William Blake’s Cottage at (great) risk

In recent days, the news that Historic England has included William Blake’s cottage in Felpham in its Heritage at Risk register has spread all over the press. Those of us who know how extensive the damage to the cottage’s thatched roof and its structure is, due to the past six years of neglect and mismanagement, could at last breathe a cautious sigh of relief.

Why cautious? For one thing, though it is very welcome news that Historic England cares about Blake’s cottage, one can’t help wondering why they took so long to do something about it.

As some of you may know, I was a trustee, then Secretary, of the Blake Society for several years. Along with its chairman, Tim Heath, and the Big Blake Project in Felpham, I was co-founder and co-leader of the 2014 campaign to acquire the cottage and turn it into a centre for creation. After relentless bullying, witnessing widespread mismanagement and corruption in the handling of the project, and alerting the committee, to no avail, I stepped down. The Big Blake Project was then bullied out too. Mr Heath fashioned himself as the owner of the cottage and created an illegitimate organism, also chaired by him: the Blake Cottage Trust (then consisting of only three persons; now they are four), all behind the Blake Society committee’s back. When the cottage was finally acquired in 2015, a purchase that was also shrouded in secrecy, it was in fact stolen from the people who generously donated their money during the campaign.

Throughout the ensuing years, alarmed by what Mr Heath has done and by the subsequent series of neglect, lies, incoherence and dodgy manoeuvres that have characterised the behaviour of the Blake Cottage Trust, which has proved to be routinely unapproachable and accountable to no one, I have repeatedly contacted Samantha Johnson and Peter Kendall at Historic England, to alert them of the risk the building is facing.

Ms Johnson and Mr Kendall have been kind and clear, taking care to explain that, of course, Historic England can’t regulate the behaviour of the Blake Cottage Trust, their task being to protect buildings and preserve historical and cultural heritage. I understand that well.

In January 2017 (nearly five years ago), they told me that they had been in touch with Mr Heath and had inspected the building, and that Mr Heath had told them that the Blake Cottage Trust would prioritise the repair of the building and were “embarking on a period of fundraising”. Ms Johnson also told me (I quote): “If there was to be a very protracted period of inactivity at the cottage, then this could threaten its structural integrity (and therefore potentially its historic interest). In that case we would then discuss with the owner and the local authority how this could be best addressed.”

That very protracted period of inactivity certainly followed, and it certainly threatened the cottage’s structural integrity. I ignore if there were more discussions with the BCT or the local authority, but the outcome was further damage to the building over a period of five years.

In February 2018—that’s almost four years ago—I contacted HE again, telling them that surely the cottage could be now considered at risk: there had been some open days, and visitors had been appalled by its state of disrepair, far greater than it had been in the past. I had seen some pictures, and they were very worrying indeed. I told them I knew that “there isn’t much that Historic England can do if such a building falls into the hands of a Trust that has proved to be utterly unscrupulous and incompetent, incapable to make themselves responsible for it, but now I believe that there are serious grounds to consider it heritage at risk, and if there is any way in which Historic England can help to protect Blake’s Cottage, it would be many both in Britain and the world who would be grateful.”

Mr Peter Kendall’s response was:

You may be aware that inclusion of a heritage asset on our at risk register is based on a combination of factors and that these include most importantly the condition of the building (normally an imminent risk of loss of something significant) and the absence of a secure use or a body capable of managing it.

 When we last considered this building we thought it had repair needs but that these were not of a severity that would make it at risk in our terms. Before I might ask our Heritage at Risk team for their opinion of the risk factors I would welcome a bit more information.

It may be worthwhile to reproduce here my whole answer:

Dear Peter,

Many thanks for getting back to me.

The building has certainly deteriorated since I saw it in 2014, when we knew there was damage but it was not apparent, and this year.

Perhaps the most recent images will speak for themselves. The pictures attached appeared in Mrs Beryl Kingston’s blog recently, after she visited the building:

I would say that the cottage is now in very urgent need of repair indeed.

I am also convinced that there is a complete absence of a body capable to manage the property. It was acquired in September 2015 and during all this time it has been allowed to go into further disrepair. 

For nearly a year the Blake Cottage Trust didn’t deign to inform the public what they planned to do with the building. When they finally did, they’ve been incurring into flagrant contradictions, have been lying to the public on a continuous basis, their financial reports are inaccurate, and a long sorry etc. that I have documented well in my own website: https://blakecottage.com/blog/

The reason why the Blake Cottage Trust is not capable to manage the property is its very illegitimacy: during our campaign in the Blake Society we promised we’d create a large consortium of organisations and individuals who would all contribute their skills and expertise, and would guarantee transparency and accountability. We had invited the Tate, English PEN, the University of Chichester, publishers and scholars.

If that had happened, the fund-raising would have continued immediately after the purchase of the cottage. None of that happened because the Blake Cottage Trust is formed only of 3 individuals. Two of them had had no involvement in the campaign nor knowledge of the project. It was a trust set up in secret by the Blake Society chairman, who now also chairs the Blake Cottage Trust.

There is ample evidence of both organisms’ extensive lying to the public and donors, of their bullying and intimidation tactics and their lack of a consistent plan for the building, which they have been changing on and on depending on what their critics make public. One rather concrete result of their incapability to manage the building is the dire conditions in which it stands now.

The more time we allow to pass, the more the building will be affected, something that we all would lament.

I hope you find this information useful.

Mr Kendall said that they would now consider this information. Meanwhile, the cottage kept on deteriorating in the hands of the Blake Cottage Trust.

Fast forward to November 2021, and we hear that at last Historic England is stepping in. Happy as I am, I cannot help wondering why they took so long.

The apparent answer to this question is also troubling me: HE seems to be responding to a request from the Blake Cottage Trust itself.

Early last year a fourth trustee joined the Trust as its Secretary: Jonathan Mullard (who is also now Secretary of the Blake Society). Mr Mullard has been quoted in the press saying, “The Trust applied to Historic England to put it [the cottage] on the Register due to the decay and failure of part of the thatch, roof structure and supporting masonry. . . .  “We are very grateful for the support of Historic England.”

It is therefore pertinent to ask whether Historic England is actually supporting the Blake Cottage Trust, and if it is, whether it has paid no attention to the fact that the state of disrepair Blake’s cottage is in is the direct responsibility of that Trust precisely, who has had it in its hands since 2015, and of the Blake Society, who washed off its hands of its responsibility for the campaign it launched in 2014, and was subsequently actively working on a cover up.

I insist: when we (the Blake Society and the Big Blake Project) started the campaign, we promised we would create a consortium of accountable organisations and individuals to look after the cottage, secure its future and open its doors to the public. We would call people and organisation of many talents, including fundraising skills. Had that promise been kept, there is no doubt that the thatched roof and structural damage would have been repaired a long time ago.

Instead of that, Mr Heath was joined by two other utterly unaccountable men, and between the three of them managed to do nothing at all for the cottage, and quite a great deal of damage and mischief. I cannot repeat the whole story here, which is long and convoluted, but all of it is amply documented in this website, for those who care.

Historic England has been warned about this state of affairs for six years now, and I’m sure not only by myself but by other campaigners too, and yet it only steps in on request from the Blake Cottage Trust? Why is that?

I don’t blame HE for finding it hard to deal with a painfully complicated matter, with the workings of three men who behave like common crooks yet are rich in cunning. However, I will alert them yet again about the risks of supporting the people who are directly responsible for the fact that Blake’s Cottage is now is at risk of being lost forever. There are the ethical reasons, which no one in this sad story seems to care much about, but also the practical and factual, dazzlingly obvious if we look at the dire state the cottage is in.

In a recent piece published in the Bognor Regis Observer, Mr Mullard, from the BCT, made the following statements:

“The Trust aims to renovate the cottage, with sympathy and imagination, in time for the 200th anniversary of the death of William Blake in 2027. Fundraising and renovation can be challenging but as Blake himself wrote: ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

2027? Surely this is a joke? To wait that long to have functioning a building that was acquired in 2015, then left to rot all these years?

(Here’s an example of this neglect: in early April 2016, five years and seven months ago, the firm The Morton Partnership gave the Blake Cottage Trust a worrying report of the damage in the property and the work that needed to be done. You can see that document in the BCT’s website: https://blakecottage.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Morton-Partnership-Survey.pdf

However, rather than making sure that the needed work was done, or admitting that they didn’t have the capacity to do it, they were hiring architects to design plans for the new building they want to have on the premises.)

In the Bognor Regis Observer article also we learn: “Mr Mullard, one of four trustees, said they had used the opportunity to launch a fundraising bid, initially for £8,000 for a conservation report. Then the trust plans to make bids for funding for the work itself. They are also looking for more trustees to widen the expertise they have on board.”

One question is pertinent here: why are they only looking for more trustees now, in 2021? Why these three men (now four) have been unapproachable and unaccountable since 2015, and suddenly they consider it might actually be wise to have more trustees?

To anyone who’s considering applying for that doubtful honour, I would recommend them to take a serious look at the history behind the Blake Cottage Trust, and to be fully aware that it was created illegitimately, taking money from donors and money given by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to steal William Blake’s cottage and buy it as if it were these men’s private property.

I for one cannot trust in the least trustees chosen by the three original founders, or shall we say thieves, of the BCT. What I saw in the committee of the Blake Society during the cottage campaign, then its acquisition, cured me of any remains of innocence. With the sole exception of a new young trustee who, though he didn’t challenge the committee, at least stayed well clear of the bullying and the cover up, every single one of the other trustees washed their hands off their responsibility and were actively complicit in the cover-up of a great deal of corruption.

Apart from Mr Heath, none of those trustees remains in the Blake Society now. Its present committee members all joined in 2020 and 2021, with one exception, who joined in 2019. How the purge of the old ones took place, I do not know. I have no reason to doubt that the new trustees are all honest and well-meaning people, but they are still working under the direction of a dishonest man who manipulates information and lies to an astonishing degree; a man who is capable of, in fact, fraud—it was through fraud that he acquired the cottage and created the illegitimate Blake Cottage Trust.

As trustees of a charity, they have the obligation to look into the matter, acknowledge the damage done, and stop being complicit with a corrupt organisation.

The same goes for Mr Mullard: he wasn’t there during the campaign or the years of utter unaccountability that followed the purchase of the cottage, so he may know nothing at all about the sorry mess that surrounds the property. However, as the Secretary of both the BCT and the BS, he now has a responsibility to find out what happened and act in consequence. I will make sure to contact him and let him know my concerns. (As it is amply documented in this webpage, I did all in my power, for years, to address my concerns to the other trustees of the BCT, without ever receiving even an acknowledgement of receipt of my communications.)

You will have read in the recent press coverage that Blake’s cottage “was rescued by the Blake Cottage Trust in 2015″. It is crucial that we emphasise, as many times as necessary, until we all refresh our memory, that that was not the case at all. The Blake Cottage Trust did not rescue the cottage in 2015. What it did was steal it and allow it to go into serious disrepair. Are we supposed to reward them for that?

Let’s go back to the new fundraising campaign that the BCT announces they will start soon.

In October this year the Blake Society held an online event around Blake’s Milton. A Poem, at the end of which Mr Heath and Mr Mullard talked about their plans for the cottage, the campaign included. It is recorded in the BS’s webpage, and I’ve just looked at it. Mr Mullard claims that the BCT has been involved in “a lot of discussions with Historic England”, sharing their concerns for a property that has been unoccupied for so long; he mentions their successful request for HE to put the cottage in the Heritage at Risk register, and then says something quite extraordinary: that it may “sound like a bad thing, that we’ve got a property that is at risk”; that it “may sound negative but actually opens a lot of funding opportunities”, and therefore, he says: “I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s a technical analysis of the state of the building, rather than necessarily a building that is to fall down”.

“I wouldn’t worry too much!” After six years of neglect. Can you believe it?

The technical analysis tells us that the cottage where one of the greatest poets and artists this country has given is at risk of being lost forever, and the Secretary of the Blake Cottage Trust wouldn’t worry too much.

Mr Mullard continues: “We can take the opportunity of the publicity of Historic England’s annual register to start a fundraising programme for the cottage, to have it ready in 2027 on the anniversary of Blake’s death.”

Please read this again. After six years of neglect, the BCT is planning an opportunistic burst of publicity to start a fundraising programme that they should have started in 2015, to get it ready in a further six years. They are asking for a 12-year trust from the public, when during half that time they have done for the cottage nothing at all.

Mr Mullard then says: “We’re looking for partners, people who want to help us in this journey”. And why didn’t the BCT look for the partners we committed ourselves to take on board in the 2014 campaign as soon as the cottage was acquired, thus honouring the Blake Society and Big Blake Project’s word of creating a consortium, and fulfilling our obligation towards the campaign’s donors?

So when Mr Mullard tells us that they will be asking “for big donations with a big publicity campaign”, I can only think, “Oh no, not again!”

In 2014 we launched a big publicity campaign, asked for big donations, and just look at the results. The Blake Cottage Trust seems to be staking its chances on the world’s forgetfulness, after such long a time (and God knows we’ve had plenty of causes for distraction).

As one of the founders of the original campaign, it is my duty to help the public remember. Some of you reading these words were probably among the donors who, seven years ago, gave generously and trustingly, and what you got in return was a Blake Society dropping the project and its responsibility, and a devious hijacking of the cottage by the Blake Cottage Trust, who then let it rot. Do you want to see this happen again?

No doubt the Blake Cottage Trust will cajole more celebrities for their new campaign. Another of the hard lessons I learnt with the previous campaign was that, though celebrities look very nice supporting noble causes, they are seemingly terribly busy to care whether the projects they support are destroyed by corruption. In this website you can find the nil results I got from alerting the big names we had in our campaign about what had really happened.

I’m in no way implying that Mr Jonathan Mullard is aware of all this. I don’t know him, he’s joined the Blake Cottage Trust and the Blake Society only recently, and nobody knows what the other BCT trustees cared to tell him about the cottage’s history when he joined.

What I am hoping is that he informs himself, that he listens to these and other people’s concerns, and does the right thing, by not being complicit to further dishonesty and deceit.

He may find the tricks of prestidigitation regarding the relationship between the Blake Society and the Blake Cottage Trust that have abounded during this unedifying story interesting. I will try to summarise them here, for his benefit and that of this blog’s readers, who may have forgotten.

The campaign to acquire Blake’s cottage was, unequivocally, a Blake Society and Big Blake Project endeavour. It was explicitly agreed that the campaign would rely on the Blake Society’s good reputation for its success, and that all the administration of the campaign would go through the Blake Society. I know: I was the Secretary. Extensive proof of this can be found in this website and, of course, in the memory of the public and donors.

If the campaign succeeded, then we would create the large consortium of organisations and individuals that I have mentioned above to run the cottage independently.

Soon, however, the behaviour of Tim Heath, the BS chairman, became alarmingly erratic. I am not talking only of the intense bullying that I, as co-founder of the project and campaign, was subject to. I am talking of how he started to refuse to give information to the committee of what was going on with the project, to the extent that for the last weeks before the end of the campaign he simply disappeared. He was unreachable. The committee had no idea of what he was up to, and all the trustees were, understandably, very worried. Each and every one of them told me about their concerns.

When I stepped down, the whole committee told me (in private) how unfair it was, how worried they were about the whole affair; in fact, how angry. But not one of them ever challenged the chair in the few meetings he deigned to call.

In 2015, when the cottage was acquired, and I found out that the Big Blake Project had also been bullied out and now Mr Heath had claimed the cottage as his own private toy, I was alarmed, and very worried about the donors who had given us their support in such good faith. I therefore contacted the Blake Society committee. Again, all its trustees confirmed that, since I had left, they had known nothing at all about the cottage project; that the chair was unapproachable and refused to discuss the matter with them; that the same had been the case regarding the purchase of the property and the creation of the Blake Cottage Trust. They were extremely worried and angry.

I told them how important it was that they challenged the chair and honoured their responsibility for the campaign as the Blake Society. But they never did, and when I then contacted the Charity Commission and made the matter public, the Blake Society’s tune changed completely. They now simply parroted Mr Heath, repeating that the Blake Society had nothing whatsoever to do with the cottage project. Nothing at all. As if all the publicity, correspondence and printed material weren’t there to prove they were lying.

The cover-up that followed (and it includes muddled financial reports) was vast and thorough. It is all documented in this webpage as well.

Now it’s 2021, and the discourse is, again, that the Blake Cottage Trust and the Blake Society are in this very much together. So much so, that they share the same chair and secretary.

I find this constant change of discourse unsettling. First we had the lying, through which the Blake Society washed its hands and contributed to the illegitimate appropriation of the cottage. Now, with an entirely new committee in the BS, the BCT seems to be relying on the support of its members, since there has been nothing in six years to contribute to the Blake Cottage Trust’s reputation apart from the fact that, in their hands, the building is falling apart.

This is by no means the only instance in which the discourse of both the BS and the BCT has incurred in flagrant contradictions, changes of plans, lies and incoherence. One of the most worrying examples has been the Blake Cottage Trust’s constant changes and contradictions regarding their actual plans for the cottage, starting by ditching the original plan that had been made explicit during our campaign.

I recently looked at the Blake Cottage Trust’s webpage and I see that they have withdrawn some of the most extravagant claims they have made in the past, including their plans to turn the cottage into a kind of fancy hotel so that people could sleep in Blake’s bed, create and procreate, etc. (Luckily, all their past claims are documented too in these pages.)

My concern is: if money starts pouring into the hands of people who for six years have done nothing but lying and contradicting themselves wildly, who is to guarantee that they won’t go back on their word, contradict themselves again, come up with bizarre new plans that have nothing to do with what is promised to those people we support their campaign?

A great first step to at last really rescue Blake’s cottage has been taken by Historic England, as they include it in their register of heritage at risk. We all must celebrate it and make sure that funds are raised to save it. What should follow now, apart from the fundraising itself, is to secure that the building is taken off the hands of the people who have served it so badly and are responsible for the neglect and disrepair in the first place.

This is of course no easy task. I have mentioned the BCT’s cunning before, and both they and trustees in the old BS Committee have made sure in the past to inform/threaten about the very powerful law firm hired by the Blake Cottage Trust, who seems to have money for lawyers but not for repairing the building. However, those of us who care for Blake’s legacy should think of ways to prevent the money from going through the Blake Cottage Trust’s hands.

I admit I don’t know through which mechanism this may be possible, and that I know what an extremely convoluted issue this is, but I would hope that Historic England, after taking a first step in the right direction, might volunteer to manage the money themselves to carry out the necessary repairs, or think of acquiring the property. I am sending this blog entry to them and I will try to discuss my concerns with them further.

The public, all the people who love Blake and who will give once again, generously, and out of love and respect for his work, must be protected and rest assured that their money won’t go into the hands of people who have sequestered the cottage via fraudulent practice.

The Blake Cottage Trust has been talking for a while of also acquiring the property at 17 South Molton Street, London, where Blake and Catherine lived after their return from Felpham, and that Mr Heath has been renting for years. The alarm bells should be ringing loudly. If we’re not careful, the only two standing buildings were William Blake lived will end up in the hands of fraudsters. Can you think of a worse insult to his legacy?

In the recorded event about Blake’s Milton that I have already mentioned, Mr Heath let out another of the vacuous slogans that he has been using since the cottage was acquired. He said that having Blake’s cottage in Historic England’s register of heritage at risk is right “because Blake is at risk in our culture”.

Blake’s work is known and admired now more than ever before, so he doesn’t seem to be much at risk, but the legacy of the cottage where he spent three years that, painful though they were, proved infinitely fruitful, is certainly at risk in the hands of the Blake Cottage Trust and its shadow, the Blake Society. Let us make sure that we aren’t complicit.