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Douglas, Johnlocked

  • Peter Howell

John Douglas (1830–1911)

by G. Watmough Webster

RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Douglas, John (1830–1911), architect, was born at Park Cottage, Sandiway, Cheshire, on 11 April 1830 and baptized on 16 May that year at St Mary's Church, Weaverham, the only son of John Douglas (c.1798–1862), builder, and his wife, Mary Swindley (1792–1863), daughter of John Swindley of Aldford, Cheshire. He was articled to E. G. Paley (1823–1895), architect, of Lancaster, and after completing his articles became Paley's chief assistant. He established himself in practice in Chester in either 1855 or 1860. In the latter year he moved into 6 Abbey Square, which served as his office for the rest of his life, and married Elizabeth (1827/8–1878), daughter of Mr Edmunds, farmer, of Bangor Is-coed, Flintshire; they had four sons and one daughter, of whom one son and the daughter died in infancy. Another son died at the age of twelve, and the eldest son, Colin Edmunds Douglas (b. 1864), who trained as an architect, died in 1887. The only surviving child was Sholto Theodore Douglas (1867–1943).

From Paley Douglas learned to build in a Decorated Gothic style in accordance with the precepts of A. W. N. Pugin and the Cambridge Camden Society. His decision to set up practice in his own county town is not surprising, and he must have been attracted by its many ancient buildings, and especially those in half-timber, the revival of which had begun in the 1850s. His earliest patronage came from Lord Delamere, whose seat, Vale Royal, he greatly enlarged in 1860–61, and for whom he built St John's Church, Over (1860–63). In 1865 he carried out his first works for the Grosvenor family, being commissioned by the second marquess of Westminster to design the architectural works for the Grosvenor Park, Chester (1865–7), and a new church at Aldford (1865–6). Another important early patron was R. E. Egerton-Warburton, of Arley Hall, who also employed William Eden Nesfield (1835–1888) for some of his many architectural projects: Douglas was clearly much influenced by Nesfield and the ‘Old English’ domestic revival.

Douglas showed, in some of his works of the 1860s, a remarkably bold high Victorian style. These include the polychrome brick Congregational (now United Reformed) chapel at Over (1865), a substantial stone country house, Oakmere Hall, Sandiway (1867), and the strikingly radical brick St Anne's Church, Warrington, Cheshire (1868–9; now adapted for another use), with its broad aisleless nave. Douglas's chief patron was the first duke of Westminster (1825–1899), son of the second marquess; he carried out an astonishing number and variety of works, including lodges, farms, cottages, schools, and churches on the duke's estates in Cheshire and north Wales, and in Chester itself. These included large houses at Eccleston, Cheshire, for the duke's agent and secretary: one of these, The Paddocks (1882–3), shows the romantic side of Douglas's genius, with its Germanic conical turrets. The duke was particularly keen on the use of half-timbering, although Douglas's own tastes moved towards a preference for stone and brick. This is clearly shown by the intriguingly complex terrace he built at his own expense at 6–11 Grosvenor Park Road, Chester (1879–80), whereas for the east side of St Werburgh Street, Chester, which he also built as a private speculation (c.1895–7), the duke persuaded him to substitute half-timber for the Flemish-style brick and stone scheme which he first designed. This is one of a number of Douglas's contributions to the streets of Chester which have become well loved. The best-known is perhaps the Eastgate clock (1899).

Douglas was particularly gifted as a church architect. He showed an outstanding talent for adapting earlier churches, such as: St Mary's, Whitegate, Cheshire (1728; remodelled 1874–5); St Paul's, Boughton, Chester (1830; rebuilt 1876; enlarged 1902); and Maentwrog, Merioneth (1814; remodelled 1896). He sometimes used half-timber, uniquely for a whole church at St Michael's, Altcar, Lancashire (1879). At Halkyn, Flintshire (1877–8), he used stone for a sophisticated church with a fine tower. His churches are characterized by broad naves and narrow aisles, with comparatively short, well-raised chancels. He had a particular fondness for crossing towers. Good examples include St Paul's, Colwyn Bay, Denbighshire (1887–8), St John's, Barmouth, Merioneth (1889–95), and Christ Church, Bryn-y-Maen, Denbighshire (1897–9).

Douglas was responsible for several country houses, the largest being the Elizabethan-style Abbeystead, Over Wyresdale, Lancashire (1885–7), for the earl of Sefton. Outstanding among his public buildings is St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden, Flintshire (1899–1906), built in memory of W. E. Gladstone. Towards the end of his life, in 1896, Douglas built for himself a very large sandstone house, dramatically sited above the River Dee, and called Walmoor Hill. It seems to have been intended to instil into his only surviving son, Sholto Theodore Douglas, a sense of family pride.

Douglas was especially knowledgeable about timberwork, having received instruction in joinery in his father's workshop, and he put this knowledge to excellent use in the fitting-up of his buildings. His maternal grandfather was a blacksmith, and he also showed great skill in the design of ironwork. His buildings were characterized by 'sure proportions, imaginative massing and grouping (with tendencies to verticality and attenuated forms), immaculate detailing and a superb sense of craftsmanship and feeling for materials' (Hubbard, 210). In 1884 Douglas took into partnership Daniel Porter Fordham (c.1846–1899), and, on Fordham's retirement in 1897, Charles Howard Minshull (1858–1934).

Douglas is one of a number of nineteenth-century architects who, although preferring to practise in the provinces, was fully the equal of his London contemporaries. This was recognized both by British critics and by foreign writers on architecture. Maurice B. Adams said that he 'well deserved the Royal Gold Medal [of the RIBA] which he did not get' (Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 3rd ser., 19, 1911–12, 644); both Paul Sédille and Hermann Muthesius illustrated and praised his work. At the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889 Douglas and Fordham were awarded a gold medal for their drawing of Abbeystead.

Douglas died on 23 May 1911, at his home, Walmoor Hill, Dee Banks, Chester, and was buried on 25 May in Overleigh old cemetery, Chester.


  • E. Hubbard, The work of John Douglas (1991)
  • British Architect, 75 (1911), 362–3
  • The Builder, 100 (1911), 697
  • Building News, 100 (1911), 731
  • Cheshire Observer (27 May 1911)
  • Chester Chronicle (27 May 1911)
  • Chester Courant (24 May 1911)
  • G. A. Humphreys, ‘The late John Douglas’, RIBA Journal, 18 (1910–11), 589–90
  • British Architect, 49 (1898), 360–61
  • P. Sédille, L'architecture moderne en Angleterre (1890), 86–9
  • H. Muthesius, Die englische Baukunst der Gegenwart (1900)
  • H. Muthesius, Das englische Haus, 3 vols. (Berlin, 1904–5)


  • Eaton estate office, Eccleston, Cheshire, Eaton estate MSS
  • Arley, Cheshire, Arley Hall MSS
  • Croxteth Hall, Lancashire, Molyneux muniments


  • G. W. Webster, photograph, RIBA BAL [see illus.]
  • T. A. Williams, pen-and-wash caricature sketch, Design Group Partnership, Chester
  • photograph, repro. in Building News, 58 (1890), 686

Wealth at Death

£32,088 17s. 7d.: probate, 6 Oct 1911, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]