Francis Sheppard (1921–2018)
By the Survey of London, on 9 February 2018
The Survey of London is sad to announce the death of Francis Sheppard at the advanced age of 96. Francis was the first General Editor of the Survey, between 1954 and 1983. During those 29 years he published sixteen volumes in its main or ‘parish’ series, an amazing rate of better than one volume every two years. Incomparably the most successful and productive editor the Survey has had, he stands second only to its founder, C. R. Ashbee, in stature and attainment.
Francis came to the Survey of London at one of the many turning points in its history. For the first half of the twentieth century, the writing, research and publication of the series had been precariously balanced between an amateur committee of scholars and the London County Council, which over the years had taken on increasingly more of the costs and tasks involved. After the Second World War the committee could no longer continue, so the LCC was faced with bearing the whole responsibility. At first the editing work was undertaken by the remarkable Ida Darlington, who had started working on the Survey as an assistant in the 1920s but was promoted after the war to be the Council’s chief librarian. She produced two excellent volumes on Southwark (Volumes 23 and 25 in the series). But she could hardly carry on doing both jobs. So the LCC advertised for a full-time General Editor, with the brief of producing the Survey more regularly (once a year was the aspiration). The editor was to work closely with the LCC’s developing Historic Buildings Division, which would go on supplying the illustrations and the old-fashioned ‘architectural descriptions’ then still prevalent.
It was Francis’s achievement to turn this delicate assignment into a triumph, by dint of brilliant scholarship, tact, utter trustworthiness, amiability of manner and sheer hard work. He soon won the confidence of the LCC’s small Historic Buildings advisory committee, which at various times embraced such luminaries as John Summerson, John Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster. When the first of the Sheppard series, Volume 26 on South Lambeth, appeared in 1956, it was hailed by Betjeman (not yet on the HB committee) as ‘this great book’. Next he concentrated at the Historic Buildings Division’s request on the West End of London, where many Georgian streets faced possible redevelopment. There had previously been little in-depth scholarship on areas rich in architecture like St James’s, Soho and Mayfair. Between 1960 and 1980 Francis and his colleagues transformed the position, and in the process helped tip the balance towards the preservation of whole swathes of urban fabric. The most famous case was Covent Garden, where the Survey’s investigations, published in Volume 36 of the series, led to the listing of many previously overlooked buildings and helped lead to the drastic modification of the Greater London Council’s redevelopment plans for the area. The Survey and the Historic Buildings Division had been transferred over from the LCC to the GLC in 1965, and the planning controversies over Covent Garden were among many struggles within the Council. But Francis always wisely kept his head down, proving the Survey’s value by the reliability, quality and presentation of his team’s findings.
Never one to put himself forward, Francis always attributed much of the Survey’s growing reputation in those years to his colleagues. They included Marie Draper, who began working on the Survey in Ida Darlington’s day and did much of the research for the early history of Covent Garden, before becoming archivist to the Bedford Estate; Peter Bezodis, who took on the ground-breaking Volume 27 on Spitalfields almost single-handed, became Francis’s official deputy, and carried on with the Survey into the 1990s; and, latterly, Victor Belcher, John Greenacombe and Andrew Saint. But throughout his editorship Francis was the series’ mainstay and most productive writer. The Survey’s texts have always been firmly anonymous, but it is not hard to spot his direct and driving style of narrative writing. He loved nothing more than to piece together the complex story of some famous building. Examples of Sheppard setpieces are the accounts of Burlington House in Volume 32, the Pantheon in Volume 32 and the Royal Opera House in Volume 35.
The Survey has always evolved. In the 1970s Francis turned its attention to Kensington, where he had been brought up. In Kensington, notably North Kensington, the first area to be tackled, the totality of the Victorian townscape was of greater moment than individual works of architecture. It became the Survey’s task to tease out how the original building development had come into being. Always eager to learn, Francis at this stage was greatly influenced by the new holistic urban history championed by his friend Jim (H. J.) Dyos, Michael Thompson, Michael Robbins and others. Volume 37, Northern Kensington, published in 1973, represented a fresh breakthrough. It has been many people’s favourite volume of the Survey ever since, with its beautiful drawings arranged in a freshly graceful format by the architectural editor of the time, James Stevens Curl, and largely drawn by the gifted John Sambrook. As to the text of Volume 37, packed with revelations about the doings and dealings of hitherto obscure local builders, Francis always attributed many of its innovations to Victor Belcher.
By the time Francis retired in 1983, three of the four Kensington volumes had been published. The unique formula on which the Survey prides itself today was by then in place: an all-but complete coverage of the built fabric of each area covered, with architecture to the fore, but underpinned by a full treatment of the social and economic character of the locality. Francis found the Survey of London a partial history of the best buildings in each parish. He left it a thriving and integrated record of London’s urban history, without a rival in any other major city.
Despite his formidable work-rate on the Survey, Francis found time to write widely in his own name: learned articles, reviews (often for the now defunct Books and Bookmen) and books. His classic London, The Infernal Wen 1808–1870 came out in 1971, and a history of Brakspear’s, the Henley-on-Thames brewery across the street from where he lived, in 1979. Believing that his family deserved more space and better air than ‘the wen’ could afford, he had moved to Henley in the early 1950s, putting up with the punishing commute to London almost daily.
Astonishingly he was also deeply involved with Henley’s civic life, where he served as councillor, alderman and mayor in 1970–1. That all began with a conservation struggle to save the venerable Catherine Wheel Inn in Hart Street, Henley. After his triumph over the developers, Francis set up the Henley Society. In his retirement years he wrote a history of the Museum of London, where he had been employed before working on the Survey, and a general history of London. He had a wide circle of friends in and around Henley, closest among them perhaps the historian Christopher Hibbert.
None of this was familiar to his colleagues, because Francis was a private and reticent person, though he could be excellent company, a warm friend and very funny when he chose. He is greatly honoured by his surviving colleagues and present-day successors.