The life and times of John Douglas

In Abbey Street in Chester, there is a blue plaque that commemorates the life of Chester architect John Douglas, but who is Douglas and why is he important to the Chester area?

John Douglas (1830 – 1911) was an architect who designed over 500 buildings in Chester, Cheshire and North Wales.

His major contribution to Chester was the Eastgate Clock and the black and white half-timbered city centre buildings, which are an iconic feature of Chester’s city centre.

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Born in the Cheshire village of Sandiway, hiis mother was brought up in the Easton Estate in Cheshire, an estate that he would later help redesign. When he was about 16, Douglas was articled to Edmund Sharpe and Edward Graham Paley, an architectural partnership in Lancaster.

Family tragedies

After finishing his articles, Douglas became Paley’s chief assistant. In 1860 he started his own architectural practice in 6 Abbey Square, Chester which was both his home and office. In the same year, he married Elizabeth Edmunds and had five children, but the family suffered several tragedies. Two of the children died in infancy and a third at the age of 12. Colin, one of the two surviving sons, joined his father’s architectural firm in 1880, but died seven years later from tuberculosis.

By the mid-1870s, the family had moved to Great Boughton, where Elizabeth Douglas died in 1878.

During the 1890s, Douglas designed and built a Tudor-style house at Walmoor Hill, Dee Banks in Chester. He lived there with his only surviving son Shilto, who was by this time an alcoholic. John Douglas lived at Walmoor Hill until his death in 1911. He is buried at Chester’s Overleigh cemetery.

Douglas’ architectural style

Edward Graham Paley mentored and trained Douglas to use the decorated Gothic style of architecture. Douglas bought vacant land at St Werburgh Street in Chester town centre and originally planned to design buildings in stone and Gothic-style brick diapering in the style he had learned. At the time, there was a revival of the half-timbered black and white decorated buildings. The Duke of Westminster favoured this style and persuaded Douglas to include the black-and white timbering in the design. This half-timbered style became the iconic style of architecture in Chester, and still attracts many visitors to the city to admire the black and white timbered buildings and terraced shops.

From the mid-1860s, Douglas admired continental styles like the Italian Gothic and Renaissance styles found in France, Germany and the Netherlands. These influenced his designs during this period.

From the 1880s, he designed buildings that were more in the Traditional English styles like Tudor and Neo-Jacobean.

Douglas is also noted for his use of highly detailed wood carvings.

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Douglas’ major projects

Douglas was a prolific architect, designing many buildings in the Cheshire, Chester and North Wales areas throughout his life.

As his architectural practice grew, Douglas attracted the patronage of wealthy aristocrats and landowners. Hid first high-profile patron was Lord Delemere, who hired him to enlarge Vale Royal Abbey and design St John’s Church in Over.

In 1865, he was commissioned by the Marquess of Westminster to design buildings in Grosvenor Park, and St John the Baptist’s Church.

He then worked for the Grosvenor family at Eaton Hall, and for the Duke of Westminster at the Eaton Hall Estate where Douglas’ mother had lived. He designed a wide variety of buildings, including farms, lodges, a school, cottages and large houses. He also worked on projects in the areas surrounding the Easton Estate at Eccleston, Aldford and Pulford.

Douglas designed many large country houses, the largest of which was Abbeystead House in Abbeystead, built for another patron the 4th Earl of Sefton.

As well as commissions for private land owners and aristocrats, Douglas also designed public buildings, including St Deiniol’s Library, Hawarden.

Douglas invested in property, designing and buildings property at his own expense. These included properties at Grosvenor Park Road ,and the Werburgh Street development that established the black and white half-timbered style in Chester.

Churches

Many of John Douglas’ projects were churches, either building new ones or restoring existing churches. He restored St Mary’s Church, Whitegate and the Maentwrog parish church in Gwnynedd. Many of his churches featured half-timbered designs, but sometimes he used stone, such as in the church at Halkyn, Flintshire.

Some of Douglas’ churches have broad naves, a raised chapel and narrow aisles, whilst others feature crossing towers like the ones at St Paul’s, Colwyn Bay and St John’s in Barmouth.

The Eastgate Clock

Perhaps the most famous John Douglas design was the Eastgate Clock at the site of the what was the entrance to the Roman fortress of Deva Victrix, which is part of the famous Chester Roman walkway. The clock was commissioned in 1899 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and was unveiled on the Queen’s 80th birthday. Douglas designed the clock and his cousin James Swindley created the wrought iron work. The Eastgate Clock is a prominent landmark of Chester, and it is claimed that it is the most photographed clock in Britain after Big Ben.

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The clock needed weekly winding until 1992, when an electric mechanism was added that needs no winding and less maintenance.

John Douglas’ legacy

The legacy of John Douglas is the vast range of buildings he designed in Chester, Cheshire and North Wales, many of which are still standing.

Douglas’ architectural practice remains, though it has changed its name to the Design Group Chester. It is still based in Douglas’s original premises in Abbey Square. The firm remembered it founder when they designed a University of Chester residential student accommodation block which is named John Douglas Court.

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Visitors to Chester can enjoy the Chester Historical Architectural Tour, where they can see many of the buildings that Douglas designed.

John Douglas is remembered for his major contribution to the architectural landscape of Chester and the surrounding areas, and the most iconic site in the city. His legacy continues and he will not be forgotten.

Posted by Mark
October 20, 2016
Features

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