Tuesday, 27 January 2015


As many of you will know by now I'm rather a fan of concrete buildings in all of their guises although they do seem to be the Marmite of the architectural world along with the steel and glass skyscrapers that London seems to be sprouting on an almost daily basis. I was asked a question this morning about the earliest examples of concrete buildings in the United Kingdom and I couldn't answer it....well now I can!

The first entirely reinforced concrete fully-framed building in Europe was built in 1897 and was in Swansea.  The Weaver and Co Four Mill and Grain Store was open on it's North Dock site even after the Dock itself closed in 1928. The mill ceased business in 1963 but was not demolished until 1984 when it made way for a supermarket. 

Weaver & Co Flour Mill, Swansea

The earliest examples of housing formed from shuttered concrete are even earlier. It is thought that 201 and 203, York Avenue, East Cowes, Isle of Wight are the earliest and these are listed by English Heritage with the following reason for designation:

"* As a rare, very early (1852) example of the use of shuttered concrete, certainly for house building; heralding the wider use of concrete later in the C19 and in the C20. * As a tangible reminder of the innovative Medina, Francis and Son's, Cement Works, founded in 1840."

201 and 203, York Avenue, East Cowes

It is incredible to think that the Medina Cement Works opened in 1840 but even more so to imagine that experiments with 'cement' were taking place from the 1750's when there were plans to build the third Eddystone Lighthouse, Smeaton's Tower. This research was borne out of necessity as the builders were hampered by tides at 12 hour intervals and the need for a fast drying medium.

John Smeaton (1724-1792) was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a civil engineer who was particularly involved with the building of canals including it would seem renovations to the Lee Navigation Canal close to where I live.  During the mid to late 1750's he pioneered the use of 'hydraulic lime' on the Eddystone Lighthouse as it had properties that allowed it to set under water.  The tower was completed in 1759 and was eventually demolished in 1877 due to problems with the underlying rock.  It is in part due to Smeaton's early work that Portland cement was eventually invented which allowed for more and more concrete structures to be built.

Smeaton's Tower, Eddystone Lighthouse

As I'm usually all things London I thought it would be wise to finish with what is thought to be the earliest example of a concrete residence in or around the Capital. That building is at 549, Lordship Lane, Dulwich and dates from 1873 and was built by Charles Drake of the Patent Concrete Building Company. It is one of the last remaining domestic concrete buildings from that time and in the last few years has been completely restored and reconfigured as five flats.  These are said to be affordable housing and were opened in 2013. The house had fallen vacant in the 1980's and was on the At Risk Register from 1994 until 2013. I've included a before and after photo as the renovation was on quite a scale and has since won an English Heritage award.

549, Lordship Lane, Dulwich

As a lover of the Modernist architecture of the 1930's and the Brutalist concrete of the 1960's it is rather lovely and surprising to see these rather 'ordinary' Victorian designs. I have now decided that it must be the architectural styles that are in fact the Marmite rather than the medium itself.

Here are a few links for further reading about each of these buildings;