COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

The dust jacket of 'Progress at Pelvis Bay'.
The dust jacket of 'Progress at Pelvis Bay'.

David takes a look at the publication Progress at Pelvis Bay – a satire purporting to have been written by an enthusiastic council employee promoting the fictional seaside resort.

‘Beneath the rule of men entirely great / The pen is mightier than the sword’, wrote Edward Bulwer Lytton in his play Richelieu of 1839.

A century later, a small volume appeared that, more than many, proved the truth of the saying when applied to planning and architecture. The volume was not a learned tome that would doubtless have been respectfully reviewed and then forgotten; instead, it was a comic book, in which text and illustrations worked together neatly to skewer the pretentions of municipal architecture and the short-sighted councils that approved it.

With the odd title Progress at Pelvis Bay, it was written by the journalist and cartoonist Osbert Lancaster. Lancaster was soon to be well known for his Pocket Cartoons in the Daily Express, many of them featuring his endearingly-naïve character Maudie, Countess of Littlehampton. Maudie was some way in the future when Lancaster published Progress at Pelvis Bay, parts of which had appeared as articles in The Architectural Review.

In the 1920s and 1930s local authorities were keen to promote their modernity by publishing guides that lauded their latest amenities. One example, about Ripon, was the subject of this column some time ago. Progress at Pelvis Bay is a spoof version of one of these. Pelvis Bay is a seaside resort on the south coast of England – though it could be any medium-sized settlement in the country.

The guide is supposed to have been written by an enthusiastic council employee, whose brief has been to paint Pelvis Bay in as favourable a light as possible. The reader, though, can see through the words to the self-serving, aesthetically-blind motivation of the authorities. The tone is set by the first sentence of the Foreword: ‘Of the Emperor Augustus it was said that he found Rome brick and left it marble; of the makers of modern Pelvis Bay it might well be said that they found it weather-boarding and left it chromium-plate’. The reader is already on the alert – ‘chromium-plate’ suggests unthinking modernism (remember this was published in the mid-1930s, the age of Art Deco) and lack of awareness of the value of things of the past.

‘The author,’ continues the Foreword, ‘can only hope that this modest epic of enlightened municipal development will inspire others to do likewise, and that through the length and breadth of England’s green and pleasant land the numberless rapidly growing urban communities will similarly bear in mind that Taste should never be neglected in the interests of Commerce and Industry’. The rest of the text is designed to prove the exact opposite; when Commerce and Industry conflict with Taste, Taste always loses.

Osbert Lancaster begins the survey of Pelvis with a quick canter through its history – after mentioning a Roman villa at Pelvis Magna, a little way inland, we learn that ‘Pelvis Bay lapsed into an obscurity from which it did not emerge until the dawn of the nineteenth century.’ It was rescued from this long dark age by a visit from a lady-in waiting to Queen Caroline, who decided to live there and take advantage of the sea-bathing. Fashionable folk followed, and Pelvis developed from a huddle of fishermen’s cottages to an elegant resort. The guide’s author tells us that ‘soon, numerous rows of lodging houses sprang up and a number of private houses were erected, all, alas, in the monotonous style of the Regency.’

This theme of disparaging all style but the latest recurs throughout the book, which, after the introduction, takes significant buildings in Pelvis through their different manifestations.

So the Manor House is transformed from a half-timbered hall, through ‘a gaunt and foreign-looking mansion for whose destruction numerous contemporary prints and pictures forbid us to weep’ which in turn is gothicised by adding battlements and a tower, then made Jacobean and finally, in the ownership of the Pelvis Bay Country Club, it is rebuilt to designs by a German modernist architect, whose plans the council found ‘to be a trifle too daring in conception . . . so they were in some slight degree modified by a distinguished local architect with the happiest results’ – robbing Pelvis of what might have been an outstanding building, perhaps comparable to the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.

Other buildings suffer a similar fate; the Ship Inn (‘a wretched weather-boarded cottage on the quay’) is transformed into a sumptuous hotel, first in the 13th-century Gothic style (shades of Scott’s St Pancras), then in the style of Louis XIV and finally in the Tudor style, before ending with its being decorated as an ocean liner.

A local draper’s shop, Wallop and Son, gets the same treatment – from picturesque Georgian shop front (‘a poky little affair with windows of indifferent glass’) through a cast-iron and plate glass Victorian version to a ‘cheery new modernistic front . . . entirely of chromium plating, which always looks bright and cheerful.’

The church, the public buildings (brick and terracotta town hall, French Renaissance railway station, Romanesque fire station) are all praised, as are the Egyptian-style factory and the metamorphosis of an obscure farmhouse into the ‘Hearts are Trumps’ roadhouse with its ‘Olde Englishe Grille and the Restaurant Fleurie’ on the bypass.

Private houses, too, come under the spotlight; early Victorian examples are swept away (‘to regret the passing of the dingy old rows of houses is to lay oneself open to the charge of odious sentimentality’) for rows of modern houses that stretch across the former open fields but are ‘ especially designed to harmonise with the beautiful landscape.’

Lancaster’s combination of satirical text and amusing and pointed cartoons make this, as one critic wrote, ‘a book that should find an honoured resting place in the library of every architectural college, training school and public institution.’ It has lost none of its impact today – though out of print, it’s easily obtained and should be required reading for anyone who makes, or approves, plans for the future of our towns and cities.