John Kent was a builder, architect and surveyor in Southampton, first recorded in the town in a directory of 1783/4.
His first major domestic commission was Chessel House, built for David Lance in 1796 on the east bank of the River Itchen. A sales notice of July 1840 describes the house as "based upon the Grecian order of architecture … happily adapted from a Roman villa" (Hampshire Advertiser, 18 July 1840).
In 1802 Kent rebuilt Leigh House, in the parish of Havant, for William Garrett. The attribution of Chessel House to Kent comes largely from Notices of the Leigh Park Estate, near Havant, written in 1836 by its then owner, Sir George Thomas Staunton: Leigh House "was considerably enlarged, and indeed almost completely rebuilt under the direction of Mr Kent, an architect of Southampton, who built Chessel House, and some other residences in the neighbourhood" (quoted in Derek Gladwyn, Leigh Park: a 19th century pleasure ground, 1992).
An 1819 sales catalogue (also quoted by Gladwyn) gives an insight into Leigh's internal arrangement: a "very handsome" central entrance hall 21 feet in diameter with niches for sculptures; six main rooms off the hall - including an oval-shaped "noble reception room" - entered through elliptical arches; and a "geometrical staircase handsomely stuccoed with fluted doric columns" leading to eight principal and eight servant's bedrooms. The front elevations of both houses show a remarkable similarity.
There are indications that Leigh Hall was not an entirely successful build. The condition of the house, in particular the pervasiveness of dry rot, at the time of its sale in 1818 to John Julius Angerstein was the subject of a three-day legal battle in the Vice-Chancellor's Court in February/March 1819. In evidence, John Kent "admitted a decay to exist in the cellars, which he called a sap-rot, occasioned more by air being excluded from the cellars, and the house being built on a quick sand". He estimated the defects could be repaired for £500 (Hampshire Chronicle, 8 March 1819).
The third of Kent's principal domestic works is Paultons, near Ower, remodelled for Hans Sloane between 1805 and 1807 (contracts for the work are in Hampshire Archives and Local Studies 46M48/352-354). Arthur Oswald, in Country Life, 17 September 1938, refers to a circular top lit hall as a rotunda off which the principal rooms open [a version of the lofty dome which was a feature of Leigh House] and talks of "his (Kent's] fondness for the fret ornament he shared consciously or unconsciously with his early Georgian namesake [William Kent]".
None of the three properties now stand.
John Kent was employed in 1803/4 as architect for the extension of Ridgeway House near Freemantle Common, acquired in the late eighteenth century by Thomas Lewin of the East India Company. A letter from Lewin to his architect in September 1803 complained of the slow progress of Kent’s workmen (Jessica Vale, ‘The Ridgeway House’, in Friends of Southampton’s Museums, Archives and Galleries Newsletter, no.65, Autumn 2009, p 26).
The RIBA Drawings Collection contains a plan of a house with hollow walls built by Kent "in or near Southampton", with a note that "it did not answer" (Howard Colvin, A biographical dictionary of British architects 1600-1840, 4th edition, 2008). A sketch of a portico to an unidentified house in Southampton, built by John Kent in 1806 (image 2), is reproduced in A E Richardson and H Donaldson Eberlein, The smaller English house of the later Renaissance 1660-1830, published 1925. It is used to illustrate the architectural device of concentrating interesting forms at one point: "the semi-circular portico, the so-called Palladian window above it, and the elliptical light just beneath the eaves constitute a decorative panel, so to speak, for the front of the porch projection, while the plain walls at the sides act as foils".
The early development of the west bank of the River Itchen in Southampton was heavily influenced by John Kent. In September 1802 he took out a 40-year Corporation lease on 370 yards of the west bank of the river between Chapel and Northam. It lay immediately to the south of Robert Adams's shipyard (Southampton Archives SC4/3/1076). Kent had already begun to develop the property which - by the time he was forced to relinquish the lease in September 1813 - comprised a wharf (occupied in 1812 by Edward Knapp), a blockmaker's shop (occupied in 1812 by William King and - Woodford), a corn store (built for the cornfactor Edward Westlake of Chapel Quay), deal yard and windmill. The project was a financial disaster. Kent was hounded through the courts in both Winchester and London by the Southampton ropemaker John Major in pursuit of a long-standing debt. An arrest warrant was issued in October 1807 against Kent "who is a builder & resides here [Southampton] but has now been some time at Gosport & I learn is building a house for Mr Jukes the banker there. There has been a writ against him in this town for some time past & he keeps out of the way" (Southampton Archives D/PM Box 68/3: Thomas Riddings to John Handley, sheriff's officer at Gosport, 29 October 1807).
Following incarceration in the debtor's gaol in the Marshalsea, Kent was brought before the King's Bench at Westminster in 1808, charged with "contriving and fraudulently intending craftily to deceive and defraud the said John Major". A further case followed in 1808 - Chaplin and others v Kent -, which also involved the partial seizure of goods and chattels (Southampton Archives D/PM Box 69/14/1). A draft indenture of 27 June 1809 in Southampton Archives (D/PM Box 44/171) suggests a willingness by Kent to explore unconventional means to extricate himself from his "ticklish situation". He raised £300 by the sale of all the building materials ("except the fixtures and shelfing of cupboards and closets there") of Grove Cottage near St Mary's Church. This money was used to pay off a debt to the Southampton ironmonger Edward Toomer. The recycled material was purchased by the Southampton bookseller Thomas Baker, who used it to build a cottage on land he owned on Shirley Common. Kent was engaged in "the whole of the taking down, removing and putting up again with all the alterations specified [by Baker]".
John Kent was declared bankrupt on 10 December 1810. His financial affairs began tortuously to unravel. His assignees (Henry Bloomfield Lankester and William Dell) proposed in April 1811 the sale of the two-thirds of a vessel belonging to Kent, two patents in his name and the recovery of title deeds in the hands of Edward Jukes, John Langley and George Morfs Jukes, bankers and merchants of Gosport, now bankrupt. This connects Kent with a complex of bankruptcy cases involving the Jukes which was still unresolved in 1832.
His household goods and stock in trade were sold at auction on 16 April 1811. These consisted of "goose-feather beds, bedsteads, tables, chairs, pier and other glasses; a quantity of building materials, timber, locks and keys, sashes, marble slabs, register and Rumford stoves, ladders, patent lathe (mahogany) with circular wheel, a camera-obscura, and many other articles". A further assignees' auction on 27 April 1811 offered for sale a horse mill, with a pair of stones for grinding malt; a dressing machine; and a large brewing copper capable of boiling off five hogsheads. The totality of Kent's estate and interest in the properties fronting the River Itchen were auctioned on 28 February 1812. Lot 5 offered the material of the windmill on the shore at Northam "to be taken down and removed at the expense of the purchaser". The mill was taken down in 1814. The Corporation lease of the Mudlands - as we have seen - was surrendered in September 1813. Final release from bankruptcy came on 24 August 1815 with the payment of a final dividend.
Bankruptcy did not end Kent's career as an architect. Ryde Pier in the Isle of Wight - a timber structure 527 metres long - was designed and built by Kent between 1813 and 1814, when he was still subject to the commission of bankruptcy. The cost was £12,000. It is one of the earliest piers in the country and, although heavily altered, still stands. Similarly extant is the Church of St James in Poole, rebuilt in collaboration with the Chichester architect Joseph Hannaford between 1819 and 1821. It is in simplified Gothic, broadly Perpendicular. It replaced a medieval church and cost £11,740. Now Grade 2*, it is described by English Heritage on the British listed buildings website as an "exceptionally complete and virtually unaltered late Georgian church of high architectural quality".
Advertisements in September 1820 and September 1821 for the sale of building lots on either side of a newly built street - now Bernard Street - between the High Street and Orchard Lane give the architect as John Kent. Finally, reviving the recycling theme, Kent is the contact for the private sale in October 1818 of part of the frontage - including two bow windows, the intervening pair of sash doors and handsome entablature - of a property then standing "about the centre of the High Street".
Three patents are in John Kent's name. That of 3 July 1810 - for certain improvements in the method of making artificial stone - is one that may be expected from a builder. The other two - of 5 January 1799 and 12 March 1810 - are in pursuit of the philosopher's dream of perpetual motion: the first "a new method of applying power to effect a rotatory motion, substituting weight or pressure for animal strength", the second "an improvement on the principle of a lever on a moving fulcrum". The Monthly Magazine, July 1799, reported of the first: "Mr Kent is very sanguine in respect to the practical effect of this oblique pressure on the peripheries of wheels. He concludes that a perpetual motion may be effected by it, and that wheel carriages, ships, etc may be moved forward by its varied application".
Of the second, the patentee himself wrote "that by inspection any competent mechanic can apply my said invention to any machinery he may think proper", and that the invention, although specifically designed for raising weights, "yet is also applicable to mills, pumps, moving carriages on iron railways and to various other kinds of machinery" (The Repository of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, January 1811). Could this dream be one cause of Kent's financial woes for, to quote Gentleman's Monthly Miscellany, 1 April 1803, the impossible quest for perpetual motion "is always expensive, and is sometimes the ruin of a family"?
We have three addresses for John Kent in Southampton: Rattler's Yard [not identified] in 1803; St George's Place, Houndwell, in 1820-1 and 18 South Front, Kingsland from 1830. In politics he usually voted on the Liberal side. Little is known of his personal life. St Michael's parish register records his marriage, as a widower, on 25 September 1795 to Sarah Roper, a 30-year old spinster. She died, aged 65 years, at Brunswick Place on 6 August 1825. John died in the summer of 1837. He is probably related to John Kent of Gosport, builder, who went bankrupt in 1793 and to John Kent the younger of Southwick, builder, who went bankrupt in November 1806.
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