Panorama of Crystal Palace after fire
View of the Crystal Palace taken the day following the disastrous fire of 30 November 1936 © Historic England Archive OP04491
View of the Crystal Palace taken the day following the disastrous fire of 30 November 1936 © Historic England Archive OP04491

100 Places: Loss & Destruction

Our Loss & Destruction category judge, historian and classicist Mary Beard, has chosen the following top ten places from a long list of public nominations. Some of the places she has chosen have witnessed devastating events in our collective history, and each has an important story to tell about our past, present and even our future society.

A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical

Hillsborough Stadium, the Monument to the Great Fire of London and an ancient settlement being slowly eroded by the North Sea are among 10 places selected.

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21. A Bronze Age Time Capsule and Haunting Seaside Abbeys

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22. Tudor Treasures and a Mighty Monument

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23. A Palace in Flames and London's Gateway to the North

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24. Tragedy and the Fight for Justice

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Hillsborough Football Stadium, Sheffield

The Hillsborough disaster occurred at Hillsborough football stadium on 15 April 1989, during the 1988-89 FA Cup semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Shortly before kick-off, in an attempt to ease overcrowding outside the entrance turnstiles, the police match commander ordered exit gate C to be opened, leading to an influx of supporters to the already overcrowded standing-only central pens, allocated to Liverpool supporters. This catastrophic decision caused the worst sporting disaster in British history, leading to the deaths of 96 Liverpool football fans and leaving hundreds of people with both physical and mental injuries. Various groups and individuals have been fighting a campaign for justice over the past 20 years. In 2016 a coroner's inquest ruled that the supporters were unlawfully killed due to grossly negligent failures by police and ambulance services to fulfil their duty of care to the supporters. Crucially, the inquest concluded that the supporters themselves were not to blame for the disaster. The campaign for justice in the aftermath of the tragedy carries on.

Wreck of the SS Mendi

At 5am on 21 February 1917 about 19 km south of St. Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight, the cargo ship Darro accidentally rammed the SS Mendi, a First World War troopship carrying men of the South African Native Labour Corps to the Western Front. Darro survived the collision but Mendi sank and 618 of the Corps, mostly Black South Africans, drowned in the freezing waters. The tragedy convulsed black South African communities in grief and the story of their loss has been passed from generation to generation. Many of the men who died had never even seen the sea before. They had signed up because they believed that, despite being oppressed by the white South African government, if they demonstrated loyalty to the British Empire they would gain a voice in the deeply divided land. During the years of apartheid the ship and the lives lost within her became a powerful symbol of the injustice faced by black South Africans.

Farfield Inn, Sheffield

This is the survivor of a disaster which has been largely forgotten. At midnight on Friday 11th March 1864 the Dale Dyke dam burst and 650 million gallons of water inundated the Loxley and Don valleys of Sheffield. The flood killed at least 250 people and destroyed hundreds of homes, factories, shops, mills and bridges. Whole families were wiped out in the disaster and the flood left a trail of destruction miles long. Matilda Mason, landlady of the Farfield Inn, was trapped on an upper storey, while the flood waters surrounded the building. The inn still stands today, though it has been neglected for many years. After the disaster many survivors had to move out of the district and the pattern of working life there was permanently altered. In terms of loss of life, human suffering and material devastation, the collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam was one of the biggest man-made disasters in our history. Perhaps most importantly, it opened the question of corporate culpability and led to the municipalisation of the water supply.

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The Crystal Palace, London

Originally built for the 1851 Great Exhibition and erected in Hyde Park, this was one of the engineering marvels of the Victorian age. The Joseph Paxton-designed glass pavilion was more than three times the size of St Paul's Cathedral and was moved to Sydenham Hill for reconstruction between 1852 and 1854 after the closure of the exhibition. The structure became so emblematic of its new home that the park and surrounding area both became known as Crystal Palace and they keep the name to this day. On the night of 30 November 1936 what began as a small fire quickly engulfed and destroyed the glass pavilion, despite the efforts of 88 fire engines and 438 fire officers who were battling to save it. Left behind are the terraces where the pavilion once proudly stood, reminding us of the marvel you could once see there.

The Monument, Pudding Lane, London

The Monument marks the spot where the Great Fire of London began on 2 September 1666 at Thomas Farriner's Pudding Lane bakery. The fire raged for four days and destroyed the City of London, including around 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches and the old St Paul's Cathedral. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and his long-time collaborator, Robert Hooke, The Monument is a giant Doric column topped by a golden urn of flames, which in certain lights really does appear to be on fire. London was reborn from the ashes of the fire as a healthier, more open and better planned city, with homes built from brick and stone rather than wood. The Monument itself stands as both a commemoration of the devastating fire and a celebration of the city being rebuilt.

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Must Farm Bronze Age Settlement, Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire

3,000 years ago a settlement of timber roundhouses raised on stilts above the marshy ground of the Fens was destroyed in a fire. The remains of the roundhouses, with all the contents still inside, fell into the water-logged ground and were preserved, giving a unique insight into Bronze Age life and leading to its description as "Britain's Pompeii". The collection of incredibly well-preserved Bronze Age roundhouses, when excavated, provided an extraordinary time capsule of everyday life 3,000 years ago. Found within the roundhouses were exceptional, finely woven textiles made from plant fibres as well as rare small cups, jars and bowls complete with meals still inside. Archaeologists also found the largest, earliest complete Bronze Age wheel and exotic glass beads hinting at sophisticated trade routes with the continent. The level of preservation at the site meant that archaeologists could even determine that the roundhouses had turf roofs and wickerwork floors. We also know the people who lived there ate wild boar, red deer and pike.

Ruins of Greyfriars Monastery and the village of Dunwich, Suffolk

Dunwich shows the power of man and nature to both shape and destroy our history. At its height Dunwich was the 10th largest town in England, an important international port and the seat of power for the Anglo-Saxon bishops for over 200 years. But it was hit by a series of devastating storms in the late 13th century and has been battered by the North Sea ever since. Today less than 100 people remain living in the village. The majority of the medieval buildings have been lost to the waves but the ruins of the monastery remain. It was founded nearer the sea but moved to its current position in 1290, surviving until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Today, like the rest of the village, it is slowly eroding in the face of the elements. Rising sea levels mean that coastal erosion will continue to eat away at the settlement. Dunwich's story is one of gradual loss to the forces of nature: something humans will increasingly face with climate change.

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The Mary Rose, Portsmouth

When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 he only had a handful of warships at his disposal, so he got to work building his 'Army by Sea', starting with two carracks, the Peter Pomegranate and her larger sister ship, the Mary Rose. After 34 years sailing the high seas, the Mary Rose came to a dramatic end on the 19th July in 1545. While leading the attack on the galleys of a French invasion fleet she sank in the Solent north of the Isle of Wight. The wreck of the Mary Rose was rediscovered in 1971 and raised in 1982 before the eyes of 60 million people around the world. It brought with it thousands of Tudor artefacts which had been on the bed of the Solent for over 400 years. Many items were unique to the ship and have taught us so much, from naval warfare to the development of musical instruments.

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Euston Arch, King's Cross, London

Adorned with Doric columns and bronze gates, Euston Arch was built in 1837 as a symbolic gateway from the capital to the Midlands. Although listed, it was demolished in 1961 along with the station's listed Great Hall, despite massive public opposition from prominent figures, including from the poet John Betjeman. There are rumours that parts of the arch ended up in the River Lea. Its loss, along with other prominent buildings in the 1960s, fuelled national outrage and raised the issue of how 19th century structures were being treated by 20th century developers. The question of how we treat historic buildings came to a head, leading to a review of the planning system in 1968 which included provisions to protect listed buildings by introducing a consent system for any works to them. This was a major milestone in protecting heritage, prompting many to see the loss of the Euston Arch as one of the beginnings of the modern conservation movement.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire

The Benedictine abbey was first destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries and further when it was hit by German warships in December 1914 when they attacked a local coastguard station. Its story spans hundreds of years and has the capacity to teach us about various chapters in the history of human conflict and destruction. But it's also a place for inspiration: the first English poet Caedmon wrote about Whitby and the ruins also inspired Bram Stoker's gothic novel Dracula. There has long been something imaginative, special and soulful about this cliff top.

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