Derek Sherborn

Long-serving Historic Buildings Inspector

Derek Sherborn was a passionate champion of conservation and through his unflagging zeal made a pioneering contribution to the preservation of Britain's architectural heritage.

Derek Ronald Sherborn, conservationist and collector: born London 7 May 1924; Investigator, then Principal Investigator, Historic Buildings, Ministry of Town and Country Planning 1948-78, Principal Inspector 1978-82; died Brighton, East Sussex 4 July 2004.

Derek Sherborn was a passionate champion of conservation and through his unflagging zeal made a pioneering contribution to the preservation of Britain's architectural heritage.

After being discharged from the RAF in 1944 and having rejoined his parents in Oxfordshire, he found himself wondering, as a delicate and somewhat tentative young man of 20, how he was ever going to fill his time. With a self-taught but eclectic knowledge of architecture he decided to embark on a labour of love: to make a survey of every old building in Reading. Four years later this study became his calling card to the newly formed Ministry of Town and Country Planning and in 1948 he was offered a job as temporary investigator of historic buildings.

Although the work was poorly paid, involved him in much solitary travelling from county to county and even, on occasion, had its dangers (he was once set upon by a landowner's dog which sank its teeth into the seat of his trousers), no occupation could have been closer to his heart. Nor could his timing have been more propitious.

Taking up his duties in the grim early years of the peace, Sherborn now faced a world in which years of wartime damage and neglect, the toll of death duties and the rampant depredations of post-war developers, had put in peril many ravaged great estates. For those like Sherborn, aghast that so many architectural masterpieces were in imminent danger of destruction, the new ministry, formed after the passing of the Town & Country Planning Act in 1947, offered at last an official beacon of hope.

His memoir, published in 2003 and aptly titled An Inspector Recalls, contains a doleful lament for Britain's lost glories. In his first year as an inspector, and in spite of his often anguished protests, he recorded the loss of Lockinge Park in Berkshire, Swarland Hall in Northumberland and Redgrave Hall in Suffolk.

Other houses of distinction to be lost soon after included Silhill Hall in Warwickshire, Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, Garendon Abbey in Leicestershire, Ashburnham Place in Sussex, Brockenhurst Park in Hampshire and a large part of Bowood House in Wiltshire, although the superb orangery by Robert Adam remained. But Sherborn, through his diligent listing and strenuous lobbying, did much to help with some notably successful rescues, among them Cowick Hall in Yorkshire, the splendid Lydiard House at Lydiard Tregoze in Wiltshire and the extraordinary Calke Abbey, a dilapidated, mouldering pile in Derbyshire, its interiors unseen by outsiders for decades until a thrilled Sherborn visited in 1949 and dreamt of how its future might be best secured. The house was to be eventually taken over by the National Trust.

Three years after joining the ministry he compiled a list of 2,000 outstanding country houses for the Gower Report which led to the creation in 1953 of the Historic Buildings Councils for England, Wales and Scotland.

Sherborn rose to become Principal Investigator of Historic Buildings and later, in 1978, was made the Ministry's Principal Inspector, taking his place on the Listing Committee, the Ecclesiastical Buildings Committee and the Outstanding Buildings Committee of the Historic Buildings Council. On his retirement in 1982 he had served the ministry for more than 34 years.

The two other abiding passions of Sherborn's life were collecting pictures and antiques and the intriguing revelations of genealogy. Lunchtime breaks at the ministry gave him time to trawl the London auction houses where he could exercise his sharp eye for quality and leave behind his written bids in the hope of picking up unspotted treasures for a song. This assiduous bargain-hunting laid the foundation for his collection of paintings of the British School, among them works attributed to George Romney, Sir Peter Lely and Gainsborough and, among the best, the curiously haunting Allegory by Hans Eworth, recently acquired by Tate Britain.

Born in middle-class Streatham, Sherborn was the cosseted only son of Ronald Sherborn and Evelyn Allman. He described himself as a sickly child and his family as "vaguely artistic", his father being an amateur photographer and draughtsman, and his great- grandfather Charles William Sherborn a gifted engraver. After attending Streatham Grammar School, where he failed to shine, he joined the RAF, which he found even less congenial and after frequent bouts of illness he was eventually invalided out.

Always much obsessed with establishing his family links with the village of Bedfont in Middlesex, he would claim with pride that the Sherborns' historic seat at Fawns Manor had been in the family since the early 14th century. A glancing aside in his memoirs notes that a Sherborn shot in the Second World War was only the second Sherborn to have died in battle since Crécy. In the Parish Church of St Mary's, Bedfont, both a wall memorial and window dedicated to 17th-century Sherborns testify to the family's history as do more recent gravestones in the parish churchyard.

Sherborn had dreamed, as a small boy growing up in Streatham, that one day he would come into a fairytale inheritance. In fact his dream came true and, after a grumpy, elderly uncle from Parsons Green came into the property, Fawns Manor was passed on to Sherborn's father in 1950.

It was a somewhat curious inheritance, being composed of a row of cottages, believed to be of medieval origin, but made particularly odd by the eccentric renovations in the 1880s of another ancestor, William Sherborn, a railway engineer with a special interest in reinforced concrete who remodelled the house, both inside and out, in casings made from a new form of patent cement. One visitor observed that it gave the interior a claustrophobic effect like being entombed inside an Egyptian pyramid.

The manor's location was also a problem, being situated within the encroaching metropolitan wilderness of urban Middlesex and encouraging Sherborn to style himself, with a nod to Mr Pooter, as the last squire of the outer London suburbs. He was an indefatigable host, and summertime at Fawns was enlivened by parties round the poolside, often attended by handsome young men.

Candid about his own homosexuality, Sherborn maintained that there could be nothing wrong with a practice when, in the greatest schools in Britain, it was a "compulsory subject, part of the study of the classics". About himself he made the enigmatic observation: "I suppose I might never have recognised myself as being gay if I had never joined the Georgian Group."

As the area fell deeper into decline Sherborn became the victim of a series of brutal burglaries, culminating in 1982 with an organised armed robbery, the raiders leaving their victim gagged and bound as they made off with many of his fine possessions. This last vicious assault prompted him to move to Brighton, where, in a tall, stuccoed house on the seafront he unpacked vast quantities of pictures, china and furniture and settled into his last home.

Still active in conservation, Sherborn became President of the local Kingscliffe Society, sat on the committee of the Friends of the Royal Pavilion and became Vice-Chairman of the Regency Society of Brighton and Hove. With this last society his relations grew stormy after he had fiercely criticised the committee for not acting more robustly to save Brighton's Imperial Theatre. Sherborn had failed to realise, such was his sometimes misplaced idealism, that his dream of converting the theatre into a house for opera and ballet could never have worked without gigantic subsidies.

Meanwhile he continued to entertain with great generosity and warmth, often giving dinner parties for 12, and greeting his guests (invariably male) with his characteristically benign and gentle smile. To enter his high, narrow drawing room, decorated in the style of William IV, with its dark crimson hangings and red velvet- covered furniture, gleaming marble busts, elaborate light fittings, giant candelabra, the walls densely hung with heavy gold-framed pictures, was like walking on to a particularly opulent stage set for some high Victorian drama by Pinero.

Although his last years were clouded by a decline in health and debilitating arthritis, he enjoyed seeing the publication of his memoirs. This last achievement, while frequently rambling and repetitious, contained much that was illuminating, including some enjoyably excoriating opinions on barbaric property developers, lazy ministers, philistine officials and timid conservationists - a small triumph of his restless, fighting spirit.

Derek Granger



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick