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Adburgham [former name Abram], Jocelyn Frerelocked

  • Elizabeth Darling

Adburgham [former name Abram], Jocelyn Frere (1900-1979), architect and town planner, was born at Sylvans, Peaslake, Surrey, on 24 May 1900, the second daughter of Edward William Abram (1869–1929), newspaper proprietor, and his wife, Lucy, née Ashton (1865–1942). Her grandfather, William Alexander Abram (1835–1894), first librarian of Blackburn public library, was editor of the Blackburn Times. The youngest child of three, with her brother, Myles, and sister, Sylvia, she was brought up in prosperous surroundings: the family had houses in both the Surrey countryside and in Holland Park, London. Like many progressive members of the middle classes, her ‘cultured and interesting’ parents, as one of the girls’ headmistresses described them, treated all their children equally when it came to their education (letter of July 1917, Bedford College Archives). Jocelyn was sent to a number of boarding schools before attending Notting Hill High School for Girls, whose Norland Square premises were not far from her London home. She and her sister then went to Bedford College in 1917 to study for their London University matriculation, but neither excelled, and both left without achieving this qualification.

Abram’s father was one of the founders of Builders’ Journal, subsequently renamed Architects’ Journal, and also the Architectural Review, two of the most important architectural periodicals of the twentieth century. Although he sold them a few years after her birth and entered into a career as merchant and entrepreneur, it was perhaps his influence and connections that led his youngest daughter to take up a career in design. By 1920 she had enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, a somewhat unusual choice for a woman of her class and education. The Central School only taught adults in the evenings and was more typically attended by apprentices or those in architectural pupillage who worked during the day. She might have been expected to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, now three years into admitting women as students, and where the majority of the first generation of women architects trained. Her choice of the Central School may have been informed by her lack of a matriculation certificate as well as financial constraints at home (her father went bankrupt in about 1921–2).

Taught by the architects Charles Spooner, S. B. Caulfield, and Basil Oliver, during her three-year course Abram received a thorough training in drawing, design, and structural mechanics, as well as attending lectures in architectural history. In her final year (1922) she began work as an architectural assistant at the London firm of W. H. Gaze and Son. On completion of her course, she moved to another practice, P. A. Staynes and A. H. Jones, again as an assistant; in both instances her work focused on interior design. In 1925, she changed path somewhat and went to work at one of the weekly architecture journals, The Architect and Building News, for a year.

Abram’s architectural career proper began in 1926 when she joined the office of W. R. Davidge and Partners as an assistant. Davidge was a leading architect-planner and surveyor and a prominent member of both the Town Planning Institute (TPI) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). She seems to have become something of a protégée of Davidge, and she flourished under his tutelage. By 1928 she had passed the exams of the TPI and was possibly the first woman to become an associate member (she became a full member in 1948). In 1932, she applied to become a licentiate of the RIBA (for those who had qualified by years in practice rather than in academic training). Her nomination papers record a prize-winning paper on ‘Town Planning in relation to Public Services’ and extensive travel to study housing and town planning schemes in continental Europe. Davidge’s reference commented that she was ‘particularly capable and efficient in all she undertakes’ (RIBA Drawings and Archives Collections). The fact that her other proposers were the eminent architect-planners S. D. Ashead and Barry Parker suggests a woman who by virtue of talent and good connections would be able to pursue a long and successful multidisciplinary career.

Abram’s work in the 1930s set the pattern for that career. At Davidge’s she worked primarily as a planner, with responsibility for many of the county plans in which his practice specialized. Alongside this, and like many of the first generation of women who qualified as architects and planners, she combined professional practice with a strong commitment to social reform, and she was particularly active in the voluntary housing sector. By the 1930s, this had become a vocal locus of progressive thinking about social housing and was notable for the strong presence of women in its ranks. It was they who formulated radical new ideas about the design and form of such housing, an approach developed in opposition to what they perceived as the unimaginative and materialist models developed by central government since the 1919 Housing Act.

A significant outcome of this rethinking came in 1934, when, with the housing consultant Elizabeth Denby and the architect Judith Ledeboer, Abram played a leading role in the foundation of the Housing Centre as a central think tank for all those interested in modern housing. She designed its headquarters in premises at 13 Suffolk Street, central London, and was on its council from 1937 to 1974, at which point she became its vice-president. Also in 1934, she contributed a display on ‘Slum Clearance and Re-housing’ to one of the Centre’s series of exhibitions, ‘New Homes for Old,’ which were held until 1938 as part of the biennial Building Trades Exhibition at London’s Olympia Exhibition Halls. Aimed squarely at decision makers and the building industry, these exhibitions comprised a hard-hitting survey of the problems facing the nation’s housing and offered a range of solutions which emphasized architect-designed, well-planned and -equipped housing with extensive social amenities surrounding it. In 1936 her mother changed the family name by deed poll from Abram to Adburgham, the name by which she was known for the rest of her professional career.

Adburgham, working independently from Davidge’s practice, offered a small essay in such housing in a 1936 commission from the Fulham House Improvement Society, for which she designed a block of flats as part of a borough slum clearance scheme. Planned around a central courtyard, ‘Brightwells’, at Clancarty Road, Fulham, combined a mixed typology of flats (one-room bedsits to three-bedroom flats to accommodate single people, married couples, and the elderly in one scheme). Each tenant had a garden (there were six on the roof) and a garden shed. There was also a communal hall.

The design of Brightwells, though efficient and well laid out, was stylistically somewhat dull, a legacy perhaps of the by now rather passé Arts and Crafts training she had received at the Central School. Far more remarkable, and innovative, was her scheme for a gymnasium at Nonington College, Kent (1938). Claimed as the largest timber-frame building in England (Architect and Building News, 12 August 1938, 183), this building had a striking main hall, which was constructed from standard timber sections. It established in her work an abiding interest in frame construction using modular components.

Adburgham’s involvement in the Housing Centre meant that, as thoughts turned to reconstruction in the middle years of the war, her expertise was drawn on by central government. With Ledeboer she was appointed to the Design of Dwellings Sub-Committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee, popularly known as the Dudley Committee after its chair, the earl of Dudley, to consider future housing policy as it related to design. Ledeboer served as its secretary, while Adburgham was a member of both the main committee and a sub-committee that focused on the planning of flats. In 1944 the committee produced its report, Design of Dwellings. Its recommendations were firm echoes of the consensus that she and her contemporary women reformers had been advocating since the early 1930s, and they would soon form the basis of the Housing Manuals that shaped post-war state housing design policy. During the Second World War, she also worked as an ambulance driver and served as a member of the Royal Academy planning committee that produced a plan for the reconstruction of post-war London in 1942. In 1944, with Elizabeth Halton, a fellow active member of the Housing Centre, she wrote a discussion pamphlet for the Association for Education in Citizenship’s series ‘Unless We Plan Now’, entitled ‘Planning Our Country’.

In the post-war years, Adburgham continued her career as an architect-planner, becoming a partner in Davidge’s practice. She also became a fellow of the Institute of Landscape Architects in 1958. Work continued on county plans, and she was increasingly called as an expert witness to planning tribunals and committees as reconstruction began in earnest. Her position as a member of the TPI’s Education Committee meant that she also examined students taking its exams. As an architect Adburgham continued her independent practice and developed further her interest in modular design. She wrote a number of articles about this and designed a community centre at Swanley, Kent, in 1960, using a modular system of design. Her active career continued until the early 1970s.

Adburgham’s contemporary, Judith Ledeboer, noted her ‘shrewdness, [and] the foresight and determination that she showed in practical affairs’, adding that this could sometimes seem at odds with ‘her feminine charm’ (Housing Review, May–June 1979). It was perhaps the latter, which also hints at the tensions between being a woman and a member of a profession, that meant that Adburgham did not receive the recognition that her male colleagues and contemporaries did, despite being so instrumental in formulating the design and planning principles that shaped the post-war built environment. She died at St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton, of cardiac failure and artherosclerosis on 23 January 1979.


  • Housing Review (May–June 1979), 92
  • ‘Timber Gymnasium at Nonington College, Kent’, Architect and Building News (12 Aug 1938), 183–5
  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, Bedford College Archives
  • Central St Martins Museum and Archives
  • RIBA Drawings and Archives Collection
  • London Gazette (11 Aug 1936), 5316
  • 1939 register
  • census returns, 1901

Wealth at Death

£104,063: probate, 9 Aug 1979, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

birth certificate
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
death certificate