1827-49 – Working with Thomas Smith

SM 43 – Dec 14


Chapters 1 and 2 of Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy deals with the early years in the lives and work of the Pulham family, but there was insufficient space available to go into too much detail about their building projects with Thomas Smith.   The purpose of this month’s ‘Site of the Month’ feature is to fill in some of the gaps.

James 1 and his younger brother, Obadiah, were born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, during the 1790s, and were apprenticed to J & W Lockwood – the local firm of Master Builders – as Stone Modellers.   Lockwood opened a London Sales Office in 1824 at 22 Elder Street, Spitalfields, and put James 1 in charge, with Obadiah as his assistant, responsible for a lot of the modelling work.   Lockwood’s business continued to expand, and, in 1826, he moved into larger premises in Tottenham, north London.

One of Lockwood’s major projects that were in progress at this time was for William Stuart, at Tempsford Hall, in Bedfordshire.   Obadiah Pulham was the stone modeller involved, and the architect for the work was Thomas Smith, who, at the age of 28, had just opened a practice in Hertford.   Smith was apparently extremely impressed with Obadiah’s artistry and skills, and was also very interested in churches and the Gothic style of architecture, so they would have had a lot of interests in common.

1828-31 – St James’ Church, Silsoe

Another project that Smith was working on at this time was for Thomas Philip de Gray – also known as Lord Grantham, owner of Wrest Park, in Silsoe, Bedfordshire – who decided to restore the old Church of St James, which stood on the main approach drive to Wrest Park.   He commissioned Smith to survey it, and the resulting report was devastating.   Smith considered that the bell turret and its supporting walls were unsafe; that some of the structural timbers in the roof were decayed, and that the north and south external walls were inches out of the vertical. [i]

He recommended that the tower be taken down and part of the west wall rebuilt. The work was put in hand, but the tower collapsed during its construction due to stones not having been properly bonded together, and the local paper – the Hertfordshire Mercury – reported that this was due to the fact that a Clerk of Works had not been employed, and the architect only visited occasionally.

Smith consequently had no option but to appoint a Clerk of Works, and he immediately thought of Obadiah, whose work at Tempsford Hall had impressed him so much.   He therefore offered him the job, based in his Hertford office.   The dreadful economic situation at this time meant that Lockwood’s flow of work had slowed down considerably, so Obadiah decided to leave James 1 in Tottenham, and move to Hertford to take up Smith’s offer.

5-1-43-01 - Silsoe, St James

Fig 1 – St James’ Church at Silsoe, Bedfordshire

5-1-43-02 - Silsoe 2

Fig 2 – The beams and brackets in St James’ Church, Silsoe

 Meanwhile, at Silsoe, it had been decided that, rather than rebuild the old church from scratch, a new church should be built on a fresh site, and Nicholas Pevsner(1903-83) – the German art historian who moved to England and became a renowned authority on English architecture – refers to the new church in a.series of articles under the title of ‘Buildings of England’ as being:

‘. . an amazingly early case of archaeologically knowledgeable imitation by T. Smith of Hertford.’

The work was completed in 1831, with Obadiah responsible as Clerk of Works.   In fact, the terracotta hood-moulds around the windows – which can just be seen in Fig 1 – are almost certainly Obadiah’s work, as are also the head-like corbels supporting the beams inside the chancel, shown in Fig 2.   It is not known who was contracted to build the church, so it would be irresponsible to claim that William Lockwood or James 1 were definitely involved, but it at least has to be a possibility.

1832-47 – Thomas Smith Builds up his Business

Thomas Smith opened a London office in Bloomsbury Square c1832, and later moved again to Hart Street, in the City of London.   It seems that Obadiah also moved to London at this time, because he married Elizabeth Sellwood at St Mary’s church, Whitechapel, in March 1832, and is known to have lived in nearby John Street during the late 1830s. [ii]

Smith designed and built Hertford County Hospital in 1832-33, and also built a Norman Folly in the garden of his home in North Road, Hertford c1834.   As noted in Chapter 1 of Rock Landscapes, it is almost certain that James 1 worked with Obadiah on those projects.   Smith was appointed County Architect and Surveyor of Hertfordshire in 1837, and also of Bedfordshire in 1847.

1835 – William Lockwood Returns to Woodbridge

James 1 continued in charge of Lockwood’s offices and showroom in Tottenham, and directories of the 1830s show him as living in Moselle Place, Tottenham.   William Lockwood eventually decided to give up the London branch of his business and retire to Woodbridge in 1835, but James 1 continued to work from Tottenham under his own name.

1835-38 – Benington Lordship, Near Stevenage

Thomas Smith designed the huge Norman Folly at Benington Lordship, and it is known for sure that James 1 worked with Obadiah on building it between 1835-38.   This is discussed fully in the book, which also refers to the untimely death of James 1 in 1838, soon after the death of his baby twins.

1838-42 – James 2 Takes Over his Father’s Business

One can only guess at the trauma felt by a young man of eighteen at the news of his father’s sudden death in very unfortunate circumstances, but that is what James 2 had to endure in March 1838.   He obviously got through it very well, however, because he took over his father’s business, and continued to live at the family home in Moselle Place, Tottenham, with his mother and three brothers and sisters.   They were still there at the time of the 1841 Census.

He inherited his father’s artistic abilities and practical skills, and we know – thanks to the research already done by John Corfield – that Thomas Smith employed him on a number of projects over the next several years.   In order to be more conveniently situated for this work, he moved to Hoddesdon in 1842, and set up business in Amwell Street, at premises that are now The Sun Inn.

1839-40 – Churches in Old Harlow, Weston and Stevenage

In May 1839, the Marquess of Bute laid the foundation stone of St John’s Church, in Old Harlow, Essex, which, according to a newspaper report, Thomas Smith designed and built in ‘the Early English manner’.   His church work continued with the Church of the Holy Trinity in Weston, Hertfordshire, in 1840, and a castellated south transept at the Church of St Nicholas, Stevenage, in 1841. There is no documentary evidence to show that James 2 was involved in the building work, but there are many similarities between these churches and others at which his presence is known, so it has to be a distinct possibility.

5-1-43-03 - Weston, Church of Holy Trinity Exterior

Fig 3 – The Church of the Holy Trinity, Weston, Hertfordshire (1840)

 1841-45 – Obadiah suffers Bereavement

Obadiah and Elizabeth had four children – William, Elizabeth, Mary and Lucy.   William and Elizabeth were twins, and all four children were born between 1834 and 1836.   Elizabeth sadly died in 1841, and his housekeeper, Sophia Martin, cared for the children while he was away at work, as he was at the time of the 1841 Census, when – as described in Chapter 1 of the book – he was lodging in Crib Street, Ware, during the building of nearby Thunder Hall.

He married Sophia in April 1845 – also at St Mary’s, Whitechapel – but there were no children from that marriage.   The 1851 Census showed them as living in the Mile End district of London, so this could have also have been in John Street.

1841-42 – Church of The Holy Trinity, Wareside

1841 was also the year in which Smith designed the new Church of the Holy Trinity, Wareside, which was intended as a chapel-of-ease for the large parish of Ware.

5-1-43-04 - Wareside 1

Fig 4 – The exterior of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Wareside,  in 1958   (Photo by courtesy of Mrs Mabel Saville)

 Holy Trinity was built in cream brick with stone facings, and its unusual appearance – which includes a brightly painted apse – is entirely due to the influence of the then vicar, the Rev H Coddington.   He had a passionate interest in ecclesiastical architecture and its relevance to ritual, and wanted the new chapel to echo the design of the early Roman churches – inspired by Roman basilicas, or town halls – which had also been greatly admired by the Normans.   The church – shown in Figs 4 and 5 – was consecrated by the Bishop of London before a congregation of over six hundred people in 1842. [iii]   The Hertford and Bedford Reformer reported:

‘The Architect Thomas Smith Esq of Hertford has displayed in the design a correctness of taste which has already ensured him a very high reputation in his profession and which has elicited him the approbation of some of the best judges of architecture in this country.   We understand that Professor Whewell pronounced the Chapel the most perfect specimen of pure Norman style in this country.’

5-1-43-05 - Wareside 2

Fig 5 – Interior during the 1920’s, when the church still had the original altar, pulpit and paraffin lamps.   (Photo courtesy of Mrs W Surridge)

Although there are no positive records of the projects on which James 2 worked during the two or three years immediately following the death of his father, Obadiah was involved as Clerk of Works with the church-building projects in Weston, Stevenage and Wareside, so it is quite possible that Smith engaged James 2 to assist in the construction of all three of them.   Obadiah is also shown as lodging in Ware at the time of the 1841 Census, whilst working on Smith’s extensions to Thunder Hall – noted in Chapter 1 of the book – so maybe James 2 was also involved with that, and it may well have been these projects that prompted him to move his business from Tottenham to Hoddesdon in 1842.

1842-45 – Significant Changes for James 2

James 2 had started taking on work of his own by this time, and one of his clients was John Warner, who owned Hoddesdon House, now known as Rawdon House.   As explained in Chapter 2 of the book, he employed James 2 to do extensive external and internal redecorations on the house when Warner decided to get married, and built himself another home nearby at ‘Woodlands’.   He also asked James 2 to help landscape his gardens, and this turned out to be a major turning point in his life – where he made his first artificial ‘Pulhamite’ rock.

This may have also have been the point when he decided to expand his business, because, in 1844 – when he was still only 24 – he put his premises up for auction, and moved a couple of miles south to Station Road, Broxbourne, where he built a new family home with an adjoining manufactory in which to produce a wide range of terracotta garden ornaments.   Work began here in 1845, and James 2 was joined by his younger brother, Michael Angelo, who was also an incredibly talented artist and stone modeller, and helped with the designs of their ornaments.

As was also noted in Chapter 2 of Rock Landscapes, James 2 wrote a long and knowledgeable letter to The Builder Magazine in 1845 under the title of ‘On Cements, Artificial Stone and Plastic Compositions.   Apart from the technical aspects of this article, in which he referred to what cements should be used under which circumstances, his comments about the use of plaster, rather than wood, for certain interior decorative work are of particular interest, and explain his approach to the work he did on the staircase at Rawdon House.   One of his next major jobs was the restoration of the dilapidated ornamental stonework around the North Doorway of the Church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, in 1845.

1844-45 – St Thomas’ Church, West Hyde

He continued to do some work with Thomas Smith, however, whose next major project was the Church of St Thomas of Canterbury at West Hyde, Hertfordshire.   This is a beautiful church – described in some detail in the book – but it may well have led to something very different.   Just half a mile or so from this church is a house that, some years ago, was converted from an old public house called Ye Jolly Gardeners, and it does not stretch the imagination too far to suggest that the men working on the church would sometimes visit the hostelry for refreshment.   The interesting thing about this is that the sign above the door – shown in Fig 6 – is in plasterwork bas-relief, and I have a very strong feeling that it could be a unique example of the Pulhams’ modelling skills.

5-1-43-06 - Jolly Gardeners

Fig 6 – ‘Ye Jolly Gardeners’ inn sign at West Hyde

1848 – Kilnwick Percy, Pocklington, Yorkshire

Thomas Smith was involved with designing of the Vicarage at Kilnwick Percy, in Pocklington, Yorkshire, in 1848, and it is almost certain that James 2 undertook most of the building, because he was certainly did a lot of interior decorative work in the main house, as described in Chapter 2 of the book.   Pocklington may seem a long way from Hertford and Broxbourne, but but it could be explained by the fact that the Kilnwick Percy estate was owned by Capt Arthur Duncombe, a cousin of Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, M.P. for Hertford from 1826 unti11832.

1849 – St Mary’s Church, Clophill, Bedfordshire

On now to Clophill, a charming little village in Bedfordshire.   As was noted earlier, the Earl de Grey, of Wrest Park – in the nearby village of Silsoe – engaged Thomas Smith to design St Thomas’s Church there in 1831.   He was presumably satisfied with the result, because he engaged him to design and build another church in Clophill.   The Church of St Mary was completed in 1849, and, as can be seen from Fig 7, it has a number of close similarities to St James’.   It is a compact-looking church, with the same unusually-shaped tower as St Thomas’s, and terracotta copings and figures around the doors and windows.   Nicholas Pevsner described it as:

‘. . . an archeologically convincing job in the Tudor perpendicular style . . . a very neat edifice . . .comfortable to worship in.   The terracotta copings used at the church were those by James Pulham – he was much admired by Thomas Smith.’

 5-1-43-07 - Clophill Litho

Fig 7 – A lithographed ‘artist’s impression,’ of the church, just before it was built.   (Reproduced by kind permission of the Church Council)

5-1-43-08 - Clophill 1

Fig 8 – St Mary’s Church, Clophill – with its new roof – as it was in 2001

 Fig 7 is a reproduction of an old lithograph that hangs inside the church, and was probably an ‘artist’s impression’ made before the church was built, since the background context is unlike the one I saw in 2001 – when I took the picture shown in Fig 8, when the roof had recently been replaced, and the church had lost its battlemented upper section.

 5-1-43-09 - Clophill Doorway

Fig 9 – The terracotta hood-mould round the door

 5-1-43-10 - Clophill Windows

Fig 10 – The ‘Pulham faces’ on the front window hoods at St Mary’s Clophill

 Moving closer, one can see the terracotta hood-moulds that extend partway down the sides of the door and the windows, and the figures at the ends of them – Fig 9 shows the door in the centre, with the figures in close-up on either side, and Fig 10 shows the windows.   Even Pevsner recognised that Obadiah was here, too, and it is therefore not surprising that, inside the church, there are some more heads – although, this time, they serve as corbel brackets to support the beams – see Fig 11 – rather than being an integral part of them, as they are in West Hyde.

 5-1-43-11 - Clophill Interior

Fig 11 – The Interior of St Mary’s Church, Clophill, with terracotta beam bracket

1849 – James 2 has Financial Problems

It is not absolutely certain the James 2 was involved in the building of St Mary’s Church, although all the available evidence seems to indicate that he was.   It seems that this was rather a lean time for his business, however, because bankruptcy proceedings were started against him in July 1849,[iv] but he managed to obtain a ‘Certificate of the Third Class’ – which was effectively a two-year suspended judgement dependent upon the settlement of his debts – in the October of that year, so he obviously recovered from his problems, and got his business back on track. [v]   He went on to exhibit his terracotta wares at the International Exhibitions of 1851 and 1852, for which he won several awards.

1855 – Ware Cewmetary Chapel

James 2 built the Ware Cemetery Chapel in 1855, as described in Chapter 2 of the book.   The building has now been converted into a pair of flats, although the ‘Pulham faces’ around the doorways and windows are still in excellent condition, as are also the angel heads that support the internal hammer beams – just like they do in West Hyde.   A close-up picture of one of these restored figures is shown in Fig 12.

5-1-43-12 - Ware Cem Angel 2004

Fig 12 – Angel head in the Ware Cemetery Chapel

 1855 – St Augustine’s Church, Broxbourne

St Augustine’s Church in Broxbourne is only about 100 yards from James 2’s house and Manufactory in Station Road, and also contains the grave in which he was laid to rest in 1898.   The work and repairs that he carried out on the fabric of this Church is also discussed in Rock Landscapes, so there is no point in repeating it here.

By this time, James 2 had become established in his landscaping and artificial rockwork commissions, and did less and less building work.   He consequently had no further work from Thomas Smith who, by this time, had begun to design and build churches around Europe, with Obadiah as his Clerk of Works, so this is where I can hand the story back to Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy.

[i]   All the Notes relating to the work of Thomas Smith in this Chapter are based on Thomas Smith, 1798-1875 – Architect and Surveyor or Hertford and London by John Corfield A.R.I.B.A.   Published by the Hertford and Ware Local History Society 1998

[ii]   Based on family research undertaken by Chris Pulham, a direct descendant of Obadiah

[iii]   ‘Wareside – A Miscellany of Histories,’ by Jane Webb, published by The Rockingham Press in association with the Ware Museum

[iv]     London Gazette, 6th July 1849

[v]     London Gazette, 20th October 1849[v]   All the Notes relating to the work of Thomas Smith in this Chapter are based on Thomas Smith, 1798-1875 – Architect and Surveyor or Hertford and London by John Corfield A.R.I.B.A.   Published by the Hertford and Ware Local History Society 1998

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