John Forbes, the architect – a difficult man?

John Forbes’s main claim to fame is as the architect of the Pittville Pump Room, and of St Paul’s Church not far away. But as Steve Blake points out in his excellent 1989 article ‘The unfortunate Mr Forbes: the rise and fall of a Cheltenham architect’ (Cheltenham Local History Society Journal pp. 7-27), his career was somewhat troubled. While it is true that not many architects lasted long with Joseph Pitt, in Forbes’s case the fault seems mostly his own. What follows is largely based on Steve’s research, with some updating from internet resources.

Forbes was born about 1795, if as seems likely he was the John Forbes who entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1815, aged 20 (a decade and a half later, Robert Stokes entered the same schools). He was not born in Gloucestershire: Forbes is a Scottish name, though his entry in the 1841 England census does not include the characteristic “S” for someone born in Scotland. On his marriage certificate of 1838 we learn that his father was “James Forbes, Gentleman”.

Around 1817, he was working in a London architect’s office. He had arrived in Cheltenham by 1820, when he is listed as a land surveyor and architect at 120 High Street. His first surviving designs were for alterations to the Montpellier Spa (1821). By 1825 Joseph Pitt had given him the commission for his Pittville showpiece, the Pump Room (foundation stone laid May 1825). However Forbes did not stay the course, resigning in 1828, two years before the Pump Room was officially opened. It does not appear that he was dismissed, but Pitt did not find him the easiest person to work with. In a carefully worded letter of 1828, Pitt acknowledged the good design of the Pump Room, but noted that the architect and his builder had not seen eye to eye. Incidentally, the stone bridges in Pittville Park are contemporary with the Pump Room, and are reasonably assumed to be by Forbes. (Image: Copy of a watercolour portrait of John Forbes, probably 1828, by the artist Richard Dighton – Harrison Clark Rickerbys; reproduced by permission from a transparency held by The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.)

Forbes was attracted to church work, and one early commission seems to have been for alterations to the interior of Holy Trinity (1825). In the same year he showed himself keen to work on the proposed free church, later dedicated to St Paul, and in 1827, when the promoters were able to resume their plans after the 1825 financial crisis had passed, he did indeed produce its design, though contemporary correspondence shows that not everyone was convinced of his competence. Whether these doubts arose from his work on the Pump Room is not clear.

From the Visitor’s Hand-book for Cheltenham (1840, facing p. 54)
[Advertisement signed by Henry Davies of the Montpellier Library, Cheltenham]
In 1826-7, Forbes designed the 5-house terrace in Pittville Lawn now numbered 29-37, which Steve Blake rates as perhaps the Estate’s finest terrace. Forbes himself bought one of the lots for this terrace, and, as was typical in early Pittville, developed it himself using a local builder and a private mortgage of £1,300.

At around this period Forbes also found time to propose a method  for ‘burning or consuming smoke’ – patent granted 15 December 1828 – which was a two-tiered grate, burning common coal (more bituminous and therefore smoky) at the bottom, and anthracite or coke in the top. It does not seem to have been widely adopted.

Again like Robert Stokes a little later, Forbes seems to have been overambitious (or insufficiently experienced) in his speculation in the property development business – in Forbes’s case to a perilous extent. He took a considerable stake in Montpellier Villas on the other side of town, all of which he may have designed, and he also built four houses in Imperial Square and two houses at the top of the Promenade. By 1833-4 he had a very complex set of mortgages and other obligations to manage, as well as the architectural side.

To outward appearances, he must have been someone of note in the town, for he was the subject of one of Richard Dighton’s noted watercolour profile portraits (reproduced in Steve Blake’s Pittville Pump Room booklet).

But his home life was not happy. He had married, on 13 November 1821, Elizabeth Maria Cock, and they had at least four children between 1821 and 1829, all baptised at St Mary’s in Cheltenham, but only two survived infancy, and Elizabeth died in early 1833, reportedly of a ‘broken heart’. She was thus spared the next dramatic chapter in Forbes’s life – his trial and conviction on charges of fraud. Attempting to manage the cash-flow on some of his speculative building in Imperial Square, he stupidly forged a partner’s signature on several bills of exchange, and was found out. He was remanded in custody in late 1834, and tried in Gloucester in April 1835 – an event attracting great local interest. There was widespread shock when he was sentenced to transportation for life: he was generally viewed as incompetent or naïve rather than evil, and the sentence was seen as out of line with others recently passed. In just four days, 4,000 signatures were added to a petition protesting at the severity of his sentence, and in the event he served just two years, in Gloucester gaol. Despite this lesser fate, he was not a model prisoner, being implicated in a planned break-out (an improvised hacksaw was found in his cell), and there were other acts of insubordination.

Perhaps surprisingly, on release he attempted to resume his career in Cheltenham, and still described himself as an architect on his second marriage, in July 1838, to Mary Ann (or Marianne) Poole, a local woman. But in the 1841 Census he was living in very modest circumstances in St George’s Street, with just one daughter and no sign of his new wife.   The last we hear of him, as Steve Blake records, is the rejection of the plan he submitted in 1842 for the new Cheltenham College buildings in the Bath Road.  

He has not been found in the 1851 Census, and it might be assumed that by then he had died. But it is always possible that he noted the example of others dissatisfied with Cheltenham life, and sought a new start overseas. After all, his near contemporaries Robert Stokes and Henry Seymour (first lessee of the Pump Room), had both gone to New Zealand. Perhaps further research will reveal whether he followed suit?

James Hodsdon