01 Architect Charles Watson

Charles Watson (1771-1836) was the architect who designed some of the public buildings in Wood Street and much of St John’s Square and St John’s North. In Wakefield, he also designed Stanley Royd Hospital.

Our first ‘Discover Wakefield’ leaflet, written by Executive Committee member John Seacome, focuses on his work. Download a copy of the leaflet here.

But John has more information to share and has provided the following notes to add to the facts in the leaflet for each building featured.

1. Mechanics’ Institution

The Mechanics’ Institution building in Wood Street

The Public Rooms as the building was first known, were Watson’s second contribution to the civic grandeur of Wood Street and also his second joint contribution with James Pritchett to the City’s ‘grand architecture’ after their original block for the then West Riding Lunatic and Pauper Asylum in 1818.  The Public Rooms lie on the City Centre side of the 1877 Town Hall from the Court House and were built between 1821 and 1823.  The saloon itself did not open until 22 December 1823. They represented a social revolution for those who could afford their range of services. The building provided Wakefield’s with its first social gathering room where men and women could mix freely and respectably. The rooms were designed to attract the growing middle class of the city. Later, with its superior capacity and facilities, the Corn Exchange at the top of Westgate superseded the Public Rooms, and they were put to other uses before becoming the City Museum in 1955.

Architectural quality

The Rooms were listed Grade II* in 1971 by the then Department of the Environment when they were in use as The City Museum

In his ‘The Buildings of England’ series of books, Sir Nicolas Pevsner (1901-1983) described the Public Rooms as ” Noble restrained Grecian….[with] smooth ground floor; above, attached Ionic columns and Ionic pilasters. No pediment. Fine South side with coupled pilasters and a large tripartite window”.

However, Charles Webster and Kate Taylor considered that “the exterior of the building is not in the same class as the Court House. Shortage of money meant that ornament was dispensed with as far as possible”. “The front façade… is spoiled by the over-dominance of the first-floor windows, an effect which could have been countered by the addition of a dummy attic storey above the roof-line”. The rear elevation was built in brick covered with stucco and looks like “a tacked-on addition” according to Webster and Taylor. Like St John’s Square and Kilby Street, John Goodchild’s saying “Queen Anne at the front and Mary Anne at the rear” comes to mind.

Rear of the Mechanics’ Institution Building, seen from Tammy Hall Street

The Public Rooms

The Public Rooms were opened as assembly rooms. On the ground floor the two principal rooms were a reading room and a newsroom, with a ladies’ room and a card room occupying the rest of that floor. Upstairs were the Music Room and two anterooms. In the basement were a suite of public baths, including vapour, steam baths, warm baths a plunge bath and a shower.  A public dispensary, an apothecary’s shop and physician’s room lay in the basement. Unfortunately, the apothecary’s living accommodation was of such poor quality that the apothecary died of a chest infection! Much more salubrious accommodation and a new dispensary was provided in Barstow Square and then later on the opposite side of Wood Street itself in what was to become the first Clayton Hospital.

The Public Rooms also housed a subscription library and a savings bank. Overall, the building provided a high proportion of civic amenities available in Wakefield.

The later life of the Public Rooms

After the opening of the Corn Exchange in upper Westgate in 1838, the Public Rooms faced increasing competition and its social function declined. The Music Salon moved to the Corn Exchange in 1838. However, over the years it continued to be used for hire as a place for talks and musical events. The grand sounding Literary and Philosophical Society was founded in 1826 but ceased in 1841. It was superseded by the Mechanics’ Institution later that year and incorporated as a library with Mary Jackson as its resident librarian. The Institution bought the building outright in 1855. It contained a Public Baths with John Todd, Proprietor, also resident. until the new Almshouse Lane Baths replaced them in the 1870s It was at one point considered by Wakefield’s council as accommodation for a new Town Hall. At the time, the council was occupying rented accommodation in Crown Court (the building still says ‘Town Hall’ over the door), but they prevaricated, later deciding to erect a new Town Hall building instead (the one we see today), which was finally done some 20 years later.

The Public Rooms building was renamed as the Institute of Literature and Science in 1910. The Institution was failing by 1936 and it was sold to Wakefield Corporation. For twenty years it was let to various societies but in 1955 the Corporation decided to move its museum into a part of the building, still leaving the Music Saloon for lettings. Later the Music Saloon, too, was taken over for museum displays.

The building was vacated in 2012, when the Museum moved to the Wakefield One Building, and was then let to Wakefield College who have used it as a Centre for the Performing Arts. It is no longer open to the public except on special occasions when the 160-seat Mechanics’ Theatre on the top floor is brought into use.

It may not be the most distinguished civic building in Wakefield but it is possibly one of the most fascinating.

2. Wakefield Sessions House (Court House) built 1808-1810.

Having completed his part in the development of the St John’s Scheme, Watson turned his attention to designing major schemes which stood out in people’s minds. He had amicably split form his partnership with William Lindley and produced among other projects Court House schemes for Pontefract and Beverley as well as the Old Town Hall at Sheffield. He was just moving to York, where he felt there would be a better chance of obtaining commissions.

The Sessions House, as it was first known, was the first major scheme to line the newly created Wood Street. It remains to this day the most striking, if not the largest, building adjoining Wood Street. It was closed as a Court House in 1992 (save for a brief and temporary re-opening in 1993 to ease pressure on the Court in Leeds) and had remained unused since then. It is a Grade II* Listed Building and Wakefield Council had to step in to acquire it to rescue it from further dereliction. The building is now the subject of a major project by Rushbond which will see it and the former Wood Street police station brought back into use at last. See here for information on the project.

But back to Watson.

Watson’s scheme won a competition set by the local justices for the creation of new sessions houses for the hearing of Quarter Sessions among the towns in the West Riding. Until then magistrates had to hold sessions in local public houses such as the White Hart in Wakefield (on the corner of Southgate and Upper Kirkgate). He made himself personally responsible for the ordering of materials for the new building.


Turners, Slaters, Plumbers, Glaziers, Plasterers, Smiths and Cast-Iron Workmen

Notice is hereby given, That the PLANS, SECTIONS, ELEVATIONS, & c. of the SESSIONS HOUSE and its appurtenances, now building at Wakefield, may be seen at the Office of Mr. Watson, of Wakefield, the Architect, any time (Sundays excepted) between the 6th and 21st Days of Jul. instant, where. for inspections also, will a Specification in Writing, further describing the Manner in which the following works are to be executed: – The Carpenter’s Work, The Glazier’s Work, Joiner’s Work, Plasterer’s Work, Slater’s Work, Wrought Iron Work, Plumber’s Work, And Cast-Iron Work. 

Any Person desirous of undertaking the above Works by Admeasurement, &c. may give in their Prices for the same (sealed up) to Mr Watson; or Mr B. Hartley, of Pontefract, the Surveyor of the West Riding Bridges, on or before Wednesday the 29th Day of July next

By Order of the Committee, CHARLES WATSON, Architect

The Contractors will be required to find the Materials for every Description of Work above mentioned.

(From Leeds Intelligencer, originally dated 16th June 1807)

There were two other competitors, John Rawstorne and Henry Dobson. Prizes of 20, 15 and 10 guineas were offered for the best three plans and the magistrates themselves were to adjudicate.

John Rawstorne’s Palladian scheme
Henry Dobson’s scheme

Rawstorne had chosen the fashionable Palladian style. Dobson’s scheme was a bit in-between. Unlike Watson and Dobson, Rawstorne did not bother to submit a costing which may have cost him the commission.

Watson wanted something completely different. He chose the pure Neo-Grecian style, the first such building to be erected in Northern England. This superseded the Palladian style partly because the Italian Grand Tour, the fashion for all well-bred young noble men, had to be redirected to Greece, owing to the unsettled situation in Western Europe due to the Napoleonic Wars. Young noblemen could now experience the antiquities of Ancient Greece face-to-face rather than through the somewhat subjective pattern books of Palladio. (Nostell Priory is an excellent example of the Palladian style locally.) The Neo-Greek Style flourished for a few years, notably in Glasgow with Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson, before the Victorian Gothic style began to battle with the High Renaissance style.

Watson won not only the 20 guineas first prize but also the contract and started construction as soon as the sub-contractors were signed up.

The building opened in January 1810. What had seemed a jewel in the architectural crown of Wakefield’s public heritage was, however, severely flawed. The distances between the judge, the witnesses, the prisoner and the public gallery were not well thought through in practical terms. It resembled a large echoing Non-Conformist Chapel with all the problems which that might create for this type of function. Two further courts were added on in 1849-50 and in 1883.

There was a lull in commissions after the Sessions house was opened with nothing of consequence in the Wakefield area until the West Riding Lunatic Pauper Asylum (built 1816-17) and designed jointly with Pritchett.  Pritchett had an eye for functionality which was essential in the Victorian age.

3. St John’s Church

St John’s the Baptist Church, St John’s Square (built 1791-1795) was only the second Anglican church in Wakefield although more were to follow during the religious Revival of the 19th Century. It was originally a Chapel of Ease for All Saint’s Church, now the Cathedral (built ‘to ease’ the pressure on the parish church occasioned by the growth in the population). There was a genuine need at the time for additional accommodation which All Saint’s in the centre of the city could no longer provide.  In fact, the need for more space had been felt by local churchgoers as far back as the 1720s. St John’s became a Parish Church in its own right in 1844.

St John’s Church

The enterprising John Lee, solicitor turned property developer, saw an opportunity to create a Wakefield ‘New Town’ on this previously undeveloped side of the city away from the growing industrial development on the Waterfront. Later Charles Watson was greatly taken with the idea of ‘New towns’ and tried unsuccessfully to implement them at Hanover Square and Chapeltown in Leeds.

With some astute land dealing on the one hand and the commissioning of architects with a growing reputation such as Charles Watson and his mentor William Lindley on the other, Lee was able to create a truly ambitious scheme by the standards of the day. The scheme took more than twenty years to complete and reshaped the northwest side of the city. The first objective was to build the church and then connect it to the public highway, initially via Leeds Road and later and more directly by Wentworth Street.

Work on the church was begun after the laying of the foundation stone in November 1791. The church was built in the classical style with stone brought in from Newmillerdam about 3 miles south of the city. It was consecrated on 28th July 1795. Watson is given most credit for the scheme, but the more experienced William Lindley provided his greater expertise.

John Lee showed his style of enterprise by investing £1,324 in pews at the west end and reselling them to the Commissioners in 1824 for £1000 for the free use of the poor. The second incumbent of St John’s in 1805, the Rev. William Wood in 1805 owned much of the land needed by John Lee to extend his scheme to the town centre, and, as a result of his dealing with Lee, he became a very rich man.

The Church tower was struck by lightning in 1880 and rebuilt from roof level by 1895 in as similar a style as possible. In 1905 the church was extended to the east to accommodate a chancel with organ chamber and the original gallery around three sides of the nave was removed.

The building was listed Grade II* on 30 March 1971, sometime after the surrounding buildings of the Square. However. in visual terms it is as Pevsner says “the climax of Wakefield’s only attempt at a Georgian town planning scheme”.

4. St John’s Square (C. 1801-1803)

Part of a larger scheme

Pevsner (1967)describes St John’s Square and Church as ‘the climax of Wakefield’s only attempt at a Georgian town planning scheme’.

As a cornerstone of the above-mentioned town planning scheme this is definitely the case. However, as part of John Lee’s grand design for a larger development extending to Silver Street, it is only the second stage in the scheme. Although Wood Street and Bond Street are by no means architecturally unified as is St John’s, the construction of this new thoroughfare enabled Wakefield’s cluster of distinguished public buildings to be conceived, built and appreciated. Some of these were designed by Watson,

Watson’s design

Watson was originally involved in the development of the Square following his joint design with William Lindley for the construction of St John the Baptist Church (built 1791-1795). After the success of South Parade as a scheme he and Lindley worked together firstly on the early stages of St John’s North and the Church and then on the Square. Watson kept to the rigorous style demanded by Georgian architecture for the external elevations but left the interiors completely to the choice of the individual purchaser. It is unlikely that layouts today are identical. This gave greater impetus to sales, possibly as John Lee had paid for the scheme and wanted an early return on his investment.

St John’s Square – northern side

Like most Georgian terraces from Bath to Edinburgh, the rear elevations facing Kilby Street lacked any attractiveness in their style which was workaday in the extreme.

Showing the less uniform rear of properties in St John’s Square

The terraces in the Square were listed Grade II on 14 July 1953 at the same time as the terraced houses in St Johns North, although the latter were listed Grade II*, a higher grade reserved for only 4% of listed buildings.

Chequered history

St John’s Square has had a chequered history. Of particular interest in St John’s Square is No 1- 2 at the end of the west side. This was first occupied by John Lee, the solicitor and developer of the grand scheme from St John’s North via St John’s Square to Silver Street. Not content with living in one of the ‘standard’ terraced houses he understandably wanted something a bit special for himself. It is double fronted with one side facing the Square itself in conformity with Nos 3-9. However, the much grander south front (No 1) lies out of easy range of the public glance facing a large domestic garden.

By the early 1960s this building was becoming derelict. A planning application was submitted in 1964 for its demolition and replacement by high-rise flats. The Secretary of the Wakefield Civic Society, Mr. R E Crookall, warned that ‘it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the fate of this building will determine the fate of the entire west side of the Square.’ The building was saved by the Wakefield Charities who bought the site, restored Nos 1-2 for £27,000 and it is now part of Wakefield Girls’ High School. Following this event, the whole Square was designated part of the St John’s Conservation Area in May 1968.  Most of the terraces in St John’s Square retain their original residential character.

Attractive villas lined the new Margaret Street, and originally Wentworth Street, with terraces along Bond Street. This developed the character of a busy thoroughfare in contrast to Margaret Street’s more peaceful setting, which included larger villas, including those in Cathedral Close.

5. St John’s North (1791-1796) – the dream of John Lee

Originally known as St John’s Street, St John’s North is the first part of a much grander scheme to develop the area between the new St John’s Church along a line parallel to Leeds Road and Northgate linking them with Silver Street. It was initiated by John Lee, a lawyer who turned his skills towards developing Wakefield with some of its most distinctive quarters.

St John’s North, looking towards the church

At that time Wakefield had only the parish church, All Saint’s, (re-designated in 1888 as the Cathedral). It was felt that the parish church was ‘bursting at the seams’ and that a further Anglican Church should be constructed. The only problem about the site eventually chosen for St John’s was a that it was a ‘green field’ site with the nearest potential parishioners living some distance away towards the existing city.

Lee knew the potential parish had to grow to make the church a more attractive proposition and set about, firstly, linking the church with Leeds Road, the nearest public highway at the time, secondly, to provide St John’s Church with an appropriate and attractive setting (St John’s Square) and thirdly, and much more ambitiously, creating a new link road (Wentworth Street/Bond Street/Wood Street) directly from the church into the heart of Wakefield. At the St John’s end, this would be mainly residential whereas, at the town centre end, it would be mainly composed of public buildings.

Watson’s role

So, following the commencement of the building of St John’s Church, St John’s North was built before St John’s Square (formerly known as St John’s Place). The house at the end nearest to the church was for the Vicar. Charles Watson had joined the local lodge of the Gregorians, a Chapter which split off from the Freemasons, and his brother Shepley, a fellow Gregorian, introduced him to John Lee.

Watson had been apprenticed to William Lindley an ‘architect from Doncaster’ in May 1792 and developed his architectural skills in helping Lindley to design South Parade (opposite Morrison’s on George Street).  Lindley himself had been employed by John Carr of York and had acquired some of his architectural genius in designing buildings in Wakefield and Doncaster. South Parade was Wakefield’s first Georgian Terrace which still retains its private gardens to the front of the terrace. Like St John’s North it is no longer residential in character.

South Parade

Watson designed the end of the terrace at St John’s North next to the Church, including the bow-window house No 24 facing Wentworth Street as the Vicarage. Lee paid for the construction of this end of the terrace himself, using Watson as his architect. However, the end towards Leeds Road was constructed by Puckrin, Bennett using John Thompson, another Wakefield Architect. This was the first part to be completed whilst Lee’s part was completed by 1796 using Watson, who was finishing the construction of St John’s Church and thinking about the design of the Square.

Later history

St John’s North retains its unified appearance with the central pediment holding it together as a single composition. Like St John’s Square the rear elevations do nothing for this sense of grace and continuity. All of St John’s North’s Terrace was listed in July 1953 as Grade II* a

Watson designed the end of the terrace at St John’s North next to the Church, including the bow-window house No 24 facing Wentworth Street as the Vicarage. Lee paid for the construction of this end of the terrace himself, using Watson as his architect. However, the end towards Leeds Road was constructed by Puckrin, Bennett using John Thompson, another Wakefield Architect. This was the first part to be completed whilst Lee’s part was completed by 1796 using Watson, who was finishing the construction of St John’s Church and thinking about the design of the Square.

Later history

St John’s North retains its unified appearance with the central pediment holding it together as a single composition. Like St John’s Square the rear elevations do nothing for this sense of grace and continuity. All of St John’s North’s Terrace was listed in July 1953 as Grade II* and it became part of the St John’s Conservation Area in May 1968.

6. Stanley Royd Hospital (originally the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum) (built 1816-opened 1817

Stanley Royd Hospital – now a residential development

Origins of the Asylum

The West Riding Magistrates decided under the County Asylums Act of 1808 to build several of what we would call mental hospitals. The Wakefield Asylum was only the sixth such building in the country. The existing mental treatment at that time was little short of barbarous with no attempt made to cure the health of afflicted people and numerous cases of such people incarcerated when their ‘affliction’ was not mental illness at all but something they had done or said that offended the powers that be. This sad practice has continued till modern times.

People involved in the setting up of the Asylum.

People involved in the setting up of the Asylum Watson and Pritchett’s first major joint commission was the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum off Stanley Road. The scheme was originally the brainchild of Samuel Tuke, a member of the great Quaker family of York, who was concerned about the way that such people were being treated in existing institutions. Tuke’s name is commemorated in the name of a road, Tuke Grove, that runs through the modern housing development on the site of the former hospital.

Tuke knew James Pygott Pritchett who was a prominent fellow non-conformist in that city with a spreading reputation for designing non-conformist churches and chapels. As the junior partner in the firm of Watson and Pritchett, he had a strong interest in spreading the firm’s reputation across much of Yorkshire and later to be the partner who took the practice into the 19th Century.

The Asylum was one of a small number of such establishments being built in the early 19th Century which took positive steps to treat patients with mental health problems in a humane manner, at least by the standards of those days. It helped that the first Superintendent of the Asylum was William Ellis who believed in the principles of human treatment. He was also a prominent Methodist working in Hull who almost certainly knew Samuel Tuke and James Pritchett.

The building

The ground plan was designed to resemble the letter H – which helped with overseeing through the two panopticons which gave an overview of the corridors. At one stage, long after Watson and Pritchett’s scheme was built, the panopticons were greatly raised in height by the addition of chimneys, but these have since been removed, restoring the towers to their original level.

The interior

An article in the Gloucester Journal for 15th January 1816 goes into some detail on the design and features of the scheme. Except for the most disturbed, patients had their own room. A steam engine would provide for washing, mangling, pumping and cooking, including the boiling of meat. It would also supply steam to warm the two baths which were supposed to serve the 650 inmates, one for women and one for men. By means of a current of air, every room in the building would be heated to 15degrees Celsius by warm air ducting. In summer, cooling air would be drawn into the system. Although specific items are not individually attributed, Pritchett was responsible for these revolutionary improvements in air and temperature control. The building was designed so that men and women would be kept totally separate to the extent that they could neither see nor hear each other. However, an exception was made for a dance on Saturday nights.  

A competing old school design for the new asylum resembles in layout and appearance that of the present-day Wakefield Prison (see illustration, right).

Fortunately, Watson and Pritchett’s scheme won the day. There was a previously unheard-of discharge rate for ‘cured’ patients of 41%.

Later years

Stanley Royd Hospital as it became later was closed in 1995, being partially demolished and partially converted to flats with new houses and flats being built alongside. The new residential development has been given the name ‘Parklands’. New blocks of flats have been built to loosely resemble the style of Watson and Pritchett’s original building.

The hospital was listed as Grade II in 1989 and some of the most architecturally important buildings on the site, including the one designed by Watson and Pritchett, were retained in the residential scheme which replaced the Hospital.

Text compiled by John Seacome, Wakefield Civic Society Executive Committee member

You might care to watch this video on the buildings of Charles Watson, made for us for Heritage Open Days 2021 by Ben Cowell, another member of the Society’s Executive Committee.