26 June 2015

The sad plight of Davidson House
on Upper John Street, Lichfield

Davidson House, Upper John Street, once the home of one the finest of Lichfield's architects, is now at risk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

On each visit to Lichfield, I try to visit a building of architectural interest that I have not yet written about. Last month, I visited Dr Milley’s Hospital on Beacon Street, the Cruck House on Stowe Street, the fine Georgian townhouse at No 20 Saint John Street, and the late Victorian Boat House at Stowe Pool.

This week, I visited Davidson House at 67 Upper Saint John Street, close to Saint John’s Hospital, where I was preaching on Wednesday evening.

According to the local history group, Lichfield Discovered, and the innovative local historian Kate Gomez, this house is part of Lichfield’s “at-risk” heritage. On the ground floor, the windows in this once elegant house are boarded up, the stonework is crumbling and there is a sad air of abandonment about the whole site.

It was once the home of the Old Comrades Association of the South Staffordshire Regiment and the collection of the Regimental Museum from 1938 until 1963, when it moved to Whittington. But Davidson House is of particular architectural interest today because it was once the home of the Lichfield architect Thomas Johnson, who lived here from 1834 until his death in 1853.

Thomas Johnson trained as a pupil of the Lichfield architect Joseph Potter (1756–1842) and was influenced by his method. Potter, who had a large practice in Staffordshire and the neighbouring counties in the late 18th and early 19th century, lived in Pipehill, south-west of Lichfield, but had his office in Saint John Street. Apart from restorations to Lichfield Cathedral, his work included Newton’s College (1800-1802), the Causeway Bridge, Bird Street (1816), Freeford Hall, which he enlarged for William Dyott (1826-1827), and Holy Cross Church, Upper John Street (1835), and his son designed the Guildhall (1846-1848).

By 1814, the Potter practice was run from a house on the north side of Saint John’s Hospital. Later it was was continued by his son, Joseph Potter, who died in 1875.

Meanwhile, Thomas Johnson went on to work as a junior partner with the prolific Staffordshire architect James Trubshaw (1777-1853) of Little Haywood, near Colwich. Soon, Johnson married Trubshaw’s eldest daughter, Mary.

In 1828 Johnson and Potter worked on the nave of Saint Mary’s Church (Church of England) in Uttoxeter. But a year later, in 1829, Johnson set up his own practice as an architect in Tamworth Street, Lichfield, and he continued to design churches, including the very large Saint James’s in Longton (1832-1834). By 1834, he was living in the house that later became Davidson House in Upper Saint John Street.

Around this time, Johnson fell under the influence of the Cambridge Camden Society, which was strongly influenced by AWN Pugin. The early members included Canon James Law, a prebendary and chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral and a former Master of Saint John’s Hospital (1821-1826).

Both Law and Johnson were founding members in 1841 of the Lichfield Society for the Encouragement of Ecclesiastical Architecture, and both were active committee members. Canon William Gresley (1801-1876) of Saint Mary’s, a leading Tractarian and former curate of Saint Chad’s, was the first chairman, and the committee met in Canon Law’s house in Market Street. Other committee members included the antiquarian and lawyer, William Salt of Stafford, and the Revd Richard Rawle of Cheadle.

In 1841, Johnson also began working on the restoration of Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield, and he did further work there in 1848-1849.

In 1842-1843, he worked with the London-born architect Sydney Smirke, who also designed the Hinkley family home at Beacon Place, in the controversial restoration of Saint Michael’s Church in Lichfield. During that work, the original memorial stone commissioned by Samuel Johnson for his family was removed as Saint Michael’s was repaved, and much of the mediaeval fabric of the church was lost. But Johnson’s restoration work is a remarkable example of the strong influence of Pugin’s ideas on his work, and the historian of Staffordshire Gothic architecture, the Revd Michael J Fisher, says it is a surprisingly god example of Gothic for its time.

In 1844-1845, Johnson designed Saint Mary’s Church, Great Wyrley, two miles south of Cannock, in the Gothic style.

In 1846, Johnson completed his rebuilding of All Saints’ Church, Leigh, two miles off the A522 between Cheadle and Uttoxeter. Michael J Fisher, in his book Staffordshire and the Gothic Revival, describes this as “one of the most remarkable of Staffordshire’s Victorian churches” and he laments that the importance of this church has not been fully recognised. This work was funded mainly by Richard Bagot of Blithfield, Bishop of Oxford and later Bishop of Bath and Wells, and a former rector of All Saints’. The bishop’s son, the Revd Lewis Bagot family, was the incumbent at the time of Johnson’s rebuilding, while the bishop’s nephew, the Revd Hervey Bagot was Rector of Blithfield and an active member of the Lichfield Society with Johnson. The chancel furnishings and floor tiles at Leigh have been attributed to Pugin and were donated by Herbert Minton, who also donated the reredos.

Johnson was also the architect for Christ Church, Lichfield, which was built in 1846-1847 on Christchurch Lane, just off Walsall Road. The church was designed in the Victorian Gothic Revival style and was built of sandstone quarried in Lichfield. It was consecrated on 26 October 1847 by the Bishop of Lichfield, John Lonsdale.

Christ Church was endowed by Ellen Jane Hinckley, daughter of John Chappel Woodhouse, Dean of Lichfield. In 1835, she married her third husband, Richard Hinckley, a Lichfield solicitor and they lived in Beacon Place. Ellen had suffered tragic family losses: her first husband was the Revd William Robinson, and they had two daughters who died in childhood and are commemorated in the memorial known as Chantry’s ‘Sleeping Children’ in Lichfield Cathedral.

Johnson’s other works in Lichfield include a wing, school room and front wall built ca 1849 at the former Lichfield Grammar School on Saint John Street.

At the same time, he designed the railway bridge crossing Upper Saint John Street which leads trains to and from Lichfield City Station, and which I described in the Lichfield Gazette in October 2013. The bridge, close to Davidson House, was built in 1849 for the South Staffordshire Railway Company. In his design, Johnson tried to evoke a city gate, with battlements, heraldic decoration, and side towers containing multi-arched pedestrian ways. Bishop Lonsdale, who consecrated Christ Church a few years earlier, and the Bagot family are among the Lichfield notables he singled out for commemoration in the heraldic images on the bridge next to his home in Upper John Street.

The Corn Exchange in Conduit Street was designed by Thomas Johnson in a Tudor style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Corn Exchange in Conduit Street was designed by Johnson in a Tudor style. It was built by a company formed for the purpose and was opened in 1850. The arcaded ground floor was a market hall, and the upper floor, with an octagonal north end, housed the corn exchange. A savings bank in the same style was built at the Bore Street end of the building.

When Thomas Johnson died in 1853, he was succeeded by his son, also Thomas Johnson, who died in 1865, and the work of the two sons is sometimes confused.

From 1938 to 1963, Davidson House housed the South Staffordshire Regimental Museum, named after Brigadier General Charles Steer Davidson, who donated the building to the regiment.

In recent years, Davidson House was divided into offices. But given its past association with one of Lichfield’s architectural giants, it is sad to consider the neglect of this architectural gem in recent years.

Davidson House is a three-storey, three-window range house built ca 1810. It is a brick building with ashlar dressings, a hipped slate roof with two large brick stacks, a gable facing, with a front to the left. There is an ashlar plinth, with sill bands and a top modillioned cornice with a blocking course.

The central entrance to Davidson House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The central entrance has an architrave and an overlight to the paired three-panel doors, in an altered porch with slender Tuscan column to the right. The bay window to the left has a cornice.

The windows have pilasters, friezes and cornices. There was a tripartite bay window with colonnettes and 8:12:8-pane sashes, but these have now been lost. Asimilar window to the right had brick piers and a central open pediment. There are two similar tripartite windows to the first floor and these have colonnettes and central open pediments. They flank a window with an open pediment over a 12-pane sash. The second floor windows have architraves to six-pane sashes.

The steps to the street level at Upper John Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The terrace to the right end has steps to the street level and there are plain iron railings to both.

The street façade at Davidson House, facing onto Upper John Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The street façade has similar details. You can see a high plinth, tripartite windows to ground and first floors, and the plinth to the ground floor has brick piers.

At the rear there is a two-storey gabled service range. The right return has a cogged brick cornice and varied fenestration, and at one time the windows inside had shutters, although this is impossible to verify today.

The service range at the rear of Davidson House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)


Unknown said...

Why is it abandoned?

Unknown said...

What a stunning building hope it does not fall into disrepair

Unknown said...

Who owns it?

Anonymous said...

Was this previously a Chip shop, a family lived there,?

Anonymous said...

Could someone rent it?
Im interested?

Peter Cousins said...

Hello Patrick,

Your note that Thomas Johnson (Snr) died in 1853 is incorrect. There is a burial record at St Michaels for 11th May 1865 saying that a Thomas Johnson, resident of St Joh Street, died Age 70 - which fits with his birth in 1795.

Thomas Johnson, architect, late of the City of Lichfield, left an estate of less than £ 5,000 and his will was proved on 18th August. It records that his widow, Mary, and Son, Thomas Moreton Johnson, Clerical Agent of Southampton Street, Strand, London were his executors.

I notice that Kate Gomez has made the same mistake.