The Grade II-listed railings, extending 450m along the perimeter of the Chelsea Barracks site, are of special architectural and historical significance to English Heritage. Built as part of the original infantry barracks, the mighty cast iron railings form an intrinsic part of the George Morgan design of 1860-1863. Together with the Garrison Chapel, the railings are now all that remain of the original Victorian barracks buildings, and their preservation and restoration has been a journey all of its own.
Before the Second World War, buildings in London – be it embassies or humble terraced houses – tended to be surrounded by impressive cast iron railings, gates and posts. However, in 1941 the government passed an order requisitioning all post-1850 iron gates and railings for the war effort, with a few exceptions made for items of particular historic interest – Chelsea Barracks among them.
The railings at Chelsea Barracks are a testament to their original function as a boundary to a major London Barracks. Their functionality is clearly expressed through the grand and imposing design: standing at over 3m tall, with each panel weighing around a tonne, the railings are among the most substantial in London and have been recognised by the National Heritage Trust.
Over time, however, corrosion and rust have played their part, and a thorough restoration was needed to ensure these majestic barriers would stand for another 150 years. Matthew Hempstock at Mace was responsible for sourcing a foundry that was up to the job.
The considerable loss of ironwork during the war has long been felt in the London streetscape, and replacing lost iron railings with traditional style replicas is often the first objective of any restoration. To meet such demands, a number of ironwork specialists – who use traditional techniques and designs – have begun to emerge in Britain. Yet, despite the large number of foundries, finding a firm to take on the railings of Chelsea Barracks proved a greater challenge than initially expected. “We found it extremely difficult to find a foundry willing to take the work on,” Hempstock, the heritage restoration specialist on the Chelsea Barracks project, reflects. “I think that was because the project posed unique challenges: refurbishing, remanufacturing unsalvageable pieces, plus the listed status and the fear of the unknown. People like the easy work, jobs they are familiar with or know they can do. This really was a complete unknown, and as expected, a can of worms once we got into it.” Fortunately there was one foundry known to Hempstock where time-honoured Scottish grit and determination rang true, and Paterson Engineering agreed to take on the momentous task. They were one of just two foundries approached that said yes. “And I am pleased to say, the work delivered to date has been top quality.”
A can of worms it certainly was. Very little is known about the original railings in terms of design or manufacturing. Despite delving into the archives, no information could explain the manner in which they were constructed and deconstructed. “The railings come apart in multiple sections and every individual panel had to be forensically examined during deconstruction to decipher how they were constructed,” Hempstock says. “Not only to assess condition but so they could, once refurbished and remanufactured, be put back in exactly the same place. Due to the way the railings were initially moulded 150 years ago, they are not exactly the same. There was no standard fitting so each component has to be recorded and numbered so it can fit exactly in its originally position with its original counterparts. It was like an extremely complicated and heavy, giant jigsaw puzzle.”
The jigsaw continued through to the granite supports that the railings are fixed into at ground level. “Originally the supports were filled with lead, which of course, these days we can’t use,” Hempstock explains. “But we managed to clean and salvage much of the original granite. For the unsalvageable stone, we profile matched the existing granite and found what we think is an exact match to a quarry in Cornwall. While this can’t be proven 100% true, it’s so close it almost certainly is a match. The same quarry, as it happens, is supplying a lot of stone for Chelsea Barracks.”
Blending old and new was key to ensuring the sensitive restoration of these railings. Remanufacturing of missing parts was required, as well as the thorough refurbishment of what remained. According to Hempstock, the anti-climb claws in particular, needed remanufacturing. “Pallets of original claws were tagged up and recorded and then the specialist ironmonger and blacksmith handmade 200 replica new ones for those that were missing or irreparable. One guy, a hammer and anvil – and I’m proud to say that none of the design team could tell the difference between the old and the new. But, then again these were made in exactly the same way as they would have been 150 years ago”.
By contrast, methods used for the manufacture of railings have evolved significantly. Brawn and brute force were critical to nineteenth century production: in the absence of cranes, lifts and modern equipment, their very construction was a feat of engineering. As Hempstock puts it, “Myself and the guys marvel at how they made these all those years ago. Hats off to them!”
Indeed, traditional methods were significantly less sophisticated than today’s procedure. “In days gone by, they mixed up the metal, threw it on the fire in a cast and – considering technology was limited – did really well. But modern casting methods are much stronger. It is a more precise process, so you don’t get air pockets that eventually lead to corrosion.” The old railings of Chelsea Barracks were punctuated with air pockets, which over the past century have let in frost and cold. Although some were unsalvageable, the majority underwent extensive refurbishment and will remain in place. “The old railings were covered in paint containing lead. We couldn’t strip them down in London,” Hempstock explains. “It needed to be done in a remote setting with no people around – and where better than Scotland. It was quite the sandblasting job and required careful control”.
The real difficulty came, however, in ensuring that the new were indistinguishable from the old: “Modern methods would allow a perfect Rolls Royce finish – but these would stand out against a refurbished version, so there was a balance and a challenge in making them look old.” The first of the new batch arrived on site last week. Made using a combination of cast and wrought iron, they blend seamlessly with the refurbished railings they will stand alongside. “We signed off the first railings that were installed on site last week, and when people asked which were new and which were refurbished I politely responded, ‘You tell me’ – because you really can’t tell!,” Hempstock beams. “One railing is 150 years old, the other new and yet they’re indistinguishable. That’s a sign of a job well done.”
Clearly the attention to detail from Paterson Engineering in Scotland has been unwavering; the commitment to their craft resolute. Right down to delivery, the manufacturers have considered everything and left nothing to chance, building bespoke stillages solely for the purposes of transporting the railings from Scotland to London undamaged. “Given the size and weight of these railings, as well as the careful work that has gone into them, the foundry designed and made bespoke stillages for transportation,” Hempstock says. “They manufactured a transport system. As each panel weighs about 600 kg, there is a lot of weight in one stillage, which transports and holds several panels.”
In fact, bespoke stillages were made for every aspect of the refurbishment process. The ingenious design allowed the men in the foundry to transport and even spin the railings for processes such as sandblasting and spraying. “The thought and ingenuity that has gone into the whole process is genius really and it is thanks to this we have the quality of finish on site that we do.”
The journey of the Chelsea Barracks railings is coming to a close, and the jigsaw is beginning to be reassembled around the development’s perimeter, once more marking the border of Chelsea Barracks. These majestic boundaries pay homage to the history of the site. Now beautifully and purposefully restored, they will entwine Chelsea Barracks within the context of the traditional surrounding streets for centuries to come.