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Associational culture and the shaping of urban space: civic societies in Britain before 1960

  • LUCY E. HEWITT (a1)

We currently know civic societies as a widespread part of the amenity lobby, yet their history is little explored. Focusing on the emergence and growth of civic societies before 1960, this article examines some of that history. The first section provides a background context, linking civic groups to shifting ideas about architecture and space, and to reform movements of the nineteenth century. The second section explores the growth in numbers of associations and their memberships. The third section develops a discussion of the ideas and activities of societies, focusing particularly on their articulation of social and spatial interconnection, their use of a prescriptive urban aesthetic and their political influence.

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1 Abercrombie, P., ‘A civic society. An outline of its scope, formation and functions’, Town Planning Review, 8 (1920), 81.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 80.

4 Larkham, P., Conservation and the City (London, 1996), 65. Published work is currently limited to Hewitt, L.E., ‘The London Society and the Development Plan for Greater London’, London Topographical Record, 30 (2010), 115–31; Gilbert, D., ‘London of the future: the metropolis reimagined after the Great War’, Journal of British Studies, 43 (2004), 1; Beaufoy, H., ‘“Order out of chaos”: the London Society and the planning of London, 1912–1920’, Planning Perspectives, 12 (1997), 2; and P. Larkham, Conservation and the City, which includes a survey of civic societies in the second half of the twentieth century.

5 Growth rates for Britain's urban population remained above 20% per decade between 1811 and 1881; see Morris, R.J. and Rodger, R., ‘An introduction to British urban history, 1820–1914’, in Morris, R.J. and Rodger, R. (eds.), The Victorian City. A Reader in British Urban History, 1820–1914 (London, 1993), 3.

6 Kellett, J.R., The Impact of Railways on Victorian Cities (London and Toronto, 1969), 289.

7 Rappaport, E.D., ‘“Hall of temptation”: gender, politics and the construction of the department store in late Victorian London’, Journal of British Studies, 35 (1996), 5883. The classic account of late nineteenth-century arcades remains Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA, 1999).

8 Joyce, P., The Rule of Freedom. Liberalism and the Modern City (London, 2003), ch. 3; Prior, N., Museums and Modernity: Art Galleries and the Making of Modern Culture (Oxford, 2002).

9 Dennis, R., Cities in Modernity. Representation and Productions of Metropolitan Space, 1840–1930 (Cambridge, 2008), 54–5.

10 Crary, J., Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1990); Oetterman, S., The Panorama. History of a Mass Medium (New York, 1997).

11 Bales, K., ‘Charles Booth's survey of Life and Labour of the People in London 1889–1903’, in Bulmer, M., Bales, K. and Sklar, K.K. (eds.), The Social Survey in Historical Perspective, 1880–1940 (Cambridge, 1991).

12 Wohl, A.S., ‘Introduction’, in Wohl, A.S. (ed.), The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, with Leading Articles from the Pall Mall Gazetter of October 1883 (Leicester, 1970), 25.

13 Ibid., 22.

14 Anderson, A. and Darling, E., ‘The Hill sisters: cultural philanthropy and the embellishment of lives in late nineteenth century England’, in Darling, E. and Whitworth, L. (eds.), Women and the Making of Built Space in England, 1870–1950 (Aldershot, 2007), 41.

15 Whelan, R., ‘Editor's introduction’, Octavia Hill's Letters to Fellow-Workers, 1872–1911 (London, 2005), xxvii.

16 Ibid., 385.

17 Quoted in Fletcher, I., ‘Some aspects of aestheticism’, in Brack, O.M. (ed.), Twilight of Dawn. Studies of English Literature in Transition (Tuscon, 1987), 24.

18 Ian Fletcher has suggested that the Kyrle Society was the best example of ‘missionary aestheticism’, ibid.

19 Ruskin, J., The Seven Lamps of Architecture (London, 1910), 339–40.

20 Sweet, R., Antiquaries. The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth Century Britain (London, 2004), 294.

21 Miele, C., ‘Conservation and the enemies of progress?’, in Miele, C. (ed.), From William Morris: Building Conversation and the Arts and Crafts Cult of Authenticity 1877–1939 (New Haven and London, 2005), 1517.

22 Levine, P., The Amateur and the Professional. Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838–1886 (Cambridge, 1986).

23 Hobhouse, H., London Survey'd. The work of the Survey of London 1894–1994 (Swindon, 1994).

24 Levine, The Amateur and the Professional, 61.

25 Letter from George C. Williamson, founder of the Guildford Society, to Thackeray Turner, secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, 3 Oct. 1896. SPAB archives.

26 Liverpool City Guild, formed in 1909, represented an amalgamation of three associations – the City Beautiful Society, the Trees Preservation and Open Spaces Association and the Open Spaces Branch of the Liverpool Kyrle Society; see ‘The Liverpool City Guild’, Town Planning Review, 1 (1910), 84; the Bristol Kyrle Society became the Bristol Civic Society in 1943, see ‘Report of the sub-committee on the future of the society’, 23 Feb. 1943, papers relating to the Bristol Kyrle Society, Bristol Record Office, 30632/1.

27 On occasion, there was debate within societies about the name chosen for the organization. The Cambridge Preservation Society, for example, was named to associate it with the Oxford Preservation Trust formed two years previously; however, in Cambridge early activities concerned a planning scheme and a number of members argued that the name of the society should refer to planning, see Cooper, A.J., Planners and Preservationists. The Cambridge Preservation Society and the City's Green Belt, 1928–1985 (Cambridge, 2000), 26.

28 The information given in this article is based on evidence from the records of local and national civic organizations and from the archives of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The most comprehensive early list of societies was published by the Civic Trust in their 1960 report, The First Three Years, Report by the Trustees. However, this list includes a substantial number of rural preservation societies among the 298 groups listed. While there are close connections, at least in terms of early propagandists, between civic associations concerned with urban space and the rural preservation movement, the concern here is with urban bodies and the figures given provide an estimate of societies that took an urban centre as their focus.

29 The text of a lecture given by Sybella Branford to the Conference on the topic of ‘Civic societies and their aims’ appeared in Journal of the London Society, 67 (Sep. 1923), 8–9.

30 Suggestion reported in the Journal of the London Society, 256 (Jun. 1939).

31 Minutes of council meeting, 25 Apr. 1939. The Birmingham Society maintained this stance after the war, noting again in March 1945 that it considered affiliation undesirable.

32 Numbers for 1942 given in the annual report of the London Society, 1942, Journal of the London Society, Mar. 1943.

33 Reported in the minutes of a committee meeting, Bristol Civic Society, Nov. 1948, Bristol Record Office, 33199/1.

34 Civic Trust, The First Three Years, see n. 28.

35 Abercrombie, ‘A civic society’, 90.

36 To illustrate, the members of Glasgow Civic Society included: James Bell, councillor, lord provost, and one of Bell brothers; James Brand, parish councillor and public works contractor; Samuel Chisholm, councillor, lord provost, and wholesale grocer; Thomas Mason, town councillor; John Ure Primrose, councillor and lord provost; David Macauley Stevenson, councillor, provost, ship broker and coal exporter; John Stirling Maxwell, Conservative MP for the College Division; John Inglis of A. & J. Inglis, shipbuilders; William Lorimer, chairman of North British Locomotive Company and the Steel Company of Scotland; Thomas Mason of Morrison and Mason, builders and engineers; R.M. Burrows, professor of Greek; A.K. Chalmers, physician and medical officer of health; James Devon, prison medical officer; Samson Gemmel, professor of practice medicine and physician at Glasgow Royal Hospital; Henry Jones, professor of moral philosophy; Richard Lodge, professor of modern history; John Christie McVail, medical officer of health; William Smart, professor of political economy.

37 Planners and architects included Stanley Adshead, W.R. Davidge, Patrick Geddes, H.. Lanchester, Edwin Lutyens, David Barclay Niven, George L. Pepler, A. Beresford Pit, W.E. Riley, Leonard Stokes, Raymond Unwin and Aston Webb. In 1913, 23 society members were MPs, 14 were peers, and 9 were elected to the London County Council. By 1920, the number of MPs and peers had increased to 33 and 32 respectively, while the society's Parliamentary Committee had grown to include 40. Among the businessmen were Viscount Hambleden of W.H. Smith; Gordon Selfridge, the owner of Selfridges; and Sir Richard Burbidge, the managing director of Harrods. The artist members of the society included: Sir Edward Poynter, Frank Brangwyn, Sir Thomas Brock, Sir George James Frampton and, by 1919, the sculptor Feodora Gleichen.

38 The Warwick Society, annual report and membership list, Sep. 1952, Warwick Record Office, CR674/3/2 and CR674/21.

39 Minute book, constitution approved 14 Dec. 1896, Glasgow University SpColl, MS Gen. 1342; Edward Caird was by then Master of Bailiol College, but had been professor of philosophy at Glasgow University, ‘Individualism and socialism: being the inaugural address to the Civic Society of Glasgow’, 1897, Glasgow University, SpColl, MacLehose 770.

40 Reported in the Glasgow Herald, 4 Nov. 1904.

41 Jones, H., ‘Society depend on man’, in Social Responsibilities: Lectures to Businessmen (Glasgow, 1905), 29.

42 Meller, H., ‘Patrick Geddes: an analysis of his theory of civics’, Victorian Studies, 16 (1973), 157.

43 Journal of the London Society, 31 (Sep. 1920).

44 Journal of the London Society, 17 (Jun. 1918), 1.

45 Details of purposes taken from G.F. Hill, On Medals, published by the Civic Arts Association (1917), 16.

46 Civic Survey Joint Committee Minutes, 29 Jul. 1915 – 21 Jan. 1921, RIBA archive, ref. no. RIBA/Env.

47 Given in the Journal of the London Society, 33 (Nov. 1920).

48 ‘The social survey’, book reviews, Town Planning Review, 7 (Oct. 1916), 51.

49 The Dublin Civic Survey. Report Prepared by H.T. O'Rourke and the Dublin Civic Survey Committee for the Civics Institute of Ireland (Liverpool and London, 1925); Southampton. A Civic Survey. Being the Report of the Civic Survey Committee of the Southampton Civic Society, ed. P. Ford (Oxford, 1931), xi.

50 One of the best discussions of this genre is Picon's article on Parisian cartography: Picon, A., ‘Nineteenth-century urban cartography and the scientific ideal: the case of Paris’, Osiris, 18 (2003), 135–49.

51 Pepler, G.L., ‘Greater London’, in Town Planning Conference, London, 10–15 October, 1909. Transactions, RIBA (London, 1911), esp. 612.

52 Hewitt, ‘The London Society’; Hewitt, L.E., ‘Towards a greater urban geography: regional planning and associational networks in London, c. 1900–1920’, Planning Perspectives, 26 (2011), 549–66.

53 The society's land purchases were summarized by William Haywood in The Work of the Birmingham Civic Society (Birmingham, 1946); the attempt to establish a consultative role for the society's Technical Committee is documented in the records of the society, particularly minutes of the council meeting, 10 Feb. 1919.

54 Cooper, Planners and Preservationists, 37.

55 Ibid, 63.

56 ‘Architectural censorship of streets in cities’, reported in the Glasgow Herald, 17 Feb. 1905.

57 Birmingham Civic Society, annual report, 1936–37.

58 The Civic Society published a pamphlet on the subject of tombstones in 1931: ‘The object of a graveyard memorial is to perpetuate memory. To do this effectively the first essentials are a suitable and enduring material, and lettering of good character that will always be readable. The dignity and beauty of the simple graveyard monuments to be found in our old churchyards result for the most part from the use of local material and workmanship. The general ugliness of modern cemeteries is due very largely to the use of foreign materials and workmanship . . . English stones are best suited to the subdued tones of English landscapes and sky. White marble is an ostentatious and foreign material which does not harmonise with our conditions. There are many stones quarried in this country that are more enduring than white marble, such as Hopton Wood, Bolton Wood, Darley Dale (Stancliffe White), Scout Brown York, Robin Hood Blue York, Cornish, Aberdeen, and Penmaenmawr granites’, quoted in Haywood, The Work of the Birmingham Civic Society, 117.

59 Birmingham Civic Society, annual report, 1934–35, 16; F. Pick, ‘The art of the street’, paper given before the London Society, reported in the Journal of the London Society, 64 (Jun. 1923), 10.

60 Joyce, The Rule of Freedom.

61 Annual report of the Birmingham Civic Society, 1918–20, 3.

62 ‘Nothing in our modern civilization has been more mischievously underestimated than the influence of the physical aspect of a town upon the spiritual and moral life of its community. People, therefore, who resent the chaos and squalor inseparable from everyday life in a neglected city, tolerate these conditions only while they must, but leave them when they can . . . Every citizen possessing civic consciousness should look upon it as an honourable obligation to see that his city presents a noble standard of order and comeliness . . . It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the state of a city indicates the character of its citizens’, The Dublin Civic Survey, Report Prepared by H.T. O'Rourke and the Dublin Civic Survey Committee for the Civics Institute of Ireland (Liverpool and London, 1925), xvii.

63 Abercrombie, ‘A civic society’, 87.

64 Reports of the Birmingham Civic Society, Jun. 1918 – Jun. 1920, 15, and 1921–22, 6–7.

65 Number of submissions given by Haywood, The Work of the Birmingham Civic Society, 39.

66 This historical narrative is implied quite widely in accounts of the development of planning. Ward, for example, suggests repeatedly that the impact of the 1909 Act is to remove planning activities from the voluntary sector and into the sphere of local government, and contrasts the ‘reformers’ and ‘professionals’ working in urban development, Ward, S.V., Planning and Urban Change (London, 2004), esp. 9, 32.

67 Patrick Abercrombie is clearly one such figure, but there were others. For example, John Burns, president of the Local Government Board, was a consistent and open supporter of the London Society and, at the other end of the political spectrum, Neville Chamberlain joined both the Birmingham Civic Society and the London Society and can be shown to have pursued their agendas through his political life.

68 I note, though, that Dellheim found different degrees of paternalism in the approaches of Cadbury and Lever at Port Sunlight and Bournville, Dellheim, C., ‘Utopia Ltd: Bournville and Port Sunlight’, in Fraser, D. (ed.), Cities, Class and Communication (London, 1990).

69 Details of Birmingham Civic Society's Trust appear in ‘The Birmingham Civic Society’, Town Planning Review, 10 (Sep. 1923), 174; William Lever appears in the membership of the London Society in 1913 and 1920. I think it also likely that he was a member of the Liverpool City Guild, formed in 1909 by the members of the Liverpool School of Architecture, given his close involvement with the school and its members at the time.

70 For a particularly good discussion of the ethics of Geddesian ideas, see Osborne, T. and Rose, N., ‘Spatial phenomenotechnics: making space with Booth and Geddes’, Environment and Planning D, 22 (2004), 209–28.

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