Watson Fothergill - A Brief Life History

'Watson Fothergill' was born Fothergill Watson, on 12th July 1841 in Mansfield. He later changed his name to Watson Fothergill (in 1892) to continue his mother's family name. His father was a well-to-do lace manufacturer and merchant. When Fothergill was nine years old, he was sent away to boarding school in London but when his father died in 1853, his mother moved from Mansfield to Nottingham and Fothergill returned with her to go to a less expensive Nottingham school.

Fothergill left school at the age of 15 in 1856 and became a trainee with Frederick Jackson, Civil Engineer, Architect and Surveyor, Nottingham. Jackson was also a friend of Fothergill Watson's late father and executor for Watson senior's will. It is thought that Fothergill may have worked on the plans of Nottingham that were published by Jackson in 1861.

After four years, Fothergill went to work for I. C. Gilbert who was a Nottingham architect. Fothergill then spent two years in London studying and working part time in the architect Arthur Blomfield's office. In 1864 he returned to Nottingham to set up his own practice in Clinton Street. The first surviving Fothergill plans are from April 1871 for a Quaker School. He possibly got the contract for this building because of the connections he made from his mother who came from a devote Quaker family.

Fothergill married Anne Hage, the daughter of Samuel Hage a wholesale brewer of Mansfield, in 1867. They had seven children, two boys and five girls, but his two sons died before he did, without having any children of their own.

His first major work came about when he won a competition for the design of the Albert Hall, Nottingham. The hall was opened on September 20th, 1876, but burned down in 1906. In 1876 he also designed the new premises for the Nottingham Daily Express, the "Express Chambers" on Parliament Street, Nottingham.

By 1877-78 his career had really taken off and he did his first work for the Nottingham & Notts. Bank and the Trustees of Brunt's Charity. These two were to become regular clients over his career.

Over the next twenty years, Fothergill designed private houses, shops, offices, warehouses, public houses, banks and at least two "coffee taverns" - the tee-total version of public houses! For further information on his buildings, go to the Buildings page, or Demolished!! page of this web-site.

The Fothergill family circa 1910

In 1893 the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire railway was built through Nottingham; the route from the south to Victoria Station (where the Victoria Centre stands now) involved demolishing most of Clinton Street. Fothergill had to move out, and used the compensation to build his new offices on George Street.

This wonderfully elaborate building was in a way a three-dimensional catalogue of Fothergill's art. His offices were a picturesque mixture of Old English, Germanic Medieval and Scottish Baronial - it was definitely Gothic Revival. His five architectural heroes are acknowledged on the front of his own office. These architects clearly influenced his style. They were Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), George Edmund Street (1824-1881), George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), William Burges (1827-1881) and Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912).

For many years, Fothergill employed a very able assistant, Lawrence George Summers. Summers was a very able draftsman and had a great skill in building geometry - clearly a great asset to Fothergill's business.

 
George Street offices c. 1900
   

Fothergill kept regular and detailed diaries for many years. In them he wrote about his travels and love for art. He also continued the Fothergill family records, a set of books recording the Fothergill family's history - births, marriages, deaths and major events - which had been started many generations before.

He seems to have been rather health conscience and often wrote about the state of his health in these diaries, but really had few illnesses. His older brother died at a young age, and this is perhaps why he was so concerned about his health.


He described himself at 42 as 'Height 5ft 10 ½in, weight 13 stone, I require exactly 7 hours sleep. Brown hair, blue eyes, hair just beginning to lose its golden tinge and to turn slightly grey in parts…Dark, well marked eyebrows…small mouth curled up a bit…Very straight and some what dignified walk…and I sometimes go for almost a year without even tasting strong drink'.

He was especially interested in medieval history, both in his architectural style, and his domestic life: he spent much time and money trying to trace the Fothergill family name back to the Domesday Book.
   

Fothergill was fascinated by cricket and made sure his trips to London coincided with the major matches of the cricket season. He followed Nottinghamshire County Cricket games and made notes of Notts. C. C. team's progress in his diaries.

He was a great art lover and collected paintings and sculptures on his travels. His favourite artist was Bonnington and he paid for a statue of him to be erected at the Nottingham Art School.

In 1901, when he was aged 60, Fothergill decided to cut down his work to three days a week, as he wrote in his diary "...so as to make my profession just an amusement". There are few planning applications for him after 1906, and they cease all together after March 1912.

Fothergill's wife died in 1922, and in 1926 he tripped and fell in his drawing room. He never recovered his full health and later died in 1928.

Unfortunately most of his papers were lost between the time when he retired and when he died, but many of the plans for his buildings in Nottingham city still exist and are kept in the Nottingham Archives.

 
His style was a picturesque mixture of Old English, Germanic Medieval and Scottish Baronial. His buildings show the structural polychromy much written about by Ruskin; they have horizontal bands of red and blue brick, sometimes bands of stone also. He often used heavy black timber too for eaves, barge boards and balconies. The quality of brick used as well as brick laying itself was always high.
 
Fothergill designed many buildings in Nottingham, including perhaps 30 private houses in The Park Estate. In fact, most of Fothergill’s numerous commissions were in and around Nottingham. However he worked outside of the town and completed works in Mansfield, Retford, Burton Joyce and Bulcote, and Sydenham in Kent.
 

Elaborate stone carving, turrets, little towers and pinnacles along with his use of red and black make his buildings easy to identify.

He died at the age of 87 and is buried in the Church Cemetery, Mansfield Road, Nottingham.

Detail from Fothergill’s George Street offices

A medieval architect stands with a Gothic cathedral at his feet and in his hands are the plans of his next project - is this how Watson Fothergill saw himself?