Tony Baggs

Long-serving recorder of historic buildings, first at RCHME, then at the Victoria County History


Anthony Paget Baggs, archaeologist and architectural historian: born Norwich 17 May 1934; FSA 1965; Architectural Editor, Victoria County History 1971-97; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 31 May 2006.

Tony Baggs's achievements are not easy to explain in our celebrity-conscious age. Through his work with the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for England and the Victoria County History, he wrote accounts of many thousands of buildings all over the country, expressed in tightly edited and anonymous texts; articles under his own name were much rarer. He was always ready to exchange views and explain techniques with colleagues of all ages but would never have dreamt of seeking the limelight as a media archaeologist.

He was born Anthony Paget Baggs in Norwich in 1934 and remained a loyal Norwich and Norfolk man, although his mature life was centred on Cambridge. His father was a bank manager and Tony inherited an acumen about money which made him over the years immensely useful to his less realistic academic and archaeological colleagues.

Schoolboy enthusiasm, stimulated by gifted mentors, inspired Baggs at an early stage to pursue a career in archaeology. A less than helpful headmaster at his public school at Stamford - Tony was perhaps too individual a pupil to be easy - almost scuppered his chances of a place at Cambridge but Grahame Clark, later one of the most influential of 20th-century archaeologists, had already spotted Baggs's potential and helped him obtain admission to Peterhouse.

Although Baggs profited greatly by his time at Cambridge and retained affection for his college, it may be that his National Service years thereafter were more formative. He trained at the Royal School of Military Survey for the Royal Engineers and was sent to Malaya. These were the latter years of the Communist-inspired movement against British rule and Baggs exchanged hostile fire only rarely. He did, however, acquire an invaluable experience of surveying techniques even in the most unpromising terrain and, more generally, a military precision and order in his working methods. Fifty years later, he would never survey even a Cambridgeshire church without a structured kitbag.

On his return to civilian life, Baggs undertook a management course - one of the few aspects of his life he admitted to having thoroughly disliked - but happily he soon secured a post at the Norwich Museum. By chance rather than choice, this became focused on technology, not archaeology. Baggs remained throughout his life a "hands-on" person in every sense, able to help grateful Cambridge neighbours with the drain clearer or the chimney brush.

The crucial moment in his career occurred in 1963 when he was appointed to the Cambridge office of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for England. Both the ethos and the practice of the commission, as they were then, appealed to him. The way it recorded England, parish by parish, was founded on topography, indeed on his beloved map references; its fundamental philosophy combined archaeology with art history in a manner unusual even in 2006 in presenting an holistic view of the physical aspect of each community in the land. Its style was designed to edit out every idiosyncrasy of building or individual recorder into a consistent emotionless script. His commitment to this approach made him less than sympathetic to later developments in RCHME publishing.

During his years with RCHME, Baggs worked on the two volumes devoted to Cambridgeshire, West Cambridgeshire, including the then hardly known Wimpole Hall, and North-East Cambridgeshire, even less celebrated but with a rich heritage of Fen-edge buildings and archaeology; and also on the fieldwork for the Stamford volume, perhaps the perfect example of the traditional RCHME recording methods. He worked particularly closely with the head of the Cambridge office, Denys Spittle, and they enjoyed as much as any of the property owners they visited being the partnership "Spittle and Baggs".

In 1971 Tony Baggs transferred to the then twin pillar of traditional recording, the Victoria County History. Like RCHME, the Victoria County History had evolved a closely prescribed format for its parish histories and a style that preferred objective description to individual emphasis. Unlike RCHME, the VCH in Baggs's time never compromised its approach in favour of a more customer-focused presentation.

The brevity of the final text of Baggs's accounts of buildings, perhaps just four or five lines, often concealed months of research. He also excelled in the patient analysis of complex sites. He was the first person, for instance, to establish the layout and surviving fabric of the medieval precinct of St Werburgh's Abbey, Chester (now the cathedral). On the office side of things, he was a reluctant visitor to London but developed a warm rapport with the county editors, so forming a valuable link between the centre and the work out in the field.

Baggs's acceptance of traditional ways of recording monuments and his ordered ways in so doing did not make him a dry stick. As a bachelor, he saw the potential of his 1820s house in Willow Walk in Cambridge, which he restored into a congenial meeting place. When he married Elizabeth (Mysia) Wronka in 1973 he surprised perhaps the less perceptive of his friends and moved on in equally pioneering spirit to rescue one of the large but then little-valued houses on the 1890s Caius estate near the station.

Here Mysia and Tony Baggs generously established a focus for people in and outside Cambridge from many different backgrounds. Baggs embraced with enthusiasm his wife's Polish connections and became one of the few English scholars of the time to appraise seriously Poland's post-medieval architectural history.

Baggs's retirement from the Victoria County History in 1997 was followed sadly by divorce. He set up house anew in Ely, typically enough on the site of the medieval Sextry Barn, recorded by the founding father of church archaeologists, Robert Willis. He continued his recording work in and around Cambridge, culminating shortly before his death with the complex task of analysing the chaos of the Robert Sayle site, comprising, according to Baggs, over 100 different roof structures. He also became Diocesan Archaeologist for the Ely diocese, visiting tirelessly at least a church a week.

Baggs continued to guide his Ramblers' Association walks at home and abroad. He reacted to his final illness with a practicality and stoicism devoid of self-pity. He devised ways of coping with his reduced mobility and was even planning wheelchair tours of Ely Cathedral.

Thomas Cocke

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