From the picturesque to the sublime: Henry Darbishire and the architecture of philanthropy

The interior of the hall at Columbia Market, pictured shortly before its demolition (Historic England)

The name of the architect may not stick in the memory; his greatest work most certainly will. Like many people, I learned about the Columbia Market in Bethnal Green and its tragic fate thanks to Hermione Hobhouse’s Lost London. Somewhere in my mid-teens, I discovered the book in the reference room of Kingston-upon-Thames public library and the grimly atmospheric black and white photographs of this enormous Gothic pile stopped me in my tracks. The image of the main hall – abandoned, forlorn and awaiting the arrival of the demolition men – is the sort of thing that stays with one for a long time. That architecture of such quality and grandeur could have been wantonly destroyed seemed incomprehensible and I mourn its loss bitterly. Had it survived, it would undoubtedly be one of the sights of London.

Holly Village in Highgate – the view from the entrance arch

But though the building was unforgettable, the name of the architect barely registered and it was many years before I began to wonder who he was, what else he had designed and whether any of it was of comparable interest. The results of my initial half-hearted stab at research were not promising. Little by Darbishire was to be found on the National Heritage List for England and, with the sole exception of Holly Village in Highgate, nothing remotely as arresting. There were no other lost masterpieces. He turned out to have designed the ubiquitous Peabody Housing complexes in central London, but it was hard to credit that the begetter of an astonishing flight of high Romantic extravagance could have been responsible for something so pedestrian. Was I to conclude that the Columbia Market had been a fluke? I forgot about him again until, thanks to a contributor to a Facebook group on lost churches of London, I came across an image of the New Gravel Pit Chapel in Hackney. This was unmistakably the work of the same architect and my interest was rekindled.

The New Gravel Pit Chapel on Paradise Place in Hackney, pictured in 1880. Its predecessor of 1809-1810 was so poorly constructed that by the mid-1850s it was deemed to be beyond economical repair. A competition was held in 1856, where Darbishire’s entry – submitted anonymously under the motto ‘Difficilia quae pulchrae’ (Difficult are the things that are beautiful) emerged as the victor. Construction began in 1857 and the chapel opened in March 1858. The spire crowned a tower housing a staircase, which gave access to a west gallery with seating for 50 children. Darbishire’s competition design included two spires to create a symmetrical façade, but the second one was omitted in execution. Total capacity was 500. By the 20th century, the church was far bigger than required by a much diminished congregation, uncomfortable and in an increasingly poor state of repair. The last service was held in 1966 and it was demolished to make way for housing in 1969. (Hackney Archives)
This cross-section of the nave of the New Gravel Pit Chapel published in Henry Laxton’s Examples of Building Construction (London, 1858) is the only representation of the interior so far to have been discovered. It is clear from this, together with a report that appeared in The Building News of 26th June 1857, that it must have had a good deal in common with that of St James’s, Moore Park Road, pictured below. Cast iron piers bore a timber arcade, which in turn supported the wall plates of the nave roof, whose trusses were braced by transverse wooden arches. The Building News also reported that the chancel was to be floored with Minton tiles and to have an arcaded reredos with a picture of The Last Supper in the centre. A report in The Builder of 27th March 1858 stated that ‘The pulpit and the organ are traceried, and very ornamental’. (Hackney Archives)

This post represents a first attempt at an overview of Darbishire’s life and work. But he remains an obscure figure and even in authoritative reference works his dates of birth and death are not given. Thanks to the data from censuses and parish registers that has been made available on-line in recent years, we can at least fill those lacunae. Henry Astley Darbishire was born on 15th May 1825 in Chorlton-on-Matlock, Lancashire, and was the son of James Darbishire (1792-1836), a native of Bolton-le-Moors in the same county. For the moment, we know nothing about his training and early career, but his professional standing was high enough for such luminaries as Charles Robert Cockerell, Thomas Leverton Donaldson and Thomas Henry Wyatt to be persuaded to act as his proposers when he applied to be a Fellow of the RIBA in December 1856. Or was he simply a clever networker and canny self-promoter? We cannot know, but more than one architectural historian has been baffled that he should have been chosen by Baroness Burdett-Coutts to give form to her philanthropic ventures. When their collaboration began, he was an obscure figure, who had yet to achieve prominence in any field. Only three buildings from the early part of his career have so far been discovered – Guardsmen’s Lodgings on Francis Street in Westminster (1853-1854, demolished 1959) the rectory at Navenby in Lincolnshire, built in 1857, and New Gravel Pit Unitarian Chapel on Chatham Place in Hackney, built the same year. Though the spidery gothic of the last of these, especially the bell turret, evidences an idiosyncratic hand, neither suggests a particular aptitude for the sort of commissions that he would go on to produce.

The east-facing entrance front of Navenby Rectory, Lincolnshire (1857): this elevation was subsequently much altered when the central section was modified to incorporate a staircase hall, in the process losing the catslide roof with the distinctive triangular dormers, and the flank elevation of the cross-wing to the left was extended. (Navenby History Group)

Darbishire and Burdett Coutts

The emergence of Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) as one of the most prominent philanthropists in Victorian England was conditioned by her background. Her father was Sir Francis Burdett, fifth baronet (1770-1844), who in the earlier part of his parliamentary career had been a radical firebrand, championing numerous reformist causes. Among other things, he had been a supporter of George Birkbeck’s London Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1823. Her mother Sophia (1775-1844) was the youngest daughter of Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), whose father had established the banking house that survives to this day. Angela was brought up in a house on St James’s Square in Westminster, which was much frequented by politicians, scientists and writers, including Charles Dickens, with whom she struck up a lasting friendship. The first wife of Thomas Coutts died in 1815 and the same year he married the actress Harriot Mellon (?1777-1837). She was much younger than her husband, her motives were suspected and the resulting acrimony with his daughters led Coutts to make her the sole beneficiary of his fortune. Nevertheless, in due course Harriot settled upon Angela as sole heir to the residue of the estate (two houses and an annual income of £10,000 were bequeathed to her second husband, the Duke of St Albans), something which only came to light on her death.

Angela Burdett-Coutts, portrait of c. 1840 by an anonymous artist (National Portrait Gallery)

The young Burdett-Coutts showed great independence of mind and had a powerful social conscience, shaped by her father’s views and shock at the urban poverty portrayed in Dickens’ novels. It was he who drew her attention to the ragged schools for the poor, which she began to support in 1844. In 1847 the two of them founded Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush as a refuge for homeless women, many of whom had been prostitutes. Around 1851 she conceived the idea of building a complex of model housing in Nova Scotia Gardens in Bethnal Green, a location deliberately chosen for being the most infamous slum in an already notorious area. It seems that she initially had in mind a model village and approached Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) for a design. This changed after she visited at Dickens’ instigation one of the complexes of model dwellings in central London designed by Henry Roberts (1803-1876) for the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes. Dickens was convinced that apartment blocks – at that date, a novel form of housing in England – represented a more economical use of land and would be easier to maintain and equip with proper services. His thinking seems to have been influenced by his brother-in-law Henry Austin, (?1812-1861) an architect and civil engineer who had witnessed first-hand the wretched living conditions in the East End while engaged on the construction of the Blackwall Railway for Robert Stephenson. He was convinced that better sanitation, enforced through improved legislation, was the key to improving them.

The exterior to Streatham and Dyott Streets of Parnell House

In her biography of Burdett-Coutts, Lady Unknown, Edna Healey suggests that Dickens, unimpressed by Hardwick’s dilatoriness, dismissed him from the project, but how the introduction to Darbishire came about is currently unknown. Perhaps it was the very lack of an established client base and full order book that made him well placed to collaborate with Burdett-Coutts on her own terms, but this for the moment is speculation. However, it needs to be stressed that she was no ingénue where architectural matters were concerned. A generous and enthusiastic patron of the Established Church, she founded several new parishes and commissioned a number of important church buildings from prominent architects: the Puginian St Stephen’s, Rochester Row in Westminster (1847-1850) by Benjamin Ferrey (1810-1880) and the muscular Gothic St John’s in Limehouse, east London (1853, demolished after war damage) by Henry Clutton (1819-1893) deserve special mention. Hardwick’s St John’s in Deptford (1854) was less adventurous, being a typical middle-pointed suburban church.

The inner courtyard of Streatham Street Buildings in Bloomsbury (now known as Parnell House) by Henry Roberts, built in 1849 for the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes: note the external walkways giving access to the dwellings on each floor. (Historic England)

Darbishire in the service of Burdett-Coutts

Columbia Square, the model housing complex for Bethnal Green, went up on a site located a short distance to the northeast of Shoreditch High Street on a thoroughfare then known as Crab Tree Row (later renamed Columbia Road). It took the form of four elongated five-storey blocks arranged around a central courtyard. The first to be completed was the east block, which opened in April 1859, followed by the west block in July 1860, the north block in 1861 and the south block in early 1862. They provided a total of 183 dwellings – mostly two-room sets consisting of a living room with a boiler, range and oven, and a bedroom, although single rooms and three-room sets were also available. Each floor was based on a corridor plan, while vertical access was afforded by staircases whose wells and landings were open to the outside. At a time when disease was still widely believed to be spread by miasmas, allowing as much fresh air and sunlight as possible to penetrate to the core of the building was regarded as essential.

A view of one of the accommodation blocks at Columbia Square pictured in The Illustrated London News of 8th March 1862

The blocks were equipped with gas and water and there were dust chutes for disposing of refuse. The top floor was occupied by a laundry and drying space, and there was also a reading room, where, The Illustrated London News reported in its issue of 8th March 1862, divine service was held on Sundays. This is a little surprising in view of the proximity of the church of St Thomas, which adjoined the site immediately to the north. It predated Columbia Square, having been founded as part of an ambitious building programme in the 1840s by the then-Bishop of London Charles Blomfield (1786-1857), an early charitable initiative in the East End aimed at expanding the mission of the Established Church. There were resident porters and a superintendent, who saw to it that the residents took turns to clean the communal spaces, collected rent on a weekly basis and enforced good behaviour. ‘Drunken or disorderly tenants receive immediate notice to quit’, The Illustrated London News informed its readers, noting that ‘all the sets of rooms are at present occupied and… fifty applications are on the books’.

The clock tower at Columbia Square as illustrated in The Builder of 3rd January 1863
Columbia Square, as sketched by Geoffrey Fletcher for The London Nobody Knows, first published in 1962. By this date Columbia Market had already been demolished and Columbia Square would soon follow it into oblivion. ‘Columbia Square must have been depressing when new; today it is of appallingly melancholy aspect’, wrote Fletcher. ‘In this huge open space, the sun seems to burn up the yellowing grass and ragwort. The sun’s rays are reflected back from the innumerable pieces of broken glass, and the square is deserted and silent apart from a few dead-end kids and the chimes of the choc-ice man. The tenements are now almost empty. Window are gaping and sightless and the wooden Gothic pinnacles of the attic story are decaying and broken…’ Note the stump to which the clock tower had been reduced by this point. Fletcher records that it bore the inscription, ‘As every thread of Gold is valuable So is every minute of Time’.

The buildings were constructed of brick and essentially classical in their composition, with symmetrical front and rear elevations, a cornice to mark off the attic storey and even rustication to the ground floor. But much of the fenestration had pointed arches, as did the four storey-high recess in the centre of each of the inward-facing facades, and this was complemented on the top floor by a multitude of steeply pitched dormer windows and gables, as well as sparingly deployed Gothic tracery, to give the blocks a vivid skyline. At least one of them seems to have had a centrally-placed flèche. This did not save the inner courtyard from dourness and to relieve it, as a finishing touch a clock tower was put up in the centre, handled in Decorated Gothic forms that seem to have taken their cue from the Eleanor Crosses. It was as abundant in its ornamentation as the elevations that overlooked it were parsimonious. Rising to 35ft (10.7m) in height, it was built of Aubigny stone.

The Victoria Park fountain of 1862
The Victoria Park fountain: the vaulting of the octagonal arcade, showing also one of the inlaid monograms of Burdett-Coutts and the scalloped head of one of the figure niches

That same year, Darbishire was commissioned to design another ornate Gothic centrepiece when Burdett-Coutts gifted a drinking fountain to nearby Victoria Park. At a time when many supplies of drinking water to the surrounding area were dangerously polluted, this was far more than an amenity for pleasure-seekers, and indeed the whole park had been conceived with a serious purpose in mind. It was first mooted in 1839 when the disastrous consequences of the overpopulation of the East End were already becoming far too clear. It was hoped that the space and fresh air would serve as an antidote to the surrounding squalor and help to bring down the soaring mortality rate. A petition to Queen Victoria in 1840 brought about an Act of Parliament the following year, and a plan was drawn up by James Pennethorne (1801-1871), with planting by Samuel Curtis (1779-1860). The park was formally opened in 1845 and achieved instant popularity, being well frequented even before construction works were completed.

The Victoria Park fountain: detail of the plinth and of the sculptures from which water was formerly dispensed
Door to the inner service space of the Victoria Park fountain inscribed with the first verse of Psalm 24, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is’, and bearing a much eroded representation of the coat of arms of Angela Burdett-Coutts on the tympanum.

The site chosen for the fountain was a prominent location more or less in the centre of the park, intercepting a route running across it from the Gunmaker’s Gate on the Bow side to the Royal Gate West in South Hackney. It was a lavish commission, which cost over £7,000, and Darbishire’s design made a show of the benefactor’s munificence. Rising to slightly over 58ft (17.7m) in height, it was designed as an octagonal pavilion, with a central pillar encircled by an arcade, each bay of which has a quadripartite rib vault. Polished red granite was used for the piers of the arcade and the shafts from which the vaults spring on the inner side. There is much inlaid decoration, including an inscription recording Burdett-Coutts’ gift and her monogram in several places.

Columbia Market from southwest: the timber-built single-storey building fronting Columbia Road in the foreground and adjacent gate piers are the only things visible in this picture to have survived to the 21st century (Historic England)
Columbia Square and Columbia Market on the 1:1,056 scale Ordnance Survey map of 1875-1876 – note that Columbia Street is still labelled Crab Tree Row. The church of St Thomas predated the grand building programme of Burdett-Coutts, having been constructed in 1849-1850 to a design in an Early English style by Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871). It was also the first part of the quarter to be lost: following war damage, it was demolished in 1954.

Stylistically, the fountain is hard to pin down. The chunky proportions and profiles of the arcade unmistakably embody High Victorian ‘vigour and go’, but the richly ornamental Decorated Gothic detailing of the central pillar is almost fey, while the flattened hairbell profile of the dome is thoroughly baroque. The last incorporates dormers in the form of ornamental cartouches, alternately glazed and filled with clock faces, decidedly under-proportioned for their purpose and relative to the structure as a whole. Baroque also are the scalloped niches on alternate faces of the central pillar and the marble figures of putti with porpoises that they contain. Darbishire reputedly designed other structures for Victoria Park, but what and where they were is not currently known.

Columbia Market – the main entrance with the superintendent’s accommodation and office above the roadway: note the arcades either side, which were formerly intended for covered stalls, but bricked up in the 20th century. (Historic England)

Two years later, Burdett-Coutts embarked on an even more ambitious scheme of urban improvement. Conditions in many of the food markets of the East End were thoroughly unhygienic and the situation was made worse by the extortionate rents changed for pitches by the owners, who took advantage of their monopoly, and police regulations aimed at driving costermongers off the streets. She resolved to establish a covered market where traders could ply their wares in properly organised, sanitary conditions for fair overheads. The early history of the venture is not quite clear, since although 1864 is usually given as the date of inception, it was not until 1866 that the necessary Act of Parliament was passed. However, in its issue of 27th October that same year, The Builder could report that ‘The market is now growing into shape’, which suggests that construction had begun a good deal earlier.

The outward-facing elevation of one of the blocks enclosing the main quadrangle to east and west as illustrated in The Builder of 27th October 1866
Georgina Gardens on the east side of the main quadrangle (Historic England)
The interior of the market hall as pictured in The Builder of 20th February 1869

Columbia Market, as the project was named, was an ambitious undertaking in every respect. The site chosen for it was located on Columbia Road, which was to be widened to cater for the increased traffic, and it adjoined Columbia Square on its eastern side. The complex took the form of a huge quadrangle, 285ft (86.9m) wide and 255ft (77.7m) deep, which was axially planned. The main entrance was on Columbia Road through a huge gatehouse placed centrally and positioned right on the streetline, which housed offices and living accommodation for the superintendent above the vehicle entrance. Either side of it were colonnades for covered stalls. Aligned with the gatehouse was the main market hall, 104ft (31.7m) long and 50ft (15.2m) wide, with a tall clock tower rising above its main entrance. The imposing internal space rose to 56ft (17m) and was covered by a wooden vault resting on clustered piers of polished grey and red granite. It housed 24 butchers’ stalls on the ground floor with galleries above in the ‘aisles’ for the sale of flowers, fruit and vegetables. Beyond it to the north, a strip fronting Baroness Road equal in area roughly to a quarter of the site was laid out as a yard where deliveries could be unloaded.

The elevation to the main quadrangle and clock tower of the market hall at Columbia Market (Historic England)
The north side of the market hall and yard for delivery vehicles as pictured in the illustration accompanying the report on the ceremonial opening of Columbia Market in The Builder of 1st May 1869

To the west and east, the market square was enclosed by blocks named Angela Gardens and Georgina Gardens respectively. These housed shops on the ground floor facing into the market square, all linked by a covered walkway, and provided residential accommodation on the floors above which The Builder reported was intended for ‘clerks and others employed in the city’. It was appointed to a standard above that in Columbia Square. The two residential blocks were symmetrically composed about central gateways rising to towers above that housed water tanks. Three-storey ranges extended out from either side, terminating in four-storey pavilions. The central market square was to be planted out with trees and in the centre was an ornamental fountain.

The entrance block at Holly Village facing the junction of Swains Lane with Chester Road: sculptures above the main arch (one of them hidden here by a tree) depict Angela Burdett-Coutts and her former governess and companion Hannah Brown.
Satellite view of Holly Village from Google Earth: north is to the left

The brickwork incorporated constructional polychromy and was tricked out in stone and terracotta dressings. Contemporary reports describe the style as ‘Domestic Gothic’, but Darbishire’s treatment of the Middle-Pointed idiom was not uniform. The interior of the main market hall had clearly been informed by careful study of English Geometrical Decorated Gothic of the late 13th century and had a distinctly ecclesiastical air. But elsewhere Darbishire’s Gothic was of a wilful, decidedly roguish bent, such as the extraordinary forms of the first-floor windows above the main vehicle entrance. Though much of the complex was essentially classical architecture in fancy dress, Darbishire’s powerful imagination lent it maximum visual interest by moulding the forms into keeps, gatehouses, turrets and cloister arms, with each elevation articulated into an endless series of advancing and receding planes. This reached its apogee in the thrilling skyline of gables, dormers, pinnacles, cupolas and spires. From a distance, the complex resembled a small city and within, the market square had the air of a Flemish Grand Place with its own belfry and cloth hall. ‘No verbal description could convey the strangeness and unlikelihood of it all’, wrote Geoffrey Fletcher of Columbia Market in The London Nobody Knows.

The east side of Holly Village, viewed from within the central courtyard
The north side of Holly Village, showing the inward-facing elevation of the entrance block illustrated above

The market was ceremonially opened amid much pomp on 28th April 1869, having cost over £200,000 to build. But it was disastrously misconceived in several different regards and Burdett-Coutts’ good intentions misfired. Local businessmen opposed the scheme and prevented wholesalers from supplying the market. In the interests of religious propriety, Sunday trading was prohibited; in fact, this was one of the mainstays of the local economy. The venture quickly failed and by the end of 1869, Burdett-Coutts had been forced to concede defeat. In February 1870 Columbia reopened as a fish market, but it could not hold its own against Billingsgate and again failed. The following year, the site was handed over to the Corporation of London, but as far as that body was concerned it was a white elephant and the complex was returned to Burdett-Coutts in December 1874. Undeterred, she reopened it the following year under an arrangement with three of the largest railway companies, but opposition, notably from Billingsgate fish market, was again too strong. After an unsuccessful attempt at a Columbia Meat Market in 1879, a more ambitious attempt at reinventing the enterprise, this time as the London Fish Market and National Fishery Company, was begun in 1881, which involved obtaining an Act of Parliament to connect the site to the railway network. The scheme foundered and went into liquidation in 1884. The following year, Columbia Market ceased trading for good. In 1915 the site was purchased by the London County Council, which rented it out as warehouse space and accommodation for light industry. No new use which might have brought the complex into its own ever emerged, and between 1958 and 1966 both the market and Columbia Square were cleared for the construction of a new housing complex.

Villa on the east side of Holly Village

But though Columbia Market proved to be ill-starred, the working relationship of Burdett-Coutts with Darbishire flourished and she commissioned another complex of model housing from him, this time aimed at a very different demographic. In 1849 she had taken up residence at Holly Lodge, the house on the southern edge of Highgate Village in then-rural Middlesex that Thomas Coutts had bought for Harriot Mellon back in 1808. Its extensive grounds occupied all of the area between West Hill and Swain’s Lane, where they bordered Highgate Cemetery, one of the Magnificent Seven. Around 1865, Burdett-Coutts embarked on a project to put up a model village on a triangular site at the junction of Swains Lane and Chester Road, just beyond the southern tip of the east cemetery. Whether this was a philanthropic or commercial venture is not entirely clear: reputedly the housing was originally intended for workers on the Holly Lodge Estate and clerks of Coutts Bank, but the rents charged on the properties were such that they were effectively excluded from the outset. After Burdett-Coutts died, her husband sought to dispose of the estate and in 1921, just before it was finally sold off for residential redevelopment, Holly Village was purchased by its tenants.

The exterior of St James, Moore Park Road in Fulham (Historic England)

Holy Village is a planned settlement of cottages ornés and, as such, stands in a line of development that begins with John Nash’s Blaise Hamlet (originally in Gloucestershire, now on the outskirts of Bristol). Much about it is Georgian rather than Victorian in spirit, and it has been suggested that it was conceived, like so much 18th and early 19th century estate architecture, as an eye-catcher to enhance views from Holly Lodge. The houses, a mixture of villas and semi-detached cottages, are disposed around a central green in a more or less symmetrical layout. The axial nature of the plan is most apparent at the entrance to the site, but thereafter, the architecture fights hard against the regularity, which can only be appreciated in maps or from the air – at no point can the entire complex be taken in with a single glance. The interrelations of the buildings change constantly as one walks around the site and in almost every view wilful asymmetry predominates. The architecture is a curious mix of Georgian Gothick in all its winsomeness with the hardness and vigour of High Victorianism. The finicky detailing is familiar from Columbia Market and plays odd games with scale – some elements, such as the pinnacles and spires, look like monumental devices that have been drastically shrunk, yet in photographs the effect can be to lead the viewer to imagine that the buildings are far more grandly scaled than is the case in real life. Many of the elements are part of the currency of Georgian Gothick – offset towers, overscaled eaves and bargeboards, fiddly and very clearly dummy half-timbering, and judiciously irregular massing.

The interior looking east towards Ewan Christian’s later apse of St James, Moore Park Road in Fulham (Historic England)

The church-building activity of Burdett-Coutts has been mentioned above. Though apparently discerning in her tastes, she worked with a range of architects and no distinct preferences emerge. In 1867, she finally decided to approach Darbishire, who was engaged to design St James’s on Moore Park Road in Fulham, at that point a rapidly growing new suburb. The foundation stone was laid on 20th June 1867 and work proceeded quickly – the church was consecrated in December of the same year. Darbishire appears to have had little interest in ecclesiastical architecture and it is perhaps this that accounts for the unusual and original design. Only the outer walls were built of brick. The piers of the arcade seem to have been of stone, but instead of supporting a masonry superstructure, they bore enormous collar-beam trusses. The roof structure was strengthened laterally by arched braces and longitudinally by a timber arcade, rising to a purlin which was met by the less steeply pitched lean-to roofs of the arcades. The form of the building, which suggests a more than passing acquaintance with medieval timber barns, was a resourceful way of economising on the amount of wet construction. The original configuration of the church is not entirely clear: the apsidal chancel was a later addition of 1874 by Ewan Christian, while the dormers – essential given the low aisle walls and consequently small windows – were evidently unequal to the task as designed and had to be enlarged in 1906. The church was badly damaged by fire in 1970 and subsequently demolished, but the former vicarage survives, albeit much altered.

The Regent’s Park fountain, as illustrated in The Builder of 20th May 1871

Darbishire’s last known commission for Burdett-Coutts was another drinking fountain, this time in Regent’s Park on the north side of the Outer Circle opposite what was at that point the main entrance to London Zoo. It was illustrated and described at some length in The Builder of 20th May 1871. Its four basins of polished red Aberdeen granite formed a quatrefoil in plan and were supported by (no doubt purely cosmetic) dwarf columns, also of red granite but with capitals of Sicilian marble. The plinth incorporated dog troughs of gun metal and there were also standpipes for watering horses – a reminder that animal welfare was among the many causes that Burdett-Coutts supported. As at Victoria Park, the drinking water was dispensed from the mouths of porpoises and from water jars carried by small boys, all carved in marble. A tabernacle-like structure in the centre supported a tall cast-iron lamp standard, with a large central lantern rising to a height of 24ft (7.3m) surrounded by eight smaller ones. ‘The workmanship throughout is remarkably good’, reported The Builder. ‘The metal work is fine and cleanly cast, and richly gilt; and the granite and marble work is some of the best which has been executed in London’. The fountain disappears from Ordnance Survey maps in the 1950s and not a trace remains today on the site, which is now a car park and has been absorbed into London Zoo.

Darbishire in the service of Peabody

George Peabody, daguerreotype by Southworth and Hawes of c. 1850 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The success of Columbia Square seems to have brought Darbishire to the attention of another prominent philanthropist with a particular interest in improving housing conditions. George Peabody (1795-1869) was a native of Massachusetts who built up a successful business based in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia importing dry goods from Britain. In 1837, following a series of business trips to England, he settled permanently in London, making it the centre of his operations and building up a flourishing trading house. In due course he concentrated his activity on financing his own and then others’ trade, and eventually gave up altogether his interests in commodities to focus on banking and securities. Austere and disciplined in his personal habits, he gave away most of his wealth in philanthropic ventures, resolving latterly to bequeath some kind of charitable institution as a token of gratitude to his adoptive city. Various options, including hospitals and almshouses, were considered before in 1859 the philanthropist and social reformer Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885) recruited him to the cause of model housing for the working classes.

The Peabody complex at Nos. 135-153 Commercial Street in Spitalfields, London

A trust was formed and in March 1862, The Times announced that Peabody had gifted a sum of £150,000 to benefit ‘the poor and needy of this great city, and to promote their comfort and happiness’. He stipulated three conditions: first, the donation was to benefit Londoners ‘by birth or residence’; second, no religious or political agenda should influence the administration of the gift; and third, beneficiaries should display ‘moral character, and good conduct as a member of society’. The last of these conditions is key to understanding the nature of the venture. The attitudes and thinking that underpinned it are discussed at length in ‘The Depth of the Street’, a superb study of Peabody housing by Irina Davidovici, which was published in the AA Files in 2015. I am indebted to Davidovici for much of the information presented here and refer to her article anyone interested in a detailed account of the subject, so will do no more here than summarise the salient points. In brief, this was housing aimed emphatically at the deserving and industrious poor, who practised a trade, could show themselves capable of holding down a job and earning a steady income. They might be temporarily embarrassed, but a paternalistic helping hand would allow them to recommence their ascent of the social ladder and achieve respectability. But by the same token, those viewed as the indolent poor – in fact, the sick and incapacitated who were the most vulnerable members of society – were excluded from the outset.

The south end of the frontage to Commercial Street of the Spitalfields Peabody complex

A start was not made until 1863, when a site was purchased on the west side of Commercial Street in Spitalfields. Construction was completed in 1864, the same year that Peabody withdrew from business, taking most of his capital with him. The five-storey block went up on an acutely-pointed triangular site at the junction of Commercial and Folgate (formerly White Lion) Streets, and the project was described at some length in The Builder of 1st August 1863. The Commercial Street wing was to incorporate nine shops with attendant dwellings and store-rooms occupying the basement, ground and first floors. This measure, which took advantage of that wing’s location fronting the busier of the two thoroughfares, was intended to provide income to ensure that the rents for the beneficiaries of the Peabody Trust were kept low. The dwellings for the poor were located above the shops on the second and third floors, and were served by a separate entrance – effectively a ‘poor door’ in modern parlance. The Folgate Street wing was entirely occupied by dwellings for the poor. As at Columbia Square, the layout was based on a corridor plan and the topmost floor housed laundries with a drying area, a children’s playground and other communal facilities. The accommodation was reported to comprise three single rooms, 47 two-room sets and 17 three-room sets. The living rooms were 13ft by 10ft (4m by 3m) in size, and equipped with a range, oven, boiler and hot plate, while the bedrooms were 13ft by 8ft (4m by 2.4m). Toilets were shared, one to each pair of families. There were dust shafts for the disposal of rubbish that ran down to dustbins in the basement, a porter’s lodge and a cooperative store.

The frontage to Folgate Street of the Spitalfields Peabody complex

But a little over five months later, when the block was reported to be ‘rapidly approaching completion’ and just two weeks away from receiving its first tenants, the same publication sounded a warning note with an article that appeared under the nom de plume ‘One Who Knows’ in the issue of 23rd January 1864. Though the initiative was sufficiently attractive to be heavily over-subscribed, ‘after a careful inspection, we are forced, somewhat unwillingly, to say that this building will not meet the demands of the poor’. Several shortcomings in the internal layout were singled out for criticism. The long corridors would be inherently draughty and the absence of vestibules, as well as of fireplaces in the bedrooms of the two- and three-room sets, would cause the tenants discomfort and threaten their health. The interiors had been left bare brick and this would render them unattractive to residents, who would struggle to make their accommodation homely – it is worth noting that the terms of the tenancy agreement forbade to personalise their apartments by hanging pictures on the walls. Most seriously, the writer believed the business model of the complex to be fundamentally flawed. While the combination of commercial with residential lets was praised as worth imitating elsewhere, there were evidently doubts that this would achieve the desired aim. The 1863 report had stated that rents ‘will in all cases be lower than those now paid for the over-crowded hovels in the neighbourhood’. But ‘One Who Knows’ feared that letting two-room sets for 4 shillings per week and three-room sets for 5 shillings would frustrate Peabody’s intentions by pricing out the people who needed such accommodation the most, since they could afford no more than 2-3 shillings per week.

View from southwest of the main quadrangle of the Islington Peabody complex
Satellite view from Google Earth of the Islington Peabody complex: north is to the top.

Unsurprisingly, the external treatment of the building reflected a certain cost-consciousness, being constructed almost entirely of stock brick with a sparing use of dressings in red brick and stucco to pick out the window heads. As at Columbia Square, the ground- and first-floor elevations had thoroughly classical channelled masonry, and cut and rubbed brick was used for the doorcase in the ‘prow’. Gothic detailing, however, was almost entirely dispensed with, apart from a scattering of pointed arches on the Folgate Street elevation. This, combined with the classicising touches and Dutch gables of the Commercial Street elevation, gave the building an odd, stylistically indeterminate character. The most distinctive feature was the strips of narrow, closely-spaced windows at fourth-floor level, which presumably ventilated the laundry and airing space. The Spitalfields block marked the start of an ambitious programme of construction. Peabody was sufficiently pleased with the initial results of his venture to augment his bequest. He more than tripled his donation over the following years, so that after his death the total capital reached £500,000. It was managed thriftily, the trustees insisting on a 3 percent return on all their investments.

View into the main quadrangle of the Islington Peabody complex: the inner elevation of the east block is shown in the featured photograph at the top of this page.
Elevation to Dibden Street of the southernmost block of the Islington Peabody complex

Whether all of the misgivings voiced by ‘One Who Knows’ were borne out in practice is for the moment unclear, but lessons were evidently learned from the Spitalfields block, which incorporates several features that were never repeated. Principally, all the complexes that followed were conceived on a much larger scale and they were generally planned as large, oblong blocks arranged around a central quadrangle. This was a deliberate ploy aimed at avoiding awkward layouts – Darbishire believed that orthogonally planned accommodation was easier to keep clean and cheaper to furnish. But on a site that was irregularly shaped, such as many of those in central locations by their nature were, a neatly set out quadrangle could only be achieved by positioning the main blocks deep within it. This often excluded the possibility of including a street frontage – and, indeed, of the blocks making any contribution to the surrounding cityscape other than through their sheer bulk – which may be why the inclusion of shop units tried at Spitalfields was never repeated.

View of the Shadwell Peabody complex published in The Illustrated London News of 22nd February, 1867: considerable artistic licence was allowed in omitting completely one of the end blocks in order to show better the inner quadrangle.
View from Glamis Place of the Shadwell Peabody complex: note the change in the fenestration in the street front of the block placed side-on where the formerly open staircase has been enclosed.

What became the ‘house style’ of the Peabody Trust was established with its next project on Greenman Street in Islington, completed in 1865. As with Columbia Square, a site was deliberately chosen in a notorious slum area, in this instance a rookery called Ward’s Place, to advertise the programme of social improvement. Four five-storey blocks were positioned around a square courtyard with a much longer fifth block set at an angle to the main quadrangle fronting Dibden Street, which forms the southern boundary of the site. A shorter sixth block occupies part of the gap between the two, thereby enclosing a second, wedge-shaped courtyard. All this gives the complex a fortress-like aspect, which is perhaps not entirely coincidental. Davidovici notes than it was gated and shut at night – Peabody’s industrious poor were to be segregated from the less deserving indolent poor who still inhabited the neighbouring slums. In a paper read at the Architectural Association entitled On the Construction of Dwellings for the Poor, Darbishire stated explicitly that it was not envisaged that the improved living conditions of inhabitants of the Peabody housing would have a salutary effect on the wider populace, claiming that all experiments aimed at achieving such a result had failed. Indeed, it was even feared that the disparity in living standards might breed resentment.

Looking northeast into the main quadrangle of the Southwark Peabody complex
Satellite view from Google Earth of the Southwark Peabody complex: north is to the right and Blackfriars Road runs along the bottom of the image: note the red brick blocks of the London County Council’s Webber Road estate of 1905-1906 in the upper half.

The Islington complex embodied a distinctive aesthetic, which marked a departure from what had been tried at Spitalfields. All lingering traces of Gothic were purged from the design of the exteriors. The elevations were symmetrically arranged with central entrance doorways and the fenestration was organised on a repetitive grid. It consisted throughout of segmental-headed openings – mostly glazed with three-over-three sash windows, although those lighting the laundry area on the top floor were fitted with casements and those in the narrower bays at each end of the block housing the shared toilets and lavatories were glazed with single-light sashes. Stock brick was used for the walling with dressings and banding of white Suffolks, and the slate roof was set at a shallow pitch with unbroken eaves and ridge lines. One might speak of astylar classicism and certainly the sparing ornamental and decorative touches drew on the architectural language of antiquity – witness the doorcases breaking forward from the wall surface, the modillion eaves cornice and the more closely spaced banding at ground and first floor level paraphrasing rustication. As Davidovici points out, while one branch of the architectural genealogy of this type can be traced back to the Renaissance palazzo (and indeed she records that there was surprise and even anxiety among contemporary commentators that housing for the poor should be palatial in scale, if not in opulence), the rest stem from a very different source – what came to be dubbed ‘The Functional Tradition’ by post-war architectural journalists.

Representative floor plan of one of the blocks at the Southwark Peabody complex, as published in The Builder of 13th January 1872
The entrance from the quadrangle to one of the staircases at the Southwark Peabody complex

‘Since the second half of the eighteenth century, classicist features had increasingly been deployed on industrial mill and dock buildings, their ordered, rational aspect a suitable representation of newly rationalised production processes’, writes Davidovici. ‘Housing working-class families in factory-like buildings seems too literal an interpretation, but as both were products of parallel processes of capital concentration and centralisation, the connection might have been practical rather than symbolic’. Indeed, in a paper that appeared in Vol. 14 of the RIBA Transactions in 1865, Darbishire explicitly cites as inspiration an unnamed building that Davidovici has identified as Gidlow Mill in Wigan, built in 1863-1865 for Manchester cotton magnate and philanthropist John Rylands (1801-1888). The architect was George Woodhouse (1829-1883), who was active chiefly in Lancashire and designed a number of other textile mills. Darbishire praised the effectiveness of the structural polychromy deployed at Gidlow Mill in giving dignity and visual interest to an immense industrial structure whose scale and repetitive fenestration would otherwise have made it forbiddingly stark. The secret of its success was to accentuate the building’s best qualities on their own terms.

The main quadrangle of the Southwark Peabody complex, showing the inward-facing elevations of the blocks fronting Blackfriars Road
Gidlow Mill in Wigan, Greater Manchester by George Woodhouse of 1863-1865 (

As Davidovici comments, it is very much the aesthetic of what Edmund Burke called the sublime. But it was also a product of entirely practical considerations. The construction costs and rental returns were all set in advance and this necessitated a uniform architectural language. It was a modular form of construction which could in theory be extended outwards and upwards infinitely, and in numerous respects it prefigures the innovations of modernists of the 1930s, who recognised that standardised types were key to mass housing programmes. At the complex on Brodlove Lane in Shadwell, built in 1866, the blocks were raised to six storeys in height. A contemporary view accompanying a report in The Illustrated London News shows cupolas with Darbishire’s characteristic fussy detailing (their function is unclear, but they perhaps provided additional ventilation for the top-floor laundry space) straddling the ridge in the centre of the roof of each block, contrasting with the repetitive nature of the elevations below and providing a visual focus that the design otherwise lacked. These are no longer extant and indeed may have been artistic licence.

The former Rochester Buildings on Old Pye Street in Westminster, originally built in 1863 for William Gibbs and subsequently incorporated into a Peabody complex
Dummy doorcase on the Old Pye Street elevation of the former Rochester Buildings

Lessons were still being learned and the Southwark complex, built in 1870-1871, represented a change of direction in several respects. A large site running from Blackfriars Road to Waterloo Road allowed for the density of the housing to be dropped and the whole estate to be given a less institutional air. Arranged around two quadrangles set at roughly 45 degrees to one another, the 16 blocks rose to just four storeys in height and the laundries were housed in separate facilities rather than occupying the top floors. ‘The buildings are plainer, and less imposing in appearance, than their predecessors; their cost is materially less, and they are more popular with the tenants. As we said in the account we gave when they were first opened, they are more homelike and agreeable than other establishments erected by the Trustees’, reported The Builder of 13th January 1871. Darbishire dispensed with the corridor plan, which, he recounted in On the Construction of Dwellings for the Poor, had come ‘to be regarded as too plain and unhomelike’, as well as with open staircases. The latter had been a standard feature of the earlier complexes and were regarded as essential to counter a supposed natural partiality for poorly ventilated, stuffy accommodation on the part of the demographic from which the Peabody Trust’s tenants were drawn. ‘If there is anything in the world that a poor man hates, or a poor man’s children are educated to hate, with cordial, sincere and unquenchable hatred, it is fresh air’, Darbishire had claimed in On the Construction of Dwellings for the Poor. But the tenants resented the discomfort imposed on them and indeed many of the open staircases elsewhere were subsequently enclosed.

Peabody Avenue, the inner ‘street’ of the Pimlico complex, looking south towards the extension to the complex added by Haworth Tompkins around 10 years ago.
The terracotta-clad blocks at the southern end of the Pimlico complex

The Southwark complex followed the pattern established at Columbia Square and Spitalfields by providing a mixture of single rooms and two-room and three-room sets, making up a total of 384 dwellings. In the sets, the living rooms were 13ft by 11ft (4m by 3.4m) and the bedrooms 13ft by 9ft (4m by 2.7m) in size. The aim was not simply to cater to a range of budgets, but also to provide for growing families, who would be able to move to more extensive accommodation as they expanded and thus remain in a place where they had put down roots and built up support networks. Though its architectural treatment was essentially that of the earlier complexes discussed here, the Southwark complex is unusual in being considered in relation to the surrounding cityscape. It presents a grand, spreading frontage to Blackfriars Road. The elevations of the blocks enclosing the courtyard are symmetrical about an imposing and handsomely rusticated vehicle entrance with a barrel vault, and the centre of each one of them is adorned with curious gables made up of straight and curved lines adorned with stone roundels bearing a ‘P’. The elevations are articulated with central sections that break forward, and constructional polychromy is used more liberally throughout the complex, with diapered panels to give visual interest to blank sections of walling.

Satellite view from Google Earth of the Peabody housing in Westminster: north is to the top and the Old Pye Street complex is lower left, while the Abbey Orchard Street complex is upper right.
The ‘island’ block at the Old Pye Street Peabody complex: note the 20th century curtain walling infilling the formerly open staircases of the perimeter blocks in the background.

The advantage of the system devised by Darbishire was that it could be adapted to make efficient use of even the most awkward sites. That which became available for the Pimlico Estate, built in 1874-1876, was a long, narrow strip adjacent to sidings on the approach to Victoria Station. Here, the blocks were placed end to end to create an internal street running down towards Grosvenor Road. The free-standing blocks at the southern end were finished in terracotta, which was used for the rustication of the lower storeys, the quoins and the dressings. A lack of suitable sites meant that the construction of new Peabody housing complexes almost ground to a halt while the Pimlico Estate was building, but it was given a fillip by the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875, which empowered the Metropolitan Board of Works to undertake the compulsory purchase and clearance of existing slums. This made available to the Trust sites in central London that would have been prohibitively expensive if purchased directly from the freeholder and thus meant that its activities were effectively being subsidised by public money. Eight new estates were constructed between 1881 and 1885, but the strain that this put on the Trust’s resources and the need to make as economical as possible use of the land meant that the architecture became more spartan and the density of accommodation had to be increased. Thus, at Great Wild Street in Covent Garden (1880-1881) and Abbey Orchard Street in Westminster (1881-1884) the blocks once again were raised to six storeys, although not without concerns that this risked creating exactly the overcrowded, unhealthy conditions that the Peabody Trust had been established to eliminate.

The blocks on the southern side of the Old Pye Street Peabody complex fronting Great Peter Street
Entrance to one of the staircases of the Old Pye Street Peabody complex

At Old Pye Street in Westminster (1879-1882), the Peabody complex adjoined the earlier Rochester Buildings of 1862, which Darbishire had originally designed as model housing for William Gibbs (1790-1875) in an area then notorious for its slums. A wealthy merchant who had made his fortune selling guano imported from Peru as an agricultural fertiliser, Gibbs was Anglo-Catholic in his religious sympathies and a close interest in the Gothic Revival went hand-in-hand with philanthropic concerns. He paid for the construction of the monumentally scaled chapel and hall of William Butterfield’s Keble College in Oxford and commissioned Bristol architect John Norton (1823-1904) to remodel on an equally ambitious scale his country residence of Tyntesfield in Somerset. The history of Gibbs’ venture into model working-class housing awaits proper investigation, but evidently competing with a successful and much larger organisation working in the same field came to make little sense and Rochester Buildings were sold to the Peabody Trust in 1877.

The block of the Abbey Orchard Street complex on the corner of Old Pye Street and Perkin’s Rents: note the polygonal bay windows, which originally marked the locations of the laundries on each floor.
Peabody-scape: the courtyard of the Old Pye Street complex

A comparison of the two phases is instructive. The earlier phase fronting Old Pye Street is clearly identifiable by the Dutch-style gables (disposed irregularly in a manner that appears to be unrelated to the composition of the façade) and the doorcases, which, viewed in isolation, might almost pass for genuine early 18th century work. The central courtyard is partly taken up with a seven-storey block, rising to six storeys in the middle, to squeeze as much as possible out of the site. The block enclosing the courtyard to the south is doubled with another running parallel to it fronting Great Peter Street. At the extensive Abbey Orchard Estate, located immediately to the east, Darbishire repeated an innovation first tried at Pimlico, by substituting a laundry on each floor for the smallest flat, removing the need for top-floor washrooms shared by all the inhabitants of the block, which often caused friction between tenants. Externally, the laundry rooms are expressed as bay windows, relieving the otherwise monotonous elevations.

Other works

The former orphanage of the Guardsmen’s Home of 1865 on Francis Street in Westminster: the statue of St Francis of 1961 by Arthur Fleischmann dates from when the building housed a Franciscan religious community.

Darbishire’s commissions for Burdett-Coutts and for the Peabody Trust form the two main strands of his career. The remainder constitutes a rather disparate body of works in which it is hard to discern any strongly personal style or marked professional interests, not least because of their wide geographical dispersal. When designing larger buildings, Darbishire seems to have fallen back on Italianate. For the orphanage added in 1865 to his earlier Guardsmen’s Home on Francis Street in Westminster, he deftly reinterpreted a Florentine palazzo. The proportions are elegant and the restrained detailing, more Rundbogenstil than quattrocentro, very effective. The bloated mass of what was originally built in c. 1867 as the Guardsmen’s Institute only a stone’s throw away on Carlisle Place is less successful. Though there are some pretty touches to the detailing, this serves only to emphasise the fact that what would have worked well in a more austere vein as, say, a warehouse or waterworks, is trying to masquerade as a piece of urban grand design without any articulation to give its bulk presence other than through sheer mass. The building served its original function only for a short period before becoming the Archbishop of Westminster’s palace in 1873. It was the residence of Archbishop (later Cardinal-Archbishop) Manning, who died there on 14th January 1892, hence its current name of Manning House. It subsequently became offices and was remodelled by Rolfe Judd in the 1989, when it acquired a slate mansard.

The main elevation to Carlisle Place of Manning House (originally the Guardsmen’s Institute) of c. 1867

Darbishire used Italianate once again for the Working Men’s Institute on Abbey Road in Barrow-in-Furness of 1870-1871. The cost of £3,450 was largely borne by Henry William Schneider (1817-1887), a local ironmaster who at that point was an alderman, later became mayor and was benefactor to many charitable causes in the town. The site was given by the Furness Railway Company, with which he was closely involved. The outline of the building with its tall roof and elaborate cupola on a truncated pyramid was effective; the composition of the street elevation with its rather underscaled central bays and portico over the main entrance less so. The adjacent bath house, in the design of which historical precedents seem to have weighed less heavily on the architect, was rather more successful. That survives, but the Institute, which had latterly housed the Lord’s Tavern pub, was damaged beyond repair in January 2017 when it was gutted by fire and partly collapsed. Darbishire perhaps retained from his upbringing connections with Lancashire, of which Barrow then formed a part, and had established a reputation as an architect of philanthropic schemes, but other than that it is difficult to see why he should have been approached for the commission.

The Working Men’s Institute and baths on Abbey Road in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, as pictured in The Illustrated London News of 25th May 1872

Clock Cottages in the centre of Eastleach Turville in Gloucestershire of 1875 is a charming group of almshouses commissioned by Sir Thomas Bazley (1797-1885), a Lancashire cotton master, philanthropist and social reformer, who not long prior to that had acquired the Hatherop Estate, where he settled in his final years. A self-consciously picturesque composition that pays homage to the Cotswolds vernacular, the delightful clock tower with its uppermost stage and spire twisted round by 45 degrees forms a very effective accent in the middle of the village. Grundisburgh Rectory in east Suffolk of 1882 is less successful – an ill-composed mish-mash of High Victorian Gothic with various cod-vernacular features (none of them indigenous to the area) such as tile-hanging and dummy half-timbering. It is a cut above the rectories usually supplied by cost-conscious Diocesan authorities and suggests that the client, the Rev’d Henry Turnor, may have invested private means. But by the standards of the progressive domestic architecture emerging at the time, it must have appeared rather ponderous and gauche, and again it is unclear why Darbishire should have approached. How long Darbishire remained in practice after the big Peabody building campaign of the mid-1880s is currently a mystery, like all the other details of his later years. He died in Sevenoaks in Kent – whether this was a chance circumstances or he had settled there is unknown.

The former Working Men’s Institute in Barrow-in-Furness, pictured before its destruction by fire in January 2017 (Bill Wakefield)


The aim of this blog, as reflected in its title, is to revive the reputations of 19th century architects who have fallen into obscurity. There are few more deserving candidates for that than Henry Darbishire. But his lack of recognition is not the result of limited opportunities to build or poor survival of an output that have bedevilled some of the architects featured here: he built prolifically, and much of his work was conceived on a grand scale. Grievous though the loss of Columbia Market was, it was at least well recorded before its demise. In short, it is not difficult to get a sense of what Darbishire was about. His obscurity is less the result of ill fortune than an occupational hazard for an architect who spent most of his career in the service of philanthropy. Success in business, great wealth, high-minded ideals, largesse and noble endeavours at social reform are the stuff of which page-turners of biographies are made. Architects hired to embody philanthropic aims, unless their stock was high to begin with, seldom warrant more than a footnote.

Clock Cottages in Eastleach Turville, Gloucestershire of 1875 (Bob Radlinski)

Changing notions of philanthropy have further eroded Darbishire’s reputation. The positive contrast between his model housing and the dire poverty of the slums that it was intended to supersede can no longer be readily appreciated. Worthy though Peabody’s initiative might have been, the construction campaign that furthered it was viewed as little more than the means to an end. The tenor of much 20th century critical assessment was that the architecture of the Peabody Trust was almost a necessary evil, the utilitarian fulfilment of a brief rather than building as art. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner decried the ‘uncharitable look of the charitable architecture of 1860-1880’, excoriating the Islington Estate as ‘crushingly unattractive’ and later complexes as ‘gloomy and barrack-like’. At worst, the architecture was redolent of puritanical, joyless and paternalistic Victorian charity. At its best, it was so drab as to be quite simply unmemorable: the victim of its own familiarity and ubiquity, it retreats into the cityscape of London almost unnoticed.

The former rectory in Grundisburgh, Suffolk of 1882

Making sense of Darbishire’s legacy becomes even more difficult when one considers the disparity between the stern practicality of the Peabody dwellings and the extravagant whimsicality of his work for Burdett-Coutts, with apparently hardly any middle ground between the two. Was this an architect who was only able to show his mettle when designing for a client for whom money was no object? And, by the same token, when every penny counted, was he unable to make a virtue out of a necessity? Yet paradoxically, I think the sense of a slightly amorphous architectural personality is the key to understanding Darbishire. It is hard to imagine a Street or a Butterfield taking on a project such as Columbia Square, which required specialist knowledge of a particular housing type, on the face of it provided little opportunity for individual architectural expression and involved working for a client who was headstrong and may well have been prescriptive in her aesthetic tastes. It is even harder to imagine any of the numerous Victorian architects seeking to establish their reputations with major public buildings settling for as unprestigious a line of work as designing for the Peabody Trust, welcome though the security of the post would have been.

The north block of the Shadwell Peabody complex

History has no conditional mood and we cannot know how Darbishire might have fared had more opportunities presented themselves to rear Gothic piles on the scale of Columbia Market. Goodhart-Rendel’s incomprehension (supposedly voiced when threats to demolish it first emerged) that Burdett-Coutts ‘should have entrusted the realisation of her noble dream to a practically unknown architect, who seems to have been incapable of producing a decent building of any kind’ was unfair. All the same, there was limited mileage in Darbishire’s brand Gothic. It was architecture in which emotional impact was all, one of Caspar David Friedrich’s or Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s capriccios made flesh. In this respect, it was curiously old-fashioned for its date, more in the spirit of the 1820s-1830s, and, like architecture of that period, did not always stand up well to close scrutiny. Strip off the ornamental trimmings that Darbishire piled on, and you are left with big boxes. It was an approach that might have palled had it persisted, and it is difficult to imagine Darbishire evolving with the Gothic Revival as the century wore on.

The Victoria Park fountain: detail of the dome, showing the clock faces and pointer of the weathervane in the form of a mermaid holding a chalice

But in the work for the Peabody Trust, no such easy get-outs were possible and hard-headed practicality was the watchword. It is architecture that has outlived its critics and proved its worth. Though adapting buildings with communal facilities to suit the very different living standards of the 20th and 21st centuries must have posed some intractable conundra in conservation philosophy, this is housing that, thanks to the ongoing work of the Peabody Trust (and also, it must be said, to the high quality of the work by Darbishire’s usual contractor, William Cubitt and Co), remains an attractive, fulfilling place to live. It represents a noble attempt to grapple with the challenge of providing housing for a mass society, which continues to tax architects to this day. And when one views it in this light, one begins to discern a common thread in Darbishire’s work. It is architecture that formed a setting for daily life in the Victorian metropolis – bringing up a family, fetching clean water, buying groceries, plying a trade. Walking into the cathedral-like space of the main hall at Columbia Market for the first time must have been an exhilarating experience. But it is every bit as uplifting to step through the main gateway of the Southwark Peabody Estate and leave behind busy Blackfriars Road for the unpretentious, reassuring dignity of its two quadrangles. This is architecture that nourishes, enhances and ultimately ennobles the quotidian. For that, Darbishire’s reputation deserves to stand as high as that of any of his more celebrated peers.

The vehicle entrance from Blackfriars Road of the Southwark Peabody complex

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.

2 thoughts on “From the picturesque to the sublime: Henry Darbishire and the architecture of philanthropy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: