50 years of the Hammersmith Society: an edited review

Left to right Michael Brindle (1990-1995), Roger de Freitas(1999-2003), Angela Clarke (2006-2009), Rosemary Pettit (2012-2015), Melanie Whitlock (1984-1990 and 2009-2012) and Hans Haenlein (1966-72 and current President of the Society).


Hans Haenlein remembers some early successes of the 1960s and 1970s

“An amenity society like ours forms a necessary bridge between the public and the local authority for an exchange of ideas and for informed discussion of alternative planning possibilities”

The Society’s job is to be actively interested on behalf of all Hammersmith residents in such matters as the proposals for new development schemes and buildings in the area, the preservation of beautiful buildings and their surroundings, parks and trees, the allocation of open spaces, the problems of road traffic and parking, of noise and pollution, of large and tall buildings, etc.  In short, we endeavour to help make Hammersmith a safer, more convenient and better-looking place in which to live, work and enjoy ourselves.

To achieve this we try to promote as much public interest as possible in planning, architecture and kindred subjects and to influence the Local Authority towards a greater acceptance of real public participation in the planning process.

In 1969, we set up a wide-ranging Hammersmith Study Group to examine some key planning issues.  This culminated in a touring exhibition which travelled from the north to the south of the Borough over 10 days in May 1970, stopping for one day in each of 10 locations and starting with a festival on the Grand Union Canal to draw attention to the leisure opportunities in the north of the Borough.  The exhibition was seen by a large number of Hammersmith residents, young and old, and had a profound and positive effect on the Local Authority’s understanding of the benefits of effective communication with the public.

London Motorway Box 1960s Plan

The themes explored included the West Cross Route, the controversial western part of the London motorway box recommended by the GLC in its Greater London Development Plan of 1969.  The study enabled the Hammersmith Society to mount an effective attack on the proposed plans at the public inquiry in spring 1972, resulting in the Inspector turning down the GLC application.  There were many other tangible outcomes of the work of the Hammersmith Study Group, which also explored the definition of environmental goals for the residential communities of the Borough, the designation of Conservation Areas in the Borough and their boundaries, and the recreational potential of the Borough in terms of open space, the riverside and the Grand Union Canal.  A film group studied the effects of large-scale physical change of neighbourhoods on residents, and worked with local schools and communities.

In 1969 –1972 the Hammersmith Society underwent a major transformation.  Forming a federation of local amenity groups, and helping to set up new groups where none existed previously, enabled it to become representative of the views of Hammersmith residents as a whole.  The Ravenscourt Society, the Fulham Society and the Hammersmith Grove Group, for example, were started in those days.

Many large developments were planned during this period. The most significant of these was the King’s Mall Shopping Centre and Housing, resulting in the demolition of the original Lyric Theatre.   Designed by the famous Edwardian theatre architect, Frank Matcham, it was due to the vigilance of the Hammersmith Society that the magnificent plaster interior of the old theatre was preserved and the theatre ultimately replaced, enabling the salvaged plasterwork to be reinstalled.  Another major success at the time was the retention of Bridge Avenue, which was due to be demolished by the Council.

With the help of students from Thames Polytechnic, formerly Hammersmith College of Art and Building in Lime Grove, the Society pioneered the Hammersmith tree survey.  Taken over by the Council, this eventually became the basis of its own tree survey for the whole of the Borough.

By the end of 1972, membership of the Society had grown to 410, plus 500 members of the local amenity groups which had joined the federation.

An Amenity Society like ours forms a necessary bridge between the public and the Local Authority for an exchange of ideas and for informed discussion of alternative planning possibilities.  We believe that ultimately the quality of our environment is directly proportional to the degree of personal involvement by each member of the public in planning issues and the willingness to actively share not only the benefits but also the responsibilities of our complex society.

The Hammersmith Society continued to influence policy in the 1970s, wrote Peter Smith

“The Society was an early example of people power influencing the Establishment”

I was first introduced to it in the early 1960s, but did not become a member of the committee until probably the 1970s.

Before this, a notable development had been when a previous Chairman, Hans Haenlein, had started to decentralise by pursuing a policy of encouraging local societies such as the St Peter’s Residents’ Association and the Brook Green Society to emerge.

The Society was probably at its strongest and most influential when it had a real project to deal with such as the Hammersmith Centre and the future Broadway redevelopment. At that time the local authority was equally open-minded to re-assess proposals being forced upon them by the GLC.   Officers of the GLC, wishing to get a more democratic solution, encouraged the Society to take the lead in proposing change. The original plan put together by the sub-committee of the day has been taken as a guide by the Planning Authority, and has influenced policy even if the road proposals recommended have yet to be implemented. These were the closing of Queen Caroline Street and the linking of the Broadway to King Street thereby making the space between traffic-free.

There have been many Chairmen of the Society who have given their time to create a forum to exchange views with Hammersmith officers, and I am sure these Chairmen will identify the successes of the Society in influencing policy.

Melanie Redden encountered growing environmental awareness in the 1980s

“… local people seem to have become more aware of the value of the familiar local scene, and seem prepared to expect greater quality in their surroundings”

Change in Hammersmith started in the early 1960s with the construction of the A4 cutting a great divide through the townscape, and went on throughout the 1970s with the singularly charmless redevelopment of King Street and the Lyric theatre. This period also saw what we thought at the time was the last of the huge externally imposed changes to Hammersmith – the development of Hammersmith Broadway.  Although the development has a sort of inevitability to it now, acknowledgement of what the then Department of the Environment perceptively called “ the familiar and cherished local scene” is non-existent, except in two respects.

Bradmore HouseFirstly, the fact that we still have Bradmore House is due to the insistence of the Hammersmith Society that a beautiful old building could and should be made part of the new development.  It is such a successful part of the townscape now that it’s hard to imagine how much persuasion and campaigning was required over many years to make the developers and the Council accept that its preservation was viable.  And a further advantage was that the height of the surrounding offices was stepped down, bringing a more human scale to the development.

A second success in the Broadway was the preservation of the old station tilework reading “G M Piccadilly and Brompton Railway”, as originally suggested by the Hammersmith Society and incorporated into the Ticket Hall of the new Tube station to tremendous effect by designers Minale Tattersfield with their own tiled images of Hammersmith Bridge and its reflections in the river.

Due to the soaring value of office space, the 1980s saw unprecedented pressure on the fabric of Hammersmith.  In response we started up the Society’s Environment Award, which has gone from strength to strength and now provides an important annual focus on environment and amenity issues.  The first award went to a small-scale development of flats in Cambridge Grove – a measure of the standards of development at that time that something satisfactory but not especially remarkable in itself should be greeted with relief and even gratitude!

Since then, local people seem to have become more aware of the value of the familiar local scene, and seem prepared to expect greater quality in their surroundings. The recent refurbishment of West London Hospital as headquarters for Sony Ericsson is a good example of what can be done with a fine building, and the prospects for the Lyric Square are encouraging.  Is it too much to hope for that King Street itself will be next in line for some serious rethinking?

In the 1990s, Michael Brindle saw political independence as crucial to effectiveness

” We did not fall into the trap of aligning ourselves with either, or indeed any,  of the main political parties. …our essential message related to the quality of life,  which all political parties espouse,  but not all necessarily deliver “

The battle to preserve a sense of proportion between the political concerns naturally to be expected of Hammersmith Council and the need to preserve and enhance architecture and amenities of real quality in the Borough came to a head in the early 1990s.  The Hammersmith Society, in close conjunction with the Ravenscourt Society, the Brook Green Society and others waged this battle with some degree of success.

Social housing projects loomed large, and quite rightly so.  But it was clear to those of us in the Society at the time that this could not and should not mean sweeping aside established communities within the Borough, nor inflicting unnecessary violence upon the built environment.  Developments in and around Ravenscourt Park, in particular, were put under the microscope as a result of our intervention.  All those involved with the Society, including architects, lawyers, historians and others of many different hues, combined to preserve the necessary sense of balance.

On the more positive side, the democratically impeccable invention of the Environment Award appeared to motivate the Council and its planners to the best in the development of sensible policies in the planning area.  Awards went to the refurbished Colet Court building, to the sensible use of historic buildings for modern purposes, such as at the disused West London Hospital on Hammersmith Road, and in particular in respect of two projects.

The ArkFirstly, we unhesitatingly nominated the Ark on the Broadway as an imaginative and distinctive contribution to the urban landscape in the Borough.  Secondly, our nomination of the new pedestrian scheme at the Broadway itself was probably one of the most important decisions that the Society has ever made.  It may seem a small thing to applaud a scheme involving pedestrian crossings – and certainly the scale of the project was less grandiose than that relating to the Ark – but nothing has made a greater contribution to integrating the community within Hammersmith and making the Borough a pleasant and civilised place to live than the ability to cross, at street level, the roads in and around the Broadway.  A real sense of community has ensued, in stark contrast to other areas (which shall be nameless) where planners have preferred underground walkways or overground passageways, usually to ensure the free flow of traffic at all costs.

Most people will agree that Hammersmith is a significantly more pleasant place to live than it was 10 or 15 years ago.  The blend of the old and the new, the grand and the humble, the flashy and the mundane gives the Borough real character.  I could not have held down the job of the Society’s Chairman without the unflagging support of the Historic Buildings Group.  The local Residents’ Associations were also indispensable influences towards sane policies on planning matters within the Borough.

Another crucial element in our success was the ability to remain politically independent.  We did not fall into the trap of aligning ourselves with either, or indeed any, of the main political parties.  The simple reason for this is that our essential message was not political.  It related to the quality of life, which all political parties espouse, but not all necessarily deliver.

What was gratifying was the increasing extent to which the Council would listen to and take into account our views on a range of issues.  There was no political controversy in consulting us, and in acting in accordance with our views, where appropriate.

Jane Mercer describes how the society broadened its base in the 1990s

“My hope for the Society’s future is that it will go on … acting as an ‘environmental conscience’ for the local council and the developers and commercial interests in the borough”

My main concern throughout the four years was to broaden the base and the appeal of the Society.  One of the highlights for me was a meeting at the Grove Neighbourhood Centre, when speakers from both the Notting Hill Housing Trust and the Peabody Trust came and gave a fascinating insight into their policies and aims when introducing affordable housing into an existing urban environment.  My other happy memory was the occasion when the descendants of a runaway American slave who had lived in Hammersmith in the nineteenth century came to visit his house and were welcomed by the Society and Borough officials.

But perhaps my greatest achievement was the sorting out of the Society’s archive, stored in a previous Hon. Secretary’s attic in assorted cardboard boxes.  It was a fascinating collection of records dating right back to the start of the Society and its first meetings, under the leadership of the late Nancye Goulden.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading, sorting and collating all the material and it was a proud day for me when I delivered it in this more manageable form to the Borough Archives.

I felt I was not able to make much headway with the great street furniture campaign that had gone on so long.  We spent long hours in the Town Hall discussing the issues, and I can only hope my successors will carry on.  [Editorial Note:  All this work eventually bore fruit when the Council finally published the Streetsmart Street Design Guide in 2005.  It was recognised by the Society with an Environment Award that year.]

I am delighted and proud that the council’s planning and redevelopment of St Paul’s Green took place while I was chair, and also that the West London River Group was born during that period.

My hope for the Society’s future is that it will go on doing what it has been doing so successfully for the past 40 years – acting as an ‘environmental conscience’ for the local council and the developers and commercial interests in the borough and opening the eyes of the people who live and work and study in the borough to both the good – and bad – things that they see in their streets, parks, open spaces, river banks, market places and shopping areas.

Michael McDermott explains how the society’s campaigns went London-wide between 2004 and 2006

“The task was enormous,  but the Society succeeded in rewording much of the text of the London Plan, to the benefit of all Londoners”

During the time when the London Plan – the then planning guide for London as a whole – was evolving, the Hammersmith Society played a very active role in its development, in close collaboration with Peter Eversden, the Chair of the London Forum of Civic and Amenity Societies.  The task was enormous and very time-consuming, but we achieved many successes in rewording much of the text to the benefit of all Londoners.

Locally, we opposed the enlargement of the Holiday Inn Express in King Street, much to the delight of the residents of Argyle Place with whom we co-operated at the public enquiry.  The scheme was turned down very comprehensively by the inspector from the Planning Inspectorate.  Had the scheme been allowed, the houses in Argyle Place would have suffered from serious overlooking and overshadowing.

Likewise, we also campaigned against the shoehorning-in of a luxury residential scheme on the site of the Olympia Car Park to the north of the station.  This would have had the effect of turning large numbers of exhibitors’ vehicles onto the adjacent streets, where parking for residents was already very difficult.  Furthermore the site, which straddled LBHF and RBKC, would have destroyed a woodland area that was designated by the Royal Borough in their Local Plan as second only to Holland Park.  The inspector at the public enquiry turned this scheme down too.

The Hammersmith Society also campaigned against the proposed Kingston branch of Crossrail, which would have gone underground at Paddington and emerged at Turnham Green. As it had no stations on this stretch, it would have been of no benefit for Hammersmith residents.  There were also worries about vibration under the houses. In addition, apart from turning Wormwood Scrubs into a vast construction base for several years, huge ventilation shafts were proposed in areas such as the small park in Stamford Brook Road.  Due to both local opposition and rapidly escalating cost estimates, the scheme was eventually abandoned.

Following the decision to demolish the Janet Adegoke Sports Centre in Bloemfontein Road, White City, the Hammersmith Society campaigned to retain the sports facilities.  This was finally agreed, and today the area has a new Janet Adegoke Swimming Pool and the Phoenix Fitness Centre.

Lastly, I must make mention of Lyric Square where we fought to include café and market use, both of which seem to be doing splendidly. 

Angela Clarke found the 2000s dominated by  proposals for development

“Introducing a regular meeting with residents’ associations offered an opportunity for groups to air issues of mutual concern”

One change I made to the way that the Society works over this period was the introduction of a regular meeting with representatives of residents’ associations within our area.   This offers an opportunity for groups to come together to air issues of mutual interest and/or concern.

It was also a period of wider change.  The Government decreed that a Local Development Framework (LDF) should replace the Unitary Development Plan (UDP) and the Council started work on that; Thames Water introduced the idea of building a Tunnel under the Thames (no final decision on this proposal has yet come forward); and the Council resurrected the idea of major redevelopment around the Town Hall in King Street.

We also enjoyed some members’ outings – two very popular trips down different parts of the Grand Union Canal, part of which runs through the north of the Borough, and a visit to the BBC TV studios in White City before much of their work was transferred up to Salford.

As usual over the three years, reacting to development proposals dominated discussions in the committee.  Plans for a 10-storey block on the Allied Carpets site at the junction of Askew and Goldhawk Roads were seen off at a public inquiry, and  an office development was proposed on the carpark site at the junction of Beadon Road and Hammersmith Grove, where work on building an amended scheme has just commenced.

We managed to achieve modifications on redevelopment schemes for the Goldhawk Road Industrial Estate and for a proposed Aparthotel next to Olympia (neither of which have been progressed yet) and also to get a revised and much improved scheme for an extension to St Paul’s Church in central Hammersmith.  A tram proposal along the Uxbridge Road was eventually withdrawn.

Hammersmith flyover being built

But we thoroughly supported the results of the 2008 London Festival of Architecture that the problems imposed by the Hammersmith flyover should be investigated, and that the A4 to its west should be tunnelled to re-connect Hammersmith with its riverside.   Now that the flyover seems to be nearing the end of its life, this idea has been resurrected.

In the 2010s, Melanie Whitlock predicts a significant future for the society as ‘critical friend’

“We make a significant contribution to civil society in our borough …thankfully there are still people who are passionately interested in improving their locality and willing to join the Society and share the work ”

In 2009 I found myself chairing the Society for a second term, some 25 years after I first became Chair.  When I returned to the committee, I realised the changes in Hammersmith over that period had been enormous.

In the 1980s, the redevelopment of Hammersmith Broadway was seen as unprecedentedly destructive and insensitive.  At the time, there was little if any sense of how much bigger the stakes would become in the London property market, how much bigger the buildings and how much denser the population.

Developers see Hammersmith as one of the most desirable areas in West London.  As a result there is a constant tension between high-quality development offering homes or amenities that are within reach of local people, and over-development, that is too dense for the area and threatens valued and much loved local views and open space, and quality of life generally.

Over the last three years we have participated in many consultations, planning forums and occasionally bitterly contentious public debates on the major sites of the moment: Westfield, Queen’s Wharf, Hammersmith Embankment, Imperial College with its proposed 35 storeys on the Woodlands site and, of course, the proposed redevelopment around Hammersmith Town Hall. The latter brought together an unprecedented coalition of local and national groups to protect Hammersmith’s historic riverside and preserve the river views, the historic conservation areas and listed buildings from a damaging backdrop of tall buildings and a regressive pedestrian bridge over the A4 which would eat into Furnivall Gardens.

A new London Plan has come into force, and our own new Local Development Framework is nearing completion.  We participated in the Examination in Public of the Core Strategy, and spent many hours studying drafts and considering the implications of detailed wording. The Localism Act and the National Planning Policy Framework also came in, and it will take time to assess their full impact.

Meanwhile there have been a raft of other issues: Opportunity Area Frameworks for White City and Earls Court /West Kensington (between them, these will bring some 12,000 new dwellings to the area); the proliferation of illuminated advertising towers and giant digital illuminated hoardings; a major and disappointingly bland office development going up on the corner of Beadon Road and Hammersmith Grove; the threatened closure of the Archives and Local History Centre (temporarily reprieved as I write); the Third Runway at Heathrow, which local groups saw off once but which refuses to go away entirely;  the sale of many Council assets including Palingswick House; questions about the future character of Hammersmith’s public libraries, and many more.

Over the years the Society has worked collaboratively with the Council where possible on issues such as Streetsmart and the Core Strategy.  Perhaps it might be best described as acting as a “critical friend”.  Over my three years, against a backdrop of severe spending cuts and a “Hammersmith is open for business” approach to development, this philosophy has been put to the test.

There is a risk that Hammersmith will be overtaken by high-rise strips along the main through routes: not only Westway and the West Cross Route, but potentially King Street too.  Residential development has overtaken office development as most lucrative, but there is no motivation and little enforcement to provide adequate open space alongside ever denser construction.  A generation of young people is growing up in Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush for whom the principal recreational space is Westfield Shopping Centre.

But the continuing success of our Environment Award shows that there are still good buildings appearing.  Our collaboration with our affiliated local groups is stronger than ever, and membership is growing.  Together, we represent some 1000 households in Hammersmith.  We make a significant contribution to civil society in our borough: an average of 20 carefully considered responses on planning applications a year; two appearances at public enquiries, as well as many other meetings; sponsorship of the

West London hub of the London Festival of Architecture biennial; offering creative thinking around some of Hammersmith’s greatest problems – for example, promoting the Tunnel instead of the Flyover.There is an extraordinary amount for a voluntary group like ours to do – strategic issues, major sites, local arguments.  It is very hard work for those involved, but thankfully there are still people who are passionately interested in improving their locality and who are willing to join the Society and share the work.  I am proud that the Society has been active for 50 years.  It is evident that there will be no shortage of matters to work on for the future.

The Flyunder