The family had owned the property at 29 Surrey Street in Norwich for over 20 years, and the house itself had stood for over 200 years without mishap, but in 1982 there was an unwelcome visit from the Fire Department. They informed me that the internal arrangements were a fire risk, and alterations were required; the stair well in particular needed modification. There was a degree of conflict between the government agencies on this matter; the Planning Authority wanted this listed building left in its original state, while the Fire Authority demanded the changes. In this case fire precautions trumped listed building consent. For once I was entirely in agreement with the planners, to leave everything well alone, but that was irrelevant; what the owner of the building would have preferred counted for nothing. The Fire Department juggernaut pressed on.
At least asbestos had been identified as a hazardous substance by then, or this ghastly material would have been introduced to this old building, only to be removed at a later date. As it was, there were a lot of unwelcome changes – all to be financed by me of course. The first was the demise of our lift. This was only a small Victorian affair which you pulled up on a rope, originally intended for taking trays of food up from the kitchen in the basement to the dining room on the first floor. It went beyond that to the third floor, to take bed linen etcetera down to be washes. It went up the stair well, but in the opinion of the inspectors, this was chimney flue to funnel flames up the building, and the lift shaft had to be sealed off at ground floor level. This was niggling change to the building, but it did not modify any original features, so it as not too bad; the next alterations certainly did.
In the entrance hall, where formerly the eye was lead from the front door through an elegant arch to the staircase, now a fire door with an automatic closure mechanism blocked the view. A prominent sign saying Fire Door – Keep Closed met the eye instead. The elegant six panelled doors were one of the finest features of the house, but they were unsuitable to be fire doors; the chamfered panels were apparently too thin to arrest the flames. All the doors opening onto the staircase had to be covered with a fire-retardant layer on the inside. I had these plain panels decorated with wooden mouldings to imitate the original, but it was a poor alternative. These doors also had to be fitted with automatic closers, and FIRE DOOR signs in red affixed. These changes demonstrate the problems that arise when modern ideas of Health and Safety are applied to an old building, constructed in a different age to very different principles. Put brutally simply, the understated elegance of the Georgian house was ruined by these blunt instruments. If I had limitless resources I could have made these modifications slightly less intrusive, but not much. With my shallow pockets these changes led severe expense, with no financial return. Of course I would not have wished to be burnt to a cinder when the house caught fire, but in the case of a conflagration I wonder if such fire precautions would have saved me? Perhaps, but most likely not. Personally I would have much rather have taken the risk.
I am glad that the arrival of the fire inspectors happened after my father was no longer alive. The property at Surrey Street was a great source of pleasure to him, and to see these touches of beauty stamped out with such a heavy hand would have distressed him enormously. It distressed me too, but it made the wrench of having to sell the property about a decade later somewhat less of a catastrophe. The house would never again be the Georgian gem I had known.