Joseph Bull, the founder of what was to become Southampton’s biggest Victorian building firm, was born in Itchen in 1803. As a young man he followed his father into the carpentry trade. By 1843 he had moved to the rapidly expanding Southampton and formed a building and surveying partnership with bricklayer and plasterer William Cossens. The two men lived and worked in adjoining houses in St Mary Street.
The partnership ended in 1852, after which Joseph Bull, still based at 37 St Mary Street, set up by himself as a builder and surveyor. He had married in 1824 and by 1851 had fathered twelve children, ten of whom were still living with their parents. The three elder sons were already working in the business.

Work undertaken by the firm in the 1850s included St James Church and the County Court building in Castle Lane. In this decade the firm expanded its operations into road and drainage work. It also undertook work for the London and South Western Railway Company, Southampton Gas Company and other public bodies.

In 1859 Joseph moved his family to a larger house in Winchester Road and thence in 1862 to Grosvenor Villa in Anglesea Road, Shirley. In 1863 he was elected a member of the Shirley Local Board of Health, after which he spent an increasing amount of time in local politics. He died in 1867.

During the 1860s his sons Henry William, Edward Charles and Frederick took over the management of the firm. Notable buildings by them in the 1860s and 1870s included the Philharmonic Rooms on Above Bar Street in 1865 and the National Provincial Bank on the High Street in 1867. Railway Stations built by the firm include St Denys, Northam, Swaythling and Woolston. Carlton Baptist Chapel in London Road and St Mark’s Church in Archers Road were two of the many churches built by the Bull family. They were also employed in the re-building of St Mary’s Church by the architect G. E. Street between 1878 and 1884.

The firm undertook a number of contracts in other towns and cities, most notably in Winchester, where they built the new Guildhall in 1871-73, and, more impressively, in London where they built the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand, opened in 1882. G. E. Street was again the architect and this may have been influential in them winning the contract. It was a huge undertaking with the firm employing over 1000 skilled men and using much steam-powered machinery. Henry William and Edward Charles were presented to Queen Victoria on the completion of the project. Unfortunately, the work was beset with problems, not least of which was a stonemasons strike, which led to long delays and penalties clauses being activated. The firm avoided bankruptcy but was liquidated by settlement in 1883. It continued trading under a new identity Joseph Bull, Sons & Co Ltd and went on to build the parliament buildings in Cape Town, South Africa, completed in 1885. From 1890 the business declined and the firm had ceased trading by 1895.

The following description of the firm was taken from George Measom, The official illustrated guide to the London and South-Western Railway, [1864], pages 391-5:

Joseph Bull and Sons, Contractors and Builders. Principal Works – James’ Street, St Mary’s. Established 1832

Southampton contains one of the largest building firms out of London. They have the above premises but also wharves etc in the Belvidere Road, smiths’ shops in Bevois Street, and offices and stables in Cumberland Street, adjoining James Street. The firm employs over 600 hands.

The premises in James Street are entered through the large timber-yard, where are circular, upright, and other saws, planing, moulding, and similar machines: one of the upright timber frames contains 36 saws, a most beautiful machine used for cutting large blocks of timber and flooring boards, every board, after it is cut, being carefully examined. The large capital employed by the firm … enables them to use thoroughly seasoned wood, giving sufficient time and preparation for the “seasoning”. Messrs Joseph Bull and Sons have extensive timber yards, the port of Southampton offering peculiar advantages. Proceeding from the timber yard the visitor would pass into the drying house, where, and in an adjoining yard, would be observed an enormous quantity of timber from Norway and Russia – no English wood being used by this eminent firm. The are several other departments – the painting shops, the ironmongery stores, filled with gas-fittings, bell-hangings, copper pipes, bolts, and all kinds of metal fitting and ironmongery used by large builders. The joiners’ shops, with beautiful tenoning, moulding, and other costly machines. The planing mills, the steam-engine, and the tramway, are all objects of interest.

There follows a list of contracts for the firm:

The Borough Jail in Southampton in 1854, containing 120 cells and surrounded by an unusually substantial brick wall
The New Corn Exchange on the quay in 1852
St James church near the railway station, 1857; The Church of St Matthew at Netley Marsh in 1854; also churches at Woolston, Christ’s Church, Winchester, Northam church and schools, and many others
The New Savings Bank, East Marlands
The Coach and Carriage factory of Mr Aslatt above Bar
The New Cemetery at Ringwood
The New Market House at Salisbury
Among many mansions we may distinguish the most elaborately beautiful residence of R F Wingrove, Esq at Totton and The Winslows at West End, constructed for George Gater, Esq and many others
Railways – all the lines between Southampton and Basingstoke are kept in repair by the firm. The Romsey and other viaducts were built by them; nearly all the stations and the entire Lymington Railway stations and buildings [?]; large contracts for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway
The firm are Government contractors upon a great scale: they erected for the War Office the Married Soldiers’ Quarters and Military Hospital at Winchester – the Barracks and Military Stabling at Hilsea – the Cambridge Barracks at Portsmouth – the Hurst Castle and Gilkicker Batteries – and many other similar works in various parts of England and, while our sheets are passing through the press, the firm has hundreds of men at work on a large contract for the Earl of Pembroke – a splendid mansion to be called Netley Firs; the new Philharmonic rooms, Above Bar; the New Bank for the Hampshire Banking Company in High Street.

Further reading:

‘Southampton Bulls were Big Builders in Victorian Times. The Work of Joseph Bull and Sons', by A. G. K. Leonard in Southampton Local History Forum Journal No. 9, Summer 2002, p1-12. (HS/h)
‘A True Victorian Company’, by Steve Old, in Hampshire Industrial Archaeology Society Journal, No. 20, 2012.(H/p)


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