Understanding Special Historic Interest in Listing
What do a venue known for drag performances, the huts where ‘Enigma’ was decoded and a series of busy covered markets in Brixton, South London, have in common?
They are all listed in recognition of their historic importance. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, on the site of the former Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, has been a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community since at least the 1960s and an important venue for drag performances, while the wooden huts at Bletchley Park housed the codebreakers and the machinery that enabled enemy messages to be intercepted and decoded during World War Two. The Brixton Markets are a symbol of the major social and cultural impact that the Black Caribbean community has made in post-war Britain, and the markets continue to play an important role as social and commercial hubs for the Black Caribbean community in south London and beyond.
These are just a small sample of the special buildings included on the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) because they represent an important aspect of the nation’s history or have closely substantiated connections (meaning that the close connection can be evidenced) to a nationally important person, group or event. This importance is recognised by assessing a building’s ‘special historic interest’, which is explained through this guidance.
What is listing?
Buildings that are of special architectural or historic interest can be listed, which gives them legal protection. Listing covers more than just castles and stately homes, and can include banks, garden walls, shops, mills, bridges, synagogues, factories and more. Not all listed buildings are centuries old and many are still in use, but buildings that are less than 30 years old are not normally considered for listing. Listing celebrates and provides protection to the nation’s special buildings, and anyone can recommend a building for listing through our application process. Once a building is listed, changes which might affect its special interest have to be managed through the planning system.
All nationally listed buildings are hosted on the National Heritage List for England (known as the NHLE). The NHLE is a publicly available, searchable database that contains information on England’s protected heritage. There are other forms of protection and recognition for heritage included on the NHLE, including scheduled monuments and registered parks and gardens.
For more information on how buildings are listed, please refer to the section below:
and to The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s 'Principles of Selection for Listed Buildings’ (2018).
What is this guidance about?
There are two main criteria used to decide whether a building can be listed or not: special historic interest and special architectural interest. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s ‘Principles of Selection for Listed Buildings’ (2018) sets out these criteria, and the principles used by the Secretary of State to determine the special architectural or historic interest of a building.
Special historic interest, the focus of this guidance, is about the connection between the building and the people who use or have used it, the things that happen or have happened there, the ideas that were developed there or the role that the building played in the nation’s history. These aspects may not be obvious at first glance, and so they need to be explained in an application for listing. This guidance provides advice on how we might assess a building’s special historic interest, as well as examples to illustrate the historic interest of different buildings.
Special architectural interest is about the design and construction of a building, the aspects that we can see and understand when we look at a building. A building might have been designed by a well-known architect, it might be architecturally distinct, or it might be a good example of a style from a particular period or part of the country. Sometimes a building might be a rare example, or it might be of modest design and construction, ensuring we have a sample of all different types of buildings on the NHLE, including building types that were once everyday and commonplace. There is guidance available on a wide range of building types in our series of Listing Selection Guides. The guides provide advice on what we might look at when considering an application to list a particular type of building, as well as a brief history of that building type.
This guidance doesn’t apply to other forms of designation that are included on the NHLE, including scheduled monuments, registered parks and gardens and registered battlefields, which have different criteria.
- How does the Secretary of State decide what to list?
- Can ‘ordinary’ buildings be listed for their special historic interest?
- How does special historic interest help us to tell untold stories?
- Is change always a bad thing when considering special historic interest?
- How do we decide whether a connection to a person, group or event is strong enough?
- Can multiple places connected with the same person be listed?
- Does the building also need to have ‘special architectural interest’ to be considered for listing?
- The person or event associated with the building I’d like assessed for listing is well-known locally or within my community, but not nationally. Can the building still be assessed for listing?
- How do we address difficult or contested heritage?
- How can we recognise historic interest in other ways?
- Where can I find further advice and support?
How does the Secretary of State decide what to list?
Anyone can recommend a special place for listing through our application process. When Historic England receives an application for listing, we consider whether it meets one or more of the following before it can move to a full assessment:
- THREAT: It is under serious threat of demolition or major alteration
- PRIORITY: It supports one or more of our current listing priorities
- POTENTIAL: It has very strong potential for being listed – this can be understood by looking at the Principles of Selection for Listed Buildings and our guidance, including this page.
This process is called validation. Because we receive a large number of applications, we have to focus our resources on applications that are likely to be successful. If there is enough evidence in the application to show that a building meets one of the criteria above (threat, priority or potential), we will take the application forward for assessment.
For a building to be listed, it needs to have special historic interest and/or special architectural interest. These principles, set out in the ‘Principles of Selection for Listed Buildings’ (2018) assist in understanding the statutory criteria for listing a building.
Regarding historic interest, The Principles of Selection for Listed Buildings states that:
To be able to justify special historic interest a building must illustrate important aspects of the nation’s history and/or have closely substantiated historical associations with nationally important individuals, groups or events; and the building itself in its current form will afford a strong connection with the valued aspect of history.
This means that a building needs to illustrate or have close links to:
- An important aspect of the nation’s history and/or
- A nationally important person, group or event
It also means that the building will still have a physical connection to that aspect of history. That could mean that some of the historic fabric (the physical, touchable aspects such as the construction material, the floors, doors, roof etc) of the building remains, or that the building or key parts of it would still be recognisable today to the people who were connected to it.
The result of the assessment will be a recommendation to the Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), to either list a building or to advise them not to. The list can be found on the NHLE, a publicly available, searchable database that contains information on England’s protected heritage. If the Secretary of State’s decision is not to list a building, it means that it doesn’t meet the criteria for statutory (legal) protection through listing. There could be other ways to celebrate and protect it, and some of these opportunities are described below.
Buildings have been added to the list because of their historic interest since the first lists were drawn up, including places connected to military history or the homes of famous authors. What is considered nationally important has evolved over time, and in more recent years, this principle has been applied to buildings that hold importance for particular communities of people. Sometimes these communities have reused, repurposed and developed buildings to fit their needs, using the resources available to them at the time. We may be able to recognise the importance of modest buildings that have been adopted and altered for their new use through consideration of their special historic interest.
The examples and questions and answers below are designed to give greater clarity on how recognising and assessing special historic interest works in practice.
Can ‘ordinary’ buildings be listed for their special historic interest?
Yes, buildings of all kinds, including ‘ordinary’ ones, can be celebrated through listing if they possess special historic interest. By including ‘ordinary’ buildings on the NHLE we ensure that our heritage is more representative of society today and in the past, and that it represents the lives and experiences of more than just those who have traditionally had greater access to power and resources.
In Bradford, 14-32 Howard Street (1850s, Grade II) are typical mid-19th century terraced houses constructed during Bradford’s expansion due to the growing, profitable textile industry. From the late 1950s onward, the house at number 30 Howard Street was converted into the city’s first mosque, to meet the needs of the growing Pakistani Muslim Community. As the community grew and developed, they extended the mosque complex into adjacent houses.
Not only does 14-32 Howard Street tell us about the development of Islam in the city, but the modest homes can also tell us about the housing constructed to accommodate workers in the city during the textile industry boom.
How does special historic interest help us to tell untold stories?
In recent years there has been a greater recognition that the traditional historical narrative excludes the stories of certain people or communities. As an organisation, we are aware that the contents of the NHLE doesn’t always represent the lives and experiences of everyone in society. We recognise that consideration of special historic interest can be a way to readdress this, and we invite listing applications that will help to protect places which are special to communities currently underrepresented.
When the first lists were compiled, the people who compiled them for each area considered well-known or documented historic associations (the connections between a place and a person or group who used the place, or an event that took place there). These lists were physical documents, and in the 2000s they were added to the NHLE, a searchable database. Many of these older List entries contain less information about the building compared to our current List entries, and the connections between the person and place may not have been explored in the same way as they would be today.
Today, listing can help us to tell the stories of communities whose history and lived experiences have sometimes been hidden from view. London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern (1860-2, Grade II) is an important site for the LGBTQ+ community not only in London, but also nationally, as a place to meet and socialise at times when homophobia forced secrecy and discretion. On the site of the former Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the site has been associated with revelry and entertainment for centuries. Whilst the building has been altered throughout its lifetime, an appreciation and understanding of its role in the history of the LGBTQ+ community led to its recognition and protection through listing in 2015.
The Howitt Building (1931, Grade II), the former Raleigh Cycle Company headquarters in Nottingham, is an important place in the history of the African and Caribbean community in Nottingham, first as a major employer and now as a venue that serves the community.
It is also significant as part of the narrative of 20th century racial prejudice and employment discrimination more broadly. Some of Nottingham’s biggest employers, including Raleigh, had discriminatory employment practices. Oswald George Powe, an activist for racial equality, challenged Raleigh and after failing to negotiate with the company, sought an embargo on the company from the Jamaican Government. The trade embargo led to a change in Raleigh’s recruitment policies, and it became a major employer for the city’s African and Caribbean workers. Since its closure, the building has developed a new importance for the community, as the Marcus Garvey Centre, a community space primarily for older African and Caribbean residents.
In Chelmsford, the Gravestone to Joseph Freeman (1875, Grade II) is listed not only because it tells the story of Freeman himself, a formerly enslaved person who liberated himself and sought refuge in England, but also as a rare physical reminder of the lives and histories of other formerly enslaved people. The modest headstone is the only one listed amongst the many in the cemetery, its interest being in the person it commemorates, and the wider history it represents, as a ‘simple but dignified memorial whose legible inscription is an evocative reminder of the human impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.’
Sometimes a place can represent a community that has few physical traces, such as the Gypsy Roma Traveller Community, whose heritage can be less evident in the built environment. The Monuments to the Joules family (mid-19th century onwards, Grade II) at Yatton, Somerset are a group of funerary monuments for a local Gypsy family, listed for their historic interest in the 1980s. As part of the development of this guidance, the list entry for the monuments has been updated to include more information and to emphasise their importance as physical reminders of a community whose heritage is underrepresented, due in part to a lack of understanding and appreciation of their culture in wider society, as well as to a way of life that often left few permanent structures in the landscape.
Is change always a bad thing when considering special historic interest?
Change can be a part of the special historic interest of a place. Many buildings, including listed buildings of all types, have evolved and been adapted throughout their lifetime, and this can be an important part of their story and the stories of the communities that use them.
The physical parts of a building that are connected to what makes it special could be described as the ‘historic fabric’. The historic fabric doesn’t necessarily mean that it originates from the time that the building was constructed but was in place at the moment or period identified as being of special historic interest. If a famous performance took place in a theatre, we might need to consider whether the stage where the performance took place is still there, or if there is enough of the building’s fabric left to illustrate its use as a theatre. Would the performers and audience still recognise it as it is today?
As an example, when the demographics of people living in a particular area change, the need might arise for different places of worship. These places of worship might be in existing faith buildings adapted to the needs of the new community, and in some cases this change of use may make a significant contribution to a building’s special historic or architectural interest.
In Bradford, The Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church, (1854-1855, Grade II), was adapted from an earlier Wesleyan Methodist Chapel to make it suitable for Ukrainian Orthodox worship, by the inclusion of an iconostasis (a wall of icon paintings dividing the altar area from the main church space).
The addition of new elements, alongside the retention of earlier features, represents changes in the local community which are evidenced through the fabric of the building. Sometimes the changes themselves are part of what makes the building special, so a building that has evolved or been altered shouldn’t automatically be discounted for listing because of this.
If a building has been redeveloped so much so that it is now unrecognisable, it is unlikely to meet the criteria for national listing, but it could still be celebrated through alternative means.
How do we decide whether a connection to a person, group or event is strong enough?
When we receive an application with a known association to a person, community, or event of national significance, we then consider the strength of association with that place.
A short-lived connection (for instance, someone well-known staying in a hotel) wouldn’t be a reason alone to recommend listing, however if there are other factors that add to its significance then it would be more likely to be a successful application. For instance, a person might have lived in lots of places during their lifetime, but not all will have importance in relation to what made that person significant, such as being the location where they composed a key piece of work or made an important discovery.
By considering the building and its historic interest together, we can understand the importance of the place in relation to the person, event, or group and decide whether listing is the right way to protect and celebrate that place. To make it easier to assess, it’s important that the connection is explained in the application so that we can then research it more thoroughly if the application goes to assessment.
The Tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and Mary Jane Godwin, St Pancras Old Church Gardens (1797, Grade II) is a simple memorial to the writers Wollstonecraft and Godwin, along with Godwin’s second wife Mary Jane.
Although neither William Godwin nor Mary Wollstonecraft’s remains are in situ, the tomb plays an important role as a place of memorial, particularly as none of Wollstonecraft’s London homes remain.
The tomb was also a place of importance for her daughters and played a role in her daughter Mary Shelley’s elopement with fellow writer Percy Bysshe Shelley. The depth of these connections, along with the lack of other buildings associated with Wollstonecraft in the Capital, makes the tomb in St Pancras Old Church Gardens a strong example of historic association.
Brixton Markets (1920s-1930s, Grade II) in South London represent not only a particular and significant moment of migration, but also the establishment of communities and the huge impact that those communities have had on society.
Whilst there are many other important and special places connected to the Black Caribbean communities that settled in post-war Britain, the markets are described in their List entry as ‘the clearest architectural manifestation of the major wave of immigration that had such an important impact on the cultural and social landscape of post-war Britain and is thus a site with considerable historical resonance.’
Can multiple places connected with the same person be listed?
In the past, multiple buildings with connections to the same person have been listed. Today we would consider the strength of association with that place and whether that would form part of the reason for listing, as in the example of Mary Wollstonecraft. We would also consider other factors of a building’s special historic interest or special architectural interest when making a recommendation. It is important to note that a building might still be listed for its special architectural interest, even if the historic association isn’t a deciding factor.
When considering a connection to a person, we might consider factors such as whether an artist had their most productive period of work in a studio in that house, how recognisable the building would be if they could see it today, or whether their upbringing in that house influenced their later career.
By considering different places associated with someone, we can make sure that we provide statutory protection to the right places for the right reasons.
There are other options to celebrate connections to a person where statutory protection isn’t suitable, and some of these are explored below.
Does the building also need to have ‘special architectural interest’ to be considered for listing?
Most buildings have both special historic interest and special architectural interest to a lesser or greater extent, and often these two criteria are linked and must be considered together. For instance, the design, construction and layout of a building (its architectural interest) might be impossible to separate from its use by an individual, group or community, or a nationally important event that happened there (its historic interest).
There are occasions when there is little obvious architectural interest, but even when special historic interest is the main factor in listing a building there must always be fabric to protect.
As an example of the close link between the two criteria, London’s Cabmen’s Shelters, including the recently listed Chelsea Embankment Cabmen’s Shelter (1912, Grade II), were designed to occupy a small space on the street, maximising space inside to meet the needs of those using them. A standard design and exterior colour were established, with individual shelters featuring different decorative details – these aspects are their special architectural interest.
The shelters represent changing attitudes in society, providing a place for drivers to safely leave their cabs and enjoy a wholesome, inexpensive meal where no alcohol was served. They are also a lasting reminder of the hansom cab trade and a time when drivers and cabs were a daily sight on the city’s streets. The historic interest is directly related to the architectural interest because the design and layout were essential to the use of the space.
Occasionally, a building might be listed to the NHLE based on its special historic interest alone.
The Tomb of Rosalind Franklin (1958, Grade II) at Willesden Jewish Cemetery is a simple marble tablet, in keeping with Jewish funerary tradition. Listed for its special historic interest as a memorial to her important scientific contributions, the interest of the tomb is linked to the simplicity of the design, acting as a marker for Franklin’s Jewish heritage.
Other, more ornate, listed tombs in the cemetery such as the Burial enclosures of Mayer, Juliana, and Hannah Rothschild (1870s-1890s, Grade II) are listed mainly for their special architectural interest, as rarer examples of highly decorative Victorian Jewish tombs.
Can the building still be assessed for listing if the person or event associated with the building is not well-known nationally?
Sometimes a person is well-known locally, or well-known within a particular community, but may not have a national profile. That doesn’t mean they aren’t nationally significant. As an example, the collective efforts of women involved in the suffrage movement helped to bring about votes for women, but the names of some of those women are better known than others.
In Nottingham, the Former Lenton Vicarage (1842, Grade II) was home to local suffragette Helen Kirkpatrick Watts. In 2018, the NHLE entry for the vicarage was updated as part of the centenary commemorations of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, the act that gave some women the right to vote. This and other updated List entries enabled individual suffragette’s stories to be shared, but also to show the collective impact they had on the history of the nation. Thematic projects like this one have enabled us to consider new listings and amendments with an emphasis on special historic interest.
If the national significance of a site is explained in the listing application, it will help us to understand how a person, event or community with importance locally can be considered in the national context.
In Cornwall, the Newlyn Tidal Observatory (1913-15, Grade II), is a simple, utilitarian concrete building at the end of a short pier. It is not nationally well-known, but as the place where the Ordnance Survey established Mean Sea Level (the average height of the sea’s surface), it is a site of national and international importance for its contribution to the fields of oceanography, geology and climate change. This importance was outlined in the listing application.
Sometimes an association with someone or something well-known locally won’t have a wider impact outside of that local area, and in that case, the building is unlikely to meet the criteria for listing and could be celebrated through other means, unless it can also meet the criteria of special architectural interest.
Local heritage lists, drawn up and maintained by local authorities with the input of communities, are one of a range of alternative methods to celebrate heritage in place.
How do we address difficult or uncomfortable heritage?
Recent re-examinations have increased awareness of some complex and painful aspects of our history. This has led us to consider some of the physical remains of the past in a new light, in the form of buildings, monuments, objects in museum collections and more.
Projects such as The Slave Trade and Abolition have helped Historic England to address connections to the enslavement of people, such as buildings funded through the economy of transatlantic slavery. As part of the project, List entries were updated to make these connections explicit, and some sites were upgraded in recognition of their connection to the abolition movement. An example is the Anti-Slavery Arch on the Paganhill Estate (c1834, Grade II*), formerly the entrance to Farmhill Park in Stroud, erected by a supporter of the local Anti-Slavery Society. One of the first monuments of its kind, today the arch serves as an entrance to the local school, named in honour of the arch.
As an organisation our approach to contested heritage is to retain the historic site in place but to provide ‘thoughtful, long-lasting and powerful reinterpretation, which keeps the structure’s physical context but can add new layers of meaning, allowing us all to develop a deeper understanding of our often difficult past.’
We are now revisiting List entries in some circumstances where extra context or interpretation is required, and the same careful research happens when assessing new places for listing. Generally, buildings must be over 30 years old to be considered for listing, ensuring that the building stands the test of time. This also applies to historic interest, to ensure that we properly understand the legacy of a person, group or event, as our understanding and perception are liable to change.
A difficult or contested past doesn’t stop a place from being listed, but it does require careful research, and it can be helpful for us to be made aware of any issues of this kind in an application for listing.
How can we recognise historic interest in other ways?
Sometimes, a building won’t meet the criteria for statutory listing, but there are other ways to celebrate and highlight its importance. Some of these options are explored below:
Missing Pieces Project
If a building or site is already listed, the comments tab provides an opportunity to share photographs and stories to highlight connections to a particular group, person, or event without changing the list entry.
You can do this through our Missing Pieces Project, which helps to bring the places on the NHLE to life and helps us to understand what makes them special.
Local heritage lists
Local listing helps to raise the profile of heritage in a particular area by identifying heritage assets that are of greatest importance to local people. By adding a heritage asset to the local list, it can be managed through the planning system.
Places are generally added to the local list through consultation with the local community, and the lists are managed by local authorities, although not every local authority has one.
Sometimes places on a local list can be assessed for inclusion on the statutory List, and our Historic England Advice Note 7 ‘Local Heritage Listing: Identifying and Conserving Local Heritage’ includes information for both local authorities and local communities on developing or refreshing a local heritage list.
Plaques or placemarkers can help to celebrate or commemorate an event or a connection to a particular group or person. They can sometimes be used where the original building has been replaced or changed too much to be considered for listing.
To complement the London Blue Plaques scheme, administered by English Heritage, Historic England have recently announced a National Blue Plaques Scheme which will celebrate the legacy of important people outside of the capital.
The National Blue Plaques scheme will complement the wide range of other plaque schemes around the country, of which some are specific to geographic areas (often organised by a local civic or history society), whilst others focus on a particular theme, for instance LGBTQ+ heritage, film and performing arts, Black and minority ethnic heritage and more.
Some plaque schemes are listed in English Heritage’s ‘Plaque schemes across England’. Plaques managed by a variety of organisations and schemes are included on the Open Plaques website, searchable by person, location or organisation.
Historic England Grants Schemes
We offer grants to help local communities discover, interpret, promote and celebrate their heritage.
These grants programmes operate in funding rounds, so make sure to check when they are next open for applications. For a full list of grants available, please take a look at the grants pages of our website.
History in the Making
Historic England is working with young people (aged 13 to 25) to create a new programme that will create place markers across the North of England.
They will mark and celebrate important local histories that have been overlooked and bring them to a broader audience.
Heritage should be for everyone. But not everyone’s stories are told and not everyone’s history is remembered.
The Everyday Heritage Grants continue to address this imbalance by engaging with the widest possible range of heritage. These community-led and people-focused projects all aim to further the nation’s collective understanding of the past, with a focus on heritage that links people to overlooked local historic places and celebrating working class histories.
Maps, webpages and publications
Many local civic or history organisations will include information about local heritage on their website, and may also publish maps, guides or other resources.
Local museums, community spaces, archives or local studies centres might also produce similar information to enable the public to explore their heritage.
Heritage Gateway is a database which contains local and national records about the historic environment, including access to the majority of Historic Environment Records (HERs). HERs are maintained by the local authority and contain information about built heritage as well as archaeological sites and finds. The majority of these are mapped and provide a good starting point for researching heritage within a particular location.
Where can I find further advice and support?
The selection guides provide advice about what may be eligible for listing.
Each guide is thematic (such as agricultural buildings and health and welfare buildings) and provides advice specific to that type of building, as well as a brief history of the building type.
This series provides summaries of particular building types, focusing on types of building which may not yet been widely studied or written about.
Titles are added regularly, and include topics such as gasworks and gasholders, interwar theatres and signal boxes.
If you would like to contact the listing Team in one of our regional offices, please contact: [email protected] noting the subject of your query, or call our customer service team on 0370 333 0607
If you have any questions about the listing process, including the application form, please contact: [email protected]