Curwen, Robert ARIBA (1850 – 1915)

Links with Radstock Central Wesleyan Methodist Chapel

(See also On line Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland)

The current (August 2022) discussion relating to the Radstock Methodist Church building – the former Radstock Wesleyan Methodist Chapel – has prompted me to write, not about the building, but the man who designed it, to fit on to a most irregular shaped piece of land between Fortescue  Road and The Street, and  likened by someone at the time as to a Chinese Jigsaw Puzzle.

How was it then, that an Architect with a practice in London, should be chosen to design a new Wesleyan Chapel in the centre of the principal village of the North Somerset Coalfield?. Were there no suitable architects locally?

Commissions for Church design were followed in a number of different ways. In many cases there was what is euphemistically known as “Beauty Contests”, where either by open competition or selected invitation, particular architects were asked for their design for a new church.

There were also many churches designed by architects who had particular links to the organisation; either family or friend or maybe by recommendation from another professional with a particular link or influence in the locality  with the Organisation.

Robert Curwen falls, as far as Radstock is concerned into the latter category. The key links can be ascertained by reference to the names of the local Methodist hierarchy  involved in the subsequent foundation stone laying and opening ceremonies. In this particular case we see the name of Mr and Mrs T F C May (Bristol).

Robert Curwen was born in 1850 in the Lancashire town of Fleetwood where his father ,Robert, was a timber merchant.

In 1865 Robert was working in the Liverpool office of Christopher Ellison, a well connected architect with a strong Wesleyan clientele. He stayed with Ellison until around 1870 when he moved to London and worked in the offices of Sir Gilbert Scott, an eminent and well respected architect with many church projects to his credit, but very few of which were for the Wesleyans (or any other Non- Conformist congregations). Scott was a great exponent and strong believer in the Gothic Revival style of architecture, with its steep roofs and pointed door and window openings. Robert would have been influenced into this style.

Robert’s subsequent church designs (all for the Wesleyans as far as we can trace) followed closely his Gothic Revival instincts, although his Radstock design has moved away somewhat from the Gothic “pointed” style and is perhaps more in the later Arts and Crafts genre with a touch of Norman/Romanesque with the circular headed doors and windows.

Links with the Mays and other influential Wesleyans

Thomas May was a Bristol Timber Merchant (at some time May and Hassall) and also very active in Wesleyan Methodist Church at Clifton Victoria. In the early 1860s the Minister there was Revd W Morley Punshon (whose family also were involved in the timber trade in the North East of England) and the two families became lifelong friends.

Thomas May had married Ann Constance Bowyer (nee Hill) following the death of her first husband Francis T Bowyer, both of whom were Methodists. Ann had a daughter by her first marriage, also Ann and it was this Ann who married Robert in 1876. The ceremony at Clifton Victoria was officiated by Revd Morley Punshon, who at sometime was President of the Conference.

The Punshon link also provided him with the design for The Punshon Memorial Church in Bournemouth, sadly destroyed by enemy bombing in 1943.

Overall his work took him from Sunderland (St John’s Ashbrooke Listed GradeII), said by some to be one of the most important Nonconformist churches in the country), to Liverpool and North Wales; to Bristol where in addition to his church work he designed the Bristol Childrens’ Hospital (1882).

He had a long association with the Leys School in Cambridge, a Wesleyan establishment, beginning in 1877 when his first commission was won in competition for the design of The Great Hall. Over the next few years he designed other school buildings and after the death of the first Headmaster, Dr William Moulton in 1898, Curwen designed the Moulton Memorial Chapel which was dedicated in 1906 and which is now a Listed Grade 2 building.

Despite an application for the Radstock building to be Listed in 2018 English Heritage declined to add it to the List of Buildings  of Architectural or Historic Interest.

Radstock was one of Curwen’s later buildings when  the formulaic Gothic Revival style was going out of fashion and its front elevation was typical of many similar Wesleyan Churches. E.g. Underhill Portland.

The assessors said, inter alia,

“Whilst surviving largely unaltered, this example lacks the architectural distinction of other Curwen designs. {St John’s , Ashbrooke, Sunderland  and the Moulton Memorial Chapel at The Leys School Cambridge both of which are Grade 2 Listed}.(My italics)

They further commented that whilst it has a good local interest and an interesting design with some good detailing, it is somewhat old fashioned for its date (1902) and falls short of the level of Special Interest required for Listing.

Comments about this page

  • For those interested in how Curwen’s designs for the Wesleyan Methodist Church looked, there are images on this site for:

    Thornbury Wesleyan Methodist, Gloucestershire (1876)
    Conway English Wesleyan, Caernarfonshire (1880)
    Williton Wesleyan Methodist, Somerset (1884)
    Lower Weston Wesleyan Methodist, Somerset (1890)
    Radstock Wesleyan Methodist, Somerset (1902)

    There is also a photograph of the exterior of Shanklin, Regent Street (1883) on My Methodist History, illustrating a page on the war memorial there.

    By Philip Thornborow (27/08/2022)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.