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Dorothy Brown: Tireless Defender of Bristol’s Historic Architecture

In recognition of the legacy of Dorothy Brown (1927-2013) in the conservation of historic Bristol, Johanna Darque reflects upon the MBE recipient’s lifelong dedication to the preservation of Bristol’s architectural heritage.

Dorothy Brown was an unstoppable guardian of Bristol’s public spaces and historic buildings, successfully campaigning for the conservation of, amongst many others, the Clifton Lido, Brunswick Square, and Acton Court in South Gloucestershire. She was well known in Bristol for her indomitable passion for preserving the architectural and historical landscape of Bristol and was well respected and liked by council members, MPs and members of the public alike. Her recent passing is a great loss to the city of Bristol but her legacy can be seen in much of the cityscape of Bristol as we know it today.

Born in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1927, Brown supported herself through university at Edinburgh as her father disapproved of women’s education. She eventually settled in Bristol with her husband Tom and their five children in 1954. In 1979 Brown played an integral part in establishing the Conservation Advisory Panel (CAP), part of Bristol City Council, and remained on the board and attended meetings until the end of her life. She was awarded an MBE in 1988, in recognition of her work for the city of Bristol, and an honorary degree from Bristol University in 1991. She published numerous books on Bristol and the local area. Brown passed away in 2013, whilst working on a campaign at her local public library in Redland.

The first campaign Brown was involved in was the attempt in 1970 to prevent the building of a proposed hotel in the Avon Gorge, a ‘monstrous’ building about which there was ‘a great deal of opposition in Clifton and elsewhere’. Brown wrote, and encouraged others to write, to local MPs, councillors and the press, insisting the development be halted. After much lobbying and press coverage, the campaign was successful and the Avon Gorge remained untouched by developers. A year later, Brown founded the Bristol Visual and Environmental Group, with the aim of ‘preserv[ing] the historic and unique character and beauty of Bristol and the surrounding countryside, and to promote public education on local history, architectural and environmental matters’. She was actively involved in the organisation right up to her death.

During a time when the residual momentum of Modernism and a prevailing post-war ethic of accelerated redevelopment were driving town planners towards fast, concrete-based development within city centres, Dorothy Brown stood as a bastion of common sense conservation. Her vision for preservation and the historic importance of cities was enormously progressive for 1970s England: English Heritage would not be founded until 1983 and although the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 offered councils the power to protect historic buildings it also allowed councils to seize land to build new housing for the many displaced after World War II. In 2009 Brown was still warning against thoughtless development in the city centre: in some notes for the Conservation Advisory Panel Brown writes, ‘50 years ago, Conservationists in many parts of England fought back from such threats of Brutalist architecture and disregard for History as well as plans for huge Urban Highways. The current demand by the Government for huge numbers of extra houses and the Council’s ideas that this could all be situated in the Central Areas, again threaten this kind of faceless character and scale which could destroy Bristol’s attractive townscape’.

Her passion was to protect the history and character of Bristol, something to which town planners at the time gave little thought. In 1975 she wrote ‘[f]or years […] planning in Bristol utterly ignored the character of the city. Everything was ignored except traffic flow’. Brown’s dedication to Bristol’s historic architecture is obvious throughout her correspondence: in a letter to J. B. Bennett, City Engineer and Town Planner, Brown wrote an impassioned defence of the houses scheduled for demolition: ‘I write to you in disgust and indignation, having just seen the shells of the elegant sandstone houses which are being demolished in Clifton Park. I understood that Clifton is some kind of special area and would have thought that demolitions of this type would have required planning permission’. She was unafraid to confront existing strongholds of power to make public the decisions being made on behalf of the people of Bristol.

In a letter to Robert Cook, the local Conservative MP for Clifton, Brown deplores that ‘planning in Bristol just now seems to be even worse than ever before and something will have to be done about it’. In many ways, Brown herself was to be the change she called for and was integral in saving many buildings in Bristol; her eloquence and determination to prioritise conservation over thoughtless demolition and development embodies an opposition of conservation to the existing power structures in planning and development. The Bristol Visual and Environmental Group shared this objective, with a call for new members that declared ‘the group needs active members who will write letters and initiate campaigns and activities to further its aims’ and ‘expose […] the impact’ of current decisions.

Her tireless efforts to make visible to the public the decisions and discussions that were being made by planning and development authorities were valiant: the Bristol Visual and Environmental Group regularly published newsletters (Environmental News) alongside posters and other campaign material to keep members up to date with current campaigns and decisions being made in the city. In particular their campaign to generate public interest in the debate surrounding Canon’s Marsh reveals a determination to reunite the people with their own environment: a bright yellow poster from 1999 advertises the dates of public debates and further campaign material advocates affordable homes for Bristolians in the city centre, instead of ‘more offices’ and commercial developments. Through her uncompromising campaigning and lobbying, Brown attempted to dismantle, or at the very least deeply challenge, existing power structures in the processes behind planning and development decisions. It is significant therefore that Brown was integrally involved in establishing the Conservation Advisory Panel (CAP), which advised the council’s planning department regarding the conservational implications of plans for the city. Through this Brown was able to represent the interests of conservation and of making public the decisions made by the panel and council.

Dorothy Brown returned the city of Bristol to its people through her tireless efforts to inform and encourage members of the public to get involved in the decisions being made about their city. Her passion and adoration for the city in which she lived most of her life is evident throughout her correspondence and the Bristol Visual and Environmental Group’s campaign material and is a fitting legacy to the woman who saved so much of Bristol’s wonderful architecture. Bristol’s architectural landscape owes a great deal to the pen and the determination of Dorothy Brown, MBE.

- Johanna Darque

This essay has been written to coincide with Arnolfini's exhibition The Promise. The Promise focuses on the relationship between a city’s design and the hopes and ambitions of its residents and takes place in Arnolfini and across Bristol. #PromiseBristol  

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