07 April 2022
Edward Swinfen Harris,
the architect who left his
mark on Stoney Stratford
Stony Stratford has suffered two great fires. The sundial on the house at No 40 Church Street bears a Latin inscription from 1739 that translates, ‘Time and Fire Destroy All Things.’ The bigger fire in 1742 destroyed 146 buildings, and even crossed the River Great Ouse, burning houses in Old Stratford.
The fires destroyed most of the town’s mediaeval buildings. But the coaching era introduced new prosperity that enabled much of the building now standing on High Street today.
The other great influence on the architectural legacy of Stony Stratford was the locally-born architect Edward Swinfen Harris (1841-1924), whose works, mainly in the Arts and Crafts style, can be seen throughout the town.
Swinfen Harris was a distinguished architect with a national reputation. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, best known for his monumental 46-volume series of county-by-county guides, describes him as ‘the only outstanding local architect working in’ north Buckinghamshire.
Swinfen Harris worked in London as well as Stony Stratford, and many of the fine houses he designed in North Buckinghamshire are still standing today, with surviving buildings also in Dorset and Northamptonshire.
He was born on 30 July 1841 at 36 High Street, Stony Stratford. His father was the clerk to the town bench of magistrates, the Board of Guardians and other bodies, and Edward was the eldest son. The family later moved to Back Lane. He began his formal education when he was 11 at the Belvedere Academy at Old Stratford, and then went to Ullathorpe House School in Leicestershire as a boarder.
He was apprenticed to the book trade around 1858, and was articled then to an architect in London. On completing his apprenticeship, he shared an office in London with two friends, but he returned to Stony Stratford in 1868 to make additions to the vicarage of Wolverton Saint Mary on London Road, Stony Stratford, and also to Calverton Limes.
The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on London Road was designed in 1863-1865 in the Gothic style by Sir George Gilbert Scott and was then in Wolverton Parish.
The John Radcliffe Trust bought a parcel of land on London Road for use as a cemetery for the new-built church in 1870. Swinfen Harris was commissioned to design and build the London Road Cemetery, also known as Galley Hill Cemetery, and the first burial was recorded in 1871.
The Lychgate and Ecclesiastical Cross designed by Swinfen Harris have been restored in recent years.
After his marriage in 1870, Swinfen Harris settled in Stony Stratford at a new house at 15 Wolverton Road. In this period, he designed the house at 19 Wolverton Road for Dr McGuire.
In the following years, Swinfen Harris was involved in ecclesiastical architecture, restoring many churches. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and travelled extensively in Europe to study architecture.
In his professional life, he was the county surveyor of North Buckinghamshire. After the Education Act was passed, he built a number of local schools.
His schools include Saint Mary’s School, on the corner of Wolverton Road and London Road. The Radcliffe Trust donated the site to build Wolverton End School and School House in 1867, and the church school for the poor, designed by Swinfen Harris, was built in 1871-1873. The school was financed by Mrs Russell of Beachampton, and over 280 pupils attended in the early 1890s.
The school became the Plough Inn in 1937, and has recently been refurbished and renamed The Old School House. It remains one of the most visible of Swinfen Harris’s designs in Stony Stratford.
He restored and decorated All Saints’ Church in Calverton 1871-1872 and restored and extended the Old Rectory in Great Linford in the Arts and Crafts style in 1878.
Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, then known as Saint Giles Church, was restored in 1876-1878 by Swinfen Harris, who put new tracery in the windows and added the north and south galleries. He also added the north vestries in 1891.
A year later, in 1892, he commissioned stained-glass windows in the church by Nathaniel Westlake, one of the best stained-glass artists of the time, to commemorate his parents.
The Swinfen Harris Church Hall on London was built in 1892 by Swinfen Harris as the Parish Hall for Saint Mary the Virgin Church on London Road.
The church and hall are now owned by the Greek Orthodox Community of Milton Keynes and have undergone extensive restoration.
The Retreat alms-houses in Stony Stratford form a group of three cottages off High Street designed by Swinfen Harris in the Queen Anne revival style in 1892. They are built in limestone and brick and are listed Grade II buildings.
Swinfen Harris also built Rothenburg House at 107 High Street as his family home in 1892. Now a Grade II listed building, it was designed in his highly individual style. The inscription over the door, Nisi Dominus, quotes the opening words of Psalm 127: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’
Swinfen Harris retired in 1914 and died on 30 May 1924.
Swinfen’s Yard, in the middle of Stony Stratford, includes individual, specialist shops under a covered courtyard, with offices on the upper floors. It is named in honour of Edward Swinfen Harris.