A High Street extravaganza

An awful lot of towns in the Home Counties were badly sinned against in the post-war years by planners, developers, traffic engineers and architects, but few quite as grievously as Maidstone. While I can’t feel too upset about the destruction visited on certain places, where there may well never have been anything terribly interesting, Maidstone is a real dagger to the guts because the raw ingredients of the place are so good – a picturesque setting in the Medway Valley, interesting topography and a varied and distinguished architectural heritage, with much of considerable antiquity. Far too much of this has been and continues to be squandered (the idiotic decision to cut off the town centre from the river front with a dual carriageway has to be one of the most oafish and insensitive things inflicted on it) and the result is that much of the town feels more like a large collection of interesting buildings than a coherent historic townscape.

Nos. 93-95 High Street in Maidstone, Kent by Whichcord and Ashpitel of 1855

But there are some exceptions and the High Street – at least in part – is one of them. It is, I would guess, one of those instances where in medieval times construction encroached on the Market Place, which in this instance is much longer than it is broad. Part of the space is occupied by a strip of buildings on an island site, which has a street much narrower than the main thoroughfare running behind it. This strip is pierced by transverse alleys, and it all creates an exciting urban landscape that is full of surprises. The narrower street (now pedestrianised) is called Bank Street and where it emerges from behind the town hall stands the subject of this post, officially Nos. 93-95 High Street.

Nos. 93-95 High Street, perhaps around the time the building was listed in 1974: the shopfronts were unlikely to be original and the detailing suggests a date in the 1920s, but they fitted better than the current plate glazing and fascias. There are no signs of any tilework and it is unclear whether what is visible now had been painted over at the time or whether it dates entirely from in the intervening period. (Historic England)
Detail of the street elevation at first-floor level

It is, to borrow one of Sir John Summerson’s favourite verdicts, a most extraordinary performance. It went up in 1855, at a time when many town-centre commercial buildings were still essentially in the Georgian tradition, even if they were sometimes decked out in decorative trimmings that conveyed the new age’s growing preoccupation with style. But here the proportions are decidedly un-classical, and the fenestration of the second and third floors disrupts the regular grid on which one would expect such an elevation to be based. Stylistically, it is difficult to pin down. There are classical devices, such as the modillions to the eaves cornice and scrolly brackets at the top of pilaster strips, but they most certainly do not add up to a classical composition. The back-to-back scrolls looking like pediments to the third-floor windows (but placed above the eaves cornice and on a different plane, thus disrupting any suggestion of an aedicule) are downright perverse. There are faint suggestions of gothic at first floor level, but not a single pointed arch. In any case, the tall, spindly shafts with their spiral mouldings serve more to advertise the iron-founder’s art than any historicising effect. Whether their function is anything other than aesthetic is unclear. Even more strikingly, the entire frontage is clad in tiles, yet only in the blind openings of the first floor are pattern and colour introduced – unless, of course, there was once something more elaborate at ground level when the original shopfronts were intact.

Newel post and balustrade on one of the upper-floor landings of Nos. 93-95 High Street (Historic England)
The Wellington Testimonial Clock Tower in Southwark, as pictured in The Illustrated London News of 17th June 1854: this structure was commenced that year to the design of Ashpitel in order to commemorate belatedly the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Duke of Wellington, who had died two years previously (a proposal to put up an equestrian statue of him here eventually materialised at Hyde Park Corner). In fact, the statue of the Duke intended to occupy the tabernacle-like structure was never executed because of a lack of funds. The tower occupied a position at the southern end of London Bridge near Southwark Cathedral, the east end of which is visible in the background. The clock had transparent dials, which were illuminated from within, and the room on the ground floor housed a telegraph office. It quickly proved to be a nuisance, obstructing traffic at an increasingly busy interchange, and was dismantled in 1867. The stonework was purchased by Swanage-born building contractor George Burt (1816-1894), who transported it as ballast in empty freight barges to his home town. Burt presented it to fellow-contractor Thomas Docwra (1814-1882), who re-erected the tower, minus the clock, in the grounds of his house at Peveril Point above Swanage harbour.

The building was designed by a native of Maidstone, John Whichcord Junior (1823-1885), who at that point was in a partnership with Arthur Ashpitel (1807-1869), which lasted from c. 1850 to 1858. Both men were the sons of architects. Indeed, Whichcord’s father, John Whichcord Senior (1790-1860) also occupied the role of Surveyor to the County of Kent, hence the large number of commissions that the two men executed both in partnership and independently in that county. Both were worthy figures, rising to the post of president and vice-president of the RIBA respectively. Ashpitel was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, whose prolific writings include numerous works on architecture of past centuries, from Ancient Rome to Vanburgh, while Whichcord published a study of Maidstone’s magnificent former collegiate church of All Saints. Both were also staunch Tories, Whichcord unsuccessfully contesting the seat of Barnstaple in 1865.

View from the east of St Mary the Virgin in Ripple, east Kent – a medieval building almost completely reconstructed in 1861 by Arthur Ashpitel
St Mary the Virgin in Ripple – the north respond of the chancel arch and pulpit

In London, Whichcord designed the premises of St Stephen’s Club, built in 1872-1875 (work was protracted by the difficult nature of the site) directly opposite Big Ben at the western end of Westminster Bridge. The club had been established in 1870 to cater for the expanding membership of the Tory Party, and was intended as a more inclusive alternative to the Carlton Club, where MPs and their associates had previously socialised. Benjamin Disraeli was among its founders. The Club was a success, not least thanks to its far more convenient location, which provided the opportunity to lay on direct access via subterranean passages from the basement storey to the Palace of Westminster, a pier on Victoria Embankment and Westminster station on the District Line. Whichcord’s building was handled externally in a rather stolid French Renaissance manner and finished opulently within. It is no longer extant – it was vacated in the early 1960s when the Club moved to new premises and sold to the government so that the site could be redeveloped as offices for MPs. In the event this did not happen until 1994, when it was cleared for the construction of what became Portcullis House, thus making it among the last major Victorian buildings to be demolished in central London.

The main front to King’s Road of the Grand Hotel in Brighton by John Whichcord Jr. of 1862-1864 (Mark Casarotto)

Whichcord designed another building which came to occupy a prominent, if not notorious place in the British political history – the Grand Hotel in Brighton, targeted by the IRA when delegates from that year’s Conservative Party conference were staying there in 1984. When completed in 1864, with 150 rooms it was the largest hotel in the city, and indeed among the first on such an ambitious scale in any seaside resort. This time, Whichcord employed an Italianate style, although this only comes into its own on the top floors; the most prominent feature of the main front is the tiers of balconies, intended to exploit its location on the seafront. Following the dissolution of the partnership with Whichcord, Ashpitel was active catering to the almost insatiable need of the period for the construction of new churches and restoration of ancient ones. At Ripple, a small village south of Deal in east Kent, he rebuilt a diminutive medieval structure almost from the ground up, adding a west tower and splay-footed spire to make it a picturesque accent in the landscape. Perhaps in deference to its predecessor, it is an essay in neo-Norman, somewhat passé for its date of 1861, although with considerable verve in some of the detailing.

Artist’s impression of the new premises designed by John Whichcord Jr for St Stephen’s Club in Westminster, as published in The Builder of 11th April 1874: the exterior was finished in Portland stone, with polished granite being used for the shafts of the columns.
Floor plans of the new premises of St Stephen’s Club, as published in The Builder of 11th April 1874

In short, both the architects of Nos. 93-95 High Street were typical figures of their age. Pillars of the establishment, consummate professionals and able to turn their hand with assurance to whatever style the client or circumstances required, but neither trailblazers nor given to flights of fancy. They were men whose work typified rather than defined their age and, in short, are to be counted among the plodders, just like Wyatt and Brandon or Joseph Clarke. As is so often the case with architects of that ilk, generalisations are confounded as soon as one takes a closer look. Even if they ultimately prove to be anomalies, there are nonetheless buildings in their output that defy expectations and suggest a far more creative mind than their reputation might lead one to believe. This appears to be the building that proves the point where Whichcord and Ashpitel are concerned.

Published by Edmund Harris

Heritage professional and architectural historian residing in Suffolk. All views expressed here are my own and do not represent my employer.

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