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Restoration and Rebuilding of Browne's Hospital 1870

David Wallington 2012

A report of 1869 stated: The Hospital buildings are in an advanced state of decay and dilapidation and with the exception of a small part are hardly fit for habitation.

There was pressure to completely clear the site which occupies land between Broad Street and North Street and erect new buildings, but local opinion forced a rethink and the current two storey building on Broad Street was retained. James Fowler (known widely as Fowler of Louth) was appointed architect. Fowler was born in Lichfield and trained under Joseph Potter, the Cathedral’s architect. His career spanned the years of the Gothic revival and following his move to Lincolnshire he was active in building or restoring churches, vicarages and public buildings as well as being responsible for designing three alms-houses: Browne’s, Allenby Almhouses in Fotherby and Orme Almhouses in Louth as well as adding buildings to Holy Trinity in Retford and Gospelgate Bedehouses in Louth.

It is therefore not surprising that Fowler should turn to Minton for the tiled floor in the passage between the Common Room and Chapel and to Skidmore of Coventry for the gas fittings and art metalwork.

Francis Skidmore took over his father’s firm in 1845 and initially repaired church silverware. But he was soon designing church furnishings and was a pioneer in the gas lighting and heating of churches. He exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition and was widely used by George Gilbert Scott for the then fashion of metal screens separating chancels from naves. Of these the best known are the screens at Lichfield (still in place), Hereford (now in the V & A) and Salisbury (parts of which are being rediscovered).  One of his largest commissions was the huge fleche on the top of the Albert Memorial in London and the wonderfully intricate metal fencing around that memorial. Sadly his obsessiveness with detail led to bankruptcy and because of the loss of his firm’s records he remains an obscure Victorian innovator and entrepreneur. His gas fittings have largely disappeared but we are fortunate that at Browne’s we have three examples of light fittings adapted for electricity: two in the passage and cloisters and one (lamp standard) on the eastern side of the lawn. Inside we have a rare example of two gas fittings still in place on the balcony of the chapel and a part of another fitting in the Confrater’s Room. A lot of the metal work on the doors of the old building and on the accommodation for the residents is clearly also from the Skidmore Manufactory. A tentative examination of Fowler’s work suggests that he turned to Skidmore when working on other projects in the county.

It somehow seems fitting that in the 19th Century Browne’s Hospital turned to Coventry for work on the alms-houses as William Browne had developed links with it when developing his wool trading business four hundred years previously.

A print version can be downloaded HERE

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