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Norwich, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Gaol: survey, design, working and record drawings for Norwich City Corporation, 1788-1792 (57)

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Soane had some previous experience of prison design. He was in George Dance’s office in 1768 when the commission for Newgate Gaol was received and though only 14 or 15 at the time would have helped in some way. In 1781 when Soane had just started his own practice and Newgate was being reinstated after the Gordon Riots, the first of his office Notebooks has an entry: ‘Assisting Mr Peacock [Dance’s right-hand man] to make the / descriptions and Estimates of the / Great Quadrangle of Newgate abt : / 20 days ---[£] 21..0..0..’. Like all young architects starting up an office he was ‘taking in washing’ to supplement his income. Again, Soane had entered a competition (1781-2) for prisons for six hundred male and three hundred female convicts for a site in Battersea on the south bank of the Thames (q.v.). He did it in an unacknowledged collaboration with George Dance. Though nothing came of the Battersea competition, it was a useful experience for Soane when he came to design Norwich Castle Gaol in 1789.

In the first decade of practice Soane had a number of commisions in Norfolk. The Soane Museum’s on-line catalogue (q.v.) of his drawings covers more than a dozen including Shotesham Hall for Robert Fellowes who was a local politician and may have helped to secure the commission for Soane. The almost square (90 by 95 feet) Norman keep had been used as a prison since the early 13th century. Thomas Dove’s survey plan of 1788 (drawing 2) shows that it was used for both felons and debtors. The brief was to use the keep for the male felons and to build new accommodation for the debtors and women felons. Though the interior walls of the keep were demolished, the outer walls were kept and a virtually freestanding gaol with courtyard and on a U-plan of four storeys over an arcaded basement was built. Debtors and women prisoners were housed in a new building on the east side for which Soane adopted a severe castle style with scaled-down flat buttresses but not the rich blank arcading of the Norman keep. The building contract had, more or less, three phases: the ‘shell’ , the ‘finishing’ and the Keep. The majority of the surviving (Soane Museum) drawings are related to working drawings (with two specifications) for these phases. The emphasis was, naturally, on security as the detailing for the cells and other parts reveals.

Soane's office 'Ledger B' has abstracts of tradesmen's bills under the headings: Bricklayer, Carpenter, Mason, Smith, Plumber-Glazier-Painter, and Cast Iron. The sums were carefuly divided between 'new addition' and 'old building' and came to £7543:3:4:¾ and £3504:2:5¼ respectively. Soane charged (as he always did) '5 per cent commission on the amount of the tradesmens bills for work done from August 1789 to November 1799 being £11047:5:10'. This came to £552:7:0 and allowable expenses which included travel expenses ('4 journies ... to meet the Magistrates, to agree with Workmen and to direct the works; 17 journeys 'partly on the County business', lodgings, paper, pen, ink and attendance for clerk of works etc came with fees to £679:8:0.

Soane published two plans and a perspective of 'Additional Building to Norwich Castle) in his Designs for public and private buildings, 1828 (p.45, plate XLII)

Without naming him, Soane’s design was severely criticised by William Wilkins (1751-1815) in a paper given in 1795 to the Society of Antiquaries (and published in Archaeologia, volume XII, 1796, pp.155-7): ‘… the castle has undergone a very material alteration. The East front, in which was the grand entrance, is grossly mutilated and entirely hidden by an additional building, that appears to have no kind of connection with it, and though in all former repairs and changes the original elevation of the structure had been constantly attended to, yet this unfortunate addition has totally destroyed its symmetry. [Here, in his copy, Soane wrote ‘a most gross / falsehood and / wilful mis-representation/ J.S.] … yet by a recent change it is now bereaved of its ancient beauty, under pretence of giving more internal convenience for the accommodation of its miserable tenants; but surely, whatever additions were necessary, might have preserved externally the same character and apparent date of architecture with the mutilated parts of this stately pile. The interior has been gutted also, and equally as ill managed; small courts surrounded by lofty buildings, which almost, I may say totally, exclude every cheering ray of the sun from its wretched inhabitants…’. Next to this text, Soane wrote: ‘This liberal effusion from a stranger to me, I did / not see / til after it had been printed upwards of Two Years./ or it would immediately have been replied to. / J.S.’

Soane responded to Wilkins’s attack in his Designs for public and private buildings, 1828 (p.45) and again in the privately printed Memoirs of the professional life of an architect (1835, pp.20-21) viz: ‘Mr. William Wilkins, of Norwich, an able stuccatore, who … had acquired some facility in drawing, and a smattering of Gothic lore, fancying himself an Architect, felt much disappointed at not having been intrusted with the alterations and additions to the Castle, and gave vent to his feelings in … unfounded criticisms …’. By then old William Wilkins was dead and it was at his architect son, William Wilkins (1778-1839) that Soane aimed his rather spiteful comments (see Liscombe, op.cit below).

In 1819-20, the Visiting Justices at Norwich set a competition for a new prison to replace Soane’s gaol. William Wilkins (1778-1839), architect son of the elder William Wilkins, won the competition – and removed all of Soane’s work.

There are in the Norwich Castle Museum, 14 of Soane’s drawings for the Gaol (NWCHM: 1975.686.1:F), two of which are inscribed ‘Robert Fellowes’. Fellowes was a patron and friend of Soane’s, he was also a magistrate and it was in this role presumably that he received the drawings. These were purchased in 1975 (with grant aid) from Ben Weinreb (1912-99) a bookseller who specialised in architectural books, prints and drawings and had a shop at 93 Great Russell Street opposite the British Museum in London. The first drawing has an inscription on the verso: ‘Copy of Resolution to adopt John Sloane’s [sic] proposed alterations and additions to Norwich Castle as result of public meeting held at the Grand Jury Chamber / Castle Hill / 17th June 1789 / signed by E.R.Finch / Deputy Clerk of the peace for the County of Norfolk’. Two other drawings are dated (Soane office) 22 May 1789 and 14 May 1792.

Literature. R.W.Liscombe, William Wilkins 1778-1851, 1980, pp.147-9; P.du Prey, Sir John Soane, 1985, in series of 'Catalogues of architectural drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum', catalogue 87, p.50; D.Stroud, Sir John Soane architect, 2nd ed. 1996, p.139; N.Pevsner and B.Wilson, Norfolk1: Norwich and north-east, 2nd ed. 1997, pp.256-60)

Jill Lever
January 2012



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Sir John Soane's collection includes some 30,000 architectural, design and topographical drawings which is a very important resource for scholars worldwide. His was the first architect’s collection to attempt to preserve the best in design for the architectural profession in the future, and it did so by assembling as exemplars surviving drawings by great Renaissance masters and by the leading architects in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his near contemporaries such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and George Dance the Younger. These drawings sit side by side with 9,000 drawings in Soane’s own hand or those of the pupils in his office, covering his early work as a student, his time in Italy and the drawings produced in the course of his architectural practice from 1780 until the 1830s.

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Contents of Norwich, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Gaol: survey, design, working and record drawings for Norwich City Corporation, 1788-1792 (57)