THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
George Corson (1829-1910)
If you go to a performance at the Grand Theatre, visit the central library, have coffee in the magnificent Tiled Hall, or just stroll round the city centre or out to the suburbs you’ll come across George Corson’s work. In his day he was the foremost architect in Leeds, responsible for some of the city’s landmark buildings, a leader among the group of distinguished architects who helped to transform Leeds in the late nineteenth century into a great Victorian city.
His success and reputation were won almost entirely within Leeds but he was not a Leeds man himself. A Scot, born in Dumfries in 1829, he began his early training with the respected Scottish architect Walter Newall, following in the footsteps of his elder brother William Reid Corson. William left for London to continue his architectural training with the influential designer Owen Jones, but then set up in practice in Leeds, initially in partnership with another architect/designer, Edward La Trobe Bateman. Leeds’s booming economy must have seemed to offer exciting prospects for these young architects. George joined them in 1849 aged just 20. He gained valuable hands-on experience in the practice but was also allowed time to travel in Europe and around the country. In 1851 he visited the Great Exhibition in London where he could study Owen Jones’ exotic interior design for the Crystal Palace. Jones’s work, notably his magnificent publications on the Alhambra, was an early influence on George, visible in his love of Moorish architectural features and his rich use of colour and decoration.
George worked under his brother’s name on a range of commissions, forging valuable connections professionally and socially with the important men of the day, but in 1858 when his brother moved to take over a practice in Manchester he got the chance to establish himself in his own right. He took on a wide portfolio of work across the thriving business community: warehouses for William Lupton & Co, Cloth Merchants; new brewery buildings for Tetley’s, whose architect he remained for some 40 years; sale rooms for Hepper & Sons, Agents and Auctioneers; retail premises and offices around the city centre. He branched out into school and church design, building two churches which no longer survive. His business connections led to domestic work too: at Weetwood he designed the grandiose Fox Hill (now Moorlands School) for Francis William Tetley and in Headingley the more modest Clareville in Cardigan Road for John Hepper, one of the first houses to be built on the site of the old Zoological Gardens.
The 1870s/80s saw his greatest success and achievements. In 1873 he won the competition for the lay-out of the newly-acquired Roundhay Park and the development of its adjacent estate. In 1876 he came first in the prestigious competition for the design of the new Municipal Offices in Leeds (now the Central Library building) and the adjoining School Board Offices, with a palatial design of classical grandeur to match Brodrick’s magnificent Town Hall across the way. In the same year he took on another important and much heralded project for the new Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House, designating his assistant (also trained in Dumfries) to visit the great European opera houses and oversee the work. When the Grand opened in 1878 it was hailed as the finest theatre in the land. Among his private commissions, one of the most splendid was the impressive house ‘Spenfield’ (now apartments, next to the Village Hotel) designed for the Oxley family of bankers. Highly regarded by his professional colleagues, in 1877 he was appointed the first President of the Leeds Architectural Association which aimed to foster high standards in building and promote the ongoing improvement of the town.
The opening of the Leeds Municipal Offices in 1884 after 8 years of consultation and revision brought him many accolades: dubbed ‘the People’s Palace’, its rich décor and handsome features were much admired and established him as Leeds’s premier architect. It remains today one of Leeds’s finest buildings, well worth exploring or re-visiting. On the strength of this great public success he entered competitions elsewhere for similar projects, most particularly in Glasgow where he won first prize but lost the contract. So he remained in Leeds, focussed on work within the town or nearby, his final major work an extension to George Gilbert Scott’s General Infirmary. His success and reputation were based on his commitment to his projects: his attention to detail and to his client’s needs and wishes; the variety of his architectural skills and facility in rich ornamentation; and his concern for quality, employing always the best available materials and craftsmen.
He led a quiet private life. He moved from the city centre to Headingley around 1860, renting a house in St George’s Terrace, Claremont Road, one of the spacious new stone terraces built in the 1850s on the old Headingley Moor. In 1871, when he was 42 years old, he designed and built his own house, ‘Dunearn’, nearby, on land purchased from the Cardigan estate in quiet, leafy Wood Lane. The house was featured in professional journals – an extravagant design in stone from the Weetwood quarries, with a steep red tiled roof broken by numerous gables, with turrets and half-timbering, and rich decorative features; sadly only a solitary gatepost remains of it now. It was a house for a successful professional man, a visible symbol of his status and achievement. He married late in life, at 53, and it was here that he brought his wife and they raised their three children – none of whom followed him into architecture. Their holiday home far away on the west coast of Scotland was a frequent family retreat.
He played an active part in local Headingley affairs, responsible for the new Parochial Institute opened in 1884 in Bennett Road, and for the buildings and lay-out of the grounds at Lawnswood cemetery, which in 1875 took over as the burial ground for Headingley. He took a particular interest in the development of Wood Lane and Shire Oak Road, close to his home. In Wood Lane he built the tall stone house called St. Ives, which still survives (extended and now converted into apartments); this large, well-equipped house, set in spacious grounds with stables and a coach house, would guarantee him neighbours of standing. Along the newly-formed Shire Oak Road, he bought and refurbished the old farm behind Headingley Hall (now divided and called Corson Court), and at the end, built St Michael’s Mount (1883), for William Wailes, a wealthy stockbroker, (demolished and replaced by the Mary Morris International Residence); then two pairs of semi-detached houses in 1884 and 1887. All these properties were rented to their occupants rather than sold: they were his investment for the future.
When illness led him to retire from practice around 1900, he finally sold Dunearn and his other properties, lived for a time in one of his houses in Shire Oak Road, Ballamona (now part of Hailey’s Hotel), then moved in 1908 to a smaller house close by, 14 Woodland Park Road, where he died in 1910 aged 80. He was buried at Lawnswood, the first grave in the new section of the cemetery. His grave is a simple Celtic cross and says little of him beyond that he was an architect, with Scottish family origins. It’s a plain, modest memorial: his true memorial is to be found in the handsome buildings he left as a legacy to his adopted town of Leeds.
Eveleigh Bradford, Feb. 2022
You can view Eve's talk on George Corson on YouTube