By M. M. Rix and W R Serjeant
THE town of Douglas has few individual buildings of architectural note. Of those few, Castle Mona, erected as an official residence for the Governor, John, the 4th Duke of Atholl, at the beginning of the 19th century, is the most distinguished. Now an hotel, its exterior is largely unaltered, and although it lacks the setting conceived for it by its designer (its grounds being overspread with later buildings), it is still able to command attention.
Until the last few years, it was not generally known who designed it, but recent research has identified the architect as George Steuart (not to be confused with his contemporary, James 'Athenian 'Stuart). What little was known about hint as recently as 1954 is summed up by H. M. Colvin in his Dictionary of English Architects, published in that year. Steuart's work in the Isle of Man was then unrecorded: even the date of his birth was not known. Since then, a thesis by Mr. C. E. Mason, A.R.I.B.A., and the deposit of the Atholl Papers relating to the Isle of Man in the Manx Museum Library, have thrown more light on the subject.
The Dictionary of English Architects, after a brief dozen lines of biographical material, lists six buildings by Steuart in England, and one in Ireland the majority of which have been demolished, rebuilt, or damaged by fire. His surviving works (all in Shropshire) - Attingham Hall, Wellington Parish Church, and St. Chad's Church, Shrewsbury, indicate that he was an architect of distinction, the latter being described as 'one of the most boldly conceived buildings of the whole Georgian epoch.'
Steuart's name proclaims his Scottish origin, and as authority for this origin, Colvin cites the Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine families,compiled by the 7th Duke of Atholl. This same work provides the explanation for the architect's later association with the Isle of Man. In it, George and his artist brother Charles are described as' Gaelic-speaking Athollmen ' - evidently a client family of the great ducal house; and when George Steuart appears practising as an architect and housepainter in Berners Street, London, and is found to have produced as his first known work a house in Grosvenor Place for the 3rd Duke in 1770, it is clear that he was under the patronage of the Atholls. Correspondence recorded in the Chronicles from the architect to the Duke shows that he was on terms of comfortable familiarity with his patron, and was much concerned in executing a variety of commissions for the Duke. Until 1765, the Atholl family were Lords of Man, and after that date they remained possessed of estates and manorial rights in the Island. The 4th Duke was appointed Governor by the Crown in 1793, and had always taken a great interest in the affairs of the Island. Given these facts, it comes as no surprise to find the name of George Steuart appearing in Manx records, and to be able to add, from Manx evidence, to the record of his architectural work.
Steuart's earliest visit to the Isle of Man appears to have been in the year 1779, when the 4th Duke was not yet Governor, but was concerning himself with the then vexed question of the state of the gaol and other public buildings. By the architect's own statement, he made a survey of public buildings in that year.l He was in the Island for the same purpose again in 1788, when his visit is mentioned in correspondence by Lieutenant-Governor Dawson - 'Mr. Steuart the architect has, I presume, made his observations on the state of the gaols and public buildings, and will probably make a report to the Treasury of the probable expense of putting them into a proper repair . . . I walked with him through the castle (Castle Rushen], showed him our prisons and the House of Keys . . . I have not heard whether the architect has accompanied his Grace to Scotland or not." This attempt to secure the repair of public buildings was unsuccessful, and the only other document showing Steuart's part in it is an annotated plan of Castle Rushen dated July 1788;prepared and signed by him.3
A more important building work for the Island was in contemplation at this time. This was the improvement of Douglas harbour. To allow deeper water accommodation it had become necessary to build a pier out from the existing North Quay a difficult matter. An earlier attempt in about 1760 had been wrecked by a violent storm and slowly reduced to a mound of rubble. In 1790, the Treasury sent an engineer to report on the state of the harbour, and authority was given for the building of a new pier. Work commenced in 1793,and on 13th June of that year, the Island's Commissioners of Harbours received this letter from George Steuart:
The Lords of His Majesty's Treasury having been pleased to appoint me to direct the building of the pier at Douglas harbour in the room of Mr.Voss, I propose to have the pleasure of waiting on you in the Isle of Man early in next month, or as soon as the necessary preparations can be arranged for proceeding to work on the pier.
Therefore [I] trouble you to request you will be pleased to favour me with your instructions respecting materials already provided, and enable me by your direction to procure necessary tools and proper workmen.
Liverpool is in my way to the Island; that place may be the likeliest to procure carpenters and masons suited to the work. Whatever you are pleased to communicate to me before I leave London, I shall most readily comply with for the benefit of the service.
I am, etc.,
The 4th Duke of Atholl was appointed Governor of the Isle of Man in1793, and it may be believed that it was he who secured Steuart's appointment in the place of Mr. Voss, who had produced a plan for the pier in 1790 or 1791.5 Work on the pier commenced immediately, and it was completed in 1801. The 'Red Pier' as it was called, was a sound and well-conceived structure, and did yeoman service for 130 years until it was partly demolished to be replaced by the longer and wider King Edward Pier in 1936. It featured a fine lighthouse at the seaward end, and a court-house, tower and watchhouse at the landward end, both in Steuart's best vein. Prints and photographs remain to show that its loss deprived the harbour area of a structure of sturdy appeal and great character. George Woods, in his Account of the Isle of Man (1811), gives this description -' The pier, constructed under the direction of Mr. Steuart, architect, and finished nearly ten years ago, is the chief beauty and attraction of Douglas. Its length is 520 feet; its breadth 40, and it is well paved with flagstones. At the distance of 450 feet it suddenly expands 50 feet to the right. This broad part is raised 3 or 4 feet above the other, and terminates in a semicircle. In the middle of the area is a handsome and very useful lighthouse . . . The pier is the promenade of the town, and in fine weather crowded with genteel company.' Some of Steuart's drawings have survived, as well as a number of statements of account during the progress of the work.6
During the years when the Red Pier was under construction, Steuart evidently retained his responsibility to advise on the state of public buildings in the Island, and also did work on the Duke's own properties. An account covering the years 1795 to 1797 shows that he supervised work at Port e Chee, the Duke's residence and estate near Douglas and at the Loch or Lough House, which was situated on the shore near the centre of the bay, and in which the architect at some point took up residence himself. In 1801 he wrote a lengthy report for the Duke, dealing with several matters the progress of work on the new pier; his views on the state of repair of Castle Rushen and Peel Castle(including an estimate for the building at Castle Rushen of a court room, a house for the Lieutenant Governors, and a guard room and prisons); and comments on, and estimates for a new custom house at Douglas.8
But the most appealing records are George Steuart's own drawings. All of them are meticulously drawn and delicately tinted in the manner familiar from an examination of his designs for Attingham Hall, which are preserved there. Two sheets, bearing the initials 'G.S.' and dated 1797,show plans and elevations of several proposed public buildings - court houses for Castle Rushen and Kirk Michael; a new House of Keys; and guardrooms and prisons for Douglas, Peel and Ramsey .'These were all small and simple buildings, but the drawings show them as having clean lines and neat proportions. None of them were built, but correspondence in 1798 reveals that Steuart was responsible for Ramsey court house. A copy of a letter to the architect from either the Home Department or the Treasury in April 1798 alludes to his plans for this building, and authorises him to contract for its erection, with the advice of Deemster Crellin, up to a total of £350. - In July, the Deemster is writing to the Duke of Atholl, urging the project on -'nor do I think any person in the Island except Mr. Steuart could execute it.'11 This very pleasing building still survives in use, to attract the passerby with its unpretentious dignity.
While the Red Pier and Ramsey court house were building, Steuart must have been preparing the plans for his most striking work in the Isle of Man a new residence for the Governor, John,4th Duke of Atholl. His drawings have survived:12 first, a ground plan (which was modified in the execution), and second, an elevation showing the building with two thrown-back wings and an alternative treatment of the central tower. The first tower design was a classical one, in the form of a dome; the second has crenellations, but is not so tall as that actually erected. There is also a sheet showing a plan and elevation for twin lodges for Castle Mona. These no longer exist, and were presumably demolished when the Castle Mona estate was sold for building developmental A number of accounts for Castle Mona also survive. Its exterior is of white free stone imported from the Arran quarries. It is an imposing house, and must have been more so when set in the carefully planned grounds which originally surrounded it. Its completion was celebrated with much conviviality on 4th August 1804, and the Duke ordered the insertion of an account of the 'baptism' in the official records. The account concluded 'George Steuart, the venerable architect, of whose skill and taste Castle Mona will be a lasting monument, too infirm to partake of the pleasures of the table, made his appearance in the course of the evening, to the great joy of his Grace and the rest of the company.'14
It may be imagined that the architect would have regretted the brief life his work enjoyed as a gubernatorial residence before, within 30 years, it was abandoned by the Duke and sold to become an hotel. However, he was now 74 years old, and did not long outlive the completion of this, his last important work. Only one further structure has been attributed to him the large memorial obelisk designed in memory of Lord Henry Murray, fifth son of the 3rd Duke of Atholl, Lieutenant-Colonel of the Royal Manx Fencibles, who died in 1805,which stands in the churchyard of Kirk Braddan. In the following year, the architect was himself buried at Kirk Braddan, his own simple tombstone recording
George Steuart Esq.,
obit. December 20th, 1806
The architect died at Lough House. not far from Castle Mona. His will reveals that he had a prosperous career, as he left over £2,500 in legacies in addition to considerable property, including the ground now occupied by the Villa Marina and its gardens, where his son Major Robert Steuart built the original Villa Marina.15 He purposed to be buried in a mausoleum which he evidently intended building on this land, but which was never constructed.
From the material available in the Isle of Man it is thus possible to follow the later part of his career in some detail, and to record considerable additions to his work as hitherto known, one of which the Red Pier with its lighthouse and guardhouse has, although destroyed, lingered in memory to his credit, and two of which the Ramsey Court House and Castle Mona survive today to lend support to the reputation for skill and taste of George Steuart, architect.
1Atholl Papers (AP) 138/9.
2 27th July 1788. MS 1831 C.
3 AP. Maps and plans.
4.Papers of William Scott, Receiver-General (in Harris Papers).
5 Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for the Isle of Man. Appendix D, no. 31. (1792).
6 The drawings are in. the Douglas Public Library: the accounts in the Atholl Papers, and in MS 4183 C in the Museum Library
7 AP X 50/3/5.
8 AP 138/9, 11.
9 AP. Maps and plans.
10 AP 138/5.
11 AP X 66/2/6.
12 Maps end plans.
13.The only evidence that they were built appears to ba drawing by Capt. Will Latham in a MS. 'Tour of the Isle of Man' of 1815. (The 'Swarbreck' MS.296 A.)
14 Journal of the Manx Museum, vol. III, p.75. (1935).
15 ibid, vol. VI, p.83. (1959-60).