William Thomas was born the second of four sons in 1799 in Nacton, Suffolk where his father was an innkeeper. In about 1805, the family moved a considerable distance to Chalford, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. His father kept the Valley Inn which was later renamed The Clothiers Arms. It appears that the current Clothiers Arms in Stroud is a different place but the ‘Valley Inn’ exists as a Grade II Listed private house in Chalford.
William was apprenticed at the age of 11 or 12 to John Gardiner, the local builder, as a carpenter and joiner from 1812 to 1819; the practical and design skills he learned then surely came in useful in his later career as an architect.
All three of his brothers made their mark in the expanding Victorian world. Richard, the eldest, and Robert, the third son, became painters and glaziers, whilst the youngest, John, was apprenticed to a stonemason and eventually became a sculptor of some note; he became an associate of both Augustus W Pugin and Charles Barry. During the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster in the 1830s he became their ‘carver in chief’.
As there was no formal professional architectural body until the formation of the Institute of British Architects in 1837, like many others at the time, William was able to progress unhindered from carpenter/joiner to carpenter/builder, then to builder/architect. On completion of his apprenticeship in 1819 William moved to Birmingham to work for Richard Tutin, a builder and surveyor, perhaps consolidated his position by marrying Martha, a member of the Tutin family.
The birth of his daughter Anne in 1827 gave William the opportunity to describe himself as ‘architect’ on her baptismal certificate. The new business became listed as ‘Tutin and Thomas, Architects and Surveyors’, with William now a partner. This partnership came to an end with the death in 1832 of Richard Tutin, and as the building trade in Birmingham was in recession and cholera was prevalent, the Thomas family moved to Leamington Priors where the Spa’s growth and subsequent building boom promised to offer more opportunities for a budding architect.
There was an ever-growing demand for housing and public buildings to keep pace with the expansion of the spa town, and William’s first position in 1832 was as land agent for Mr Phipson. By 1833, he had designed a terrace of villas in Beauchamp Terrace to the west of Beauchamp Road (these were demolished and replaced about 1910).
He next produced a pair of chapels, one in the ‘plain Greek’ style for the Wesleyan Methodists, in Portland Street, and the other in a more controversial ‘Gothic’ style, for the Baptists, on Warwick Street. The Wesleyan Chapel was later used successively as a school, a warehouse, an electrical factor’s and is now apartments. The Baptist Chapel was replaced by Waterstone’s bookshop with the reshaping of the Royal Priors in about 2000.
After leaving Phipson’s employ, William’s first solo commission was to alter the façade of Radford Hall, Radford Semele, from 1834 to 1837, changing the somewhat irregular aspect into a more fashionable symmetrical layout. There seem to have been some differences of opinion between client and architect, with several different designs being drawn before the final design was accepted. Thomas’s final version still stands, minus a few decorations, although the building is now subdivided into apartments.
In 1834, Thomas was involved in the development of parts of Warwick New Road and Warwick Place in Milverton. He designed Welham Villa at No 1 Warwick New Road, Nos 34 to 40 Warwick Place, where one part still retains original castellated parts, and Grafton Villa at No 42 Warwick Place (now named The Cedars). Standing on a slight rise, they would have had commanding views of Warwick Castle – difficult to picture now with all the later developments, not to mention the trees and the railway bridge. His Warwick Place building complete with fake battlements is intriguing: could Thomas have been playing with different styles to demonstrate his skills or to please his client?
The following year, 1835, Thomas started work on his, and the town’s, crowning glory, Lansdowne Crescent; a magnificent crescent of twenty-one four and five storey town houses. In the twentieth century the crescent suffered the fate of many of the huge villas built at the height of the Spa’s popularity, becoming too big for modern families. With commendable vision, it was rescued by the local council who refurbished many houses as flats and organised the restoration of the whole crescent. When one house was demolished some years ago, and rebuilt with the front a perfect replica of the original, an additional floor was inserted but this is only visible from the rear, where smaller windows and the additional floor are the only clues to the rebuild. This whole project was only feasible because of the modular construction of the original crescent. The houses are not keyed together, but just touch each other, best seen from the rear, where the courses of bricks are not continuous and the styles of the rear of the buildings and the chimneys differ. All this no doubt due to the very long period of construction, from 1835 to about 1866, when Thomas would have had to complete one or two of them to sell before he could continue to build.
At the rear of the crescent, beyond what is now Thomas Street, William Thomas laid out another innovative development, Lansdowne Circus, a horseshoe shaped group of elegant semi-detached houses, with a larger detached villa at each end. These houses were aimed at a slightly less affluent clientèle than those in the nearby Crescent. It has been suggested that originally each house had a different internal configuration: sold without internal walls, the first owners could decide for themselves where the walls should be built.
A local iron-founder, William Carter was involved in building the Circus and he lived in the detached house at No 18 in the Circus. It is tempting to speculate that he provided the very varied ironwork in the Circus as an advertisement for his range of products. The ironwork is said to be unique and any replacements have therefore to be hand-made.
Beyond Lansdowne Circus, to the north and east, Thomas was responsible for the layout of several streets of workers’ houses and cottages, in streets such as Duke Street. Curiously these houses appear to be terraced, but on closer inspection, the brickwork, like that of the Crescent, is not linked. As with the Crescent, it would appear that these houses too were built to suit individual demands. Other architects were involved in designing houses in this area, including William Russell. The layout of all these streets gives the appearance of an integrated suburb, with houses for all tastes and incomes, ranging from the large expensive residences of Lansdowne Crescent, through medium-priced Lansdowne Circus, to artisan cottages at the rear in Thomas Street, Duke Street, King Street and Queen Street. This pattern of housing development is common in Leamington and often has a church as the centrepiece; in this case the later Church of St Paul designed by John Cundall is at the rear of Queen Street, in Leicester Street, to the design of John Cundall.
Upper Holly Walk
To complete his plans for the large open space that then stood in front of his Crescent, and having built some large villas in Holly Walk, Thomas tried to line Upper Holly Walk with high class detached villas, some of which remain (others have been replaced by 1960s apartment blocks). 1835 therefore saw the erection of Clydesdale Villa, Winton Villa, and Comyn Villa on the south side. Only Comyn Villa remains, which had become very dilapidated and neglected, but has undergone thorough renovation during 2020 to restore it to its former glory.
Oak House and Furze House (later named Leigh Bank College and then Grosvenor House) were then built on the opposite, north side. Oak House remains, as a Club, and Furze House has been replaced by flats.
At about the same time, Victoria House was built at the intersection of Willes Road and Upper Holly Walk. Earlier pictures show the building without stucco.
At the rear, on Upper Holly Walk, Thomas built Elizabeth House which was intended to be a semi-detached pair even though one was significantly larger than the other. They now have the names Lansdowne House and the smaller Aberdeen House on the right.
There is some debate about whether Thomas was involved with Nos 83 and 85 Upper Holly Walk. Neither house has notable Thomas features and, what is more, the plots are shown to be vacant on the usually reliable Board of Health map of 1851.
Holly Walk and Brandon Parade
Across Newbold (Willes) Road, William Thomas also planned a development, called Brandon Parade. It was intended to consist of six villas, but only three were completed, and only one of these, Brandon Villa (No 60), survives. The last building to be used as a private residence, Brandon Villa, shows a return to a simpler style, especially when compared to Oak House.
Curiously, Nos 56/58 Holly Walk, not credited to Thomas, show a number of his signature decorations, fake battlements over the entrance, finials on the front edge of the gable and carved panels over the windows, as in Oak House. William Thomas also marked his interest in the development by naming the rear service road, William Street.
At about the same time, 1837, Thomas planned a far larger development on a site opposite All Saints Parish Church, to be named Victoria Terrace, in honour of the new young Queen. It replaced a motley collection of buildings and the building line moved back by nearly 20 feet to conform with the widening of Victoria Bridge. The terrace was designed as a row of shops with two floors of accommodation above, and included a Pump Room and Baths, a successor to Robbins’ Baths on the original site, which were removed soon after the completion of the building. The baths were reused as the Wellington Hotel. Although the shops have undergone many changes and now lack the continuity of the original design, and traffic adds to the distraction from the original grand scale of the building, Thomas’ intention survives on the floors above.
There is a strong possibility that the entire block of buildings on the east side of Bath Street from Regent Place to High Street, was designed by William Thomas. The block runs from the chemist at the corner of Regent Place and Bath Street, to the junction with High Street, then left at that junction, down to the corner of Church Street.
The Impact of a Bank Failure
In 1837, the Leamington Priors Bank, which had underwritten much of the town’s expansion, hit financial problems and many local builders, developers and investors were dragged down with the bank. Sadly, Thomas was among them: many of his developments relied on borrowed money and the sale of a recently-built house to fund the building of the next one. The town’s expansion slowed dramatically. Planned developments such as the remainder of Brandon Parade folded; the projected six villas became three. For William Thomas, it was his Birmingham experience all over again. Work dried up and he took the post of Acting Borough Surveyor until he had salary problems with the local authority. He moved on to evaluating the assets of local builders and their backers in bankruptcy. Thomas continued to design buildings but only one of his proposals came to fruition – an office, with accommodation above, at No 42 Warwick Street, for solicitor A.S. Field. (This building is still a solicitor’s office, but the upper floors are now also used as office space.)
Thomas tried to find work back in Birmingham and he opened an office there, but the only significant development by him was a substantial block of shops and accommodation named Warwick House, New Street, Birmingham. Finally, in 1843, Thomas and his wife Martha and their eight children packed their bags and left for Toronto, another expanding new town, but this time in faraway Canada. There, in his final 17 years, he finally carved out a very successful career still well remembered by present-day citizens. His achievements in both places are recognised by a plaque mounted in front of Lansdowne Crescent.
An example of Thomas’s work in Toronto-
Michael Jeffs, 2021
Mick Cullen: A webpage written in 2014 provided invaluable and substantial corroboration of information on this page.
Richard Longley: An eBook on William Thomas to be published in 2021; Richard resides in Toronto and kindly made the manuscript available to us following on from us assisting him with information and images.
Three books available in the Local History sections of Leamington Library, ref 725:-
G McArthur & A Szamosi: William Thomas, Architect, 1799 – 1860,
Carleton U P: St Lawrence Hall Thos Nelson & Sons [Canada] Ltd. (this contains Thomas’ diary relating to the trip to Toronto).
Lyndon F Cave: Unpublished document on Architects in Leamington before 1840.