Introducing C.H. Driver (1832-1900), Architect to the Steam Age

It is a measure of the prominence which civil engineering assumed in the 19th century that members of the profession achieved the status of household names. Indeed, they not merely achieved, but also retained it – witness, for instance, Isambard Kingdom Brunel polling second place in the 100 Greatest Britons television series of 2002, nearly 150 years after his death. Chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891), has also enjoyed popular advocacy in the age of mass media thanks to his television mogul great-great-grandson. Bazalgette’s achievement is easily surmised – he was the man who planned and oversaw the construction of London’s sewer system, conceived with such foresight and built to such a high standard that it remains vital to the capital even today. But his fame has eclipsed an important collaborator, and one whose work still forms no less important a part of London’s infrastructure.

The central octagon and lantern in the engine house at Abbey Mills (Dan Raven)

Bazalgette’s great scheme formed an integral part of a wider programme of urban improvements, principally the creation of the Victoria Embankment along the north side of the Thames from Westminster Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge. But the sewage system itself had little architectural expression. It was hidden away below the pavement, and the benefits to Londoners were not what it brought into their lives, but what it took away from them – the overwhelming, nauseating stench of a dangerously polluted river and the risk of serious disease caused by the lack of proper sanitation. But although effluent was now spirited away from central London by two enormous outfall sewers, something still had to be done with it eventually, and Bazalgette’s solution was to release it into the Thames Estuary at high tide from where it would disperse into the open sea. This involved lifting it into holding tanks, necessitating the construction of large pumping stations. The design of these was entrusted to Charles Henry Driver, an architect whose career is intertwined with those of the great engineers of the age. What he provided did far more than simply shelter the machinery from the elements – these were imposing, magnificent buildings, which exuded self-confidence and expressed faith in technology, reason and progress.

Detail of the former external door on the river side of the engine house at Crossness

That the architectural treatment would have made these pumping stations an ornament to a far more visible location is all the more remarkable when one considers that they went up on the lonely flatlands of the Thames Estuary, and were seen regularly only by the staff who operated and maintained them. But, as a result, they did little to further the reputation of their designer outside professional circles. In some ways, it was Driver’s fate to be overshadowed by the engineers with whom he collaborated. They were engaged in the undertakings that epitomised the heroic age of engineering – improving the sanitation of a metropolis, building transport routes that would move goods and people across the country faster than had ever been possible before, opening up far-flung parts of the globe. Whatever the merits of the architectural treatment of these works might be, it paled in significance compared to the revolutionary economic and social effects of such progress. But as architect, Driver’s task was to do far more than to design packaging for machinery or to add decorative effects to functional structures. It involved nothing less than grappling with a problem that arose from the technological innovations of the day and has remained relevant ever since – the application of art to industry. The aim of this blog post is to demonstrate something of how he achieved that.

The central octagon in the engine house at Crossness, viewed from one of the staircases to the beam floor, with Prince Consort visible in the background.

Driver the railway architect

The town-side buildings with the former stationmaster’s house at Wellingborough Station (Wikipedia Commons)

Born in Westminster to a clerk in an insurance office, Driver began his career as a draughtsman in the office of Frank Foster, engineer to the Commissioners of Sewers. Beyond this, nothing is currently known of his training, although he seems to have had a natural artistic flair, since his obituary in The Builder (10th November 1900, pp. 423-424) notes that ‘at an early age [he] was an exhibitor at the Royal Academy’. Foster may have proved an auspicious connection in view of Driver’s later career, yet the architect first emerged as a specialist not in drainage but in railway stations. The Midland Railway was formed in 1844 through the merger of three pre-existing companies, which, starting in the latter half of the 1830s, had created a network of lines that converged at Derby. This was already extensive, but the directors had greater ambitions, and for future growth it was essential to obtain a connection to the capital. In the first stage of the journey south in 1852-1857, the company put out a branch that diverged from its existing Leicester to Rugby route to run through Market Harborough, Kettering and Wellingborough to Bedford. In time, this would be extended further south to the new terminus of St Pancras, but for the moment the connection to London was to be achieved by striking out across country in a south-easterly direction to meet the East Coast main line, operated by the rival Great Northern Railway, at Hitchin.

Driver’s canopy on platform 1 at Wellingborough Station seen from the island platform, remodelled in 1882 when the line was quadrupled. (John Law)

Driver was engaged by the engineering firm of Liddell and Gordon to design the stations and bridges for the Leicester-Hitchin line. Bedford station was demolished in the early 1980s as part of an upgrade for the electrification of suburban services and the route to Hitchin, having been downgraded from trunk to branch-line status once the new London connection opened in 1868, eventually closed to traffic in 1964. But the stations at Wellingborough and Kettering survive, have remained in use and are well preserved. Stylistically, the town-side buildings at Wellingborough are an amalgam of several different influences. There are the pointed segmental arches with much chamfering to door and window jambs so typical of High Victorian Gothic, and there are round-headed openings with constructional polychromy that show the influence of Ruskin’s promotion of Venetian Romanesque. Yet the prominent bargeboards of the stationmaster’s house and the decorative glazing bars are in the older tradition of the cottage orné. All of these are common enough devices for the period; what sets Driver’s work apart is the virtuoso use of cast iron for the platform canopies. These are based on the ridge and furrow principle established by Joseph Paxton, with transverse gables forming a sawtooth profile in elevation. In section, each truss appears symmetrical, with a central column from which two large brackets project laterally in order to support what is effectively a wall plate and two smaller, subsidiary brackets extend longitudinally to brace what is effectively a principal rafter.

The main entrance front of Portsmouth and Southsea Station

If the design of the platform buildings suggests that Driver had absorbed something of Ruskin, the design of the canopy represents a direct challenge to an article of faith. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Ruskin had inveighed against the use of cast iron, directing his vituperation against ornament made of the material, which he regarded as more active a cause than any other ‘in the degradation of our national feeling of beauty’, ‘incapable of a fine line or shadow’ and ‘vulgar and cheap substitutes for real decoration’. Only wrought iron ornament, each work of which was unique and could display the skill and labour invested in it by an executant artist-craftsman, was acceptable. But such an elegantly pared-down construction as the frame of the canopies at Wellingborough (and indeed Kettering, where the same castings were used) could hardly have been achieved in wrought iron, which would lack the necessary compressive strength. An earlier generation of Gothic Revivalists had often used iron for columns since moulded details could be cast far more economically than they could be carved in stone. Only a sharp rap with the knuckles will reveal the sham (such columns are usually hollow internally), but here the design of the ornament is intrinsic to the material. The elegant arabesques filling the spandrels of the brackets are not applied to render a bare construction visually more palatable, but are an integral part of it. The slender proportions of the supporting columns make it immediately obvious that they could not possibly be built of stone.

The former ticket office (converted to a pub when reconstructed after a fire in 1980) and the pedestrian overbridge at Denmark Hill station
Capital and cast iron downpipe recessed into the exterior wall of the former booking office at Denmark Hill station

In 1858, Driver joined the office of Robert Jacomb-Hood (1822-1900), resident engineer of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR). It proved to be a fruitful partnership and Driver was kept busy designing new stations for a company that was rapidly expanding its network throughout the 1860s. He designed the screen wall to the trainshed over the terminus platforms that formed the company’s half of London Bridge station and the main entrance and ticket office to Portsmouth and Southsea station (a mixture of terminus and through platforms, with the former belonging to the LBSCR, just like London Bridge). He designed the stations on the inner-suburban south London loop line running through Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill. In Surrey, he designed the stations on the extension from Leatherhead to Dorking and in Sussex and Kent the stations on the extension of the Three Bridges to East Grinstead line through Groombridge to Tunbridge Wells.

The main entrance on the west side of Leatherhead Station (Sebastian Kasten)
Boxhill and Westhumble station (Historic England)

Stylistically, these stations represent a shift in Driver’s manner when compared to his work for the Leicester-Hitchin line. Ornamental devices drawn from cottage orné designs have vanished and he has clearly absorbed a great deal of the muscular High Victorian idiom. Capitals and friezes have the vigorous, overscaled foliate carving that constitutes one of its trademarks and the constructional polychromy becomes more strident, with bold stripes and banding, sometimes even chevrons. Notched and chamfered detailing abounds. In urban settings, the style tends more to the Italianate: its underlying classical principles could usefully brought into play in settings where a grand, symmetrical street frontage was required, such as at Portsmouth and Southsea (c. 1866), Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill (both 1864-1866). Large central blocks could accommodate spacious waiting rooms or ticket offices and mansard or barrel roofs could be used to give the principal elements in the composition greater visual emphasis. Elsewhere, especially at country stations, Driver tended more to the Gothic. Compositions were asymmetrical with more self-consciously picturesque massing and offset towers with hipped or pyramidal roofs to provide visual interest, as at Tunbridge Wells West (c. 1866), Boxhill and Westhumble and Leatherhead (both completed 1867).

The former waiting room at Peckham Rye Station: after being taken out of service, it was used as a billiard hall and latterly stripped of much of its original decor before restoration commenced in the 2000s. (Quintin Lake)
Detail of the cast iron balustrade of the staircase to the former waiting room at Peckham Rye Station (Quintin Lake)

There is, however, a constant in the masterful use of cast iron structural elements and ornament. The ridge and furrow platform canopies of the Midland Railway stations with their glazed roofs disappear, but the ironwork makes a far greater show in the masonry-built portions of the stations in the form of railings, finials, brackets, roof crests and other ornamental devices. At Leatherhead, vertiginously proportioned columns support a canopy above the main entrance. As Paul Dobraszczyk has shown in Iron, Ornament and Architecture in Victorian Britain, Driver’s skill in the medium is the result of a symbiotic working relationship with founders such as Walter Macfarlane (1817-1885), proprietor of the Saracen Works in Glasgow. During the architect’s lifetime, the firm rose from humble beginnings to become one of Britain’s largest producers of architectural ironwork, much of it designed by Driver, manufacturing prefabricated components and even entire buildings for export all over the globe. In an address to the RIBA given in 1875, Driver explained his working practise, which involved providing full-size drawings to guide the production of the pattern and then a mould. He emphasised that he regarded it as vital for architects to be active collaborators with founders on their own terms, and to understand for themselves the casting process and properties of the material. As Dobraszczyk comments, the architect was instrumental in developing a house style not only for Macfarlane, but also for the LBSCR.

Tunbridge Wells West Station: the line from here to Eridge remains in situ and operational as the Spa Valley Railway, but now terminates short of Driver’s building following the redevelopment of the former carriage yards as a supermarket and conversion of the station to a restaurant, when the platform canopy was partly enclosed.
Tunbridge Wells West in c. 1980, not long before the cessation of train services (Martin Cottam)

Driver continued to be active as a designer of railway stations throughout his career and throughout the country, being involved in projects as widely scattered as the West Lancashire Railway from Preston to Southport (closed in 1964) and the Tottenham and Forest Gate Railway (still in operation as part of Transport for London’s Gospel Oak to Barking route). He also supplied designs for railways in South America, such as the Buenos Aires and Ensenada Port Railway in Argentina (1868-1870) and the São Paulo Railway Company in Brazil. He was architect of the latter’s Estação da Luz in São Paulo, built in 1895-1901, for which Macfarlane’s company provided prefabricated iron components. Involvement with British commercial ventures in South America also brought him a commission to supply designs for the Central Market in Santiago, Chile, built in 1869-1872. The elaborate, top-lit structure of the main market hall with its filigree cast-iron panels bears all his hallmarks.

The interior of the booking hall at Tunbridge Wells West in c. 1980 (Martin Cottam)
Interior of the Central Market in Santiago, Chile (Wikipedia Commons)

Driver the Goth

Driver and Webber’s winning design for the Ellesmere Memorial, as illustrated in The Builder of 6th November 1858

In 1858, Driver briefly went into partnership with an obscure architect by the name of Josiah Webber. The two of them won a competition held that same year to find a design for a monument to commemorate Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere (1800-1857), politician, writer, art patron and owner of the Bridgewater Estates. Erected in 1858-1860 on a site outside Worsley (then in Lancashire, now in Greater Manchester), it rose to a height of 130ft (39.6m), dominating the surrounding countryside. It still exists, although in much truncated form since the central octagonal section had to be removed in 1939 after becoming unsafe. A slightly gauche piece of design, it represented an attempt to paraphrase in High Victorian Gothic the form of a classical columnar monument.

General view looking east of the interior of St Mary’s in Warkworth (Chris Stafford)

The partnership with Webber was dissolved the following year, but Driver’s interest in Gothic survived it and in 1863 he took part in the competition for St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork. He was unsuccessful (no details have yet emerged of his entry), but the restoration carried out in 1868-1869 of the principally 14th century church of St Mary in Warkworth on the southwestern border of Northamptonshire shows that his command of gothic was certainly fluent. He added a belfry stage to the tower, which seems to have been left incomplete at the end of the Middle Ages, and a south arcade within the existing envelope, carefully reproducing the genuine medieval north arcade. He also rebuilt the chancel, which boasts a splendid reredos and fine tilework to the floor and dado in the sanctuary. This is Driver’s only known executed ecclesiastical commission and it would seem that his activity in other spheres kept him sufficiently busy for there to be no need to involve himself in the fraught, specialised and frequently poorly remunerative world of church work.

General view of the frontage to Oxford Road of the Horton Infirmary, as illustrated in The Builder of 10th August 1872

Driver’s obituary in The Builder states that he designed the memorial outside Sledmere in East Yorkshire built in 1865 to commemorate Sir Tatton Sykes, 4th baronet (1772-1863), but this is not borne out by the list description or The Buildings of England, which give John Gibbs of Oxford as the architect, and the reason for the claim is unknown. We are on much firmer ground with the Horton Infirmary in Banbury, completed in 1872, a confident essay in muscular, vividly polychromatic Gothic. A report in The Builder (10th August 1872) explained that it was named after a Miss Horton of Middleton Cheney who, together with her great-nephew, had gifted £10,000 towards the acquisition of a site, construction costs and an endowment for a hospital ‘intended for the use of the poor of Banbury and those residing within a radius of ten miles’. Although the off-centre placing of the tower with its tall hipped roof (presumably a water tower) disrupted the symmetry, it was essentially a classical design. The central block and wings extending out from it housed the consulting rooms, operating theatre, waiting rooms and so on, with accommodation for staff on the first floor. The end pavilions housed the men’s and women’s wards, with a kitchen placed under the latter, taking advantage of the fall of ground across the site. The hospital survives, is listed at Grade II and remains in use, now as part of a much bigger complex, but some of the original detailing has been lost.

Ground floor plan of the Horton Infirmary, as illustrated in The Builder of 10th August 1872

Driver at Crossness

Looking down into the central octagon from the beam floor of the engine house at Crossness: the spiral staircase provides access to the sewage pumps, the condensers and other numerous pieces of equipment below floor level.

The basis of Bazalgette’s grand scheme was two enormous outfall sewers serving London north and south of the Thames. The Southern Outfall Sewer began in Deptford, where three interceptor sewers that ran across suburbs to the west converged at a pumping station, which lifted the effluent so that it could then flow onwards by gravity. The buildings of the pumping station (although not the steam pumps that formerly occupied them) survive and are listed at Grade II. The southern outfall sewer travelled across Greenwich, Woolwich, Plumstead and then out onto Erith marshes, at that date still open country well outside the city limits and partly used as a testing ground for munitions by Woolwich Arsenal. Here, the effluent had to be raised again, this time to flow into a large covered reservoir from which it was released into the Thames at high tide to be dispersed into the open sea on the ebb – initially untreated, although by the end of the 19th century sedimentation tanks had been added to separate out the solids and an electrolytic purification plant had been brought into operation. The work was done by four 125-horse-power rotative beam engines supplied by James Watt and Co of Birmingham, named Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward and Alexandra. The Crossness pumping station, which was completed and brought into operation in 1865, was a substantial complex. Not merely was it a key component of the infrastructure, in view of its remote location it also had to be effectively self-contained. There was a wharf where coal for the boilers was delivered by barge, a fitting shop for carrying out repairs to the machinery, housing for the employees, a school for their children and a gas plant to provide lighting.

The river frontage of the engine house at Crossness, as illustrated in The Builder of 19th August 1865
The exterior of the engine house at Crossness as it appears today from the landward side: the large single-storey wing with the triple gables in the middle of the frame is the former boiler house.

The engine house was the centrepiece of the complex. Driver’s approach to the architectural treatment of the exterior is familiar from his railway stations – a kind of free Italianate able to absorb both Classical and Gothic influences as necessary. The principal aspect was the north elevation that looked out to the river, at that date the only location from which it was likely to be seen by the wider public. This was a grand, spreading, symmetrical façade of seven unequal bays, the central one of which broke forward. In its composition it owed something to the Renaissance palazzo model popular at the time for large public buildings, but the detailing was Romanesque, incorporating structural polychromy in red brick and highly sculptural treatment of the wall surfaces. Pilaster strips divided the bays, with numerous receding and advancing surfaces articulated through the use of set-offs and a vigorously modelled corbel table within the bays. The monumentally scaled central doorway was outright neo-Norman, more in the manner of the 1840s when that style enjoyed a vogue, and aligned with it at roof level was a dormer housing a clock. This emerged from the steep slope of a tall mansard roof with cast-iron cresting and finials. A large single-storey boiler house with three transverse gables projected from the landward side. The flues from the 12 Cornish boilers exhausted into a tall chimney, 208 feet (63.4m) in height and modelled on a Venetian campanile, with much horizontal banding and constructional polychromy. None of this can easily be appreciated now. An extension was added to the north elevation in 1898 to house additional pumping equipment, which, though sympathetic in style, obscured much of the principal aspect. The mansard roof was removed in 1928 and a flat, concrete-built replacement substituted. Once the last of the steam pumps had been decommissioned in the mid-1950s, the chimney was taken down.

Detail of the former main entrance on the river side of the engine house at Crossness, visible in the illustration above and now enclosed within the former Triple Expansion Engine House of 1898.

The interior of the engine house was treated even more splendidly than the exterior. It was planned symmetrically and axially, with one engine to each of the quadrants into which it was divided. The entire inner structure was built of cast iron. The building was divided horizontally to create an upper floor providing access for repair and maintenance to the beams of the engines. Arcades ran laterally across the entire width of each half of the building. The columns and arches were so heavily constructed that they looked as though they might have been built of stone rather than iron. They had to be, since they supported not only the floor members but also the pivoting beams of the pumping engines. At the centre was an octagonal space rising the full height of the building that evidently was aligned with the pavilion roof visible on old illustrations of the engine house, which perhaps provided some form of top-lighting. Again, there is a slight sense of a masonry design translated into cast iron and the potential of that material is most effectively exploited for the screens filling the angle bays, the arabesques in the spandrels of the arches, the panels above them and the railings at beam-floor level. Together with the openwork castings of the flooring, this creates an unusual degree of transparency, no doubt the product of practical as well as aesthetic considerations – for all the splendour, it was a dangerous working environment and for safety’s sake light needed to be distributed evenly through the building. But the most striking feature of the interior is the vivid paint scheme, reinstated from the 1980s onwards when work began to restore the engine house, which is now open to the public. The beam engines remain intact, saved by a quirk of fate – the scrap value would have been less than the cost of removing them when they were finally decommissioned and so they were simply left to rust. Prince Consort, the last of them to be used in 1953, has been returned to working order (it can be seen in operation in a short video here) and Victoria is now in the process of restoration.

General view of the interior of the engine house with Prince Consort to the right (shown in operation on a steaming day) and Victoria to the left, under restoration when this photograph was taken in 2017.

Driver at Abbey Mills

The system described above was mirrored north of the Thames. Here, five interceptor sewers (one of them incorporated in Bazalgette’s Thames Embankment) ran west to east and converged at Abbey Mills on the River Lea just south of Stratford. Here a pumping station lifted the effluent into the Northern Outfall Sewer, along which it travelled by gravity to a reservoir at Beckton, to be released into the Thames at high tide. Abbey Mills was therefore the northern equivalent of the Deptford pumping station, but whereas that was fairly restrained in its architectural treatment, Abbey Mills was more than a match in its splendour for Crossness, which it slightly postdates, having been built in 1865-1868. This may have been prompted by the greater simplicity of the Beckton facility relative to Crossness – The Builder reported in its coverage of the opening of the Southern Outfall Sewer (19th August 1865) that the former consisted simply of a penstock house and residence without any pumping machinery, treated with ‘much less elaboration of detail’.

The exterior of the engine house at Abbey Mills (Scott Mundy)

As at Crossness, the engine house forms the centrepiece of an extensive complex of ancillary buildings, all treated in a similar manner to ensure visual unity. Whereas the engine house at Crossness is rectangular in plan, at Abbey Mills it is a Greek cross. There were eight rather than four beam engines, supplied by Rothwell and Co of Bolton, two to each arm of the cross. These were removed in the 1930s when the pumps were converted to electric operation, but, apart from the loss of the chimney (dismantled in 1941 over fears that a bomb blast might cause it to collapse onto the station), the building is better preserved than its counterpart at Crossness. It is also a good deal more sumptuous. Stone dressings are used much more liberally and the elaborate corbel table incorporates majolica inserts. The windows are arranged in longer stretches of wall arcading and the constructional polychromy is more strident. Cast-iron downpipes in the form of barley-sugar twists have been incorporated as nook shafts. The tall mansard roof with its dormers survives and over the crossing – again, aligned with a central full-height octagonal space below – is a highly ornamental lantern, carried on iron girders and slate-clad externally with a good deal of decorative cast iron crests, finials and so on. It is complemented by four stone-built turrets in the angles of the returns.

The interior of the engine house at Abbey Mills at the level of the former beam floor (Dan Raven)

Although the adoption of a plan-form derived from ecclesiastical prototypes seems to have prompted Driver to tend more to his Gothic than his Italianate manner, the effect is anything but medievalising, as described in appreciative terms in Nairn’s London: ‘[The station] pumps sewage and… It pumps vitality too, and the conviction you look for in Victorian churches and rarely find. If the Russian shape of the main dome and the vaguely Moorish corner towers had not existed, the nineteenth-century engineers would have invented something like them. They were pumping sewage from a great city – not an operation to be disguised with terms such as ‘rodent operative’, but a noble function. The fifteenth century might have called it God’s bowels. The nineteenth kept enough sense of occasion to make the inside… into a kind of cathedral’.

Driver and the street light

Driver’s skill in designing architectural ironwork was put to good use by Bazalgette in another important element of his grand scheme of urban improvements. Streetlights had begun to proliferate in British towns and cities during the first half of the nineteenth century, thanks in part to the growing supply network for town gas, but, although cast-iron offered the possibility of mass-producing items to meet the increasing demand, they had generally been viewed as utilitarian objects, not worthy of any special artistic treatment. With the greatly increased scale and scope of urban improvements being carried out by the Metropolitan Board of Works, that attitude changed. Street furniture had to be worthy of an ambitious venture such as the construction of the Thames Embankment. It was no longer a functional object, but part of an improved urban environment, aimed at fostering a better quality of life, which deserved to be advertised to those who benefited from it. If a sewage disposal plant on remote marshland was now a worthy subject for the architect, then why not a street light?

One of the combined street lights and ventilating shafts on Southwark Street, as illustrated in The Builder of 14th January 1865: Paul Dobraszczyk identifies the bearded figure as Walter Macfarlane, the man on horseback as Charles Driver and the moustached gentleman with the top hat and cane in the middle ground as Joseph Bazalgette.

Southwark Street was the first new street to be created by the Metropolitan Board of Works. It was a major project, authorised by an Act of Parliament passed in 1857, but not completed until 1864, and it had to be cut through a densely built-up neighbourhood. It was aimed at improving transport links between an area that was increasingly busy (thanks in part to London Bridge Station) and Westminster and the West End, by allowing travellers to bypass London Bridge itself and the City of London. The building plots created along it provided opportunities for new commercial development and the finished product must have contrasted greatly with the existing narrow, traffic-clogged, irregularly planned streets in the area. Southwark Street was broad and curved gently, and a subway ran underneath the centre of the carriageway, with parallel runs for gas pipes, a water main, a sewer and telegraph wires, thus providing access for maintenance without any need to excavate and disrupt traffic. The lamps went up at the west end, where it joined Blackfriars Bridge Road, and the east end, where it diverged from Borough High Street. They thus provided lighting for busy junctions, combining the function with that of ventilation shaft for the service tunnel below. As reported in The Builder of 14th January 1865, they were cast by Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry and set up on red sandstone bases, standing 27ft (8.2m) high. Though the base, the clustered shaft and foliate capital owed a clear debt to the Gothic of the Middle Ages, the lamp brackets, corona and shaft were thoroughly baroque in their complexity and richness. The design exploited to the maximum the potential of cast iron for achieving intricate yet also durable detail.

The street light at the junction of Gray’s Inn Road and Holborn, as illustrated in in The Builder of 16th August 1868: Paul Dobraszczyk identifies the figure on the left accompanied by a lady as Charles Driver and the figure on the right in a broad-brimmed hat as Joseph Bazalgette.

Three years later, Driver provided a design for a streetlight on Holborn. This too was part of a scheme of urban improvements by the Metropolitan Board of Works, directed in this instance at removing a block of houses called Middle Row, which stood on an island site at the junction with Gray’s Inn Road and had long been regarded as an obstruction. Another Macfarlane product, the Holborn lamp was also conceived on an imposing scale, standing 24ft (7.3m) high and being positioned on a traffic island with guard posts and granite kerbs standing on part of the site formerly occupied by Middle Row. The illustration accompanying the report on it in The Builder of 16th August 1868 was calculated to show the contrast that it must have made with a surrounding streetscape, which at that date still consisted largely of timber-framed buildings. The design of the Holborn street light was different to that of its counterparts on Southwark Street, but, being made of cast iron, both could theoretically be reproduced ad infinitum, and indeed the latter subsequently became a standard Macfarlane product. As Dobraszczyk discusses, this circumstance prompted wildly differing responses and a good deal of anxiety. Some commentators, perhaps conditioned by Ruskin’s view of cast iron goods as a second-rate substitute for hand-crafted items, felt that street lights ought to be made to one-off designs specific to their location: even the most artistically distinguished pattern risked wearying the public and devaluing the original contribution of its designer if reproduced endlessly. Others took the opposite line, that mass production allowed the positive influence of good design to permeate widely in a manner that had never been possible before, and would thereby democratise art. Driver, unsurprisingly, sided with the latter group.

Driver at the seaside

Pavilion and railings on the south side of Llandudno Pier: the former a later addition, the latter – as discussed below – a casting produced to a design by Driver.

As a specialist in cast iron, Driver was a natural choice for additions to the Crystal Palace on its new hilltop site in Sydenham, where it had been re-erected in altered form in 1852-1854. In 1869-1873, the complex was expanded with the addition of an orangery and aquarium built to his designs. A report in the Building News of 14th April 1871 (p. 278) described the latter, hailing it as the first satisfactory public aquarium in the British Isles. It was exceptional for being a collection of marine rather than freshwater fauna, and it was briefly the largest of its type anywhere in the world. It was a long, narrow structure occupying a site which had been left vacant after the destruction by fire of the northern arm of the Palace in 1866. Most of the tanks were arranged in a row against a blind rear wall and The Building News reported that they varied in depth from 6 inches to 6ft (15cm to 1.8m) and in volume from 75 to 4,000 gallons (341 to 18,184 litres). Sea water, delivered by rail from Brighton, was supplied from a 130,000-gallon (590,991-litre) tank located beneath the main gallery and circulated constantly by steam pumps to ensure that it remained aerated. The aquarium functioned only until the 1890s, when the accommodation was taken over by the zoo on the site. It survived the fire of 1936 which destroyed the main building, but was badly damaged when the adjacent north tower was dynamited in 1941 and now only scant ruins survive.  

Aerial view of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham from the east in c. 1935 – Driver’s aquarium is circled in red (Walter Mittelholzer)

The success of the aquarium landed Driver a commission from the Council of the Vienna Exhibition in 1872 to design one for that city. The same year, Driver became a Fellow of the RIBA, of which he had been an Associate since 1867. Five years later, Driver – who was now working in partnership with Charles Henry Rew (1842-1912) – attempted a third aquarium, intended for a site on the eastern side of the resort of Llandudno on the North Wales coast. The design was published in The Building News of 16th March 1877, which stated in its report that it was to be ‘constructed generally on the principle of the one at Crystal Palace, but with all the latest improvements and will have about 2,500 superficial feet [232.3 square metres] of plate-glass in the show and table tanks’, which were to be constructed of slate obtained from the nearby quarries. The aquarium was to be housed in the brick-built podium of a substantial iron-and-glass winter garden standing above. This was to be 170ft x 110ft (51.8m x 33.5m) in overall length and width and arranged on a quasi-ecclesiastical cruciform plan with a central crossing, where there was to be a performance space and associated facilities for bands, supporting a dome 42ft (12.8m) in diameter and rising to 60ft (18.3m) in height. There were reminiscences of Gothic in the ornamental glazing bars of the tympana filling the ends of the barrel roofs, but also decidedly orientalising touches in the treatment of the dome and minaret-like chimney, in keeping with the exotic flavour accorded to so much seaside architecture. Driver and Rew’s design was rejected and the project eventually executed on a different site in the form of the Pier Pavilion Theatre.

Artist’s impression of Driver and Rew’s proposed aquarium at Llandudno, as published in The Building News of 16th March 1877 – the inset plan shows the layout of the aquarium in the podium.

Driver’s expertise in cast-iron construction and ornament made him a natural choice for work on designing the piers for coastal resorts. His introduction to this line of work seems to have been the product of a working relationship established four years previously with the engineers Sir James Brunlees (1816-1892), and Alexander McKerrow (1837-1920). A native of Kelso in Roxburghshire, Brunlees was a civil engineer who had cut his teeth on the Bolton and Preston Railway, sanctioned in 1837 and opened in stages between 1841 and 1843. He went on to be involved in numerous projects under way at the time as the railway network underwent rapid expansion, and distinguished himself by constructing routes across difficult terrain. This included the Londonderry and Coleraine Railway in Northern Ireland, which required the formation of an embankment across Rosse’s Bay in the River Foyle, with its deep water and shifting sands. It was his success in such ventures that seems to have won him an appointment in 1856 to oversee the planning and construction of the São Paulo Railway, which necessitated overcoming the considerable obstacle presented by the Serra do Mar mountain range to reach its destination on the coast. This evidently brought about Driver’s commission to design the Estação da Luz terminus and the two worked together on other projects, such as the West Lancashire Railway. Brunlees had an equally illustrious record as a specialist in docks and harbours, and it is perhaps this circumstance that led in due course to his involvement in the construction of piers, including the first iron pier in the country at Southport in Merseyside, built in 1859-1860.

Llandudno Pier as photographed by Francis Bedford soon after completion, showing its appearance prior to the construction of the new landing stage in 1891.

Driver’s first known commission involving a pier was at Llandudno in North Wales, where the need had arisen to replace a wooden structure originally erected in 1858. As Dobraszczyk has shown, Brunlees and McKerrow’s first design, approved for construction in 1876, was plain with fairly perfunctory ornament. It was only in 1877, the same year as the abortive winter gardens project was put forward, that Driver and Rew were engaged to produce a more refined and comprehensive scheme. The reason is unclear, but the Mostyn Estate, the principal landowner in the town, was keen to promote Llandudno as an exclusive resort a cut above those further east along the coast, which catered to workers from the north-western industrial towns, and was thus decidedly image-conscious. While the original pier had been conceived as part of an abortive project to develop Llandudno Bay as a major port, its replacement was very clearly intended primarily for leisure. Driver designed 10 shelters with ornamental roof brackets arranged in pairs at regular intervals along the pier and railings for the main deck based, as Dobraszczyk explains, on a Moorish pattern from Owen Jones’s textbook The Grammar of Ornament, which its author recommended as particularly suitable for cast-iron ornament. All this was manufactured at the Elmbank Foundry in Glasgow of James Allan Senior & Sons.

Plate 43, entitled ‘Moresque No. 5’ from Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament of 1856 – the source of the pattern used by Driver for the design of the railings of the main deck of Llandudno Pier.

The success of the Llandudno project led to other commissions for piers. According to his obituary in The Builder, it was Driver who was engaged to design a pier for the Mediterranean report of Nice, located on the promenade des Anglais. Built in 1880-1883, it proved to be very short-lived – it burned down three days after its official opening, and reconstruction did not commence until 1889. The obituary in The Builder also gives Driver as the architect of ‘the extension and pavilion to the Southend Pier’, another Brunlees project, completed in 1889. The extension was added in 1897 to allow more steamships to moor at the pier, which was lengthened again in the late 1920s to take it to its present length of over a mile. The pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1959. Driver’s obituary in the 1901 proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, of which the architect was made an associate in the year of his death, also attributes to him the design of the pavilion added to Brighton’s West Pier when it was extended in 1893. In most sources the designer is given as Robert William Peregrine Birch (1845-1896), nephew of Eugenius (1818-1884), who had designed the original structure. Possibly Driver’s contribution was limited to the extensive ornamental trimmings, but this wants confirmation. Following collapses in 2002 and fires in 2003, only the iron skeleton of the pavilion now survives, marooned out at sea.

Southend Pier, probably in the early 1900s, showing Driver’s Pavilion at the seaward end

Final years and conclusion

Tympanum with incised ornament to the doorway in one of the end walls of the engine house at Crossness

According to his obituary in The Times, at some point during the final years of his life, Driver entered into a partnership with one Stanley Barratt. The practice was renamed Barratt and Driver and, after the architect’s death in 1900, continued in business at an address in Maida Vale, having latterly been based on Victoria Street in Westminster. The obituary in The Builder noted that Driver ‘was an active and energetic Freemason, and designed and carried out the Mark Mason’s Hall in Great Queen-street’ (evidently this did not survive the rebuilding of the site in 1927-1932) and that ‘He was likewise an active Volunteer, being Captain in his corps’. It mentions that among his executed designs were ‘many private residences’ but gives no further details and this aspect of his work awaits discovery. Driver was buried at West Norwood Cemetery, one of the Magnificent Seven. 

Detail of the street front to the road overbridge of the former booking office at Denmark Hill station

The achievements of Victorian civil engineers in creating infrastructure that continues to give good service well into the second century of its existence means that they have always stood in high regard. They have also been held in high esteem by architectural historians, who praised their exploration of daring new construction techniques for opening the door to the innovations of the 20th century. By contrast, the historicising garb in which so many of these projects were clothed has frequently been perceived as problematic, even as detracting from their achievement. Why – the thinking went – should advanced technology be made to look like a relic of classical Antiquity or the Middle Ages? Why was there no progressive architectural style to advertise and celebrate its modernity?

Capital of a cast iron pillar supporting one of the platform canopies at Denmark Hill Station – a standard pattern used at numerous other LBSCR stations, including for the canopy over the entrance to Leatherhead Station pictured above.

But this is a false dichotomy. While a purely utilitarian structure far from any town such as a railway viaduct could be treated as good building rather than art-architecture, anything with public significance and presence required more thought. For all its boons, this new technology was unfamiliar, even frightening, and architecture had an important part to play in making it feel less threatening. The task went a long way beyond simply adding on decorative frills or hiding everything behind an external skin – the ornament was an integral part of the design. Inevitably, this involved resorting to models drawn from historical precedents to serve at the very least as a starting point. But the capacity for innovation of an architect such as Driver should not be under-estimated, and this becomes particularly clear when one starts to draw parallels with his counterparts in, say, the ecclesiastical sphere. Here, the baggage of the past weighed heavily on architects’ shoulders and the arbiters of taste and rectitude tightly policed their activity. Even modest innovations, such as Bassett Keeling’s use of cast iron columns that were readily identifiable as such, risked censure. It would take until the middle of the 20th century for the architecture of the Established Church to free itself entirely from historicising allusions. By contrast, no comparable strictures applied where new building types were concerned.

The main street front of the Estação da Luz in São Paulo, photographed in 2005 – the overall roof spanning the platforms behind is just visible to the far left. (Wikipedia Commons)

True, once he had developed his mature style, Driver did not evolve far beyond it, and the Estação da Luz could easily be mistaken for a design of 30 years earlier. It fell to a later generation of architects – say, France’s Hector Guimard, another virtuoso in cast iron – to realise the full potential of the innovations of the 19th century. All the same, Driver achieved a great deal in developing a flexible, accommodating idiom, which was able to absorb influences from a large number of different sources and adapt itself to widely varied situations and functional requirements. His skill as a designer in cast iron was exceptional – he accepted it on its own terms, showing that it was every bit as capable of being a high-art material as the products of pre-industrial crafts. Driver may have achieved renown as a designer of places for entertainment and leisure, but buildings such as Abbey Mills pumping station show that his ability to create visual delight was a constant in his work. The experience of starting or finishing a journey at one of Driver’s railway stations ennobles the passenger and brings pleasure in even the most mundane circumstances. His defence of the mechanical reproduction of ornament made possible by cast iron was that to deny the public its benefits represented selfishness, and it is this generosity of spirit that renders his legacy so valuable today.

Panel of a cast iron screen with the emblem of the Metropolitan Board of Works in the engine house at Crossness

Published by Edmund Harris

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

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