Plaque at York Cemetery Chapel, Cemetery Road, York YO10 5AJ
A leading Congregationalist in York in the early 19th century, architect James Pigott Pritchett designed a large number of nonconformist chapels in Yorkshire. He also produced many new Anglican churches, mainly in the Gothic style, but these were not his best work. His masterpieces are in the Grecian style: York Cemetery and Huddersfield Railway Station.
Born on 14 October 1789 at St Petrox, Pembrokeshire, South Wales, James Pigott Pritchett was the fourth son of the Revd Charles Pigott Pritchett and his wife, Ann, née Rogers. On 8 December 1803, at the age of 14, he was apprenticed to William Hainsworth, weaver, of Watling Street, London. On the completion of his apprenticeship on 17 October 1811, he gained the right to become a Freeman of the City of London and to trade in the city. However, he had already chosen not to become a weaver himself but to follow the profession of an architect.
Pritchett began studying at the Royal Academy Schools in 1808. In 1811, he was articled to architect James Medland in Southwark, south London and then, for two years, he worked in the office of architect and engineer Daniel Asher Alexander, Surveyor to the London Dock Company from 1796 to 1831. Alexander had designed Dartmoor Prison, completed 1809, and was responsible for all of the LDC’s buildings during his term as surveyor. In 1812, Pritchett set up his own practice in London but moved to York on 1 January 1813 where he entered into partnership at 26 Blossom Street with Charles Watson, one of the leading architects in the county.
On 22 December 1813 he married Peggy Maria Terry in Beckenham, Kent. They had four children. The eldest, Richard (b.1814), became a Congregational minister; Maria (b.1814) married John Middleton who was articled to Pritchett and subsequently practised in Cheltenham; the second son, Charles (b.1818), took over his father’s practice; and James who died young. His wife died in 1827 and, on 6 January 1829, he married Caroline Benson. They had five children: James (b.1830) who was trained by his father and established a practice in Darlington, John (b.1831), Henry (b.1832), Caroline (b.1836) and Emma (b.1840).
The partnership with Watson proved to be very successful. Major commissions included, the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield (1816-8), which had an innovative plan for its time, and alterations to John Carr’s York Lunatic Asylum, later Bootham Park Hospital which closed in 2015. Following Charles Watson, Pritchett took over the prestigious position of architect and surveyor to Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse, a post he held from 1813 until 1831.
Nonconformist chapels formed a large part of Pritchett’s work. He was a prominent member of the Congregational church and Deacon of the Chapel in Jubbergate. Nonconformist congregations were growing in the early nineteenth century and a plot of land was purchased in Lendal for £1,000 for the construction of larger accommodation. Pritchett was engaged to design the new chapel. The foundation stone was laid on 26 February 1816 and the chapel opened on 7 November 1816. The popularity of the Revd John Parsons, who was appointed as minister in November 1821, meant that a gallery was added to the chapel in 1823 and a domed apse in 1826. A house for the minister was also built in New Walk Terrace
By 1837 the congregation had grown to such an extent that the chapel trustees decided to build an additional chapel in St Saviourgate. Waiving his fees, Pritchett designed the Salem Chapel which opened on 25 July 1839 and the congregation was divided between the two sites. Parsons relocated to the Salem Chapel to continue his ministry but the appointment of a new minister for Lendal, Richard Soper, proved controversial. By 1845 the Lendal congregation was in decline and Pritchett, now a senior deacon, fell out with Soper. So serious were their differences that Pritchett resigned followed, in 1847, by Soper. The fortunes of the chapel continued to decline until the building was sold in 1929. The Salem Chapel suffered similar misfortunes; it closed in 1953 and was demolished in 1963.
Pritchett was also asked to design buildings for other nonconformist congregations. In 1817 he was engaged by the Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting of the Society of Friends to build a new Meeting House in Friargate that would accommodate 1,200 people. In 1851 he was commissioned by the Primitive Methodists to build the Ebenezer Chapel in Little Stonegate for a congregation of around 700 people. The foundation stone was laid on Good Friday, 18 April 1851 and the chapel opened in November 1851. It was ‘beautifully lighted by one splendid gas chandelier of eighteen burners, suspended from the roof through a ventilator’, according to a contemporary account. Pritchett’s buildings were renowned for their functional design, incorporating the latest technology for heating, lighting and ventilation.
Between 1825 and 1850, Pritchett wrote A History of the Nonconformist Churches of York, continuing research begun by William Ellerby, a founder member of the Lendal chapel, into the development of noncomformity in York from 1662. The Sheldon Memorial Trust acquired the original manuscript and placed it in the collection of the Borthwick Institute, University of York. Edited by Edward Royle, the manuscript was published in 1993 as Borthwick Papers and Calendars 18 with financial support from York Civic Trust and the York Georgian Society.
In common with the majority of Victorian architects, Pritchett worked in a variety of styles: Perpendicular Gothic, Tudor or neoclassical, depending on the building’s use and his clients’ preferences. In addition to designing a large number of nonconformist chapels, the practice produced many places of worship for the Church of England. There was a boom in church building in the early nineteenth century. Following the French Revolution (1789-99), the authorities in the UK were concerned by the rise in nonconformism amongst the increasingly large working population. The Church Building Commission was set up in 1818 to oversee a major programme of building new Anglican churches. Funds were limited resulting in cheap, utilitarian preaching-boxes, either in a plain classical style or in an unscholarly Gothic style with spare architectural features and galleried interiors. The latter came to be known, derogatorily, as “Commissioners’ Gothic”.
St Edward, Brotherton (1842-3) by Pritchett is a late example of Commissioners’ Gothic. The Ramsden family who owned the manor of Huddersfield lived nearby at Byram Hall and the church incorporates the Ramsden burial vault and family monuments dating back to the 17th century. Pritchett also design the Independent Chapel in Brotherton (1837-8).
The Tudor style was considered appropriate for educational and domestic buildings. In 1833, St Peter’s School was completed close to the Minster. When the school moved in 1844 to its present site in Clifton, Pritchett’s building became the School of Art until it was relocated to the north wing of York Art Gallery. Subsequently it became what is today the Minster Song School. Pritchett’s Deanery in the Tudor style (1827-31) was demolished in the 1930s but his Minster Chambers, Nos.8-9 Minster Yard (1837), remains.
Almshouses were another building type thought to be suitable for the Tudor style. In 1840, Pritchett designed the new Lady Sarah Hewley’s Almshouses in St Saviourgate which gave preference to religious “dissenters”, mainly Unitarian initially. Originally located in Tanner Row, the almshouses had to be relocated when the land was needed by George Hudson for the construction of York’s first railway station.
Pritchett’s best buildings, however, are the few he designed in the neoclassical style. Prior to the formation of the partnership, Charles Watson had designed several public buildings in the Grecian style, notably court houses at Beverley (1804-14), Wakefield (1807-10), Pontefract (1807-8) and Sheffield (1807-8), so it seems likely that the influence of Watson resulted in Pritchett’s finest work. Saltmarshe Hall on the River Ouse near Goole (1825-1828) is in a very restrained classical style on the exterior. The fine interior has plasterwork by William Crabtree of York. In 1828 Pritchett designed and built a new portico for York Assembly Rooms which is worthy of Lord Burlington’s original building in the Palladian style. York County Savings Bank in St Helen’s Square (1829-30) is in a more inventive classical style. At this time the firm was practising from 11 Blossom Street as Watson, Pritchett & Watson, Charles’s son, William, having joined the practice. However, William died in 1829 aged 25 years and, in 1831, the partnership was dissolved on Charles’s retirement. Pritchett moved to 13 Lendal.
Two of Pritchett’s most notable projects in the classical style are York Cemetery and Huddersfield Railway Station. In 1836-8 he designed the entire collection of neo-classical buildings at York Cemetery. The magnificent chapel, which is based on the Erechtheion in Athens, has a grand tetrastyle portico of four Ionic pillars. There is also a similar but simpler gatehouse. Huddersfield Railway Station (1845-8) was designed by Pritchett and constructed by Joseph Kaye. The long neo-classical façade, reminiscent of a Palladian country house, with a portico of Corinthian columns, six wide and two deep, dominates St George’s Square, creating an impressive civic space planned as the centrepiece of the Victorian “new town”. John Betjeman described the station as ‘as one of the most splendid in England’.
Pritchett had designed other buildings in Huddersfield prior to the station, but not without controversy. In 1834-6 he had rebuilt St Peter’s Church. To keep costs down, the stone from the old building was reused but the reclaimed masonry was incorrectly laid and soon began to weather badly. For this professional blunder he was excluded from consideration in the design for any building for the Ramsden estate at a time when they were reshaping Huddersfield. The Ramsden family had owned the manor of Huddersfield since 1599 and retained it until 1920 when it was sold to Huddersfield Corporation. The Hon. Isabella Ramsden wrote of Pritchett in 1844, ‘we must steer clear of him, in his profession as an architect he has given the Ramsden family a lesson not to be forgotten of the instability of his buildings’. Fortunately for Pritchett, the Huddersfield Railway Station project was already underway, but his work declined in the 1850s.
On 23 May 1868, James Pigott Pritchett died at home at 27 St Mary’s, Bootham, leaving an estate of around £3,000. He is buried in York Cemetery in the nonconformist section. In 1966, the cemetery went into voluntary liquidation. It became an overgrown wilderness with crumbling monuments and, in 1984, the roof of the chapel collapsed bringing down a section of the rear wall. The Friends of York Cemetery was formed with the aim of rescuing the cemetery and, in 1987, the 24-acre site was formally acquired by the York Cemetery Trust. Over the past 30 years, the chapel has been fully restored, large sections of the grounds have been cleared and key monuments cleaned and repaired. In recognition of Pritchett’s achievement, his grave was restored and provided with a new headstone in 2018.
Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, (3rd ed, New Haven and London, 1995)
William Ellerby and James Pigott Pritchett, ed. Edward Royle, A History of the Nonconformist Churches of York, Borthwick Texts and Calendars 18 (York, 1993)
Edward Royle, Nonconformity in Nineteenth-century York, Borthwick Paper No.68 (York, 1985)
For more details of events at York Cemetery, visit www.yorkcemetery.org.uk
© Geoffrey Geddes and Richard Wilcock