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Keep informed about heritage issues and projects across the Commonwealth by joining us online at our next online talk. We do not charge a fee to host these talks but if you would like to make a donation it would be greatly appreciated.

Join our Spring series of lectures

Join our Spring lecture series

Cast iron structures across the Commonwealth

Wednesday 1 May, 6pm GMT: Andrew Smith, ‘Cast iron in Jamaica’, chaired by Peregrine Bryant

Andrew Smith, MA CEng MIStructE. is a structural engineer. Much of his work has been on existing structures, often historic, usually to repair and sometimes to adapt them to new uses. He first went to Jamaica on a ‘bus man’s holiday’ in 2005 and has returned several times since. In recent years he has become more of an amateur historian, currently developing ideas about 3 pre-stressed iron bridges from the mid-19th century, and for several years he has researched the origins of London’s New River, which first brought water to London in 1613 and still supplies a small proportion of its needs, and the people who contributed to its achievement.

Until relatively late in the colonial era, all cast iron was brought to Jamaica from somewhere else – almost entirely from Britain. Although cast iron was relatively cheap in relation to the British economy, its weight and the consequent cost of transport made it considerably more expensive in Jamaica in relation to the island’s economy. Alongside cast iron, other forms of iron were also imported – wrought iron and crucible steel – but as their production and working didn’t require an industrial scale and could be done on a smaller ‘blacksmithing’ scale, the ability to produce the tools and other necessities that used these materials was probably present on the island from the time of the Spanish occupation.

Speaking broadly, cast iron was brought to Jamaica to satisfy two motives – to support the power of government and administration, as exerted both from Britain and on the island, and to support the wealth extracted from the island. Those on the island who had the vote were reluctant to agree to expenditure that increased their own taxation, and those in Britain who had political power were amongst those who benefitted most from the wealth patriated from Jamaica – the self-styled ‘Interest’ which successfully delayed the abolition of both the slave trade and then of enslavement itself. When both were eventually abolished, the same ‘Interest’ secured compensation for themselves at enormous expense to Britain.

This system of self-interested power meant that expenditure to bolster the power of government was usually delayed and then tended to be niggardly. In contrast, expenditure to support the generation of that wealth was more likely to be made promptly, particularly when the abolition of the slave trade made enslaved labour more expensive, and so such expenditure both stimulated and followed technological developments in Britain.

As the proportion of the island’s population that was neither enslaved nor white grew, of whom a few became wealthy themselves, they began to import iron artefacts that supported their lives on the island. Seen from this perspective, the cast iron that survives on the island is an integral part of the history of the colonial enslavement economy and its slow and sometimes repressed evolution into the present after the abolition of enslavement itself.

Andrew will discuss several cast iron artefacts he has looked at on the island and their context to exemplify this broad perspective.

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Wednesday 8 May, 12pm GMT, Dr Ian Tan: ‘The Iron Skeleton and the Imperial Skin: Materiality and the Construction of Modernity in Colonial Hong Kong and Singapore', chaired by Kelvin Ang.

Ian Tan completed his PhD in Architecture at the University of Hong Kong in 2023. He holds professional membership in architectural and heritage organisations based in UK and globally, such as IHBC, ICOMOS, and ICOM. He is transitioning from academia to industry-driven research; as he recently took on the position of Arup's Research Lead in East Asia.

The talk examines the history of iron architecture in colonial-era Hong Kong and Singapore. It aims to not only understand the material’s circulation between Britain and these two imperial outposts, but also the extent to which it catalysed broader movements of physical objects, building expertise, and architectural practices around the imperial British sphere between the late 19th through the early 20th centuries.

Ian's PhD research explores how iron served as a key material component in structures beyond those typically considered as constitutive of the built environment, including quotidian infrastructure such as lighthouses, quarantine stations, godowns for storage, markets, as well as religious and cultural edifices such as churches and printing houses. These iron structures, as his research argues, emerged as a crucial mediator between different constituencies of colonial societies, such as between native merchants and colonial administrators, foreign missionaries, and their local congregations, as well as Western-trained building professionals and Asian craftsmen, among other relationships.

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Wednesday 15 May, 12pm GMT, Professor Miles Lewis: ‘The Iron Lighthouse’, chaired by Tara Inniss. 

Professor Miles Lewis is a historian specialising in the cultural history of building technology, principal author of the international text Architectura, and an honorary life fellow of the Comité International d’Architecture Vernaculaire.

The iron lighthouse was developed in Britain in the early 19th century largely in response to the difficulty, expense and danger of building masonry structures in open sea situations.  By the 1840s most new lighthouses in Britain were openwork iron frames, which allowed the sea to pass through with little obstruction. But the engineer Alexander Gordon developed a different model, more resembling the traditional masonry structure - this was a solid cast iron cylinder, which might have the lower levels filled with concrete or rubble for greater stability. Politics now came into play. The Stevenson family, the world’s most famous lighthouse engineers, dominated the British scene and resisted the Gordon type, to the extent that not a single example was built in Britain. Yet in the period 1841-55 Gordon-type lighthouses were exported to Jamaica, Bermuda, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Newfoundland, the Skerki Channel (off Tunisia), Barbados, South Australia, the Falkland Islands and the Cape of Good Hope.

In the later part of the century things changed completely. Lighthouse types diversified, the French become major producers, and Alexander Gordon became Britain’s senior lighthouse engineer. The most remarkable sphere of activity was China, where Britain ran the lighthouse service from 1860 until the early 20th century. One of the lighthouses had its lantern and gear carried off by pirates. The South Cape, Formosa (Taiwan), lighthouse, was in an area inhabited by 'savages' and was fully fortified with cannons and a detachment of troops. This succeeded in repelling the 'savages' but did not prevent the lighthouse being lost to the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War of 1884-5.

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Wednesday 22 May, 6pm GMT, Ali Davey: ‘Architectural ironwork’, chaired by Rowenna Malone.

Ali Davey joined Historic Environment Scotland in 2006 as a Research Fellow, researching architectural ironwork made and found in Scotland. She is currently a Traditional Materials Project Manager in the Technical Conservation team. Ali is also a Trustee of The Scottish Ironwork Foundation.

In this talk, Ali will take you on a tour of architectural cast ironwork found around the world, produced by Scottish foundries. She will share some of the history behind the most prominent of these foundries, and introduce you to the incredible variety of ironwork that they produced.


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Wednesday 29 May, 6pm GMT, Paul Dobraszczyk: ‘Ornament for export: iron founders and visual cultures of display', chaired by Rachel Tranter.

Paul Dobraszczyk is a lecturer in the history and theory of architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. He’s the author of many books, including 'Iron, Ornament and Architecture in Victorian Britain' (Routledge, 2014) and, forthcoming in the autumn, 'Botanical Architecture: Plants, Buildings and Us' (Reaktion, 2024). He’s also a photographer and artist and built the website www.stonesofmanchester.com in 2018. More details can be found at www.ragpickinghistory.co.uk.

This talk explores how ornamental iron founders developed practices of advertising their products for international markets in the 19th century. This will focus on three important contexts: first, illustrated trade catalogues; second, international exhibitions; and third, iron buildings destined for export. Taken together, these three developments spearheaded the creation of an international market for prominent iron-founders like Walter Macfarlane. These visual cultures of display catalogues, exhibitions and public display of buildings for export were overlapping and mutually reinforcing promotional tools that, particularly in Macfarlanes case, became key elements in defining how iron founders wanted to present themselves to the world.

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Wednesday 5 June, 6pm GMT: Nicolette Duckham, ‘Cast iron in South Africa’, chaired by Graham Jacobs.

Nicolette Duckham was trained as an architectural historian and building conservationist and brought up in Cape Town, South Africa. She has worked in building conservation in London for many years and is currently a founding Board member of the Commonwealth Heritage Forum.

The use of cast iron became a distinctive feature of much South African architecture in the 19th century as it was exported from industrial powerhouses in places such as Scotland to distant corners of the British Empire at the time. Some cast iron was eventually made locally but the decorative mass-produced elements manufactured by companies such as Walter MacFarlane were transported by ship, road and train to cities, towns and more rural locations throughout South Africa.

Much still survives today and has endured falling out of fashion and use to become popular once more. It is preserved in many forms, including as decoration on domestic, commercial and institutional buildings, as well as on its own in products such as fountains, bandstands, staircases, benches and lamp posts.

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Wednesday 12 June, 6pm GMT: Geoff Wallis, ‘Insights into cross-cultural conservation training’, chaired by Sarah Neville.

Geoff Wallis completed an apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce Aero Engines in Bristol and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Bath University. During this time, his volunteering on conservation projects changed his career, so that at the age of 25 he joined a newly founded Company, Dorothea Restoration Engineers Ltd, which he directed for over 30 years, specializing in the practical conservation of traditional wind and watermills, museum exhibits, and structural/architectural metalwork. Geoff is now a consultant and lectures widely on these subjects. He has led the Architectural and Structural metalwork Conservation Course at West Dean College, Chichester, England for two decades.

Geoff has always delighted in sharing his interest in historic engineering and practical conservation with audiences in the UK, and when he was asked to present courses in Myanmar, Stone Town, Zanzibar, and online to India he was left to consider: What content should be included? At what level should he teach? What about important cultural differences? As a result of his experiences teaching internationally, Geoff has learned much, especially when things went wrong! Here, he'll present some honest insights into cross-cultural conservation training, with a focus on structural/architectural metalwork.

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Previous Talks

Chris McLean's talk is the first in the Commonwealth Heritage Forum's Series on 'Cemeteries and Burial Grounds across the Commonwealth'. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established in 1917 (then Imperial War Graves Commission) by Royal Charter, following the work of The Graves Registration Unit of the British Army. This unit was created by Fabian Ware in 1915, recording the grave locations of soldiers who were killed on the Western...
Searching for Common Ground in the Gardens of the Past: Transition and Transfiguration in the Post-Colonial Landscapes of Africa and Asia. In this finale talk of the Commonwealth Heritage Forum botanic gardens series Anthony Wain will provide an overview of the historical development of botanic gardens throughout the Commonwealth. In this talk Anthony will focus on buildings of the Commonwealth, interwoven with the development history of the landscapes of which...
This lecture begins with an overview of the historic gardens of Barbados mentioned by Sir Robert Schomburgk in The History of Barbados (1848). These were the gardens of Codrington College (the first university in the British West Indies), Welchman Hall Gully (an extensive tropical orchard) and Government House. The most famous was that of Farley Hill, whose owner was host to several Royal visitors. In the early 20th century a...
This discussion look at the establishment of Botanic Gardens in New Zealand,focusing on Dunedin Botanic Garden, New Zealand’s first and its development over the last 159 years. With plans being designed in England and Scotland to establish settlements in New Zealand the importance of including green space for recreation and the enjoyment of beautiful plants and researching of crops and plantations that would grow in the ‘new country’ was well...
Exploring Australia’s fine network of botanic gardens had its genesis in the late 18 C, with a government garden on Sydney Cove. Australia’s fine network of botanic gardens had its genesis in the late eighteenth century, with a government garden on Sydney Cove. Since then, and especially in the mid-nineteenth century, this modest beginning has dramatically expanded to include sites and institutions across the country. Having widely differing climates and...
Exploring the establishment, spatial diversity and plants of Jamaica’s four extant botanical gardens in Jamaica. Every flower must grow through dirt: The Making of Jamaica’s Botanical Gardens - a Commonwealth Heritage Forum Talk by Thera Edwards. Department of Geography & Geology, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. This presentation explores the establishment, spatial diversity and plants of Jamaica’s four extant botanical gardens; Castleton in St. Mary, Bath and...
The Singapore Botanic Gardens was an exemplary site for colonial botany. Scientists sent from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew worked in the institution – founded in 1859 – to identify Southeast Asian flora while also acclimatizing foreign species to support efforts to promote plantation agriculture in the region. The work undertaken in the Gardens ultimately influenced the economic and social development of the colony, and transformed the ecology of the...
This event features two short talks about the AJC Bose Indian Botanic Garden – Past and Present, Marine Bellégo; the Roxburgh Project, Nilina Deb Lal. The Calcutta Botanic Garden: Past and Present - Marine Bellégo, PhD. This paper focuses on the intermingling of past and present in the Calcutta garden and the ways in which traces of the past can be used historically. One can of course find information in...
This illustrated lecture will look at the history and heritage of South Africa’s old botanic gardens, those which survived and those now gone. It will include the old Dutch East India garden in Cape Town, which dates from the 1650s; the network of British colonial botanic gardens in the Cape and Natal (KwaZulu-Natal) and the birth of modern South African botanical nationalism with the founding of Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden and...
Book your free ticket here. Find out more about the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a stunning surviving Victorian glass and iron building. The Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is perhaps the finest surviving Victorian glass and iron building in the world. One of the earliest prefabricated buildings, the Palm House was the first structure to be commissioned when Kew transferred from royal to public ownership....
Book your free ticket here. For more than 300 years Britons and other Europeans came to India seeking fame and fortune. Some achieved success and reward and returned ‘home’, others including family members found their last resting place in the subcontinent. Life for many was just two monsoons. Around two million souls lie in hundreds of cemeteries and isolated graves scattered across the country: victims of disease or frontier wars, attacked by...
Book your free ticket here. Since its inception in 1727, the court of Jaipur with its every reign, has taken on challenges of new growth and development. Adopting new mindsets and modern technologies has meant that the courtly culture of Jaipur has been at the forefront of innovations. But it has done so with careful negotiations with its age old traditions, making each change albeit radical appear seamlessly aligned with its past....

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Our International Launch

The evening attracted a full house, including High Commissioners from many Commonwealth countries, members of both houses of parliament, and leading architects and conservationists.

After warmly welcoming everyone, His Excellency George Brandis QC, the High Commissioner for Australia, spoke eloquently about the importance of working together across the Commonwealth to preserve our past and define our future. He stressed that ‘our family of nations share not only an architectural past, but a common future for the built environment’.

Our founding patron, Sir Rodney Williams, the Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda, a passionate believer in Commonwealth values, then gave the inaugural address: ‘we are the guardians of a unique heritage for those that come after us,’ he said. ‘Much is vulnerable, and we need to pass it on to future generations in a better state than we found it. Understanding this legacy, and the buildings and places that bear witness to it, is a crucial part of our individual identity and collective sense of belonging’.

Sir Rodney highlighted the challenges faced by small island states – climate change, hurricanes, fire, neglect, dereliction and inadequate resources. He welcomed the access to specialist expertise that the CHF could offer.

We were fortunate to have Yasmeen Lari, one of our most eminent International Advisory Committee members at the launch. Yasmeen was in London to collect the prestigious Jane Drew Prize for Women in Architecture. She told the audience about the pioneering work the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan had been doing in Karachi to promote the co-ordinated restoration and repair of shared heritage buildings where there is keen interest in setting up a local chapter of the CHF.

Chair of the CHF, Philip Davies explained that our shared built heritage had been crafted by local people over many generations. It is a key aspect of the national identity of many Commonwealth nations and the links that bind us together. ‘Each’, he said, is part of an extended family of nations whose lives, histories and futures are all deeply intertwined.’

Philip took the opportunity to announce a partnership with Oxford Brookes University and Texas A&M University to help countries prepare registers of heritage at risk starting with a pilot project in Barbados. This will involve working with local heritage bodies to train young people and volunteers in specialist techniques, which in turn will build local skills, employment opportunities and resilience.

The CHF can make a real difference.

Photos by David Madden @ www.dmphoto.co.uk

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