1929 was a landmark year in the history of Berkhamsted Castle, when the ancient ruins were for the first time brought under the care of a government department – the Office of Works. This was a major step in the recognition of the Castle as a cultural asset worthy of preservation, and the result of a growing “conservation culture” in Britain.
Until the early 20th century, owners of a historic building were free to do with it as they pleased. Like many other ancient monuments, Berkhamsted Castle has been plundered for building materials in the 16th century and had since been left to fall into ruin. The curtain walls had crumbled and trees proliferated in the bailey.
When the London and Birmingham Railway initially proposed its new line through Berkhamsted in the 1830s, no special thought was given to the historic Castle ruins – the parts that were in the way of construction were simply to be demolished by navvies. It was local opposition from landowners and the town’s residents that saved most of the Castle site from destruction. Thanks to their influence, when the Act for Making a Railway from London to Birmingham was passed by Parliament on 6th May 1833, it restricted the construction work to the existing outer embankment to the south — and prohibited any other digging or construction on or near the Castle.
This concession by the railway company amounted to the first statutory protection of a historic monument anywhere in the world, and was the forerunner of today’s historic monuments protection legislation. The restrictions were not enough, however, to save the ruined barbican gate, which was lost in the building works.
As the appreciation of the cultural value of ancient sites began to grow in Britain, influential figures became involved in campaigns to save historic sites from destruction. The Ancient Monuments Protection Act 1882 was introduced by John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, recognising the need for a governmental administration on the protection of ancient monuments (particularly 68 pre-historic monuments), and was finally passed after a number of failed attempts on heritage protection acts.
This Act heralded a gradual change towards a state-based authority responsible for the safeguarding of the country’s national heritage, manifested through the appointment of the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments in 1882, General Pitt-Rivers.
Into the 20th century, Lord Curzon, who had fought to save Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, sponsored a bill in Parliament to improve the protection afforded to ancient monuments more generally in Britain. The Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act 1913 was passed, enabling the government to issue preservation orders to protect monuments, and extending public right of access.
Under the provisions of this Act, the ruins of Berkhamsted Castle were placed by the Duchy of Cornwall into the Guardianship of the Commissioners of Works (the Office of Works) on 24th December 1929.
The first act of the Office of Works was to initiate extensive renovations within the Castle ruins in 1930. In 1931, The Times Weekly Edition reported that 170 men, “including some from distressed areas”, were brought in to help with restoring the Castle. This included clearing the many trees that had grown in the ruins, digging in the bailey, and restoring the moats and filling them with water. At the height of the Great Depression, the works at Berkhamsted Castle provided welcome employment opportunities for many.
During clearance of the moats, a crossbow stave was discovered buried in the mud of the inner eastern ditch. It is thought to date from the siege of 1216. The crossbow is now in the collection of the British Museum in London. It used to be on display in the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London (1976-1995).
The Office of Works was originally established by Richard II in 1378 to look after royal castles and residences. It became a government department in 1851, and in 1940, it was absorbed into the Ministry of Works. In 1983, the government formed the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England to take over responsibility for historic properties – operating under the more familiar name of English Heritage.
Today, Berkhamsted Castle remains in the Guardianship of English Heritage, the successor body to the former Office of Works, as part of the National Heritage Collection of historic properties. English Heritage operates on behalf of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (as successor to the Commissioners of Works).
Since 2018, Berkhamsted Castle Trust has been working in partnership with English Heritage to manage the site under a Local Management Agreement.