Campaign to honour Elisabeth Scott an award-winning architect forgotten by history

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Elisabeth Scott and Bournemouth Pier Theatre on visa pages of current British passport

Pioneering Bournemouth-born architect Elisabeth Scott was a talent to be reckoned with. In 1919, at the age of 21, she became one of the first women allowed to study at London’s prestigious male dominated Architectural Association.

Within a decade she had won an international competition to design the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Revered amongst modernist designers she should have become a household name. She had her own London practice, an impressive reputation and a string of landmark buildings to her name.

It wasn’t to be though. A combination of patriarchal bombast, Scott’s reticence to blow her own trumpet and the havoc wreaked by World War II contrived to bury her star. Her late career in the 1950s and 60s found her back in her home town working quietly for the Bournemouth borough architects department. 

Though she continued to shine, designing Bournemouth’s Pier Theatre and several other important buildings but Scott took little credit for her own work. Her designs were published bearing the name of her boss, the borough architect John Burton.

She retired in 1968, just another council employee who had served out her time. Scott died four years later virtually forgotten. 

A flurry of interest followed the introduction of the last redesign of the British passport in 2015 when Scott and her buildings, including Bournemouth’s Pier Theatre, were celebrated in watermark images on the visa pages. 

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Bournemouth Pier Theatre in 2013. The following year it was converted into an all-weather activities centre. Photo Hattie Miles

But essentially she remains an unsung heroine of the architecture and design world without any memorial of her name to be found in Bournemouth, the town where she was born, educated and ended her career.  

Now a campaign is being mounted to correct that omission. Sylvia Fox – a leading member of Soroptimist International in Bournemouth – became interested when she realised that Elisabeth had herself been a member of the organisation that champions equality and opportunity for women and girls.

She set about exploring Scott’s story and is now pushing for a blue plaque – preferably on the Pier Theatre building – commemorating her achievements.

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A 1936 magazine article about Scott

“I feel she needs recognition,” says Fox, who as a former Chief Inspector with Dorset Police, knows all about the pressures of being a woman in a man’s world.

Fox, who retired a decade ago after a 28 year career in the police force, points out the gender imbalance among existing blue plaques around the town, saying she found 32 commemorating men and only eight in recognition of  women. 

“As a pioneering female architect Elisabeth Scott achieved a great deal but her name is not recognised in any public venue in the town. This is mad. It’s almost as though they’ll mention a famous man just because he once spent a fortnight on holiday here but for women it’s somehow different.”

Fox is a keen supporter of the Bournemouth Soroptimist International’s  STEM project which encourages girls to study Science Technology, Engineering and Maths. She feels that Elisabeth Scott is an impressive role model and more needs to be known about her.

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Sylvia Fox with some of her Elisabeth Scott research. Photograph by Hattie Miles

Scott certainly had an impressive background. Born in Bournemouth in 1898, she was a member of an eminent family of doctors and architects. Her father Bernard Scott, was a highly regarded local surgeon with a practice on the West Cliff. George Gilbert Scott was her uncle and she was a cousin of Giles Gilbert Scott who designed Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station and the iconic British red telephone box.

One of 11 siblings, Elisabeth, like most girls of her class and background, was initially educated at home but at the age of 14 she persuaded her parents to allow her pursue a more formal education at the Redmoor School in Canford Cliffs Road in nearby Poole.

From there she made her bid to become one of the first female students at the Architectural Association’s new design school. Robert Atkinson, who was head of the school at the time, had been cautious about admitting women to this male bastion. He had expounded the view that female architects should concentrate on the “decorative and domestic” rather than “the planning of buildings ten to twelve storeys high”

He must have been astonished when Scott graduated with ease and went on to beat 70 male contenders for the competition to design the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Scott’s entry had been unanimously chosen by a panel of international design experts. However it was a ‘blind’ competition with the winner selected from anonymous submissions. Had they known she was a woman would she still have won? 

Once her identity was revealed, the press excelled itself with coverage that laid bare its unerring ability to display its institutional sexism. ‘Girl Architect Beats Men’ screamed one headline. 

The  Shakespeare Theatre with its contemporary design brought both brickbats and bouquets. For some it was a step too far and at odds with the largely Tudor style buildings of Shakespeare’s birthplace. Sir Edward Elgar was appalled describing it as “unspeakably ugly and wrong”

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Bournemouth Pier Theatre under construction. Pic Bourne Steel/Bournemouth Library

But it brought praise from many including George Bernard Shaw. Notably worked as both a building and a theatre. Scott had made sure that every component part had a function as well as a form.

That should have been the start of a dazzling career and to an extent it was.  There were many more groundbreaking designs, including the Marie Curie Hospital in Hampstead which was sadly destroyed in an air-raid in 1944, and the Fawcett Building at Cambridge University’s Newnham College. But the dark clouds of the Second World War spelled an end to her glory days.

“Everything was going swimmingly until the war,” says Sylvia Fox. “But it became very difficult for her to be an architect in London. Her partners had been called up and there were terrible restrictions on licenses for building materials.

Elisabeth headed back to the relative safety of Bournemouth and took a job with a local architectural practise. By the late 1950s she had joined the council’s to work on designs on the Pier Theatre which opened in 1960 and for the next 50 years brought household names to the town. It finally closed in 2013 reopening the following year as an indoor activity centre.,

 Elisabeth Scott also designed the now demolished Mermaid Theatre on Boscombe Pier and, though she was never publicly credited for it, she is highly likely to have been the designer of the listed entrance to Boscombe Pier too.  “The metallic gates, the little touches, it’s quite playful,” says Fox. “She must have had a hand in it. To me it absolutely reeks of Scott.” 

The next stage in her investigation she says is to try and find the original plans for the pier entrance which she believes may still exist in a council storeroom somewhere. “That would prove exactly who the architect was because apparently they always initialled their drawings before they were signed off. It would be wonderful if Elisabeth Scott could one day receive the recognition she so richly deserves.”

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

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