Landscape, and joined the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE).
She was on the Executive Committee of the Oxfordshire branch of the CPRE at a time when the county's historic landscapes were at risk from development and the CPRE took a lead in campaigning to protect them.
‘It seemed to me that the moment I'd got interested in these lovely landscape parks, they came under threat. The Ministry of Transport actually said that putting a road through Highclere Park would give the motorist something good to look at as they drove through!' she says indignantly.
Discovering Nuneham Courtenay
Mavis came to the history of gardens almost by chance when she and her family moved to the 18th-century estate of Nuneham Courtenay, which was owned by the University of Oxford.
‘We lived in the agent's house, right in the middle of a Capability Brown park, but it was William Mason's garden that really got me. We had to cut our way into it. It was all overgrown and garden ornaments were buried in the grass, but I knew at once it wasn't just an ordinary derelict garden: someone had tried to say something there, I knew at once it wasn't just an ordinary derelict garden: someone had tried to say something there,' she recalls.
Mavis spent the next few years researching the garden, and to her delight she found that it was not only part of garden history but of the history of literature as well. The garden turned out to have been inspired by Julie's garden in Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise.
Mavis was pleased to be able to establish that that Nuneham was in fact the village immortalised in Oliver Goldsmith's celebrated poem, ‘The Deserted Village'. Her article in Oxoniensa in 1968, ‘Nuneham Courtenay: an Oxfordshire 18th-century Deserted Village' revealed just how many villages had been removed in the making of landscape parks during the 18th century.
A Jekyll coup
With her family growing up, Mavis joined the Oxford Department of External Studies in 1970 as a part-time tutor in the history of landscape. She took part in Oxford American summer schools, taking students on tours of gardens and landscapes. This resulted in an unexpected coup at the end of the 1970s.
‘On one occasion we went round looking at Lutyens houses and Jekyll gardens, and they loved them, and I said "Well, we've got the gardens and you in America have got the Jekyll plans needed for restoration!" And, bless their hearts - it was the University of California - they had everything copied and sent back, and so suddenly I was confronted with this huge Jekyll record!' she recalls.
The Jekyll papers had been auctioned after the Second World War and bought by landscape architect Beatrix Farrand who had taken them to America, where they ended up at Berkeley. Now for the first time they were all available to English researchers on microfilm.
‘It was terribly exciting, all kinds of things we didn't even know Lutyens had done, but he'd sent Jekyll the plans so that when she couldn't get around she could design actually on the plan. There were some of the war cemeteries in France and even one of the Cenotaph, all in this great stack,‘ says Mavis. Richard Bisgrove looked after and administered them for the GHS for many years before a permanent home was found at the National Monuments Record.
The Garden History Society campaigns
Mavis's research on Nuneham brought her into contact with the GHS, which had been founded in 1965, and in 1971 she became its Honorary Secretary.
The protection of historic buildings had long been on the public agenda, but in the 1970s historic gardens simply did not figure on the official radar. Mavis and her colleagues realised that as well as being a learned society, the GHS would have to take on a campaigning role if historic landscapes were to be preserved for future generations. Important sites such as Petworth and Chillington were threatened by roads, and Audley End with the indignity of sewage works.
The GHS fixed on European Architectural Heritage Year in 1975 as an opportunity to achieve recognition for historic gardens in their own right. The Society set up a conservation committee in 1974, with Mavis at the helm, and lobbied on the Town and Country Amenities Bill then going through Parliament.
The resulting Town and Country Amenities Act (1974) was the first piece of legislation to recognise the concept of the historic garden in its own right, and to offer some protection for gardens as the settings of listed buildings.
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.
Conservation practice moves forward
Another event which Mavis identifies as a turning point in the conservation of designed landscapes was the Great Storm of October 1987, when she served on the English Heritage Storm Damage Committee.
For the first time, the owners of historic landscapes could apply for restoration grants, which had to be linked to plans for accurate historical restoration of the gardens. ‘They were told that if they did get the money for their parks, then they must have a historical survey, and they must restore it according to the findings, which of course they'd never done before,' explains Mavis.
There were some surprises during this time, such as at Petworth, where trees that had come down in the storm could be ring-dated. ‘What we thought were Capability Brown clumps had been planted ten years before he was born!' she laughs.
Mavis stepped down as GHS Secretary in 1985, continuing as President for the next 15 years. The autumn edition of the GHS Newsletter that year paid tribute to her, saying: ‘Under her guidance we have grown from a tiny specialist society to an organization of national standing.'
In 1986 she was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society for her contribution to the preservation of gardens which would otherwise have been lost. The following year she received an MBE for ‘services to the preservation and conservation of historic gardens'.
Mavis and Keith moved to their present home on the Sussex coast, a Regency cottage which was once the weekend bolt-hole of Duff and Diana Cooper. Retirement did not mean slowing down, however, and Mavis has written a steady stream of books and articles, celebrating her twin loves of literature and landscape.
Books on Regency gardens and the gardens of Oxford and Cambridge were followed by works on Jane Austen and Alexander Pope in relation to the English landscape. She has also collaborated on several other publications, including a book on the Privy Garden at Hampton Court and one on the Thames river landscape between Hampton and Kew. Another book, The English Garden Tour, written with GHS Conservation Officer David Lambert , is widely consulted for references.
Back to Bletchley Park
Mavis's latest project is a book about her famous code-breaker boss at Bletchley, Dilly Knox, a brilliant but absent-minded man, who had been known to stuff his pipe with sandwiches rather than tobacco. ‘A far cry from James Bond,' says Mavis with a smile.
Another current project dear to her heart is the American Garden Trail which she is helping to set up at Bletchley Park.
‘There were 300 Americans working with us, and that's where Churchill's ‘special relationship' through Intelligence began, so we wanted to do something that would be commemorative of that,' she explains. ‘Not only did we have a special relationship in the war, but there is this special gardening relationship. The emigrants took our flowers to America and soon people like Bartram were sending back wild plants which became garden plants here.'
The trail begins, appropriately, from a giant Californian sequoia, planted in Victorian times, on the front lawn of the house where Bletchley staff played rounders together (confusingly, the Americans had different rules!). Each of the 50 American states has its own tree and flower emblem, which will be represented in the planting running alongside the lake where Mavis often strolled, escaping the thick fug of tobacco smoke in the huts where the code-breakers worked.
A response to her surroundings has always been a strong motivation for Mavis throughout her career, especially if it had a literary connection. Her husband's rooms overlooking the Deanery garden at Christ Church got her thinking about Lewis Carroll and ‘Alice', just as Nuneham had sparked her interest in garden history. Pushing her grandchild along the riverside at Richmond led to the book on Pope and her interest in the Thames landscape. ‘Like everybody else, it's where you are...I do what comes my way,' she says modestly.
Mavis Batey has been a tireless campaigner, never afraid to act alone if necessary. Asked over the phone by a civil servant whether there was any local opposition to a planning proposal, the solicitor replied: ‘There is, and she's sitting next to me...'
You should make your voice known. You never know how things are going to turn out.
A strong belief in community action coupled with unfailing optimism has underpinned her work. ‘Practically all of our legislation comes from grassroots campaigning,' she says. ‘You should make your voice known. You never know how things are going to turn out.'
Batey, Mavis. Personal interview 24 January, 2008.
Batey, Mavis, David Lambert and Kim Wilkie, Indignation! The campaign for conservation (London: Kit-Cat Books, 2000).
Batey, Mavis, Alexander Pope: the poet and the landscape (London: Barn Elms, 1999).
Batey, Mavis, Jane Austen and the English Landscape (London: Barn Elms, 1996).
Batey, Mavis, Regency Gardens (Princes Risborough: Shire Publications Ltd., 1995).
Batey, Mavis, and Jan Woudstra, The story of the Privy Garden at Hampton Court (London: Barn Elms, 1995).
Batey, Mavis, and others, Arcadian Thames: the river landscape from Hampton to Kew (London: Barn Elms, 1994).
Batey, Mavis, The adventures of Alice: the story behind the stories Lewis Carroll told (London: Macmillan Children's, 1991).
Batey, Mavis, ‘The Progress of Garden Conservation', Garden History Society Newsletter, 31 (Spring 1991), 22-26.
Batey, Mavis, and David Lambert, The English garden tour: a view into the past (London: Murray, 1990).
Batey, Mavis, The historic gardens of Oxford and Cambridge (London: Macmillan London, 1989).
Batey, Mavis, Oxford gardens: the university's influence on garden history (Amersham: Avebury, 1982).
Batey, Mavis, ‘Nuneham Courtnay: an Oxfordshire 18th-century deserted village', Oxoniensia, Vol. XXXIII (1968),108-124.