John Plaw is one of the most original and frustratingly elusive architects of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. He practised as an architect in Southampton between c.1795 and 1807. John Plaw was baptized at St Mary's, Putney on 8 January 1745. Apprenticed to the Tylers' and Bricklayers' Company in London at the age of thirteen, he was by 1763 - when only eighteen years old - described as an "architect and master builder in Westminster" (Oxford dictionary of national biography). Little of his architectural work survives - the most famous being the idiosyncratic house on Belle Island in Lake Windermere designed for Thomas English in 1774-5 and the church of St Mary, Paddington, built 1788-91 in the form of a Greek cross. It is for a series of three pattern books that he is chiefly remembered: Rural architecture (1785), Ferme ornee, or rural improvements (1795) and Sketches for country houses, villas, and rural dwellings, calculated for persons of moderate income, and for comfortable retirement (1800). Each went through many editions. These were pioneering works, and did much to popularize both the growing taste for the picturesque and the use of rustic and vernacular building materials.

In about 1795 John Plaw and his wife Mary (nee Burrough who he had married in 1768) left London to settle in Southampton. He was then fifty years of age, a well-known name in architectural circles and with connections in the county. Ferme ornee (published 1795) includes illustrations and descriptions of designs for entrance gates, fishing lodge, keeper's dwelling and domed bath-house (complete with shower bath fed by warm water from a nearby brew house in the garden) for John Morant of Brockenhurst House. This probably relates to the redesign of the estate by William Eames and John Webb commissioned in 1793 and abandoned following Morant's death in March 1794 (Gill Hedley and Adrian Rance, Pleasure grounds: the gardens and landscapes of Hampshire, 1987). The authors of Hampshire: Winchester and the north (the Buildings of England series) published in 2010 suggest that Houghton Lodge, an exquisite Gothick cottage ornee overlooking the River Test near Stockbridge and dated to c.1786-90, might be by John Plaw. The attribution is also made by Geoffrey Tyack in the Oxford dictionary of national biography. Almost immediately on his arrival in Southampton, Plaw became involved in two speculative building projects in the town. Three lots of land on the west side of the High Street, opposite the new All Saints Church completed two years earlier, had been sold at auction on 30 August 1794. Formerly gardens owned by the Reverend John Hoadly, rector of St Mary's and chancellor of the diocese of Winchester, this most eligible plot within the old town walls came on the market following the death of his widow - Elizabeth Hoadly - and the settlement of a subsequent case in Chancery (Ashe v Keate). This involved her nephew, the Reverend Robert Ashe, vicar of Eling. Plaw's designs for the newly-named Albion Place were described in The Universal British directory (volume 4, compiled 1795/6) as "a perfect rus in urbe". The principal street, forty feet wide and with paved footways, was to be a mixture of eight houses of Grecian character on the north side and ten houses in the Venetian style on the south side. A further ten houses were to built on the approaches. The extremity of the principal street was reserved as a public terrace and "a bastion with a pleasure-seat for the use of the inhabitants and their friends, each inhabitant to be furnished with a key". The views over Southampton Water towards the New Forest were expected to be "truly picturesque". The 'bastion' is almost certainly Catchcold Tower. An 1807 auction catalogue (see below) refers to "the terrace and top of the tower adjoining" to which tenants are allowed by paying 2s 6d annually for a key. More conventional was the development of Brunswick Place, bordering southward on the gardens of Bellevue House at the upper end of the Marlands. The land had been leased for potential development in 1792 by a local auctioneer, John Simpkins. Eighteen houses were planned which, when completed, were expected to form "a very desirable, healthy, and pleasant situation, and a great acquisition to the visitants of Southampton" (Universal British directory). Plaw was engaged simultaneously on the building of a cavalry barracks for the government, erected near Belle Vue on a healthy gravelly site of about two acres. A "neat plain building", the barracks were for "the accommodation of a troop of horse, officers house, guard-room, farriery, foraging-shed, and suttling-house [canteen], with a spacious yard inclosed by a wall" (Universal British directory). The site later became the Ordnance Survey headquarters.

John Plaw and his wife lived for over a decade at Spring Place, in the settlement of Hill, just over the western border of Southampton in the parish of Millbrook. He was appointed Second Lieutenant in the Loyal Southampton Volunteer Infantry on 31 March 1799, a corps that comprised the social elite of the town. Major William Tinling, Captain Frederick Breton and First Lieutenants William Lintott and John Keele were amongst his fellow officers. He was gazetted First Lieutenant on Lintott's promotion to captain on 14 January 1800. The "many services he [Plaw] had rendered the Corps" were marked on the unit's disbandment in May 1802 by the unanimous request that he "favor them with his portrait". It was to be executed, gratis, by an artist member of the volunteers and was to be deposited in the Long Room of the Blue Boar Inn kept by Sergeant Major Cotterell (Salisbury Journal, 31 May 1802). Plaw did not rejoin the corps on its revival the following year. Records of Plaw's architectural work whilst at Southampton are both sporadic and enigmatic. Hampshire Archives and Local Studies has material on designs submitted for a new house at Warrens for George Eyre on his estate at Bramshaw (COPY/745/57: letter of 6 April 1799, with two elevations and two floor plans). An advertisement for the sale of a house "on the side of a hill near the church at West Cowes", with Plaw named as architect, appears in the Salisbury Journal, 15 July 1799. For his other work in the county we have little evidence other than designs published and illustrated in Sketches for country houses, published in May 1800: a small farm house in the New Forest; a building lately erected near Lymington; a situation near the Bursledon [Hamble] river; a summer retreat on an elevated spot at East Cowes; a situation near Titchfield; "a small house I have lately built for a gentleman in the New Forest"; and a design in contemplation on the banks of Southampton Water. Evidence for the development of the two initial speculations in Southampton is similarly oblique. John Simpkins leased building lots on Brunswick Place in 1801, the lessees including Plaw (Southampton Archives, D/MW 64/1/3), but by 1804 nothing had been built (Thomas Baker, Southampton guide). Four properties in Albion Place are listed in an auction sale on 8 April 1807. Lot 1 was a recently-built house "leading in to Albion Place" now in Plaw's possession: an occupation confirmed by the All Saints rate books. The house contained "6 rooms, 2 rooms on each floor, the 2 best rooms about 15 feet square, neatly finished, a dry cellar, the house fit for the immediate reception of a small genteel family" (Salisbury Journal, 23 March 1807). It is arguable that Plaw's work in Albion Place melds into the development of the castle and its precincts by the Marquis of Lansdowne. An indenture of 21 June 1805 (Southampton Archives, D/MH 2/46/1), by which the Marquis acquired four messuages and land on the east side of Castle Lane, named Plaw as a trustee appointed by the Marquis (see also Jean Watts, 'The Marquis of Lansdowne and his castle in Southampton' in Journal of the Southampton Local History Forum, no.16, Winter 2010) .

Plaw left Southampton in 1807 "discouraged and disappointed in his art … which he loved and laboured to promote" (Repository of Arts, new series, 14, 1822, quoted by Geoffrey Tyack in Oxford dictionary of national biography). His household furniture and other effects were sold at auction on 9 April (the day after the sale of the Albion Place properties) consequent on his "going abroad". He emigrated, with his wife, sister and nephew, to Canada, setting up as an architect in Prince Edward Island. There he died on 24 May 1820. He has an entry in the Dictionary of Canadian national biography online. Plaw left behind a string of creditors. Two years after his departure he was declared bankrupt (London Gazette, 18 November 1809). The shortness of time from the requirement for Plaw to surrender himself (4 December) to his final examination (30 December) suggests that the entire process was conducted in absentia. His interests seem to have been represented by Charles Pitt, a surveyor and architect who in August 1809 had opened a house and estate agency in Above Bar. It was Pitt to whom creditors had to report in September 1809 and to whom bills drawn on Plaw were submitted (eg an unpaid Prince Edward Island bill for £87.18s dated 19 December 1808: Southampton notarial protest books 1756-1810, ed Geoffrey Hampson, 1973). It was Pitt too who witnessed, as Plaw's attorney, a parish apprenticeship indenture dated 11 August 1809 whereby Henry Chissell, aged 11 years and a poor child of Lymington parish, became apprentice to "John Plaw of Charlotte Town, Prince Edward Island, North America, artisan" (Hampshire Archives and Local Studies, 42M75/PO1/135): a transaction both intriguing and inexplicable. The two architects had been neighbours in Spring Place (Pitt is recorded there in June 1803) and both had diversified into the house agency business: Plaw acting for clients wishing to purchase property in Titchfield (October 1804) and the neighbourhood of Southampton (June 1805). It was a business he resurrected in Canada.

An advertisement in the London-based Morning Chronicle, 26 July 1809, from Plaw as "Assistant Surveyor-General, Prince Edward Island", offers his services to those wishing to buy land in the province. If there was a business connection between Plaw and Pitt, they were odd bedfellows. Pitt followed Plaw into bankruptcy in January 1811 (described as statuary and surveyor) and was involved later that year in a series of court cases respecting a land deal that went bad. The opposition barrister thought "the whole business was as pure a piece of rascality as ever disgraced, by discussion, a Court of justice. It was all a trick, a fraud, an endeavour to put his right hand into the pocket of his employers [the vendors], and his left into the pocket of his unfortunate dupe [the putative buyer]" (The Times 7 September 1811).

See also

Further reading:

More Stories of Southampton Streets, by A. G. K. Leonard, p63-64. (HS/h)
Southampton’s Historic Buildings, by R. J. Coles, p22, 38. (HS/k)
‘The Marquis of Lansdowne and his Castle in Southampton’, by Jean Watts in Southampton Local History Forum Journal, no. 16, Winter 2010, p34-40. (HS/h)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004, Volume 44.
Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, by Howard Colvin, p810-811.
MacMillan Encyclopedia of Architects, Vol. 3, p440.
‘No Southampton Plaudits for John Plaw of Hill’, by John Edgar Mann, in Hampshire, Vol. 33, No. 6, April 1993, p42-43. (H/y)
'John Plaw, John Kent and John Taylor: three late-18th/early-19th century Southampton architects' by Richard Preston in Southampton Local History Forum Journal, no. 22, Spring 2014, p33-42. (HS/h)


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