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Charles Harrison Townsend  Architect

Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928)

By Sarah Sullivan


The architect, Charles Harrison Townsend was born at 27 Price Street, Birkenhead, Cheshire on 13th May 1851. His father was a solicitor and his mother the daughter of a Polish violinist, who were both born in London originally. He was one of six boys and had one older sister. After attending Birkenhead School, he became an architect’s assistant to Walter Scott in Liverpool between 1867 and 1872.

Townsend’s parents moved back to London and from 1873 to 1875 he was a draughtsman in the architect’s office of Charles Barry (junior). He then joined Edward Robert Robson’s office at the recently formed School Board of London. Under the terms of the reforming Elementary Education Act, a great number of new state funded schools had to be built as quickly as possible, especially in the East End. The schools were of brick and architectural terracotta in a free Anglo-Flemish style.  It was later in the year of 1875 that Townsend made his first visit to Europe, one of many trips that he made throughout his life, leading architectural tours and writing. In Northern Italy he developed a passion for architectural mosaics and the use of decorative exterior mouldings on façades. (His manuscript notes are held by the Victoria & Albert Museum).

In 1877 Townsend joined Thomas Lewis Banks with whom he went into partnership between 1884 and 1886. With Banks, Townsend worked on a number of London properties such as the Turkish Baths at Earls Court and outside town; a large house in West Hartlepool, Upton Congregational Church, Forest Gate and a mission room at Lampleigh in Cumberland. In 1888 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and in the same year he was elected into the Art Workers Guild. The Guild was to later elect him to the prestigious post as a Master. The Guild had initially been formed by those that either worked or had worked for the architect Richard Norman Shaw (architect for the Hallams, Blackheath) and their purpose was to promote ‘the unity of all the Aesthetic Arts’. Arts and Crafts architects were drawn together for weekly meetings to discuss and exchange ideas with trips abroad and lectures. Townsend was clearly influenced by the thoughts of one of the founding members, William Lethaby, who lectured and wrote the book ‘Architecture, Mysticism and Myth’ which described architecture as a system of symbols with identifiable meanings. This symbolism is clearly seen in all Townsend’s buildings after 1889.

Townsend was one of the leading Arts & Crafts architects, a prominent exponent and foremost pioneer of the Free style (indiscipline). He practiced many forms of Art from wallpaper and textile design through to architecture and this possibly stemmed from his involvement with the Kyrle Society. The Kyrle Society, founded in 1876 by Miranda Hill, sister of Octavia Hill, to promote the crafts. They considered the home environment to be vital to the health of the nation: ‘happy homes and smiling faces’ and believed that art was for the public good and had a social role to play. Townsend was their architect and surveyor, designing the gates, piers, statue and a small shelter at a new park in Vauxhall, for the benefit and pleasure of the local inhabitants. The park at Vauxhall was the first to be opened by the Prince of Wales in 1890 for the newly formed London County Council.

In 1892 Townsend won the competition to design the Bishopsgate Institute and this was the first of his public building s that was to make his reputation. Following commissions including the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Horniman Museum at Forest Hill are all exceptional original buildings of the Free style.

The village of Blackheath has a number of his buildings and structures that span his lifetime and shows his varied style most successfully. Elements are repeated in subsequent designs and Blackheath seems to have been a special place for him and ‘who seems to have taken this district under his special charge.’

The introduction to the area of Blackheath was by Henry Prescott, a banker and William Chandler Robert-Austen, a metallurgist who later became Master of the Royal Mint and is reported as being a friend of John Ruskin. (Townsend was a great admirer of Ruskin). Together they bought up small parcels of land and cottages on the heath for Townsend to adapt into idyllic country retreats.

Townsend first came to Blackheath to carry out some alterations to Henry Prescott’s house, Brantyngeshay around 1885. This led to his introduction to Roberts-Austen and in 1888 Townsend adapted two simple labourers cottages to form Blatchfeld. The existing cottages were linked by a low sweeping roof which had a long corridor with large bay windowed rooms facing west into the valley for the view. The service corridor also had two bay windows with a central external seating area in a Romanesque arch in fine rubbed brickwork. Over this central arch with splayed recess is the expanse of low sweeping roof tiles and two eyebrow dormer lights. These were originally designed to let light into the upper corridor at first floor level. One of the new rooms had paneling salvaged from Newington Manor House in Kent that was demolished to make way for a new road. The Georgian paneling was reused to form a dining room and the other new room had sequoia wood ‘simply oiled’. Horace Townsend writes in the magazine, The Studio, how he fears not all paneling and fittings have found ‘so happy a resting place as this’.

In 1890, William Roberts-Austen purchased another small cottage to use as a chapel or mission hall for the village and this remains today and now forms the vestry. Plans were drawn up for a new mission hall by Townsend and work was underway by 1892 at a cost of £600. The building work was undertaken by a local firm; Messers Brown of Bramley. The result was a stunning wayside chapel that owes much to the Arts & Crafts movement and inspiration from Henry Hobson Richardson, the American architect whose work he so admired. The mission hall may be described as a ‘proto-Renaissance’ structure or Romanesque as it illustrates the continued use of ancient classical elements such as the semi circular arch to the entrance doorway, echoed in the window heads and vaulting within the church, the chancel screen, columns and rendered brickwork exterior. The church has been influenced by a well travelled architect, whilst Britain was at the height of the Empire. It was dedicated in 23rd July 1893 by Bishop Thorold of Winchester and a review in the local press commented as follows: -

“The locality is one of rare natural beauty. A portion of the wild heath is still preserved. On the edge of the heath the old rough huts of the ‘squatter’ have given place to decent cottages. Close at hand are the Gunpowder Mills and the printing works of Chilworth. Here and there are the villa residences of London professional men. But the district is, on the whole, is a poor one, and with three to four hundred persons living over two or three miles from their parish church, the building of the Mission church has been accomplished not a moment too soon.”

The building stands in a key visual position in the valley and is nestled within a small cluster of cottages forming a stopping point in the valley. Here the track originally forked in a Y shape before continuing up the open heath land to Sample Oak Lane.

Henry Warner Prescott, chairman of Prescott Bank, together with Roberts-Austen purchased land for Townsend to transform. Prescott’s family originated from Brantynegeshay Park, latter renamed Cheshunt Park, Hertfordshire which belonged to his mother Elizabeth-Oliveria Cromwell (who claimed to be a descendant of Oliver Cromwell). Henry Prescott lived with his two maiden sisters, Augusta and Oliveria at their home Brantynegeshay, Sample Oak Lane and was president of the Blackheath Cricket Club. Theobalds Park, Cheshunt was owned by his father’s family and nearby was Cobbins Brook. These names; Theobalds, Cobbins, Cheshunt and Brantynesghay are all familiar to Blackheath residents as they are the names of buildings once owned or initially financed by Henry Prescott.

The Royal Institute for British Architects has copies of many plans and elevations Townsend did for Blackheath and there is a portfolio of original watercolours held at the Art Workers Guild (for which he was a Master in 1903). His works are reasonably well documented unyet he is relatively little known in today’s world. Looking back a century he was well known internationally with works on show in America and Europe. Townsend was regarded as one of ‘the prophets of the new style.’ Herman Muthesius, The English House described him as ‘the architect who has achieved the finest results in the endeavor to find a characteristic style based on a personal vocabulary of forms.’

There are over twenty structures by Townsend in Blackheath and he effectively created a new village for all the inhabitants. This village is clearly a forerunner for his work on the Garden Suburbs of Hampstead and Letchworth. These include Rosemary Hill for the Ballantine-Dykes, Blatchcombe for Lady Roberts-Austen, the Village Hall (that was used also as a school for many years), two houses opposite the church, a congregational chapel (now Chapel End), Motor Houses, an apple store and the village well. Those moving to the area were mainly the newly commuting middle classes who wanted comfortable living on a budget. Behind the picket fences he formed low sweeping roofs, white gables and Romanesque inspired arches. The effect typically was domestic and unfussy with interior spaces flowing freely together. The result is a celebration that has lasted over 100 years forming a close-knit village life that still continues today.

During the First World War, in 1915, Townsend was appointed assistant director to collect data for London County Council on the structure of the city, a civic survey. He was later employed by the Royal Navy as a Volunteer Reserve lieutenant in Avonmouth to paint the ‘Dazzle Ships.’ Townsend supervised the dazzle painting of ships which the painter Norman Wilkinson had invented and persuaded the Admiralty to adopt, with great success. This camouflage for ships was to confuse the German U-boats commanders who were trying to observe the course and speed of their target. When aiming a torpedo, the U-boat would need to fire at the moving target/ship ahead of its path. If the torpedo was sent too early or too late the torpedo would miss. This paintwork was so successful it was continued to be used during the Second World War.


After the First World War Townsend continued to practice as an architect. His latter work in Blackheath was Little Orchard for Lady Roberts-Austen. She purchased the plot of land opposite Blatchfeld in 1919 that had been the site of an early settlers’ cottage. The cottage had burnt down and an orchard had subsequently been planted – hence the name Little Orchard.  Townsend also designed a pair of semi-detached cottages further down into the village for the Misses Ballantine- Dykes, Peartree and Thorntree Cottages, that have a date of 1922 on their rainwater hopper. The cemetery chapel was also a latter commission for Townsend that was paid for by Henry Prescott and a given as a gift to the Parish.


Townsend’s obituary described his work at Blackheath as being ‘very dear to him’, and he was still proud of it. ‘Mr Townsend was one of those who was eager to give it new vitality; and the needs of Blackheath provided the opportunity of creating a small church with a character of its own, suggested, no doubt, by wayside chapels he had seen in Italy, but convincingly suited for its purpose and for its heath-land surroundings, while every detail of its internal adornment bears the mark of the artist craftsman’s taste and care,’

 © Sarah Sullivan

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