Dates: 1784 to 1840.
Thomas Stedman Whitwell was born in Coventry. and was active in Leamington Spa from about 1820 to 1822. In notices of his death he is named Stedman Thomas Whitwell (Stedman is occasionally spelled as Steadman). His only antecedent traced so far is an uncle named Mr Whitwell who was a surgeon in Coventry (or Daventry).
Stedman is noted for his plans around 1820 for a Utopian community to be developed in the area of Charlotte Street which was heralded with the name Southville; however, it was not built. He went on to design several buildings in Coventry and a theatre in London, none of which survive. He also appears to have been skilled in aspects of engineering as well as architecture.
In 1819 he designed a medal to commemorate the opening of the Independent Chapel in Carr’s Lane, Birmingham
In 1820 Whitwell advertised land for sale in Belle View Place, which was probably in the eastern section of Ranelagh Terrace. In a Merridew’s guide of 1822 Whitwell is listed as an architect at Brunswick Street, Southville, in Leamington. Also with this same address of Southville were a drawing master (artist), an hotel and the Ranelagh Gardens.
It transpired that Whitwell had prepared a plan for this area south of the canal which was intended to be the ideal layout for a town and he called it Southville. It is not clear but it is possible that Whitwell was commissioned by Matthew Wise, who owned the land. The Plan was displayed at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1820 as item No 962 but to our knowledge no-one has been able to find a copy. The focal point was to be a church in the design of the Parthenon of Athens (or in some reports the Pantheon of Rome). There was also to be a 250 feet high monument where Bath Street meets High Street – now ‘The Bridges’. This must have a been a form of a vision of a Utopian community.
In 1825 Whitwell was involved with the internal refurbishment of County Hall in Coventry.
In 1825 he was an agent advertising for supply of a ‘six horse’ steam engine and seeking tenders to be sent to The Craven Arms in Coventry. In the same year he was involved in establishing a Mechanics Institute in Coventry.
It is not clear when Whitwell left Leamington but around 1825 Whitwell made contact with Robert Owen (1771 to 1858) who also had a vision of a Utopian place to live, work and worship. He put this vision into reality at a mill at New Lanark near Glasgow, which he acquired from his father-in-law. This mill community has survived until today.
In the 1820s, over 3,000 miles away, this same Robert Owen appears to have taken over a small new town called Harmony in the south-west corner of Indiana USA. Owen developed a design for a new community to be called New Harmony and Whitwell translated this into a drawing of a town with 2,000 residents. A copy of this plan survives. Whitwell’s name is in small print at the bottom of it. Several communities were developed in this place but, sadly, once again, this grand group of buildings was never built but some of Owen’s social reforms did take root. However, New Harmony now looks like many US small towns. Whitwell gave several lengthy talks in Britain about this great adventure across the ocean.
A Great Disaster
Whitwell drew illustrations for a book about Fonthill Abbey in 1823. This ‘abbey’ was in actuality a large country house; construction started in 1796 and it had an improbably high tower (90 metres, 300 feet) which collapsed twice. This version of the house was demolished in 1845.
The last definitive record of Whitwell was when he was engaged in 1827 to rebuild a theatre in Whitechapel, East London, coincidentally called the New Brunswick. He was living at No 147 Strand, London. During rehearsals on 1 March 1828 the roof fell in and walls collapsed killing between 11 and 14 people (reports vary). A letter from Whitwell was published the following day asking for caution before putting the blame for this tragedy upon his shoulders. There was a trial of the surviving partner in the theatre company for causing the deaths. Whitwell was not indicted but he gave evidence. He said that the scenery and flies and so forth had been suspended from the novel iron roof trusses by the theatre company but that they had not been designed with this in mind. The only penalty for this disaster appears to be that the proprietor was fined £20.
In 1829 Whitwell was described as the engineer who designed a new heating system for the theatre in Hamburg, Germany. In 1834 he wrote about heating and ventilating the fever ward at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and other buildings in Cambridge.
Whitwell had little work after this disaster and died in obscurity at the end of May 1840 at his chambers in Gray’s Inn, London. He was simply described as the nephew of the late Mr Whitwell, surgeon, of Coventry (or sometimes Daventry).
Mick Jeffs, November 2021