The Early Years
William Thomas was born the second of four sons in 1799 in Suffolk. In about 1805, the family moved to Gloucestershire. William was apprenticed to the local builder as a a carpenter and joiner, and skills he learned then came in useful in his later career as an architect. All four of the 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, becoming an associate of A 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 from carpenter/joiner to carpenter/builder, then to architect. On completion of his apprenticeship, William moved to Birmingham to work for Richard Tutin a builder and surveyor, consolidating 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 firm became listed as “Tutin and Thomas Architects and Surveyors”, with William now a partner. This 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 building boom seemed 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 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 (now demolished). 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 became Waterstone’s bookshop.
Having left Phipson’s employ, William’s first solo commission was to alter the façade of Radford Hall, changing the somewhat irregular aspect into a more modern symmetrical layout. There seem to have been some differences of opinion between client and architect, with several different designs 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 Warwick Place, at Milverton and a pair of villas, Welham Villa and Grafton Villa, on the new road to Warwick. 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?
Lansdowne Crescent and Circus
The following year, 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. Although 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, it was rescued by the local council who refurbished many 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. The 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 contiguous and the style of the rear of buildings and the chimneys differ. All this no doubt due to the long period of construction, from 1835 to about 1866, when Thomas may have had to complete one or two to sell before he could continue to build.
At the rear of the crescent, across 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 they should be built. A local blacksmith claimed further that the decorative ironwork on the balconies of the Circus is unique to these houses and to those in the Crescent. 175 years down the line, any replacements have therefore to be hand made, an indication of William Thomas’ standards as a designer, even though catalogues of similar ready-made iron work wre available, and William Carter, a local iron founder, was involved in the speculation.
Beyond Lansdowne Circus, 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 demand. The layout of these streets gives the appearance of a 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 although not in this case, often has a church as the centrepiece.
Holly Walk and Brandon Parade
To complete his plans for the large open space that then fronted 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 Vila, Winton Villa, and Comyn Villa on the east side. Only Comyn Villa remains, very dilapidated and neglected, but undergoing extensive refurbishment to restore it to is former glory. Oak House and Furze House (later named Grosvenor House) were then built opposite. Oak House remains, as a Club, and Furze House became flats. At about the same time, Victoria House was built at the intersection of Willes Road and Holly Walk. At the rear, intended as a semi-deatached pair even though one was significantly larger than the other, Thomas built Elizabeth House. Both have now been renamed, Lansdowne House and Aberdeen House.
Across Willes (Newbold) Road,William Thomas also planned a development, called Brandon Parade. It was 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, 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. The terrace was designed as a row of shops with two floors of accommodation above, and included a Pump Room and Baths, which were removed soon after the completeion of the building. 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.
The Influence of the Bank
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. Thomas was among them: many of his developments relied on borrowed money and the sale of an initial house to fund the building of the next one. The town’s expansion slowed dramatically. Planned developments such as Brandon Parade folded. The projected six villas became three. For William Thomas, it was Birmingham 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 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. He opened an office there, but the only significant development by him was a shop and accommodation, 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 in Canada, where he finally carved out a successful career.
Mick Cullen 2014.
Further Reading (Books available in Leamington Library, ref 725):
G McArthur & A Szamosi: William Thomas, Architect, 1799 – 1860, Carleton U P
St Lawrence Hall Thos Nelson & Sons [Canada] Ltd. (Contains Thomas’ diary relating to the trip to Toronto.
Lyndon F Cave: Unpublished document.
Since the above article was written, it has come to light that an entire block of buildings in Bath Street and 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.