‘Thomas Harrison, 1744-1829: Architect of Lancaster Castle’ by Peter Norris BA
Thomas Harrison was born in Richmond, Yorkshire in 1744, into a not very well off family. He was an average pupil at school, but showed some talent in mathematics and mechanics. In his late teens, he was befriended by a member of the nobility, Sir Laurence Dundas of Aske Hall, close to Richmond. Aske Hall, which he had purchased in 1763, is still the family seat.
Sir Laurence was a successful Scottish businessman who had made his fortune by supplying goods to the British Army during the Seven Years’ War. Sir Laurence financed Thomas Harrison on the Grand Tour, which involved staying in European centres such as Paris, Athens, Rome and Vienna. If one could afford the expense, visits to places even further afield, like St.Petersburg and Istanbul were on the agenda. He was not the only would be architect who had this experience. The renowned Robert Adam had also spent some time touring Europe before beginning his career in Britain. Harrison spent a considerable time in Rome, finding inspiration in the wealth of ancient Roman buildings still extant. His architectural drawings were much admired, although none of the buildings he designed was ever built.
In 1782, the County of Lancashire gained Parliamentary permission to erect a new bridge over the River Lune in Lancaster. This would provide a much less congested approach from the north than that provided by the existing bridge which was further downstream at the foot of Castle Hill. Harrison was in his late thirties when he won a competition to design this bridge. The prize was the handsome sum of 20 guineas! This classical style bridge, modelled on one he had seen while in Italy, was one of the very first to be built without a hump in the middle. The design was later copied by John Rennie for his Waterloo and London bridges over the Thames.
At this time, Harrison must have been residing at Chester, because in the list of competitors for the bridge competition, he is described as “of Chester”. In 1786 87, he designed the Bridge Houses which still face the traveller as you cross the Lune into Lancaster. The New Bridge [today known as Skerton Bridge] was finally opened in 1788.
While the bridge was being built, Harrison designed the cupola for St. John’s Church in 1784. Major Thomas Jarratt, a little known architect, had designed a new town hall which was built between 1781 and 1783. Harrison added the cupola to this building also. This particular town hall is now the City Museum, the present town hall having been constructed early in the 20th Century.
In 1788, he was appointed as architect for the rebuilding of Lancaster Castle.
The style he would have preferred to use was classical. However, he realised that this would not fit in with the medieval parts of the Castle which were to be retained, nor with the adjacent medieval priory church, therefore neo-gothic was the style eventually chosen. This is a style used in many famous buildings, for example, the Houses of Parliament (19th Century) and the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool (20th Century).
At the Castle, he removed all the ceilings and the roof of Hadrian’s Tower and raised it to its present height, covered the exterior in ashlar and, because he was a firm believer in symmetry, designed another round tower at the opposite end of the Castle to complement it. The upper room in this tower is the Grand Jury Room and it is said that in order to preserve the perfect roundness of the room, Harrison insisted on both doors being constructed in a curved shape.
Other Harrison work in the Castle includes the Shire Hall, the Crown Court, the Governor’s House, the Barristers’ Library, the Barristers’ Robing Room, the Male and Female Felons’ Towers, the Debtors’ Prison and much of the curtain wall.
Incredibly, Harrison had been appointed to be the architect in charge of the remodelling of Chester Castle just before he began at Lancaster Castle. He was the victor in another competition, this time with a 50 guinea first prize. At Chester, he was given more freedom and much of his designs were carried out in the classical style. Originally, the commission at Chester was only to provide a new prison, but this was later extended to include a Shire Hall, courts, an armoury and barracks. Harrison’s work on both the prisons at Lancaster and Chester were designed according to the recommendations of prison reformer John Howard.
The work at Chester was started in a somewhat desultory fashion, until Harrison received a rather irate letter from the authorities there, wondering where their architect was and demanding his instant attendance on the building project! He immediately left Lancaster, never to return. This coincided with a shortage of funds at Lancaster and the work was suspended for a number of years, recommencing in 1802, with Joseph Gandy, who had previously worked with Harrison, as architect. Gandy designed the court interiors, filling them with a wealth of neo-gothic work, the Female Penitentiary on the south side of the Castle and the King’s Evidence Tower situated on the eastern exterior wall.
At Chester, Harrison was under something of a cloud, due to his long absence, but gradually worked his way back into favour. In 1808, he was given the job of designing a new Northgate on the circuit of city walls. This was completed in 1810 in a severe Classical style. In 1815, he must have been fully accepted as he was appointed as Cheshire County Architect. Between 1818 and 1821, he restored a portion of Chester Cathedral. Throughout this time the remodelling of Chester Castle was proceeding and the work was finally completed in 1825, after some 38 years! The last part to be finished was a handsome new entrance, copied from the Propylaeum on the Acropolis at Athens, and similar to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, completed about 20 years earlier.
The following year, Harrison began what would prove to be his final piece of work, another bridge. It seems appropriate that his career should start and finish with a bridge design. This bridge in Chester, the Grosvenor, was at the time the longest single span stone bridge in the world and, in keeping with his preferences, was in the classical style. The place he had chosen proved to be rather soft ground and at the suggestion of the famous engineer Thomas Telford, the site for the bridge was moved a little way downstream. Another famous person was connected with this project, the Surveyor and Clerk of Works being Jesse Hartley, who later designed Liverpool Docks. Unfortunately, Harrison did not live to see the completion of the bridge as he died in Chester in his residence Folliot House which still exists. It was 1829 and Thomas Harrison was in his 85th year. It was the end of a remarkable career for a man who had actually had no formal architectural training. Incidentally, Grosvenor Bridge was officially opened, though still unfinished, in 1832 by the heir to the throne, the 13-year old Princess Victoria. The final work on the bridge was undertaken by Harrison’s pupil and assistant, William Cole and it was opened to the public in 1833.