Hadrian's Wall

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

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Photo of Sir Harmar Nicholls Sir Harmar Nicholls , Peterborough 12:00 am, 2nd April 1958

I had "two courses" on my notes, but I think if we look more closely at the photographs we will see that the difference is one course. The suggestion of these photographs is that the stone has been removed from the position shown on the first photograph.

The suggestion that this section of the Wall has been extensively rebuilt, or rebuilt at all, is absolutely wrong. In fact, the stone was in precisely the same position as it was when discovered. The first photograph shows lots of earth in front of the Wall. All the earth was cleared away in the course of the preservation, which revealed extra courses of stone work underneath. In the second photograph the stone was therefore shown two layers higher, but was in precisely the same position in the second photograph as in the first photograph.

I hope that explanation is clear. It is not easy to see, without the photographs, what has happened. That part of the Wall has not been touched. The excess earth in front of the bottom part of the Wall has been removed, and so the second photograph naturally gave the position of the stone as being higher up. The author of the article may not have known this, but I should have thought that even a cursory observation would have suggested the obvious explanation which I have just given.

On the second photograph an attempt is made to suggest that the Wall has been extensively rebuilt, and a white line is marked on another stone which, it is rather melodramatically suggested, has been replaced. This was an isolated case among several thousand stones where one of them can be seen, in the original photograph, to be extensively fractured. It was replaced by a nearby fallen stone of the same size. This substitution was justified by the very excellent explanation given by my hon. Friend the Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch concerning the risk that can come from ice, rain and ravages generally. To have left one part of the wall with this extensive fracture would have been rather like neglecting the beginning of decay in a tooth. Before long, the whole Wall would have disintegrated and the money spent on preserving it as an ancient monument would have been wasted. That is the explanation of the photograph, which is the basis of a suggestion that has nothing else to support it at all.

The second suggestion is that unskilled workers are being employed and that there has been carelessness. The second photograph showed a workman with pickaxe, with a dumper in the background. The suggestion clearly was that our excavation and preservation were being done in a haphazard way, and left in the hands of untrained and inexperienced people. If that is the message of the photograph, it is unfair and is certainly untrue. I will tell the House what actually happened.

This is what happens over the whole of the Department's work on any of these preservation works. In sections of about 20 yards at a time a trained archaeologist and a Departmental architect accompany the superintendent of works on to the site, and, at this high level, decide the character of the work to be undertaken and give detailed instructions to the charge-hand. In this case, the charge-hand was a man of great experience, and in his private capacity is a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle.

They pass detailed instructions through the superintendent to the charge-hand, who then instructs his leading hand and the workmen, such as those we see in the photographs, as to the detailed methods of handling and the removal of waste. He tells the workmen exactly how he wishes the work to be carried out. The method of handling and of moving it follows a drill which has been very carefully thought out and under which careful instruction is given until the men themselves have some experience of the work involved. The leading hand is on the spot the whole time the work is being carried out.

In the photograph we see only two workmen with their picks raised in a menacing fashion, but, in fact, the leading hand, who has received and understands the instructions passed from a high level, is there or thereabouts. The charge-hand may be controlling two or three other sites in the same vicinity, but he visits these points at least once a day, and on important points—and the section set out in the photograph was regarded as an important point—it is not a matter of visiting only once a day because he spends most of his time there. When this has been done and the work has proceeded, the superintendent of works comes back at least every ten days, and sometimes more often, to check over the type and quality of the work which has been carried out according to the instructions which he has previously given. Later the archeologist and the architect again inspect to see how their instructions are being carried out, say every two months.

That is the way in which the ancient monuments section of our Department carries out these works. This procedure is meticulously carried out, and because it is generally appreciated that it is carried out with care and thought, even the authors of the article, after having given this great message of carelessness and unskilled work, could merely say: It would be unfair to say that historical evidence is being lost. They fell back on the rather nebulous hypothesis that "it could be lost". The fact that this weak charge follows the rather menacing photographs is not without significance.

Having dealt with the photographs and the articles, I know that the House will recognise that that is only one infinitesimal part of the work which the Ministry is carrying out, and it might be helpful if briefly I remind the House what our policy is in the conservation of all ancient monuments. Our policy is to arrest the processes of decay at a point which they have reached when we take over the responsibility. That is the basis of our policy and all the instructions on the work in hand flow from that.

Our object is to avoid interference with their authenticity and, at the same time, to give maximum protection against the ravages of rain, ice, wind, snow and, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch said, sheep and trippers. My hon. Friend also said that this policy and these objectives have the full support of the Ancient Monuments Board for England, an outstanding and authoritative body. They would also have the full support of all informed archaeological opinion throughout the country, whether on the Board or not. The Ministry's methods have been kept constantly under review and, as my hon. Friend said, they were recently approved by the Ancient Monuments Board.

The Ministry's methods have also met with the approval of outside archaeologists of repute, to whom reference has already been made. Professor Ian Richmond, formerly of Durham and now at Oxford, was closely associated with our work on the Wall. Professor Birley, who is Professor Richmond's successor, is professor of Roman history and archaeology at the University of Durham, and he has also been quoted in support of our methods. Mr. Gillam, also of Durham, has been closely associated with our work, and the letter written by Mr. Gillam and Professor Birley was, thanks to the persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward), quoted in support of our general approach to these matters.

I could repeat many of the references to our work which have been made by hon. Members, but that would be an unnecessary repetition. By and large, this debate has brought out the fact that people were disturbed by these articles and photographs. It is right that they should have had the explanation which I am very pleased to have been able to give. On the whole, one has felt throughout the debate, which has gone on rather longer than we expected, a sense of unity in support of the methods adopted by my Department in trying to preserve these ancient monuments for the good of the country. I would assure the House that many of the criticisms which have recently been made of our work, with some appearance of validity, are, in fact, unfounded, and I hope that the explanations which have been given will satisfy the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Swindon for having introduced the debate. I repeat that we will certainly take into account all the suggestions which have been made, where they can be put into operation, and the debate will certainly not have been a waste of time.

The hon. Member for Swindon asked if I could indicate the state of affairs at Stonehenge. I assure him that the work is proceeding according to plan. Some of the smaller stones have been moved and their sites are at the moment being explored under the direction of Professor Piggott and Mr. Atkinson. We hope next month to proceed with the erection of a few of the stones which have been referred to. The preliminary work has been carried out satisfactorily and we are now getting on to the bigger job of moving the stones. I have no doubt that in Parliamentary Question and Answer after the Recess we can give further reports about the situation.

This debate has been helpful to the Department, and we welcome the suggestions which have been made. I hope that my explanation of the points which I know were causing concern will be found to be satisfactory, and that next time when a debate takes place on this absorbing subject we shall have the good fortune to have the same amount of time that we have had this evening so that hon. Members can express their views fully.