Adam’s brother and Jane Austen

IRRIGATED BY MANY STREAMS, branches of several rivers, notably the Lea and the Beane, the town of Hertford is the county town of Hertfordshire in eastern England. Some parts of this historic place with its numerous water-filled channels recalled distant memories of Brugge (Bruges) in Belgium but the architecture differs considerably from what one sees in the Belgian city. We made our very first visit to Hertford on the 2nd of May 2021 and were surprised by its richness in old buildings and waterside parklands. Amongst the edifices in the historic centre of the town, we came across a well-restored brick building on Fore Street. It, the massive though elegant Shire Hall, now the home of a Crown Court, dwarfs its neighbours. Apart from its size and elegance, its architect attracted my interest.

Shire Hall, Hertford

In 1627, a Sessions House was constructed on the site of the present Shire Hall following the issue of a charter by King Charles I (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1268930). By the mid-18th century, it was considered to be too small. An Act of Parliament issued in 1768 during the reign of King George III led to raising money to build a new shire hall. The specifications were sent out to various architects, and amongst the six short-listed were the now very famous Robert Adam (1728-1792) and his far less well-known younger brother James Adam (1732-1794). The new structure was to incorporate:

“…2 courts, a room for the Corporation of Hertford, and both with and without a County Room.”

 The Adam’s brothers won the contract to carry out the above along with the addition of a previously unspecified Assembly Room.

James Adams took charge of the project, which commenced in April 1769 and was completed in April 1771. The arcaded ground floor was used by the Corn Exchange until 1849, after which date a separate edifice for the Corn Exchange was built in 1857-58 on Fore Street. James Adam built far fewer buildings than his better-known brother Robert. James and Robert, both born in Kircaldy (Scotland), started their architectural practice in London in 1758. Not only did they design buildings but also, they provided detailed designs for their interior decoration and furnishings; they provided what could be described as a ‘holistic’ design service. James collaborated with Robert on several other projects apart from the Shire Hall in Hertford. These include the now mostly demolished Adelphi buildings near London’s Strand and Wedderburn Castle in Berwickshire.

The Assembly Room in the Shire Hall, which was used for concerts and theatrical performances, is supposed to have inspired Jane Austen (1775-1817) when she was writing her novel “Pride and Prejudice”, part of which is set in the fictional ‘Merytown’, which she might have based on Hertford. The Assembly Room featured as the ballroom in Austen’s novel (http://wardtimes.info/hertfordshire/east-herts/hertford/news/what-now-shire-hall-hertford). Here is a little extract from Chapter 3 of the book:

“An invitation to dinner was soon afterwards dispatched; and already had Mrs. Bennet planned the courses that were to do credit to her housekeeping, when an answer arrived which deferred it all. Mr. Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, and, consequently, unable to accept the honour of their invitation, etc. Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted. She could not imagine what business he could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire; and she began to fear that he might be always flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be. Lady Lucas quieted her fears a little by starting the idea of his being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball; and a report soon followed that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly. The girls grieved over such a number of ladies, but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing, that instead of twelve he brought only six with him from London—his five sisters and a cousin. And when the party entered the assembly room it consisted of only five altogether—Mr. Bingley, his two sisters, the husband of the eldest, and another young man.”

The above-mentioned assembly room was that in the Hertfordshire town of Meryton to which the wealthy Mr Bingley had recently arrived from the north of England.  Although the Assembly Room, mentioned in the novel, is thought to be that in the building designed by the Adam brothers in Hertford, at least one authority identifies Meryton not with Hertford but instead with nearby Ware (http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/dighum/2016/12/01/mapping-pride-and-prejudice/). Yet another informant felt:

“Re-reading Pride and Prejudice, I have to say that Meryton bears a strong resemblance to Hertford. But it also feels remarkably like Harpenden. And what about Ware?” (https://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/people/finding-jane-austen-s-hertfordshire-7217568).

Stepping aside from the identification of the fictional Meryton in “Pride and Prejudice”, I must not forget to mention the large clock attached to the Shire Hall, which projects over Fore Street. Supplied by the Hertford bell founder and clockmaker John Briant (1749-1829), this clock with two faces was erected on the Shire Hall in 1824. It still works and now has a mechanism regulated by a radio signal from Rugby (www.hertford.gov.uk/town-clocks/).

Apart from the Adelphi, which I have seen several times, but until now did not know it was associated with James Adam, the Shire Hall is the first building of which I was aware of James’s hand in its design. I noticed that a plaque attached to this building makes no mention of Robert Adam but only of his brother. It reads:

“Shire Hall. Designed by James Adam. Built 1769-1771”

I do not know whether one can conclude from this that James’s contribution to its design was considerably greater than that of his brother, if he had any involvement at all. In any case, the large structure has a magnificent presence in amongst the smaller and often older buildings amongst which it stands.

A beautiful bank

LOVERS OF ARCHITECTURE will find much to enjoy amongst the buildings that fill the historic centre of the university city of Cambridge. Amongst the sea of old colleges, which are rich in fine architectural features, there are some attractive buildings whose existence are not solely due to the requirements of academia. One of these stands at the southern end of Sidney Street. Formerly Foster’s Bank, this picturesque edifice faced with alternating stripes of red and white and topped with a highly decorative clock tower, now houses a branch of Lloyd’s Bank.

Ebenezer Foster (1776-1851) and his brother Richard, both born in Cambridge, founded their bank in 1804. The bank was originally founded for the workers at the three mills that the Fosters owned (www.findagrave.com/memorial/181142444/ebenezer-foster). Because the university would not allow the Fosters to build railway lines to their mills, they constructed another mill close to the existing railway lines. This mill is now called Spillers Mill. The Foster family lived at Anstey Hall in Trumpington (near Cambridge) from 1838 to 1941. Ebenezer died in Trumpington. Ebenezer was Mayor of Cambridge in 1836, and later a county magistrate, then the High Sheriff in 1849. In addition to other public positions, he was a governor of Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Ebenezer’s obituary in “Cambridge Independent Pres” on Saturday the 31st of May 1851 noted:

“Mr. Foster was at the head of the first banking and mercantile establishments in the town. It is unnecessary, therefore, to say that his life was one of great activity and usefulness; and it is not too much to say that in every occupation, whether public or private, his conduct commanded universal respect.”

Before 1891, Fosters Bank was housed on Trinity Street in what was once the Turk’s Head:

“The rather attractive Tudor shop on Trinity Street now occupied by a clothes shop was once the Turk’s Head Coffee House, one of the earliest coffee houses in the country (17th century). It was much frequented by students. The upper floors later became the Turk’s Head Carvery, but it is now entirely given over to floral prints. The building was once the home of Fosters’ Bank, which later moved …” (www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~ckh11/cam.html).

Years ago, in the late 1960s, four of us, three friends and myself, ate a meal at the Turks Head. The bill for the four of us came to 14/6 (72.5pence) and we gave the waiter 15/- (15 shillings: 75 pence). My friends were horrified when I told the waiter:

“Keep the change.”

For, even in those far-off days, sixpence (2.5 pence) was a rather mean tip for a bill of 14/6.

In 1891, the bank building at the south end of Sidney Street, once Foster’s now Lloyd’s, was completed. It was designed by the architects A and P Waterhouse. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was the eldest of eight children. One of his siblings, Edwin Waterhouse (1841–1917), was one of the founders of the accountancy company Price Waterhouse (now incorporated into PWC). Alfred’s son Paul (1861-1924) joined his father’s architectural practice in 1884, becoming a partner in 1891, the year that the Foster’s Bank building was put up in Sidney Street.

Alfred Waterhouse and his practice were responsible for the design of many impressive buildings in the Victorian era. One of them, which is very well-known, is London’s Natural History Museum. Slightly less famous but equally impressive is the Prudential Assurance Building in London’s Holborn. This building is opposite numbers 337 and 338 High Holborn, which survived the Great Fire of London of 1666, and were restored by Waterhouse.   Apart from the bank in Cambridge and the Cambridge Union building, he also designed buildings associated with the following colleges: Jesus, Gonville and Caius, Pembroke, Girton, and Trinity Hall.  The bank in Cambridge is one of seven designed by Alfred Waterhouse.

I have entered the former Foster’s Bank only once. The glass-ceilinged banking hall is a riot of colour, its surfaces covered by tiles with sculpted surfaces. The octagonal clock tower is topped with a sharply pointed octagonal roof, one of the city’s many spires. The clock faces with their Roman numerals are made with tiling in several colours. Although now a branch of Lloyds, the name Foster can still be seen clearly above the main doorway.

When you next visit Cambridge, by all means admire Kings College Chapel and other architectural gems within the various colleges, but do spare some time to enjoy the former Foster’s Bank building on Sidney Street before visiting the nearby marketplace, which I always enjoy.

A clock on a wall

I NOTICED THAT A CLOCK on the south wall of the nave of St Mary’s Church in Ashwell (in Hertfordshire, north of Baldock) bore the makers name “JJ Dison, Potton”. Being by nature curious, I wondered whether any trace of JJ Dison remained in Potton, a small town in Bedfordshire, about nine miles north of Ashwell. So, off we went to Potton, and what we found there was delightful.

In the tenth century, the town’s name was ‘Potun’ and in the Domesday Book (1086), it was listed as ‘Potone’. These names are derived from the Old English meaning ‘farmstead where pots are made’. During the Middle Ages, the Tudor, and Stuart eras, the Market at Potton was one lof the largest in Bedfordshire. This declined after the Great Fire of 1783 during which much of the centre of the town was destroyed. In 1797, the Shambles (a market area including brick buildings) were erected, but these fell into decline in the 1930s. A smaller version of the market building was constructed later, and this now serves as the town’s library. The two women working there were friendly but knew nothing of the clock makers of Potton They sold me three fascinating books that contain historic photographs of Potton.

Today, Potton, which once had its own brewery, is now a commuter town. Its station, first built in 1850, is on the former Great Northern Railway. Currently, commuters can travel into London on trains that terminate at London St Pancras.

We wandered around Potton looking at various old buildings and enjoying a coffee at a pleasant café that had only just reopened after several months of having been closed because of the covid19 pandemic. A pleasant walk along Church Causeway brought us the parish church of St Mary’s, perched on the highest spot in the town. Its construction began in the 13th century and many additions were made in the centuries following. As with so many churches we have visited recently, it was locked up. We walked around its exterior, admiring the many decorative gravestones in the crowded cemetery that surrounds it. We returned to the centre of Potton along the causeway, crossing a couple of fast-flowing streams along the way. These waterways are part of the Potton Brook network, tributaries of the River Ivel, which is itself a tributary of the River Great Ouse which flows into The Wash.

Well, enough about Potton: you must be wondering whether I have forgotten JJ Dison. I have not, but there is not much to say about him, but more than I had expected to discover. James Jeremiah Dison thrived in the early 19th century. His exact dates are not known. Amongst the Potton churchyard inscriptions (pottonhistorysoc.org.uk), there is one for ‘Jeremiah James Dison’, dated 29th September 1844, when Dison was aged 35. His wife, Jane (née Edwards) died in 1840, aged 31. The couple had two children, named George and Sarah.   

Dison is listed (www.clockswatches.com) as working both in Cambridge and Potton. The British Museum contains a beautiful printed watch paper (an ornamental paper place inside a watch case by the maker or repairer of a watch) which informs us the JJ Dison was a ‘silversmith and jeweller’ as well as a ‘clock & watch maker’. It also mentioned ‘jewellery &c carefully repaired’. In a directory of Potton (in a “Directory of Bedfordshire”) dated 1839, JJ Dison is listed as a watch and clock maker at Bull Street. There was another member of his trade, Mr Henry Reynolds, at Moon Corner.

The National Archives in Kew contains an undated will prepared by JJ Dison, which has within its wording:

“Jeremiah James Dison of the towne of Cambridge in the county of Cambridge watchmaker…”. Whether Dison lived both in Potton and Cambridge, it is not clear. However, the watch paper and the clock in Ashwell’s church suggest that at the very least he worked there. Also his burial in Potton, rather than Cambridge, suggests that his main residence might well have been Potton. That he worked in Cambridge is suggested by a post placed on a watch collecting website (https://mb.nawcc.org/) in which the collector noted that he had acquired a watch “…sold by John Dison Cambridge…”.  Another website (i.collector.com) listed:

“Late 18th Century pair cased Pocket Watch, J J Dison, Cambridge, number No 570, the pierced and engraved cock to a Roman enamel dial with later hands, both cased marked for London, 1789, Makers mark W L …”

It might be coincidence or possibly more than that, but James Jeremiah was not the only Dison working on timepieces in the east of England. There was Joseph Dison of Whittlesey and Thomas Dison of Biggleswade. Biggleswade is close to Potton and Whittlesey is just north of Cambridge.

The clock at St Mary’s in Ashwell is a product made by JJ Dison in Potton. A small plaque, which I was unable to read, the clock being too high above the ground, suggests that the timepiece was a donation to Ashwell’s church. Whatever its origin and story, seeking out its maker has been fun and introduced us to a pleasant town not far from London, which we hope to visit again.