Bewell House

Bewell House, once the Master Brewer’s house for the former adjacent brewery, is visually one of the most-satisfying Georgian houses in Hereford. It dates from the mid-C18 and has a decorative doorcase with a delicate fanlight. Its interior is full of good period details, including a dogleg staircase with turned oak balusters, and moulded doors and fireplaces. The gabled western extension was added by Thomas Nicholson in 1856. The house was once home to the famous antiquarian Alfred Watkins, and Sir Percy Clark Hull, organist and composer. Amongst Sir Percy’s many friends were Vaughan Williams and Elgar, who dedicated his fifth Pomp and Circumstance March to Hull.

The penultimate image shows the then ‘Dr Hull’ standing behind Elgar at the 1933 Three Choirs Festival at Hereford, the last occasion when Elgar took part as a conductor, dying seven months later. On the left is Sir Ivor Atkins, Choirmaster and Organist at Worcester Cathedral from 1897 – 1950, to whom Elgar dedicated his third Pomp and Circumstance March. On the right is Herbert Sumsion CBE, English musician and organist at Gloucester Cathedral 1928 – 1967, and friend of Elgar, Howells, Vaughan Williams and Finzi.  

In 1980 Tesco applied for consent to build a supermarket over Bewell House. Despite Hereford City Council’s adopted policy which promised retention and conservation of all listed buildings, the authority was hell-bent on demolition. The City Council connived with the developer, even to the extent of engaging its own counsel to work with Tesco’s barrister, to ensure the destruction of the building.

A bitter campaign was fought for over a year, confirming at every opportunity Hereford City Council’s hypocrisy and philistinism. In sharp contrast to the City Architect and Councillors, Herefordians rose to the cause magnificently, dismayed at the prospect of the loss of yet another piece of the city. Many distinguished architects and historians responded generously when invited to join the fight, including The Duke of Grafton, Lord Esher, Sir John Betjeman, Sir Hugh Casson, Sir Roy Strong and Sir John Summerson. The press also helped, most notably Private Eye.

This formidable opposition, together with a last-minute direct plea,  persuaded Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment, to upgrade Bewell House from Grade 2 to Grade 2*, to the consternation of the local authority. Tesco knew it was beaten, but the City Council persisted, saying it would press for demolition at a public enquiry. The city fathers finally admitted defeat only when Tesco withdrew its application and agreed to retain and restore the building. Of course as so often happens, the house lost its genius loci, and is now enveloped in a development of extreme aesthetic poverty. But at least it survives as an important part of Hereford’s history.

Respect for Bewell House has been limited. The hideous security alarm box and huge lighting unit just shouldn’t be on the principal façade of a Grade 2* listed building, and could so easily have been located on the side wall of the extension. The huge blue signs detract from the composition. Why are they so large? And why on earth are two identical signs required?

Photograph of Elgar and Hull © Alex Ramsay

© Nicholas Keeble Associates // Historic Building & Planning Consultants