The Sack of Bath by Adam Fergusson

One of the more surprising choices for Persephone Books over the past few years has been The Sack of Bath (1973) by Adam Fergusson. While they have a range of titles and topics, usually they tick at least one of the boxes from ‘written by a woman’, ‘published in the first half of the 20th century’, and ‘fiction’. The Sack of Bath is none of these things – but what it is is fascinating. And – for those who care about this sort of thing – it has one of my very favourite Persephone endpapers:


The book was written in the 1970s as a rallying cry – it must almost immediately have become a historical piece instead – about the destruction of Bath’s beautiful Georgian architecture. The book is short in length and in its message: stop demolishing original architecture and replacing it with hideous buildings. The council of the time apparently were all about knocking stuff down if it was – or might be – in places where they wanted to put roads or businesses or anything whatsoever. Fergusson writes about it rather eloquently:

The set pieces – Royal Crescent, the Circus, Milsom Street, the Pump Room, and so on – stand glorious and glistening (some have been restored and cleaned) for tourists to come and see in their thousands every year. But now, more and more because the devastation goes on, they have become like mountains without foothills, like Old Masters without frames. The Bath of the working classes, the Bath which made Beau Nash’s fashionable resort possible, has been bodily swept away. Irreplaceable, unreproducible, serendipitous Bath, the city of period architectural vignettes with a myriad tiny alleys and corners and doorways, is either being wrenched out pocket by pocket or bulldozed in its entirety.

Isn’t ‘like Old Masters without frames’ brilliant? The initial purpose of Fergusson’s book may be over (and was, I believe, more successful than he could have hoped), but it is still extremely interesting to read. It’s hard not to get worked up and cross when one reads the nonsense that the vandal council and architects said – and see the before-and-after pictures of streets which were knocked down and replaced with architectural horrors. Indeed, much of this short book is photos – and while 21st-century books would be better produced, there is a certain poignancy to seeing 1970s photography at work.

Fergusson is not afraid to get his gloves off. This is not an academic’s careful analysis – this is impassioned. One photo caption reads ‘The redevelopment below Sion Place lurches inelegantly down the slope, like a juggernaut with a flat tyre’. All in all, it fills one with a slightly fruitless rage – because the fight has completely changed since the 70s, but also because so much of the damage had already been done. Thank goodness Fergusson wrote this book, helping stem the tide of wanton destruction – and, now, it’s a really engaging cultural document.