Northampton emerged as a local political centre in the C9, and expanded after the Norman Conquest to become the third largest town in England (after London and Norwich). Two major monuments survive from the early mediaeval period: The round Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Sheep Street and St Peter's Church in Marefair.
In 1675 the Great Fire destroyed much of Northampton, and the rebuilding fundamentally defined of the character of the town centre as we see it today. The rebuilt All Saints Church (completed 1701), and the Sessions House , George Row (1676-8), are important monuments of English Baroque architecture.
Although the world's first water-driven cotton mill was established in Northampton (1745), the town was not a major centre of the industrial revolution. The staple industry, shoemaking, was largely a cottage industry until the mid C19. After 1850 mass-production methods, together with the improved communications network, gave a massive boost to the shoe industry and the prosperity of the town. Shoe making, however remained an activity that took place within residential areas, so that a mixed use pattern of urban development with shoe factories interspersed with terraces of workers housing characterise most of the C19 town. The Victorian Town Hall, Guild Hall (1861-4) by Edward Godwin (1835-86) in St Giles Street, is the town's major nineteenth century achievement.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Northampton was a market town with shoemaking forming an established industrial base. Politically, the town was disposed towards liberalism, and religious non-conformism characterised the town's spiritual life. There were relatively low levels of urban poverty and a remarkably high proportion of the population owned their own homes. This climate gave rise to a prominent and well to do middle class that included Northampton's inspired architectural patron, W J Bassett-Lowke (1877-1953). Cinema flourished in Northampton from an early date (the Electric Pavilion cinema opened in Gold Street in 1910).
In 1932 there were 25,000 houses in the Borough. Before 1939, the County Borough Council (as it was then) did not engage in public housing works to the extent that the Councils of other Midlands towns did, although Housing Associations were active from the late nineteenth century. Northampton's economy weathered the economic depression of the 1930's remarkably well, as the wealth of commercial buildings surviving from that period testify. New engineering businesses arrived in the 30's including British Timken and the Express Lift Company. Northampton escaped major destruction despite bombing in both world wars.
Things changed after 1945. The town expanded, and the received wisdom of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act encouraged Lewis Womersley, the Borough Architect to propose redevelopment of designated central development areas in the first Northampton Development Plan. Womersley, who left Northampton in 1953 to take up the post of City Architect of Sheffield, planned and built the garden suburb of Kings Heath on the western periphery of Northampton. Kings Heath allowed the council to decant population from the central area and to redevelop the area bounded by Marefair and Horsemarket (from 1952) with council housing of a high standard, including Womersley's 10 storey St Katherine's House . The post war period was not an altogether happy one, with the dense pattern of mixed land use succumbing to the fashion for zoned land use planning and resulting in piecemeal town centre redevelopment which failed to create any new architecture of note. Loss of the eighteenth century Peacock Hotel in particular is to be mourned.
Northampton was officially designated as a new town in 1968. In common with other 60's new towns (Peterborough, Swindon) Northampton New Town was an expansion from an existing urban core, rather than an entirely new urban centre as the first generation of New Towns had been. The architectural programme was therefore entirely different, with development instigated by the New Town Development Corporation working in partnership with the Borough Council.
The Master Plan (1969-70) drawn up by Wilson and Womersley (Womersley returning to Northampton as a consultant) for expansion in Weston Favell and Billing to the East, Upton , Hunsbury and Brackmills to the South included both residential and industrial areas. Ignoring Weston Favell Shopping Centre (it is, perhaps best ignored), there are no grand civic buildings (of the sort found at Cumbernauld for example) associated with Northampton New Town.
The New Town also failed to leave any architecture of great significance in Northampton for two other reasons. Firstly, the Borough Council was given a free hand to pursue its own redevelopment initiatives in parallel (if not, as things turned out, in conflict) with those in which the Development Corporation was involved. The resulting lack of joined up thinking resulted in squandered opportunities, wasted resources and poor architectural outcomes of which the Grosvenor Centre is the pre-eminent consequence. Secondly, the tight timescales involved did not allow for major landmark architecture to evolve. Development Corporation General Manager John Weston emphasised expediency, stating that he did not care what tools his staff used, as long as they got on with the job. It was better, he stated, "to make decisions quickly, rather than research it all to hell" .
Town expansion started in 1970 with clearance of central areas between Sheep Street and Upper Mounts, road-widening and new road building. Proposals for the new eastern districts were approved in 1972 and the southern districts were granted planning permission in 1974, the same year that Weston Favell Shopping Centre opened. Northampton expanded from 1970 to 1985 (when the Development Corporation was wound up) by 20,000 dwellings, 40,000 inhabitants, and over 200 new employers were attracted to the town. Northampton's industrial base diversified further, and the financial services sector became a major employer. Barclays Bank set up their Barclaycard Centre in 1966, and moved into new offices in Barclaycard House , Horsemarket/Marefair in 1972 (Richard Seifert & Partners, demolished.)
Generally, Northampton's commercial and industrial buildings of the late C20 are, like the New Town, architecturally uninspired. Notable exceptions, however, are the Carlsberg Brewery (1974) and the Express Lift Tower (1980-82)
Most developments since the New Town Development Corporation was wound down in 1985 have been similarly poor. The new Barclaycard Headquarters (Fitzroy Robinson 2000) being perhaps the main exception. The restoration of 78 Derngate (John McAslan and Partners) and the interesting recreation of the 1934 clubhouse at Sywell Aerodrome (Adrian Baynes) are perhaps the most interesting examples of recent architecture in Northampton.
The Tour starts at Castle Station by R.L. Moorcroft of the British Railways London Midland Region's Architects Department, and we then proceed along Mare Fair passing the Ibis Hotel that now stands on the site of the former Barclaycard House.
Up Horsemarket to St. Mary's Street/ Castle Street
St. Katherine's Court is a 10-storey block of flats by Lewis Womersley (1952). Womersley is best known for Park Hill in Sheffield (1956). St Katherine's Court was completed after Womersley's departure from Northampton. It won a civic trust award in 1960. The nearby low rise maisonettes (St. Peter's House, Dodridge House etc.), are also by the Borough Architect's department under Womersley. These are slightly earlier in date.
Back along Horsemarket to Gold Street. There are a number of reasonable mid C20 commercial buildings in Gold Street including Numbers 56 and 58. At the end of Gold Street we emerge at the bottom of Drapery in front of All Saints Church . The War Memorial in the churchyard to the east of the church is by Lutyens. The Sessions House is on St. George's Row to the South of All Saints Church. Continuing along St Giles Street we come to the Guildhall .
The Guildhall (1861-4), is by Edward Godwin (1835-86) and replaced an earlier Town Hall building at the corner of Abington Street and Wood Hill. Godwin's architecture is an interpretation of continental gothic via Ruskin's Stones of Venice . Godwin's building was augmented (1889-92) with an extension to the West by Northampton architect Matthew Holding (1847-1910). Another Northampton firm of architects, Stimson, Walton, Bond, were responsible for the eastern extension (1992) in a sort of William Whitfield inspired modern gothic. The interior of Godwin's building was restored by Roderick Gradidge (1991-2).
From the Guildhall, along Guildhall Lane, we come to the Royal Theatre.
Royal Theatre and Opera House (1884) opened in Guildhall Road. This elegant Victorian theatre cost £12,000 and was designed by Charles Phipps. Phipps was a theatre specialist, involved in the construction or alteration of over 20 theatres including the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. The theatre was saved from demolition in 1926 by the Northampton Repertory Players who successfully campaigned for the purchased of the building by public subscription. In the 1980's the Renton Howard Wood Levin Partnership added the 1500 seat Derngate Theatre, a multipurpose auditorium to the side and rear of the earlier building replacing Northampton's Bus Depot. The Royal and Derngate theatres are currently (September 2005) undergoing extensive regeneration (by Arts Team, part of what is now Renton Howard Wood Levin LLP).
Beyond the Royal Theatre, an interesting 1930's commercial/industrial building, in beige faience. Back to St Giles Square along St Giles Street and down Castilian Street
Memorial Hall , Castilian Street (1919) This miniature Scottish Tower House is by Alexander Ellis Anderson, who submitted drawings to the Town Council on behalf of Mackintosh for the works to 78 Derngate. The recent pvc-u replacement windows on the third floor are to be regretted.
From Castilian Street into Derngate. The Flats opposite 78 Derngate, were designed for the Northampton Housing Association
78 Derngate, remodelled (1916-17) by CR Mackintosh. Restored 1998-2003 by John McAslan and Partners.
Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke was a remarkable man. Not only did he found the famous model engineering company and pioneer home ciné photography, but he also commissioned architecture from two of the most important international practitioners of the first half of the twentieth century. His business interests were Europe wide, and he looked to Germany in particular as leading the world in engineering design. Bassett-Lowke attended the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne in 1914 and was a founder member of the Design and Industries Association. He was a progressive thinker, a member of the Fabian Society and of the Labour Party and a prominent Town Councillor in Northampton in the inter-war years. Bassett-Lowke's friends included George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Clough Williams-Ellis and Frank Pick, all of who visited and stayed at 78 Derngate. He also collaborated with the celebrated local Optometrist AE Turville OBE in his many ophthalmic instrument designs and inventions.
78 Derngate is the only Mackintosh (re)designed house in England, although it also had significant contributions from Bassett-Lowke and his wife Jane. How Bassett-Lowke came to know Mackintosh is not recorded. Notes that he made for a sadly unrealised autobiography record only that:
"When I married in 1917 I had purchased one of a row of narrow Georgian houses in Derngate in the centre of Northampton. I wanted the house reconstructed and, having heard of the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh through a friend, I got in touch with him. Thus it was to Mackintosh's ideas that I eventually made the reconstruction."
It was Mackintosh's last significant work, and very different from the earlier Glasgow works, notably for its dark interiors relieved by the use of yellow, purple, fuchsia and green for decorative effect, and by stripes and chequerboard patters in black and white. The use of black in what are quite smalldomestic spaces was intended to make them seem larger than they actually were. The interior is proto-art deco and could have been described as up to date and modern even in the 1930s.
Bassett-Lowke's connections with Mackintosh led to further commissions for furniture, for an interior for his brother and sister in law in a house in The Drive, and for (partly realised) designs for the remodelling of a house in Roade, a village four miles or so outside Northampton to the South.
To the end of Derngate and then North into Cheyne Walk. On the left, the YMCA (1957-8) by Nicholls and Moodie, good 50's modernism. Opposite the YMCA the Barratt Maternity Home of the General Hospital
General Hospital , Billing Road. The original building is by Samuel Saxon (1793), with C19 additions. The Barratt Maternity Home (1936), and the Nurses Home (1939) (off Billing Road) are both by Sir John Brown and Henson.
The General Hospital was an early purpose built hospital building. The main interest however, are the 1930s additions. The Barratt Maternity Home is of red brick with deco decorative details. The original entrance in the centre of the principal elevation in Northamptonshire stone has appropriate sculptural enrichments (!) and bronze and blue enamel lettering above the central doorway. Poor recent alterations are apparent to the rear and internally, whilst the car park to the front has an unfortunate impact on the setting of the building. The Nurses Home is altogether more robust with a long four storey slab block in buff brick, curving at its southern end, and a central semi-circular stair tower. The massing and composition are assured, and the building retains good original features including the staircase and entrance porch. The Hospital Chapel (1942), and Out Patients Department (1959) are also by Sir John Brown and Henson.
Along York Road to Abington Square, the Savoy Cinema (1936) is by William Ridell Glen (now 'The Deco') closed as a cinema in 1995, and is now a theatre and music venue. The interior has been restored to its 1930's appearance.
Opposite the Savoy, on Lower Mounts , the former Anglia Building Society (now Compton House), Abington Street and Lower Mounts by Rolf Hellberg & Maurice Harris (1962-5). The Abington street frontage of this building is sadly mutilated, but the elevation onto Lower Mounts is well composed (if brash!) and nicely detailed. On 5 storeys, the projecting gallery at fourth floor level and the staircase tower gives the building a curiously 1990's appearance. Nicely detailed with green marble spandrel panels but in a way that a 1990's building wouldn't be!. Most of the features to the Lower Mounts elevation are repeated on the rear elevation to the former staff car park.
In Abington Street, the former Northampton Co-operative Society Store , (1938) good tiled façade, with wings slightly splayed to emphasise the entrance to an arcade that discharges onto Billing Street. Mutilated internally. Woolworths , also in Abington Street is a more modest faience commercial building of the period.
Up Wellington Street, we emerge in front of Northampton Crown and County Courts , by Kit Allsopp Architects (1992) The cast stone external cladding is weathering badly.
Behind the Crown and County Court building, in Upper Mounts The Mounts Police Station, Fire Station and Swimming Baths (1936-41). These buildings are all that was realised of a planned civic centre for Northampton, made possible by the closure in 1922 of the Victorian (and earlier) Northampton prison that previously occupied the site. J C Prestwich and Sons of Leigh, Lancashire (Ernest Prestwich), best known perhaps for Salford Town Hall (1934) won an architectural competition in 1931 for the buildings that we see today. The fire station was dismissed by Pevsner as 'desperately uninspired', but we might disagree! The swimming baths, built at a cost of £52,500, is an interesting building with tiered clerestories supported on a series of elliptical transverse arches, somewhat reminiscent of the Royal Horticultural Society Hall, Westminster by Easton and Robertson (1928). The baths were opened on 3 rd October 1936 by Councillor WJ Bassett-Loake, Chairman of the Baths Committee.
The pool is a non-standard length (100 feet), and the structure will not allow the conversion of the swimming pool into a standard 25 metre pool with spectator accommodation to meet needs for competition swimming. It is not clear what the future of the Mounts Baths would be if a current proposal by University College Northampton in co-operation with the Borough Council to develop a major swimming facility elsewhere in the town goes ahead. The baths were renovated in the 1990's when most of the glazing was replaced. Many original features, however, survive internally.
Along Campbell Street to Regent Square the former Chinese Laundry , ( corner of Grafton Street and Barrack Road ), by Lawson Carter (date unknown - certainly1930s). Handsome elevations that seem to anticipate the Festival of Britain in some respects, with projecting bay windows on upper floors having modelled aprons in a jaunty faux-Chinese deco manner.
Along Sheep Street, which preserves the character of eighteenth century Northampton, we pass the round Church of the Holy Sepulchre , and emerge at the bottom of Lady's Lane.
Between Lady's Lane and Greyfriars, Greyfriars Bus Station (1976) by Arup Associates. This facility replaced an earlier bus station in Derngate. It cost £7M to build and was designed to accommodate 40,000 passengers and 1700 buses a day. The building's principal interest lies in its architectural programme, with offices at roof level, and car parking on upper floors, above the bus station below. This arrangement of different functions created a challenge in its structural design, overcome with the prominent concrete trusses, a solution that was feted as innovative and elegant at the time the bus station was built. Plans for the redevelopment of Greyfriars bus station as part of an expansion of the Grosvenor Centre are currently being prepared (September 2005), that will probably see the building replaced by a multi-storey car park.
In the meantime, the bus station is one of 20 structures that will be appearing on Channel 4's 'Demolition' programme!
Back along Wellingborough Road to Pearce's Tannery (1939). The architect was Wilfrid Lawson Carter (1886-1949). Lawson Carter was also responsible for the Deco-Chinese Laundry in Regent Square.
The tanning took place in the large open plan industrial shed with north light roof, a perhaps not exceptional building for its date. What makes Pearce's Tannery stand out, however, is the composition of the factory building with the administrative offices conjoined diagonally at its North East corner. The change in axial emphasis allows the splayed wings of the administrative offices to frame the main entrance to the building, a formal composition that is emphasised by the landscaping of the approach with its ornamental pool and allée of fir trees. Decorative treatment is adroit art deco modernism in white stucco, with steel windows and green glazed tiles. The building retains many of its original details including door furniture, mosaic floor to the entrance lobby and electrical fittings. The tannery is set in extensive landscaped grounds, with ancillary buildings including a boiler house, and caretakers cottages (in arts and crafts idiom), also by Lawson Carter. Pearce and Co continued their tanning business until the late 1990's, and the building, remaining in family ownership was subsequently let to others in the industry. A planning application to demolish most of the factory retaining the administrative offices and to redevelop the site for residential use was refused planning permission in 2005. A further planning application is understood to be pending.
Further along Wellingborough Road we come to number 508, New Ways built for Bassett-Loake in 1925. It is often cited as the first work of modern architecture in Britain. The Bassett-Loake's move from 78 Derngate was made on health grounds in order to ease Mrs Bassett-Loake's rheumatism. WJ Bassett Loake recorded how the building came about:
"After the first World War I purchased a piece of land on the outskirts of Northampton. It measured 300ft x 60ft and a garden was already laid out there. Mackintosh was to have designed a house for me to build on this site, but he went away to live in the Pyrenees and I lost touch with him.
I tried to find another British architect with modern ideas that suited my taste but was unsuccessful. Then looking through the German publication 'Werkbund Jahrbuch' in 1913, I saw pictures of work by Dr. Peter Behrens, who designed many large buildings on the Continent. I thought his style of architecture looked simple, straightforward and modern in atmosphere. I obtained Dr Behren's address from the German Consul and got in touch with him in 1924."
The building is on two floors with a basement. The triangular projecting bay to the front elevation, the modelling of the porch and the 'crenellations' to the parapet are features of Behren's expressionism that presaged the bolder geometric modernism of the later 1920's, and which is anticipated in the architectural treatment of the rear elevation. The building has a conventional cellular plan and was decorated with further expressionist motifs. The study was a recreation of a similar room at 78 Derngate designed by Mackintosh, and the building was furnished with Mackintosh designed pieces from the Bassett-Loake's previous home.
WJ Bassett Loake's niece, Janet, in her biography of him, recounts how the builder of New Ways was so concerned by the design of the cantilever staircase in the hall that he had a conventional wooden stair made, anticipating that Behren's stair as eventually realised would prove impossible to build.
Just beyond New Ways, turn left into Abington Park Crescent. Abington Park is a remarkable survival of an 18th century parkland landscape which has, with Northampton's continuing expansion, evolved into one of the town's main public parks. The residential areas surrounding the park are equally significant; the majority were developed over a short period from the turn of the 20th century and although individual buildings vary greatly in design, their complementary styles and materials have produced a range of buildings whose quality and consistency are unique in Northampton for that date.
Christchurch Road was one of the first streets to be laid out around the newly opened Abington Park and its development, originally rather grandly titled the "Alexandra Park Estate" started in 1905 and continued into the 1930s. Christchurch Road, along with neighbouring Sandringham Road, is particularly notable for its concentration of houses designed by the Scots architect Alexander Anderson, and Anderson himself lived here in the 1920's.
We start off at the corner of Christchurch and Sandringham Road, looking at Nos 1 and 2, The Bungalow and The Cottage respectively, two distinctive houses designed in 1905 by Alexander Anderson. Notwithstanding its name No 1 is actually a two storey building of a similar type to other Anderson designs in Christchurch Road and Park Avenue South. It has a flat roof concealed, not altogether convincingly, behind a false tiled Mansard at first floor level, and the two storey bay windows flank a continuous window with a half-cylindrical oriel in the centre. The building is finished in a lime green roughcast render with the name "The Bungalow" picked out in typical Arts and Crafts lettering, and the front entrance is distinguished by a panel of green glazed tiles. No 2 is ostensibly a more conventional building in that it has a pitched tile roof, albeit one of asymmetrical profile.
It is somewhat larger than No 1 but shares the same two storey bay windows, which in this case are infilled by a jetty with the house name picked out as before. The front elevation has a very deep tilted eaves which serves to roof the bay windows and jetty, and the building is finished in cream roughcast render.
Moving into Christchurch Road proper, Nos 38-48 are all variations on the flat roofed designs noted above. Nos 44, 46 and 48 were designed by Alexander Anderson in 1905 and No 38 is a later Anderson work from 1920. Nos 40-42 are probably by another designer but wisely defer to their immediate neighbours. No 38 Christchurch Road is effectively half of the design for No 1 Sandringham Road, extruded to fit the narrow site, and with some additional embellishments, notably the crenulated projecting bay in the centre of the Sandringham Road elevation. No 44, The Nook, in mid-terrace is a similar "half unit" distinguished by an arched opening at ground floor level which incorporates both the recessed entrance and the hall window, and with the name picked out in mannered Arts & Crafts lettering. Nos 46-48 are of a single build and although contemporary, differ subtlety from No 44; they share the same arched entrance but the two storey projecting bay windows are slightly larger. The tower-like polygonal bay window on the corner is a unique feature amongst Anderson's work, and its facets carry the name Hillcrest and two Tudor roses in pargetting. Anderson certainly lived a No 8 during the 1920s and may have originally designed it for himself.
The remaining buildings in Christchurch Road, Nos 50-62, contain extreme contrasts of scale and style. Given its suburban context, No 50 is arguably Alexander Anderson's moist eccentric design. It is a linear single storey house dating from 1920, whose style defies easy categorisation. The roughcast render and battered chimneys elude to Scottish vernacular motifs but the veranda (with reinforced concrete piers) recalls Spanish or Latin American forms, and the steep hipped roof owes nothing to any of these.
Dating from 1924, No 52 is the last Alexander Anderson building on Christchurch Road. It is almost conventional by the standards of his other work, but still incorporates numerous individual touches. It is of three storeys but the top storey is recess as a kind of penthouse behind a section of flat room cum balcony, which helps reduce its apparent bulk.
The white rendered front elevation retains a two-storey bay window, but it is executed more conventionally in timber, with tile-hung spandrels. Nevertheless the red brick entrance bay terminated by a "crowstepped" pediment, and Anderson's characteristic half - cylindrical oriel window are typical idiosyncrasies.
Towards the town centre along Kettering Road past St. Matthew's Church . Whilst St. Matthews was completed in 1893, its enduring importance lies in the artwork, instigated by Fr Walter Hussey (later the Dean of Chichester) who was driven during his 13 years as rector, by the desire to build a bridge between the church and modern artists through adventurous commissions. The most tangible evidences of this in the church are 'The Crucifixion' by Graham Sutherland of 1946, and what became known as the 'Northampton 'Madonna, by Henry Moore (installed 1944). Musical works by Britten, Rubbra, Finzi and Howells were also obtained, and literary commissions by Auden and Norman Nicholson were undertaken. Unfortunately, because of interior restoration, we will not see these artworks today. However, they are worthy of looking at on a future trip, and influenced, as we saw, the post war installation of Piper and Evie Hone stained glass windows at All Hallows, Wellingborough.
Then across town to Carlsberg Brewery , Weston Wharf (1973), Opened by Princess Benedikte of Denmark on 11 May 1974. Carlsberg's predecessor Phipps Brewery Ltd began brewing on this site in 1817. Phipps was acquired by Watney Mann Ltd in 1960, and the site redeveloped by Carlsberg. The new £15M brewery, in which Watneys had a 49% stake, was designed to make 22M gallons of lager annually. It was designed by the Danish architect Knud Munk to the specific brief requirement to 'express the best in modern Danish architecture' and won the Financial Times Annual Architecture Award for 1975. Other buildings by Munk include the Mario Botta inspired Tycho Brahe Planetarium (1989), and the Danish Union of Librarians Building (1990), both in Copenhagen. The Carlsberg brewery in Northampton is highly regarded within the brewing industry for the modern brewing methods around which the building was designed.
And finally, Express Lift Company's Test Tower designed by structural engineers the Michael Barclay Partnership with architects Stimpson and Walton and opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1982. Northampton's "lighthouse" (418 feet) is effectively a service core without a building- built to test lifts and their components, and to train lift engineers, with attendant laboratories and an observation platform at the top. The lift shafts are independent of the concrete shell of the tower itself. Since Express Lifts closed the site in the mid 1990's, the future of the lift tower is uncertain. It now sits somewhat uncomfortably in the centre of an indifferent housing development, the presence of which compromises the possibilities for the adaptation of the lift tower for new uses.
Notes written by Patrick Duerden, with contributions from John East, compiled by Carolyn Parmeter.