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Waterhouse, Alfredlocked

  • Colin Cunningham

Alfred Waterhouse (1830–1905)

by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1891

Waterhouse, Alfred (1830–1905), architect, was born on 19 July 1830 in Aigburth, Liverpool, the eldest of seven children of Alfred Waterhouse (1798–1873), cotton broker of Liverpool (later of Whiteknights, Reading), and his wife, Mary Bevan (1805–1880).

Early years

Both parents belonged to the Society of Friends and the young Alfred's upbringing was strictly Quaker. He was educated at Grove House School, Tottenham, where he mixed with the sons of influential Quaker families, many of whom were later to become clients. He showed an early aptitude for drawing, which he learned from the books of J. D. Harding and Samuel Prout. In 1848 he was articled to the staunchly Quaker P. B. Alley, then in partnership with Richard Lane, the leading neo-classical architect of Manchester. In 1853 his education was completed with a ten-month tour of France, Italy, and Germany, after which he set up in practice as an architect in Manchester. His first commissions came from relatives, from Quaker connections, and from the local body of nonconformist (mainly Congregationalist) businessmen; but he soon had quite a substantial practice, and was himself training a few pupils, among them G. T. Redmayne (1840–1912), who was later to become his brother-in-law, and Ernest Geldart (1848–1929). National acclaim came with his design for the Manchester assize courts, won in competition in 1859. In 1860 he married Elizabeth (1834–1918), daughter of John Hodgkin of Tottenham, with whom he had three sons and two daughters, the eldest of whom married the poet Robert Bridges.

In 1865 Waterhouse opened a London office on the basis of several promising commissions and secure family connections. His brother Theodore (1838–1891) was already in practice there as a solicitor and developer, while another brother, Edwin Waterhouse (1841–1917), was in practice as an accountant. From his office and home at 8 (later 20) New Cavendish Street he built up a large and highly successful practice that made him the most widely employed British architect in the years from c.1865 to c.1885. On 24 February 1877 he was baptized into the Church of England. In 1878 he purchased the manor of Yattendon in Berkshire, where he lived as the squire in a new house of his own design. He continued to work until 1901, taking his eldest son, Paul Waterhouse (1861–1924), into partnership in 1891, and by the end of his career had been responsible for almost 650 separate works.

Professional practice

Waterhouse's huge success as an architect (probate records reveal that he left a fortune of £215,036) was founded on a thoroughly professional approach rather than on brilliance or innovation as a stylist. His approach is characterized by a great ingenuity in both planning and designing; and he was always ready to offer alternative solutions to his clients' problems. He was meticulous in his attention to detail, and throughout his career did not scorn the smallest commissions, designing such things as prize book-plates for Girton College, Cambridge (while engaged on much larger commissions there), or letter-headings and an inn sign for the marquess of Westminster (for whom he later rebuilt Eaton Hall). However, like most young architects of the mid-century he was greatly influenced by A. W. N. Pugin, and espoused Gothic as the most exciting style for the times. Yet he was always ready to modify the style in order to produce workable buildings, claiming that he had 'not endeavoured slavishly to copy the Gothic of any particular period or country' (Manchester Guardian, 19 April 1859). It was this approach, coupled with his skill as a planner, that won him the competition for the new assize courts for Salford (dem.) with a design that was described as 'one of the remarkable experiences of our time' (The Builder, 30 April 1859) and second only to those for the government offices in Whitehall by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, which had caused such controversy in the battle of the styles. His efficient planning set the standard for future court buildings, and its Gothic style, with sculpture by the O'Shea brothers, was described by Ruskin as 'much beyond anything yet done in England on [his] principles' (On traffic, lecture delivered at Bradford, 21 April 1864).

Major works

Once established in this way Waterhouse was able to win major public commissions such as that for Strangeways gaol (1861–9). His Manchester connections were still strong enough in 1868 for him to win the competition to design the new town hall. This, which is probably his masterpiece, displays all his mastery of planning on an awkward triangular site. It is also, with its steep roofs, and three spires at different angles, a demonstration of the potential of picturesque composition in the Gothic style. However, it was also thoroughly modern in the adoption of fireproof construction and the lining of its interior walls with terracotta, the architect's first extensive use of the material. The building was fully fitted with furniture designed by the architect, and he remained engaged with this one structure until 1894. Waterhouse's ability to work amicably with committees and to modify his designs to suit the needs of large groups made him well suited to undertake such commissions, and allowed him to create another classic in the Natural History Museum (1866 and 1870–80). This is chiefly known as the first building completely faced in terracotta, with an array of moulded creatures, all designed by Waterhouse. Yet the building is important in other ways. It has an internal iron frame and the clear planning, the product of close collaboration with Richard Owen, the first director, is striking. That the building was achieved in spite of changes of government and perpetual parsimony is also a considerable tribute to Waterhouse's determination and tact.

The Natural History Museum was Waterhouse's first major work in the capital. He had initially been commissioned in 1866 to carry out the design by Captain Fowke, but had taken the opportunity to redesign that scheme, retaining only the two-light Italianate windows of the South Kensington style in his Romanesque revival design. The achievement of so important a building was some compensation for his failure in the competition for the law courts in 1867, which he had entered hoping his legal connections would give him a good understanding of what was needed. His design was preferred by the users, the bar committee, but rejected in favour of G. E. Street's design by the architects. Such a decision reflected the common view of his work that practicality rather than form was uppermost.

This was in fact precisely what Waterhouse advocated in his presidential address to RIBA students (presidential address, repr. in Building News, 1 Feb 1889), and was probably one of the reasons why he was given his third great commission of the 1870s—the rebuilding of Eaton Hall. This, the most expensive country house of the century, was essentially a flawed masterpiece, in that its design appears to have developed slowly round the client's desire to retain features of the old house, which had already been reworked by W. Porden (c.1803–1812) and by W. Burn (1845–54). As a result the house has been much reviled by later critics who blamed Waterhouse for its incoherence. Changes in taste in the twenty-five years it took to complete, as well as the death of the client's first wife, and his remarriage, led to considerable adjustments in the course of the work, even to the removal and replacement of substantial elements. The grounds contain one of Waterhouse's few classical designs in the shape of a circular Ionic ‘parrot house’ in golden terracotta, complete with caryatids.

Waterhouse's Victorian clients seemed to like what he offered, and Eaton Hall was by no means his only domestic commission, merely the largest. Waterhouse built or substantially altered some ninety houses for clients of varying means. The earliest of these were for relatives, such as his cousin Sebastian Waterhouse in Liverpool; but these were soon followed by a range of mansions for industrialists on the urban fringes and several houses in the Lake District, among which was Fawe Park (1858), for James Bell MP. This last was the subject of the first watercolour Waterhouse exhibited at the Royal Academy. At the peak of his career he also designed a number of substantial country houses. Among these were: Blackmoor House, Hampshire (1865–73), for Roundell Palmer (Lord Selborne); Hutton Hall, Yorkshire (1864–71), for Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease; Town Thorns, near Rugby (1871–6), for the American Washington Jackson; and Iwerne Minster, Dorset (1877–82), for Lord Wolverton.

Waterhouse's domestic work linked him to the successful establishment in a conventional way, as did the design and restoration of churches. However, he did comparatively little in this line, though he did produce convincing Gothic churches at Penmaen-mawr (St Seiriol's, 1865–9), where the Gladstone family were involved, at Blackmoor (St Matthew's, 1866–70), for Lord Selborne, and at Twyford, Hampshire (St Mary's, 1876–8), where Sir Thomas Fairbairn was the principal donor. His most successful church was probably the urban St Elisabeth's, Reddish, Lancashire (1883–5), for the local industrialist William Houldsworth. However, it is not surprising that Waterhouse was also involved in building for the nonconformists, such as the church at Besses o' th' Barn, Manchester (1863), for the Congregationalists, for whom he also enlarged the Lancashire Independent Theological College (1876–80). There was less scope for architectural employment by the Society of Friends, though his early commissions did include designing or enlarging meeting-houses. Among the later chapels the King's Weigh-house Chapel in Mayfair (1889–93) and the Lyndhurst Road Congregational Chapel, London (1883–7), are particularly striking.

Institutional designs

However, Waterhouse is better known as a designer of large institutional buildings. Where some would say Eaton Hall should be classed as such, his skill as a planner was shown in a wide range of town halls, such as those at Darlington (1861–3), Hove (1880–83), and Reading (1871–6), institutions such as the Turner Memorial Home (1882–5) or the Seamen's Orphans' Institution in Liverpool (1870–75), or hospitals such as Liverpool Royal Infirmary (1886–92) or St Mary's Hospital, Manchester (1889–1901). This was a type of designing in which he excelled, from early beginnings with the Bingley Institute (1863) right up to University College Hospital, London (1894–1903), the first vertically planned hospital in Britain. Perhaps his most complex and effective planning exercise was in the National Liberal Club in London (1884–7), where he combined three floors of large public rooms with four of bedrooms and service rooms on an awkward triangular site off Whitehall. Though distinctly conventional in its Italianate classical decoration, this building was extremely up to date in its steel and concrete fireproof structure, and in its servicing and electric lighting. It was one of the two designs (the other being the Natural History Museum) which Waterhouse selected to represent his work at the Chicago World Fair of 1893.

Partly for his fame and his planning skills, but partly also for his reputation as an economical designer, Waterhouse was extensively employed by the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge, having work in one or other city continuously from 1865 until his retirement. He began with the Cambridge Union Society, and continued with extensive work at Balliol College, Oxford (the college that his son Paul attended), but declined an invitation to design a block of rooms to replace William Wilkins's King's College screen in Cambridge. His buildings for Gonville and Caius College still provide a terminal feature for King's Parade; but his wish to provide a complete new set of buildings for Pembroke College was frustrated by an emerging respect for historic structures, and that college actually sacked him as their architect. At Girton, however, he was given the opportunity to design a new college from scratch, introducing the corridor plan instead of the traditional staircase system. He was chosen for Girton by Emily Davies for the beauty of his building, but it is also clear that a number of his friends and clients were involved in the movement for women's education. As an efficient and progressive architect, Waterhouse was also a natural choice as architect for the northern universities. His first work was for Owens College (later Manchester University), where he had a series of commissions from 1860 until his retirement. He also designed the first buildings for the Yorkshire College (later Leeds University) and for Liverpool University, using in the latter the red brick and terracotta for which he was famous, and which gave rise to the term ‘red brick’ universities. He was further involved in education with Leighton Park School in Reading (1890–95), the Quaker foundation that absorbed the trust of the Grove House School of Tottenham, and, among others, with Reading grammar school (1868–72 and 1873–4), Middlesbrough grammar school (1885–6 and 1888–90), St Paul's School, Hammersmith (1881–7), and the City and Guilds of London Institute (1881–6), the last two being closely connected with the Clothworkers' Company, who had also been involved with Leeds University.

Planning skills, practicality, and business efficiency also made Waterhouse an attractive proposition in industry. He designed structures as varied as the Binyon and Fryer warehouse in Manchester and Lime Street Hotel in Liverpool. The National Provincial Bank in Piccadilly and Foster's Bank in Cambridge are only two of several banks he designed, and later in his career he designed the Hotel Metropole in Brighton. However his best-known commercial work was in the form of offices and investment property. One of his first commercial works was the Royal Insurance office in Manchester (1861), in which for a while he had his own office. He and his brother were personally involved in the development of sets of chambers as a commercial venture in Carey Street (1872 and 1879–95). Later he built for the Pearl Insurance Company in Liverpool (1896–8) and the headquarters of the Refuge Insurance Company in Manchester (1891–6). But by far the most extensive set of such commissions came from the Prudential Assurance Company, for whom he designed some twenty-seven buildings in the years between 1877 and 1904, establishing what is probably the first example of an architectural house style.

In all these buildings great attention was paid, in addition to practical and structural matters, to the picturesque massing and the skyline, which were so important in the developing streetscape of late nineteenth-century cities. Waterhouse's eclectic approach to style allowed him to create degrees of richness that could accurately reflect status or meet a variety of cost constraints. His general preference for Gothic forms was combined with a structural logic that matched richly articulated façades with straightforward steel skeletons. Although he used a variety of stones, particularly early in his career, he was concerned at the problems of supplying large quantities of evenly coloured stone, and also at the problems of pollution. He was an early member of the Smoke Abatement Society, and this was a major factor in his adoption of the supposedly self-washing terracotta for which he is so famous. This moulded material also had the advantage of allowing rich ornament at an economical price, but required a good understanding and close co-operation between manufacturer and architect, something on which Waterhouse justifiably prided himself. From the 1880s his terracotta exteriors were matched by similar material inside in the form of moulded and glazed faience, mostly manufactured by the Leeds Fireclay Company. He also regularly designed furniture, including a grand piano for his own use, fittings, and even decorative items such as pen-rests. He produced designs for floor tiles, and evidently had close enough relations with suppliers of such things as door furniture and sanitary ware for the manufacturers to supply items of 'Mr Waterhouse's design'. His work therefore had a consistency that is thoroughly Victorian in its use of high-quality materials, attention to practical details, and its general solidity.

Death and reputation

During his lifetime Waterhouse's work was only ever criticized with respect, and generally highly praised. However, it was seldom bold or formally avant-garde, and his preference for a safe conservative taste meant that by 1900 his work was little valued. In the first half of the twentieth century it was widely reviled; and his fondness for tiled interiors led one critic to rhyme his name with 'municipal slaughterhouse'. However, some historians took him seriously, and Kenneth Clark rated him superior to George Gilbert Scott (K. Clark, The Gothic Revival, 2nd edn, 1950, 262). For all the odium heaped on his designs by a modernist generation, it is significant that his obituary commented 'even those who did not like his architecture liked the man' (Architectural Record, 30 Aug 1905). This characteristic made him an excellent professional colleague. He was involved in adjudications on a number of occasions, but was also very widely in demand as a competition assessor. He assessed no fewer than sixty competitions between 1864 and 1899, and thus had a hand in the selection of the design of many of the major public buildings of the latter half of the nineteenth century. He also acted as a trustee of Sir John Soane's Museum and as treasurer of the Royal Academy and of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution. The respect of his colleagues was shown in his election as president of the RIBA from 1888 to 1891. He had already won a grand prix at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1867, with a rappel in 1878, and the coveted RIBA gold medal (1878) for his Manchester town hall design. He was awarded diplomas from Vienna (1869), Brussels (1886), Antwerp (1887), Milan (1888), and Berlin (1889), as well as an honorary LLD from Manchester University in 1895, the year it became the Victoria University. To this professional success was added recognition as a watercolourist. He exhibited a total of eighty watercolours at the Royal Academy, exhibiting first in 1857 and regularly from 1868; and was praised in 1884 for producing 'beyond question the most brilliant' (Building News, 1884, 817) watercolour in the show. He was elected ARA in 1878 and RA in 1885. The majority of his paintings were architectural, but he produced a significant number of picturesque landscapes both for exhibition and for private pleasure. These were mostly given to family members or friends and remain in private hands; but the Victoria and Albert Museum and the RIBA have several of his fine architectural watercolours.

Waterhouse suffered a major stroke in 1901, and retired from business; but the practice was continued by his son Paul and subsequently by his grandson and great-grandson. He lived in retirement at Yattendon Court, Yattendon, until his death there on 22 August 1905; he was buried at Yattendon six days later, in the parish church of Sts Peter and Paul, which he had restored and improved. His productive capacity was enormous, but he trained few architects of note. However, he had a large artistic and literary circle of friends, which included Frederic Leighton, Frederic Shields, and Frank Dicksee, and the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft was a particular protégé. His portrait by William Quiller Orchardson hangs in the RIBA, while another, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, was until recently retained by the family. Corbels in the shape of portrait busts of himself and his wife, made for his first house at Barcombe Cottage in Manchester, survive in Manchester City Galleries.


  • C. Cunningham and P. Waterhouse, Alfred Waterhouse, 1830–1905: biography of a practice (1992)
  • S. Maltby, S. MacDonald, and C. Cunningham, Alfred Waterhouse, 1830–1905 (1983) [exhibition catalogue, RIBA Heinz Gallery, 1983]
  • E. Waterhouse, The descendants of Nicholas Waterhouse of Everton (1910)
  • E. Waterhouse, Extracts from the journal of Mary Waterhouse (1907)
  • Architectural Record (30 Aug 1905)
  • M. Girouard, The Victorian country house, rev. edn (1979)
  • R. Dixon and S. Muthesius, Victorian architecture (1978)
  • J. H. G. Archer, ‘A classic of its age’, Art and architecture in Victorian Manchester, ed. J. H. G. Archer (1985), 127–61
  • J. H. G. Archer, ‘A civil achievement: the building of Manchester town hall, pt 1: the commissioning’, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 81 (1982), 3–41
  • J. Olley and C. Wilson, ‘The Natural History Museum’, Timeless architecture, ed. D. Cruikshank (1985)
  • C. Yanni, ‘Divine display or secular science: defining nature at the Natural History Museum in London’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 55 (1996), 276–99
  • M. Parr, ‘Waterhouse, Alfred’, DBB


  • Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, corresp. and papers relating to Manchester town hall
  • NRA, priv. coll., Eaton Hall building accounts
  • Pembroke Cam., letters
  • priv. coll., office archives, office letter-book, and Yattendon archives
  • RIBA, family MSS; MSS relating to Eaton Hall; out-letter-books
  • U. Reading L., letters to Thomas Hodgkin


  • A. S. Cope, oils, 1886, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • L. Alma-Tadema, portrait, 1890, priv. coll.
  • W. Q. Orchardson, oils, 1890, RIBA
  • photograph, 1890, priv. coll.; repro. in Cunningham and Waterhouse, Alfred Waterhouse, frontispiece
  • L. Alma-Tadema, oils, 1891, NPG [see illus.]
  • R. W. Robinson, print, NPG; repro. in Members and associates of the Royal Academy of Arts, 1891 (1892)

Wealth at Death

£215,036 14s. 6d.: resworn probate, 26 Sept 1905, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
D. J. Jeremy, ed., , 5 vols. (1984–6)
A. Felstead, J. Franklin, & L. Pinfield, eds., (1993); 2nd edn, ed. A. Brodie & others, 2 vols. (2001)