‘These are your instructions, and I beg, my dear Watson, that you will obey them to the letter, for you are now playing a double-handed game with me against the cleverest rogue and against the most powerful syndicate of criminals in Europe . . . in the morning you will send for a hansom, desiring your man to take neither the first nor the second which may present itself.’
When Sherlock Homes and Watson were in pursuit of the arch-criminal Professor James Moriarty in Conan Doyle’s story ‘The Final Problem’ – the story that finished with the final, apparently fatal plunge over the Reichenbach Falls – it was inevitable that a hansom cab played its part. Such two-wheeled cabs, with the cabby sitting high behind the enclosed carriage protecting the passengers, were the black cabs of the day, and as ubiquitous on the streets of London. The late-Victorian capital was awash with them, leading to fears that the streets would soon be 12-feet deep with horse droppings.
But why ‘hansom’? Did our ancestors think they were attractive, but were unable to spell? No. The cab is called after its inventor, and like Hoover and Biro, Hansom became a simple, uncapitalised noun very quickly. So who was this clever fellow, and what is his relation with Ripon?
Joseph Aloysius Hansom was a Yorkshireman, born in 1803, the second of ten children, in Micklegate in York, just inside Micklegate Bar. His father was a joiner but young Joseph was interested in construction and draftsmanship, so his father apprenticed him to a local architect, Matthew Phillips, whose office was just down the hill in Bridge Street. In 1825 he was married at St Michael-le-Belfrey church in York (oddly, as Hansom’s family was Roman Catholic) and in the same year went to Halifax as assistant to the architect John Oates (Christ Church, Harrogate is one of his designs).
After three years in Halifax Hansom joined another Oates pupil, Edmund Welch, in a partnership, first in York and then in Liverpool. Their practice flourished and in 1830 they won the prestigious competition to design a new Town Hall for Birmingham. An imposing Roman-style building, based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome, it still functions for the city today. Unfortunately, it also bankrupted Hansom and Welch, who had stood as guarantors for a slightly dodgy contractor. Inevitably, the Hansom and Welch partnership dissolved, and Hansom set up as an architect and a project manager.
It was in 1834 that he had his big idea for a new style of carriage – though there is considerable doubt whether it was his original idea or that he ‘borrowed’ it from a colleague. Whatever the case, he submitted a patent for the cab that came to bear his name. His business acumen was lacking here, as in Birmingham. Though the cab was one of the most successful of such inventions of the 19th century, all he had was £300 (out of a promised £10,000) ‘for his time and trouble’ from the ‘Safety Cabriolet and Two-Wheel Carriage Company’ that was set up to manufacture the more than 7,000 hansom cabs in the capital by the end of the century.
Another successful venture Hansom started was the magazine ‘The Builder’, which he founded in 1843. Now named ‘Building’ and described as ‘the UK's leading magazine for construction professionals’, it continues to serve the industry. But for Hansom it was another loss-maker, and it was handed over to others the year after its inception.
From then on he concentrated on architecture, and at last found success. Given his Roman Catholic connections, Hansom, along with his brother Charles and his son Henry, was responsible for the design of many Catholic churches around the country. Joseph’s best work is the church of St Walburge in Preston, designed in 1854, which has the third-tallest spire in England, after Salisbury and Norwich cathedrals – a dizzying 309 feet.
In the early 1860s, as Gilbert Scott was beginning his restoration of Ripon Cathedral and the Methodists were considering a new chapel on Coltsgate hill, Hansom designed St Wilfrid’s Roman Catholic Church in the city. Described in ‘The Buildings of England’ as a ‘theatrical design in attenuated early French Gothic’, it must have seemed an oddly-alien structure in a conservative place like Ripon – especially the octagonal tower with its Frenchified gable that rises, not in a conventional place at the west end or the crossing, but over the sanctuary, providing a spectacular burst of light over the altar.
The spiky altarpiece was designed not by Hansom but by Edward Pugin, son of the great architect Augustus Pugin. Hansom and Edward Pugin were in partnership while St Wilfrid’s was being built in 1862 and 63; they fell out acrimoniously when Pugin accused Hansom of pushing his own nephew Edward into plum architectural contracts for the Catholic Church.
St Wilfrid’s church was completed in 1863 – so next year we can celebrate its 150th birthday. This year, though, St Wilfrid’s is celebrating its centenary. How so? The answer is that it was not consecrated until 12 October 1912, almost 50 years after its completion; the debt incurred in its building – despite the support of the Marquess of Ripon, one of the most prominent lay Catholic converts of the 19th century – was not paid off until then.
So two years of celebrations for St Wilfrid’s – a church that for much of the 20th-century was reviled by architectural historians, even if loved by its parishioners. Today we can look on it with more favourable eyes, as a good example of Victorian Muscular Gothic – strong, if not always loveable. Its imposing tower is, along with the cathedral, the obelisk and the spire of Holy Trinity Church, one of the main vertical accents of the city’s skyline.
It’s a strange line that links Sherlock Holmes, a Roman Temple, a cab and a French-style building in Ripon. It’s Joseph Aloysius Hansom that provides the thread. Let’s celebrate his work this year and next.
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