Rose Theatre, Southwark

– in the House of Commons at 11:45 pm on 9th May 1989.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 11:49 pm, 9th May 1989

It was a great pleasure to hear on Thursday last that Mr. Speaker had selected for this evening the opportunity for me to raise the matter of the preservation of the Rose theatre in Southwark. I am very grateful to him for that.

When one is but the latest of a series of Members of Parliament for a constituency, the first of whom took his seat in 1295, one can reflect without too much need for research on some words appropriate for tonight: All the world's a stage,And all the men and women merely players:They have their exits, and their entrances". We are here but briefly as politicians. The unusual privilege of being a politician normally allows one to make specific pleas for one's constituents; it rarely allows one to make pleas that also go far beyond the interests of one's constituents on a matter of national and international importance, or to make pleas for something of enormous historical importance. But that is what I can do this evening.

I want to do two simple things. First, on behalf of my constituents and many others in this country and beyond, I come to Parliament, to the centre of the modern, national political stage, to make a plea that the recently discovered ruins of the Rose theatre in Southwark be preserved from today henceforth for all the world to enjoy.

I come with a second plea specifically for the Government. I seek nothing more and nothing less than a simple declaration that the Government be willing to say today or, at the latest, later this week, that they are of the view that the Rose theatre should be preserved for all to see and that they will work actively to secure that.

It may sometimes be thought that modern constituents in an inner-city working community do not think that ruins are of great importance. In fact, our local newspaper last year did a vox pop and discovered exactly the opposite. The people of Southwark and Bermondsey said that they overwhelmingly supported the preservation of our history and our heritage.

The Minister will know that it was less than a year ago that I raised with her predecessor in the House the question of the archaeological heritage of Southwark, an enormously rich area of archaeological interest because of its ancient geographical importance, being at the crossing point into London from the continent and elsewhere. More recently, on 21 February this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) asked the Secretary of State what representations he has received from English Heritage concerning the archaeological discovery of the Elizabethan Rose theatre in Southwark. The Minister replied: None so far."—[Official Report, 21 February 1989; Vol. 147, c. 572.] I know for a fact that since then letters have been pouring into her Department with increasing rapidity and authority.

Things have moved on, because the excavation of the Rose theatre has revealed that we have discovered a treasure indeed. Over the last few weeks, it has become clear that the ruins of one of the great Elizabethan theatres of Bankside—one directly linked with Shakespeare and lost to sight over 350 years ago—can now be seen and enjoyed at Bankside, by the Thames by Southwark bridge.

But next week, the foundations of the theatre are likely to be covered up and damaged substantially. They were discovered on land belonging to Imry Merchant Developers. I can say without equivocation that to date Imry, the landowner, has acted with absolute propriety and worked with English Heritage and the Museum of London to secure an opportunity for archaeologists to explore the theatre and to reveal the treasure that exists. I am grateful to the company, as I have said to the director in charge of the site, and I here repeat my thanks. But now we must go further. If the site is covered up at the beginning of next week, we shall lose a site of unique importance and an opportunity for all time.

The site is one of only eight theatres in London in the 16th century, four of which were on the south bank. The sites of the Hope and the Swan are likely to have been destroyed by commercial office developments. The site of the Globe has not been excavated and we do not know what, if anything, we shall find. We have excavated the site of the Rose as we have found it. Therefore we have found the first, and as far as we can be sure the only, in situ evidence of one of the Elizabethan theatres. No one knows whether we shall find any more, but we have found the site of the Rose; it is unique and it may be all we possess of the physical structure of the great public theatres of London 400 years ago. Those theatres were unique to London from the mid-17th century.

The Rose was built in 1587 by Philip Henslow, the impresario, and his partner, Edward Alleyn. It is the earliest of the four Shakespearean theatres. It saw Marlowe's plays performed—it saw "Dr. Faustus" and "The Jew of Malta"—and Jonson, Dekker, Webster and Shakespeare himself performed there too. "Henry VI" and "Titus Andronicus" were probably performed by Shakespeare himself on the stage that we can see now. I found it timely indeed that last Saturday I enjoyed a performance of "Henry VI" by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican, only a mile away from the original venue of that play. The last known performance at the Rose was in 1603. Soon afterwards, the theatre was demolished and covered up, although happily this theatre is one of the theatres where we know all that was put on and the only one of which we have an illustration contemporay to Shakespeare's plays.

As a result of the dig, we have discovered an enormous amount about the Elizabethan theatre that we did not know but had only speculated about. Previous evidence was contradictory We had to hypothesise as to what the theatre looked like and how it worked. Now we can see it for ourselves. Today in The Times there is an illustration by C. Walter Hodges of what the Rose must have looked like, based on the now available information. It shows the polygonal inner and outer walls of the galleries, the sloping mortar floor, the foundation of the stage and the towered tiring house behind. The heritage of Southwark, England and the world has now accurately been discovered on Bankside not far from here.

I have received many letters and expressions of interest in recent days. One letter from a student at King's college, London, asks: Is not the site of the Rose theatre on a par with that of the Tower of Westminster Abbey? Many foreign visitors surely find their strongest association with England through her great writers and few sights could hold more attractive power than one associated with Shakespeare. Thousands go to Stratford". On Bankside we have the real thing. This week we have the opportunity to decide how we make sure that the excitement which I, like others, have enjoyed, is shared by people in years to come.

Another letter to me said: The discovery of the Rose theatre in Southwark provides one of the most important pieces of hard evidence on the nature of the Elizabethan theatre ever to have been found. Although it lies in the earth and rises but a few feet, it is a national monument to rank with Stonehenge. On many occasions—by letter, parliamentary question and Adjournment debate—I have asked the Secretary of State to schedule the Rose and Globe theatres. I am aware of the procedure for scheduling and for designating areas as areas of archaeological importance. I first ask therefore that a decision be made this week to schedule the site of the Rose theatre and to designate north Southwark, contemplated as a possible area for such designation, as a sixth AAI. I hope that the Government will say that they are willing to consider that and I have today tabled a question to the Secretary of State asking specifically about scheduling.

I want to go further and to explore the ways forward, in the belief that they can be achieved. Given that the developers have so far been sympathetic and given that they now realise how amazing the discovery is, a breathing space is needed for them, the planners in Southwark and English Heritage, with Government support, to work out a way whereby the building that the developers want can be built in a modified form and yet the Rose can be preserved.

On an adjacent site, the actor, director and great friend of Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker, is constructing a replica of the Globe. It would be a supreme dramatic irony if an American were to be recreating a model of our heritage while we were burying the original Rose theatre itself next door. We cannot allow that to happen.

The remains of the Rose should and must be preserved and presented for the public to view as a monument capable of interpretation. Given the will, the time, the money and the imagination, it must be possible to find a way of keeping the remains visible to future generations. All options should be considered, but the important precondition is that the site is not filled in and that piles are not driven through the foundations, as proposed for next week.

Reconstruction of the site elsewhere is not an option. That would not be authentic. Relocation is not an option, because it would not be the same as the original site. Covering the theatre up and opening it up again later is not an option, because even that would have risks to the site and some of the remains would be destroyed. The vibration of vehicles, the weight of vehicles and power-driving machines would cause additional destruction, apart from the immediate destruction caused by building work. However careful people are, covering in and opening up the remains would not be good enough.

Sam Wanamaker's proposal—although in the right direction—that the site could be viewed only through glass—whether light or darkly—is not sufficient. The Colosseum in Rome is enjoyable because one is in the place. Stonehenge is right and important because it is as it was. Fishbourne is right because one can go in and walk around. We must be able to do the same with the Rose.

Many people have written to me expressing their support. John Earl, the director of the Theatres Trust, a body set up by Parliament to promote the better protection of theatres, says: It is of vital importance that the preservation and proper display of the Rose should be achieved to the highest international standards". He goes on to comment that linking it to a possible development next door is not secure enough. The archaeologists on site make it clear that it must be preserved in a way that can be appreciated. It would be ludicrous for us to seek to achieve a lesser objective.

My colleague the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) wanted to be here tonight and expressly sends support, as does my colleague the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman). Three parties are represented in the Southwark borough's three Members of Parliament and they are supported by the local authority, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Southwark, the Bishop of Southwark and many from the theatre world —performers, managers, historians and many besides.

Many messages have come in from Britain and overseas. The most pre-eminent people in British theatre today feel that the Rose is so important that not only do they visit it; they want to make it clear that it must be preserved. I hope that I am not exaggerating when I say that the importance of the preservation of the Rose cannot be overestimated. It is a miracle that it has been found, and it must now be kept to be enjoyed.

The Secretary of State and, I understand, the Prime Minister have now been alerted to the importance of the site. I hope that the Minister will tell us tonight that the Government are willing to say that the work done so far is good but that, now we have discovered the treasure under the earth, we must ensure that it is preserved.

It is no good saying, "It is just another site and we cannot preserve them all." I was not here last Friday for the Adjournment debate about the Huggin hill palace in the City of London, although I have read the report of it in Hansard. The Minister made it clear that there were other Roman baths and that we might have to lose one. We cannot say that about the Rose. There is no other example of this part of our heritage in the country. It is unique, and must be recognised as such.

I shall end by quoting from others who have written in support of the case before us, but first let me sound a note of warning. It is not enough that we should continue to react at the last moment to each important find or to try at the eleventh hour to intervene in negotiations that have cliffhanger qualities. We should reform our planning structures so that, in future, we can protect sites in advance.

The Minister knows that this is not a one-off expression of interest on my part. I hope that she will see my bid tonight as part of my concern that we should not only increase the number of ancient monuments that we schedule and protect, increase the number of areas of archaeological importance that we designate and the financial wherewithal given for the work to be done, but we should ensure that local authorities protect archaeology and structure plans, that the Department's structure plan is made much more specific in its guidance and that the environmental impact assessment measure agreed last year are specifically made to apply to the buried historic environment. We must do more, or we shall lose other sites, as valuable as the Rose but in different ways.

The conclusions of those who have visited the Rose are that we are confronted by our first sight of a playhouse that Shakespeare knew. My last quotation is from someone who wrote to me: It is all we have ever seen of the most important group of theatres in the history of Western civilisation and our first glimpse of the place where English drama reached its finest flowering. If we do not keep it the world will rightly judge us to be barbaric. We have an historic responsibility and I hope that, in partnership with all concerned, we shall discharge it this week with honour.

Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 12:08 am, 9th May 1989

The hon. Gentleman said that this was not a one-off interest for him. I endorse that remark. He has raised questions of archaeological concern, particularly relating to his constituency, on several occasions—in questions, in letters and in the debate to which he referred, which took place shortly before I took over my present responsibilities.

I have much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman because I spent many years as a social worker in his part of Southwark. It is well known that helping people to have a sense of pride in the history of their community can play a very important part. I worked on the north Peckham estate, which is an estate where a sense of identity and an understanding of the past cannot be said to be the overriding preoccupation of its residents, so I can well understand the hon. Gentleman's wish for people to know and to understand the past of Southwark and to find ways to ensure that archaeological remains can be preserved and shared with others.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the debate last Friday which concerned the impressive archaeological remains at Huggin hill in the City. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me another opportunity to discuss archaeology. I have been waiting for some months in my present role for such matters to be discussed on the Floor of the House because they are of growing interest and concern. As development grows and as the whole profession of archaeology strengthens, new techniques and new ways of understanding become available. At the museum of London, which played an important part at the Rose theatre, there are no fewer than 400 archaeologists over the year who participate in digs in London.

The remains at Huggin hill, ascribed by some as those of the palace of Julius Agricola, the governor of Britain—although there is some argument about that—are indeed impressive. I can inform the hon. Gentleman that we are keeping in close contact with all the parties there, and we are continuing to press for a satisfactory outcome for all concerned.

Equally exciting are the discoveries to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Those excavations have been established to the satisfaction both of the museum of London and of the scholars of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre as the site of the Rose theatre, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, in its heyday saw performances of most of Christopher Marlowe's plays, with Edward Alleyn—that famous actor of his day and later founder of Dulwich college—playing the title role of Dr. Faustus and the Jew of Malta.

Perhaps of even greater excitement, certainly for Shakespeare scholars and enthusiasts all over the world, will be the fact that two of Shakespeare's early plays received their first performance there—Henry VI in 1592, in which some believe—the hon. Gentleman would count himself among them—Shakespeare appeared as a young actor, and also Titus Andronicus. For the first time we have clear evidence of the shape, size and layout of an Elizabethan theatre, which is crucial to the understanding of the production of the Elizabethan plays that have given so much to our culteral heritage of drama and theatre.

The excitement of this discovery—and for some the surprise—has led to an understandable wish for its preservation, especially because, as we know, such remains are irreplaceable. There are real practical and philosophical debates about the best way forward. How do we safeguard the best of our heritage in a manner consistent with the needs of a dynamic society? How do we also move towards the future? Some of those issues were discussed in our debate last week. I made it clear to the House then that we have seen very dramatic improvements in the relationship between developers and archaeologists.

In a controversial case in York concerning the palace of the Emperor Septimus Severus, there was speculation about how that could be preserved. As a result of good will and co-operation between the archaeologists and the developers, the developers have agreed to redesign the foundations to preserve the archaeology.

Much of that good will and co-operation stems directly from a very valuable code of practice produced by the Standing Conference of Archaeological Unit Managers and the British Property Federation. That partnership has resulted not only in co-operation, but in hard resources. While English Heritage has recently estimated that last year it made a contribution of about £7 million to archaeology, a further £14 million was contributed by developers for excavation. That reinforces the view that voluntary co-operation and partnership are working well in many cases.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Rose theatre is not a scheduled ancient monument. Many will feel it essential for the protection of those remains, that they be scheduled. Indeed, only last week we received a request to this effect from the museum of London. Scheduling means that consent must be sought from the Secretary of State before any works that would disturb the monument may be carried out. However, it does not automatically mean that the site must be preserved for all time.

In considering the merits of any scheduling proposal, such as that put forward, it is necessary to bear in mind the fact that planning permission for the redevelopment of the site has previously been granted by the London borough of Southwark and that construction is indeed under way on another part of the site which is separate from the remains of the Rose theatre. It must also be appreciated that adequate time for excavation of the site has already been negotiated between the museum of London and the developers, Imry Merchant Developers plc.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the developers because I understand that the work has been carried out throughout in accordance with an agreement drawn up and fully adhered to by both sides. I know too that English Heritage, our agent in this area, has been keeping an informal watching brief on the site and that Imry Merchant has consistently respected its requirements. I have no hesitation in commending the developer's allocation of time, funds and equipment, which resulted in this dramatic discovery in the first place and which has allowed for the subsequent excavation of the site.

I am conscious also that Imry Merchant Developers plc is currently studying seriously the imaginative concept which hon. Members may have seen referred to in newspaper articles recently. The hon. Gentleman referred to Sam Wanamaker's idea for a below-ground Shakespeare museum, which would be linked by tunnel to the Rose site, emerging in an area from which the Rose remains could be viewed, at some time in the future.

I understand that Imry has evaluated this general concept so far as has been possible in the short time available, and that it is prepared to do whatever can be done in conformity with its general aims and objectives. It has indicated that the existing scheme could be modified so that it is compatible with such a scheme as has been put forward by Sam Wanamaker. This would involve the encapsulation of the site, and the covering of the remains, so that the filling could be dug out again at a later date and the remains seen from a viewing platform. I understand that this may not be sufficient to satisfy the hon. Gentleman, but it has been endorsed by English Heritage.

I stress that is remains to be seen whether it will prove possible to put the plan into effect. I am, however, encouraged that Imry is living up to its track record for responsible reaction to new situations. Its actions once again prove how seriously so many developers rightly take their responsibilities towards the archaeological heritage. However, I stress that, regardless of whether the Sam Wanamaker scheme comes to fruition, the remains of the Rose theatre site will be preserved for future generations beneath the new development.

In terms of extending our knowledge of Elizabethan theatre, the Rose project has already been a remarkable success. The information gathered from the excavations has amply demonstrated that. The remains will be substantially preserved beneath the new building. Although we can do nothing to mitigate the damage that has already been done by the piling from previous office blocks, any further damage to be caused by the new building is minimal.

That brings me to the question of designation under part II of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. We have discussed that matter previously. As I have said, English Heritage has recently consulted local authorities and a number of other bodies about the working of the system and about whether further designation would be desirable. We have received its advice and are considering it carefully and I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's remarks in that context.

I should like to congratulate the developers and the archaeologists on their splendid job. Like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that a way will be found to ensure that future generations are able to see this magnificent discovery and I commit myself to working with all the parties to find an effective outcome that will achieve the goal that we are all pursuing.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.