There was a time when recusant history was written almost entirely from documents and architectural evidence was ignored, except by authors like Camm and Squiers. But at least it could be argued then that papers were more perishable than brick and stone, and in more urgent need of recording and preservation. Less than twenty years ago, in 1958, the theme of the first Oxford Conference on recusant history was ‘The Vanishing Archive’. Today, a much graver threat is that of the vanishing building. An exhibition held in London recently to mark European Architectural Heritage Year included records of at least twenty-five recusant houses that have been demolished, and in the last three months there have been two more cases which illustrate the urgency of the problem.
At the end of 1975, the Secretary for the Environment allowed the demolition of almost two-thirds of Brough Hall, near Catterick in Yorkshire. The central block of the house is Elizabethan and contains a priest-hole; about 1730 it was given a classical front, and forty years later two balancing wings were added by Thomas Atkinson. Now the east wing and all the centre except one pedimented bay are to be pulled down. This will mean the destruction of a panelled Elizabethan hall, of a Georgian room running the length of the first floor, of the hide, and of the Elizabethan friezes on the second floor. If, as often happens, the house must be reduced in size for economic reasons, the centre block should be preserved and the wings removed, as, for instance, at Mertoun in Berwickshire and (with the reluctant sacrifice of the chapel by William Ireland) at Houghton Hall in Yorkshire.