Imposing Devon villa among Britain's most endangered

St Martins (formerly Roslyn Hoe), Ilfracombe
-Credit: (Image: Victorian Society press release)

An imposing villa in Devon has been ranked among Britain’s most ‘endangered’ Victorian buildings by a charity dedicated to their preservation. The Victorian Society’s annual top 10 list of buildings and structures in need of rescue has been described as “terrifying” by the society’s president, comedian Griff Rhys Jones.

It includes the Grade II listed Ilfracombe building, St Martins, which was originally called Roslyn Hoe. Mr Rhys Jones implored the owners to restore the building. The Victorian Society said that the Gothic coastal villa, designed by a local architect, “stands as one of Ilfracombe’s finest houses and is notable for its fine decorative detail”.

Built speculatively on a plot bought by a local builder, Roslyn Hoe represented the growing popularity of new coastal bathing resorts following the expansion of railway links, the society said. As early as 1885, it began to serve as a small school for girls, with Mrs Walcott Harris, formerly of Brighton, advertising in the Western Morning News for eight young ladies. She added that “delicate girls” could “be received for change of air by special arrangement.” By the 1930s, St Martins had become a small hotel.

St Martins was described as an “exercise in symmetry” by later local architect Alan Hussell and as “one of the best houses in this most exclusive part of this charming town”. The Wesleyan owners in the 1930s were related to Mr Hussell, who The Victorian Society said appreciated its fine design. The society said the building’s condition since the last owner’s passing has been concerning local civic groups.

St Martins (formerly Roslyn Hoe), Ilfracombe
St Martins (formerly Roslyn Hoe), Ilfracombe

James Hughes, director of the Victorian Society, said: “The poor condition of this splendid High Victorian house is a cause for profound concern. Examples of domestic architecture of this date and particular quality are rare and of national importance.”

Other buildings on the list include the Kursaal, in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, which is believed to be the world’s first purpose-built amusement park, with a circus, ballroom, arcade, dining hall, billiard room, zoo and ice rink. Designed by architect George Sherrin and opened in 1901, a lonely Tesco Express is all that occupies the Grade II-listed site today, after it was forced to close in 1986 following an unsuccessful campaign to save the attraction.

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A 19th-century banquet hall in Newcastle, built for employees of the wealthy industrialist William Armstrong, also features on the list. The Jesmond Dene Banqueting Hall was built by John Dobson in 1860 and subsequently expanded with a gatehouse, reception hall and display room by Norman Shaw in the following decade.

St Martins (formerly Roslyn Hoe), Ilfracombe - archive pic
St Martins (formerly Roslyn Hoe), Ilfracombe - archive pic

The charity said it is now “in a state of increasing decay” and may soon be unable to support the artists who continue to use it as a studio. Each of the sites listed as in need of rescue and repair is Grade II-listed or above, meaning they are subject to regulations protecting their historical and architectural significance, but the charity said in some cases it feared this was not enough.

Other buildings on the list include one of the first tennis pavilions in the world and a requisitioned school where author Vera Brittain nursed during the First World War. Mr Rhys Jones said the list was “a testament to the excitement, variety and invention of the Victorian Age”.

“Their restoration and reuse make huge commercial sense. They are attractions in themselves,” he added. “They are already destinations. They should be part of local pride.” This is the 14th list of endangered buildings released by the Victorian Society, which was founded in 1958.