Hadrian's Wall

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd April 1958.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Francis Noel-Baker Mr Francis Noel-Baker , Swindon 12:00 am, 2nd April 1958

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw the attention of the House to the care of one of our most important monuments, and to go rather more fully into the matter than was possible some weeks ago at Question Time. I think it a satisfactory thing that, as we prepare ourselves for the Easter Recess and look back on a series of contentious and controversial debates, we should turn to a question which, though important, is certainly not political.

On the other hand, one can hardly say that the question of Hadrian's Wall is not a contentious matter. There have been times when disputes about it have assumed what one might call theological proportions. Very violent feelings have been aroused not only in recent weeks by articles in the Press and Questions in this House but on a number of occasions during the last thousand or nearly thousand years or so.

My purpose is not to take sides in the dispute in any way, but merely to provide an opportunity to ventilate different points of view and to give the Parliamentary Secretary a proper opportunity to state his own position in the matter in some detail and to say precisely what his Ministry is doing. I understand that the Minister's direct responsibility for Hadrian's Wall is limited to a number of relatively short stretches of its length; that one of the more important, or at any rate the better-known sections, is in the care of the National Trust, while other parts of the wall are in private hands. I believe that it is the general intention of the Minister—and this is the first question I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary—to assume control as time goes by over an ever-increasing length, so that in the end all of it will be under his direct protection and care.

It is obvious that in a debate such as this I do not need to give a detailed description of the Wall which was built or initiated in A.D. 122 by the Emperor Hadrian, after a visit he paid to this part of the Roman Empire, and based on similar defensive works erected in Germany. The purpose was to keep the Scots out of this country—or at any rate the inhabitants of Scotland at that time—and for some hundreds of years, with disasters from time to time during its history, the Wall did succeed in doing that.

It is quite an elaborate defensive system. From what remains one can still see not only sections of the Wall in a relatively good state of preservation, but the elaborate sentinel system constructed at the same time; the mile-castles, small forts set at intervals of about 1,620 yards along its length with gateways to allow the passage of Roman soldiers into the protected areas north of the Wall, and then the two smaller towers between every mile-castle at intervals of about 450 yards. Behind the wall runs a Roman road, a military road, and behind that a vallum with earthworks designed to provide a protective military area in the immediate area of the Wall. Then in the neighbourhood of the Wall, but not part of it, are a series of Roman forts of which I believe there were originally about fifty but now only a handful remain.

The total length of the Wall was originally 80 Roman miles which is about 73 of our miles. Along most of its length it was built to a thickness of 10 ft. and a height of about 15 ft., so most experts think. All along its length it was faced with square facing stones set in mortar by the Roman legionaries. At some points the core was made of rubble set in puddled clay, the work being dune by native labour gangs under the supervision of Roman soldiers. At other places slightly different building techniques were employed and there were modifications introduced while the Wall was being built, particularly to the central section, and to the way in which some of the forts were incorporated into it. All the works were completed during the ten years between A.D. 122 and 132. The Wall was not finally evacuated by Roman troops and their families until about A.D. 400.

The current controversy was initiated in the Press a few weeks ago by an article in the Observer which made a series of grave allegations against the Minister. Reading between the lines, one detects in this onslaught that some kind of interdepartmental warfare appears to have been raging between the Minister's Department and the National Trust. I hope it wil1 be possible for the Minister to mention that matter and to say that the apprehensions on that score are not correct. It would be very undesirable if, in dealing with a monument of this importance, or one in any other part of the country, the officials of the Ministry and the officials of the National Trust, who ought to be working hand in glove and with very cordial relations, were beginning to fight each other in public.

The first article appeared in the Observer on 9th February, written by the archæological correspondent of that newspaper, Jacquetta Hawkes. She started by referring to the turbulent history of the Wall and then gave a surprising analogy. She said that the rôle of what she called the "barbarians"—with whom she identified herself—might now be said to be taken by local archæologists, representatives of the National Trust and other independent critics. The rôle of what she called the "Imperial authority" was represented by the Ancient Monuments Department of the Ministry of Works. She made a passing reference to the inter-Departmental conflict which is apparently taking place.

She said that the original dispute between the Ministry and the National Trust might well now be settled, but that greater issues still remained. She accuses the Ministry of trying to take "the spirit of Subtopia" into the area of the Wall and she refers to "little lawns, cement, railings and notice boards". Somewhere else, reference was made to "Mappin Terraces".

She gets down to her most serious allegation when she says: It is reliably reported that on the section near Birdoswald four workmen are employed with only occasional supervision. They dismantle the Wall, nine feet at a time, stacking the square masonry and rubble filling and consolidating the foundations. She goes on to say: The Roman mortar, which varied in colour from one age to the next and therefore shows repairs and alterations."— which is a matter of importance to archæologists— is destroyed without record. Far worse, the work emerging from the hands of these excellent workmen is not Hadrian's Wall at all. It is a copy—and one which has lost all the gifts of time. Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell us about the section of the Wall which is illustrated by photographs which appeared with that article? I am given to understand that, in point of fact, that section is not in the state in which it was left by the Romans when they evacuated, but is largely a nineteenth-century reconstruction built by Mr. Clayton, who used the original stones but built them into what was virtually a new wall.

There have been arguments about this Wall, and about many other ancient monuments, concerning the extent to which they should be reconstructed. The argument about Hadrian's Wall has also been applied to some of our great religious monuments, as is the case with Stonehenge, and with the Acropolis at Athens. Somebody wrote in a newspaper—I have not been able to trace it—that it would be a very good thing for the Ministry to pull down part of the Wall and reconstruct it so that people could see how it originally looked. That is not a view to which any of us would now subscribe. I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would tell us a little about reconstructions of Hadrian's Wall in the past.

When this first article was referred to at Question Time in the House by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward), by myself, and by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson), the Minister of Works gave a very strong reply. He referred to the article in the Observer and agreed that it was "absolutely inaccurate". In reply to a supplementary question by the hon. Lady whether the Minister regarded the article as "absolutely inaccurate and unfounded", the Minister said: My hon. Friend is entirely correct in her assumption. When he was further questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North, he said that of course there were two opinions on subjects like this— the correct and the incorrect. What is being done by my archæological department … is the correct line, while the line that takes the contrary view is the incorrect one."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th February, 1958; Vol. 583, c. 179 and 180.] The Minister did not leave very much room for doubt about his position in the matter.

Nevertheless, a great deal of doubt has persisted in the public mind. Only last Sunday the original article was followed up by a second one from the same writer in the Observer, illustrated by three rather terrifying photographs. In that article Mrs. Hawkes said: The Minister stated that Roman masonry is never dismantled and rebuilt unless the stones are on the point of falling. Local observers saw the East Gate of the Birdoswald Port taken down, although the walls were in good condition. She produced three photographs, which appeared to show unsupervised workmen pick-axing down the upper levels of the Wall in an excessively vigorous fashion and a drastic rearrangement of the facing stones. It would be very good if the Parliamentary Secretary could make some observations about these serious allegations.

They have been followed up by other people in the area who are quite clearly disturbed by what has been happening lately. I should like to quote from four reports from people on the spot. The reports happened to reach me as the result of the Questions in the House of Commons. One correspondent says that an archæologist whom he knows … saw the facing stones removed and put into two piles, the core rubble into a third, until the whole Wall was down to three base courses (out of, I think, round about 10). He adds: Local antiquaries who are in position to keep an eye on what is going on are indigant. Another correspondent refers to Hard-knot Castle in Eskdale, Cumberland, which he visited in July, 1957. He says: This Roman fort is also in process of reconstruction by the Ministry of Works and the result, to my mind, was most unfortunate. The stones of the walls have been refaced, in many places right down to the foundations, which, presumably must have necessitated the dismantling of the structure down to ground level. The newly built wall is capped by a layer of modern cement to protect the rubble filling from weathering. Masses of fallen stone and rubble from the original construction lie outside the fort. I do not know how often a representative of the Ministry of Works visited Hardknot, but the actual work was being done by local workmen. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary could find it convenient to refer to this fort, because it has been the subject of another letter from a local correspondent who states: At Hardknot fort in Eskdale they are still pulling it down higgledy-piggledy". Finally, I would refer to another local correspondent who, after describing what he had seen in the area of Hadrian's Wall, wrote: I do not believe that the Minister's advisers are aware of the extent of this rebuilding and I hope it may be possible to take further action to bring the matter to light. The House would like a reassurance that the Minister and his advisers are very closely aware of the detailed work which is taking place on the spot, and perhaps he can tell us something about the supervision, not only locally but from his Department and from his archaeological advisers.

It is many years since I visited the Wall.