Architect, and designer of the Hansom Cab

Plaque at 114 Micklegate, York YO1 6JX

Joseph Hansom was born on 26 October 1803 in St Martin’s Parish into a large Roman Catholic family. His father was a builder who apprenticed his son as a joiner. Joseph showed an early ability for design and construction and he was able to transfer his apprenticeship to a York architect, Matthew Phillips. By around 1823, he had served his time and became a clerk to Phillips undertaking some work on his own and giving drawing lessons on Tanner Row.

On 14 April 1825, Joseph married Hannah Glover, the sister of the architect George Glover, in St Michael le Belfry, York and they set up home in Halifax where he became an assistant to architect John Oates. Whilst in Halifax Hansom claimed his right to be a Freeman of the City of York on the basis of completing seven years of servitude to his father, even though this was untrue. It was also here that he first studied the Gothic style of architecture. The Gothic Revival style would become a major strand of Victorian architecture in the nineteenth century and, although Joseph designed in a range of styles, he would show his mastery of early French Gothic in a series of outstanding Roman Catholic churches later in his career. Although, in 1827, Joseph had applied to become a surveyor for the City of York and been unsuccessful.

Also working in John Oates’ office at the time was Edward Welsh (1806-68) and the two young architects decided to set up in partnership in 1827, initially in York. Hansom & Welsh achieved early success; on 11 October 1827, they were appointed by the directors of York Dispensary to build a new dispensary in New Street which was completed in 1829 (demolished in 1899). However, the practice’s largest project, won in an architectural competition, also led to their downfall.

Birmingham Town Hall

The expansion of the Victorian Empire together with the advance of industrialisation in the UK, resulted in the rapid expansion of urban centres such as Birmingham which became one of the largest and most prosperous cities in England. Civic leaders decided to commission a new town hall for civic meetings and public events which would express Birmingham’s new status. Since 1778, the city’s Triennial Music Festival had been held to raise funds for Birmingham General Hospital and this required a venue which would accommodate an audience of up to 3,000 people. An advertisement was placed on the front page of The Times, 16 December 1830, for a competitive design for the town hall with a deadline of 1 February 1831 for the submission of entries.

This was a very short time for such a large project but Joseph and Edward decided that they would submit designs along with 57 other established architects. The contract was awarded to the partners, partly because the estimated price of £16,648 was £6,000 lower than the closest competitor, and also the Commissioners liked the design. In what would be a fateful decision, Joseph and Edward were so keen to accept the contract that they stood surety for their builder with regards to cost and completion on time. A hard stone from Anglesey had been specified to face the building and this proved to be expensive to quarry and transport and it was also difficult to work. Construction costs escalated and the architects ran out of money. In 1834, they were declared bankrupt and the partnership was dissolved leaving other architects to complete the project.

The unveiling committee admiring the new blue plaque to Joseph Hansom, 30 August 2017


Socialist architect

Joseph Hansom was a considerate employer of his building workers and did everything in his power to improve their circumstances, seeking harmonious relations between employers and employees through nonviolent action. These were the early days of the Industrial Revolution when machines were taking over work previously done by men. Joseph saw this as an advantage; he believed that machines would reduce overlong working hours, allowing time for people to be educated. He supported the Operative Builders Union, which was formed in 1831/3, and he was referred to as the “Socialist Architect”. He spoke at the rallies of the pioneering industrialist Robert Owen (1771-1858), who established a model community at New Lanark in Scotland which would inspire Titus Salt’s Saltaire, and those of the banker, economist and political campaigner Thomas Attwood (1783-1856), who was an advocate of electoral reform which would ensure that all men, particularly those in cities, had a vote, not just property owners.

Business management

Following the collapse of Hansom & Welsh, Joseph move to Hinckley, near Nuneaton in Warwickshire in 1834 to manage the affairs of Dempster Heming of Caldecote Hall. The younger son of George Heming, who had established the family’s fortune trading as a sugar merchant in the West Indies, Dempster had made his own fortune in India where he was Registrar of the Supreme Court of Judicature in Calcutta. Returning to England in the 1820s, he took possession of the family estate at Caldecote Hall. Joseph managed the estate in addition to Dempster’s coal-mining and banking interests and he built a house for himself in the village where he lived until 1841. His contract with Hemming allowed him to undertake private architectural work with the result that, in 1837, he designed a number of buildings in the Midlands including the Coventry Union Bank and St Scholastica’s Convent in Atherstone, Warwickshire.

The Hansom Cab

In his spare time, Joseph invented the “Patent Safety Cab” which featured a cranked axle and large 2.54m diameter wheels which allowed the body of the conveyance to sit near the ground making it very stable and enabling it to travel at great speed. Unlike a four-wheeled carriage, it was so light that a single horse could pull it. It is likely that Dempster financed the development of the cab and, following Dempster’s advice, the design was registered on 23 December 1834 under Patent No.6733. Two passengers could be seated in the cab and the driver sat high above them on the back of the vehicle. A trapdoor in the roof allowed the driver to communicate with his passengers. Although the front of the vehicle was open, a leather curtain was provided to protect the occupants from inclement weather or to give privacy. The first Hansom Cab drove down Coventry Road, Hinckley in 1835.

Hansom Cab in York’s Castle Museum

The Hansom cab became very popular and, by 1889, there were around 7,500 in London alone. It remained in use until the early 1900s when motorised taxis were introduced. Joseph was never to realise the full value of his invention; he subsequently sold his interest in the design for £10,000 but this money was never paid to him in full as the new owners of the patent got into financial difficulty and he only received £300.

Roman Catholic commissions

In the late 1830s, Joseph’s architectural work increased. Projects included the Town Hall in Lutterworth, completed in 1836, and the Non-Conformist Proprietary School in Leicester in 1849. The following year he built the Union Workhouse in Hinckley. Although Joseph designed a number of buildings for other denominations, as a staunch Roman Catholic his major commissions in the latter part of his career were for the Church. It was only in 1829 that Roman Catholics in England were granted full civil rights and, in 1850, Pope Pius IX re-established the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy alongside that of the Church of England. Despite strong opposition, this led to a resurgence of the Catholic aristocracy which took concrete expression in a number of large new Gothic churches designed to impress. Joseph was one of a preferred handful of Roman Catholic architects and, due to the increase in his workload, he sought the assistance of his brother Charles who remained with him for five years.

In an area of York with a large Irish Catholic community, St George’s Catholic Church, on the corner of George Street and Margaret Street, was designed by Joseph and his brother Charles and opened in September 1850. It served as the RC cathedral for the whole of Yorkshire in the See of Beverley until St Wilfrid’s Church in Duncombe Place was built in 1864. Not far from York, in Clifford near Boston Spa, was another large number of Irish workers employed at the Grimston brothers’ flax mill. Joseph Hansom was responsible for the construction of the Roman Catholic Church of St Edward King and Confessor (1845-8) in the village in an unusual Romanesque style. Primarily paid for by the Grimstons and two other local families, there were addition financial contributions from the Pope, the Queen of France, the Grand Duke of Parma and the King of Sardinia. Nearby are the former Convent and School (c.1847) also designed by Joseph for a community of Anglican sisters.

One of Joseph’s most dramatic designs is St Walburge’s (1850-4) in Preston, Lancashire, with its 92m tall spire making it the tallest steeple on a parish church in England. Between 1856 and 1858 he was still very busy with 15 jobs in 15 locations. His eldest son, Henry, joined him from 1859 to 1861 and, in 1862, he formed a partnership with Edward Welby Pugin, the eldest son of the famous Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, but this was shortlived as they fell out after a disagreement, allegedly because they were not making enough money. In 1869 Hansom’s second son Joseph joined the partnership and together they designed and built a number of other substantial churches including the Church of Our Lady and St Philip Neri in Arundel for the England’s foremost Catholic family, the Dukes of Norfolk and Earls of Arundel (designed 1868-9, built 1870-3), and the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Chorlton on Medlock, Manchester (1869-71). His brother Charles Francis Hansom joined Joseph in London in 1854, but this arrangement was dissolved in 1859 when Charles left to establish his own practice in Bath with his son Edward Joseph Hansom as clerk.

The Builder

In 1840, he moved his offices to London and, in November 1841, he took over the offices of Charles Barry at 27 Foley Place, near Oxford Street, vacated by Barry who wished to be closer to the new Houses of Parliament for which he had been appointed architect. Always full of ideas, in December 1842, Joseph was one of the two founding editors of the weekly newspaper The Builder with an initial print run of 10,000 copies. However, sales declined and, in yet another unwise financial decision, in return for a small payment, he handed over the publication to his printers, J.L. Cox & Sons. The Builder eventually prospered and became one of the most notable building magazines of the Victorian era. Now with the title of Building, it is still published to this day.

As well as designing the Hansom cab and founding one of the UK’s leading building magazines, in a remarkable career Joseph completed around 200 buildings, not only in the UK, but also in France, Australia and South America until he retired in 1879. He lived at 27 Sumner Place, Chelsea, London SW7 but died at 399 Fulham Road on 29 June 1882. In spite of his prodigious workload, he left an estate valued at £1,105 3s 3d.


Penelope Harris, The Architectural Achievement of Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803-1882): Designer of the Hansom Cab, Birmingham Town Hall, and Churches of the Catholic Revival, (Lampeter, 2009)

G.C. Boase, “Hansom, Joseph Aloysius (1803–1882)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004, rev. Dennis Evinson, online edition September 2013)

John Daffurn, George Glover (1812-1890): the unfulfilled potential of a Victorian architect. (2022)

• York Civic Trust (with thanks to John Daffurn for additional information)