Harold Yexley

Incorruptible ancient-monuments architect

Harold George Yexley, architect and administrator: born London 6 September 1920; staff, architecture department, British Railways 1952-54; architect, Ministry of Works (later the Department of the Environment) 1954-80, Senior Architect, Ancient Monuments (England) 1976-80; LVO 1977; FSA 1981; married 1952 Diana Bayliss (died 1998; two sons); died London 29 October 2003.

Harold Yexley was a quiet, powerful guardian of Britain's architectural treasury at the Ministry of Works. He also helped in the planning for the creation of English Heritage.

He was born in London in 1920, the son of a restaurateur who later moved to Eastbourne in Sussex to run a hotel. After an undistinguished time at Eastbourne Grammar School, the young Harold spent an unrewarding time in the local architectural practice of John D. Clarke, who specialised in country houses. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Harold Yexley's desire to follow his elder brother into the Royal Navy was stymied by the government decision to send him to Southampton to work as an engineering draughtsman on the production of aircraft including Lancasters, Spitfires and Britain's first jet fighter, the Meteor.

After release from war work, Yexley took up a place at the Oxford School of Architecture. Although the school was not part of the university, he found fun and fulfilment designing sets for undergraduate productions for such as the Oxford University Dramatic Society and the Experimental Theatre Club. These included Hamlet, Iphigenia in Tauris, Les Troyens and Fielding's Tom Thumb. In Oxford he met Diana Bayliss, then reading English at St Anne's College, whom he was to marry in 1952. Her accountant father, suspicious of his theatrical dabblings, insisted that the young Yexley forget ideas of a career in West End theatre and devote himself to getting architectural qualifications.

His first job on obtaining his architectural diploma was at British Railways at Euston in London from 1952; there he realised the architectural worth of many stations and was able to preserve the best parts of some of them. In 1954 he joined the Ministry of Works (which later became part of the Department of the Environment), where he soon flowered as a member of the team looking after some of the capital's finest buildings. His first task, that of restoring the Painted Hall without disturbing the dining arrangements of the cadets of the Royal Naval College then installed there, started a long relationship with Greenwich which included the rebuilding of the West Wing and the modernisation of the Queen's House and Flamsteed House.

As he grew in seniority until in 1976 he became Senior Architect, Ancient Monuments (England), Yexley had charge of royal palaces and castles from Hampton Court and the Tower of London to Kensington Palace and St James's Palace in London to Edlington Castle in Northumberland.

At Hampton Court he supervised the conversion of grace-and-favour houses traditionally granted to long-serving courtiers into premises for organisations such as the Royal School of Needlework and others connected with conservation. At the Tower he supervised the restoration of the church of St Peter ad Vincula and opened up the battlements to the public. The collapse of a wall at the Tower in March 2003 would hardly have happened in his day.

In Hyde Park he took pleasure in digging out and restoring the 18th-century Queen's Temple that had been erected as an architectural folly for Queen Caroline. Known to be incorruptible, this soft-spoken and charming man had the job of clearing up after a serious case of bribery at one of the houses, Audley End, near Saffron Walden, which resulted in dismissal and imprisonment for some staff.

In his later years, Yexley helped the emergence of English Heritage, which in 1983 took over responsibility for ancient monuments and public buildings. His job as guardian of the expenditure of public money at times also involved tricky negotiations with members of the Royal Family. He sometimes had to tell them that, if they wanted some particular feature, they would have to pay for it themselves. Despite the occasional contretemps he remained a valued adviser to the family and in particular to Princess Margaret, a position which was acknowledged when he was appointed a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order in 1977 shortly before he retired from government service.

After retirement he aided the Commonwealth Secretariat with the maintenance of its London headquarters at Marlborough House.

His escape from a cinema in Southampton one day in the middle of a German-air raid in 1940 and his narrow brush with death in the street outside rekindled a belief in God which his nonconformist parents had not managed to fix in him. He was confirmed in the Church of England, although he remained unenthusiastic about theology and those he called "happy-clappies". He was an infrequent churchgoer but did have an affection for the Savoy Chapel in London.

He was proud when in 1981 he was elected to fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries, who, he felt, had never been over-fond of architects.

At his house in Canonbury, north London, Charles Dickens's former love nest for his mistress, he and his many friends mourned his wife Diana's passing in 1998. Yet her death allowed him to devote more time to travel abroad, an activity which she had never enjoyed.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

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