Mary Beard chooses 10 places for Loss & Destruction in A History of England in 100 Places campaign

  • Mary Beard judges the Loss & Destruction category in Historic England’s campaign A History of England in 100 Places, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance
  • 10 places chosen from a long list of public nominations include Hillsborough stadium, the monument to the Great Fire of London and the wreck of the Mary Rose
  • New episodes of the podcast series released

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 Mary Beard has chosen today for Historic England’s campaign A History of England in 100 Places, sponsored by specialist insurer, Ecclesiastical.

The campaign aims to find the 100 places which best represent the history of England.

Mary Beard has judged the Loss & Destruction category 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.

Mary is one of a panel of expert judges, including Professor Lord Robert Winston, George Clarke, Tanni Grey-Thompson and David Olusoga, who have been asked to choose their top 10 places in a range of different categories from a long list of public nominations.

Mary Beard said: “It has been a pleasure, but also very hard and sometimes distressing to select ten places out of the nominations in this category. It has reminded me how important it is to remember and to memorialise tragedy”.

The 10 places Mary has chosen will be explored in new episodes of the recently-launched podcast series- free on iTunes and Soundcloud.

Postcard of SS Mendi
The SS Mendi sank on 21 February 1917 near the Isle of Wight. Image courtesy of the John Gribble Collection

The 10 chosen Loss & Destruction places

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. It was 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 themselves were not to blame for the disaster. The campaign for justice in the aftermath of the tragedy carries on. Mary Beard said: “This is such a powerful symbol of human tenacity in pursuit of justice after terrible loss of life.”

Wreck of the SS Mendi, 11.3 nautical miles off Saint Catherine’s Point, Isle of Wight

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 devasta¬tion, 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.

The Monument in Pudding Lane
The Monument was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke as a commemoration of all that was lost in the fire but also as a celebration that London rose from the ashes.

The Crystal Palace, Crystal Palace Park, London

Originally built for the 1851 Great Exhibition and erected in Hyde Park, this was one of the engineering marvels of the Victorian age. Category judge Mary Beard called it “a monument to the optimism of Victorian England- for good and bad”. 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. For Mary, The Monument is “one of the most lasting memorials to a disaster ever, which is still written into the street scenes, geography and place names of modern London.”

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. 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. Mary Beard said: “This is one of the greatest recent testimonies to the ability of archaeology to recover the lost past- and a past that we learn suffered its own catastrophes.”

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. Category judge Mary Beard said: “The idea of a major settlement being lost to the waters around England is a timely warning on the destructive powers of gradual change, rather than instantaneous catastrophe.”

A Bronze Age roundhouse in plan showing the inner and outer post rings and collapsed roof timbers 'like spokes in a wheel'.
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”. © Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), photo Dave Webb

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.

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. For Mary, Whitby Abbey is “one of the most striking instances in the country of the haunting beauty of ruins.”


Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England said: “This category has given us ten striking examples of places that have been lost or destroyed, or those that have been witness to loss and destruction. Some of these have been the sites of terrible tragedies, which for better or worse have shaped us as a nation, or taught us how to confront the past, present and future and make progress from what we have learned.”

Mark Hews, Group Chief Executive of Ecclesiastical Insurance, said: “Loss, recovery and compassion are at the heart of what we do. These 10 places mark times of tragedy but they also remind us of the triumph of hope and renewal that mark our humanity, and will continue to do so.”

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