The Cheesman Family Builders

Image 1 w300To add valuable context to the heritage of St Stephen’s Hall, BHT Heritage clients have undertaken research to identify other projects around Brighton and Hove that were designed and built by the Cheesman family.

The Cheesman family were a prominent, extensive local firm of ‘builders, carpenters and manufacturers of cement[i] who were also responsible for the rebuilding of St Stephen’s Hall on Montpelier Place in 1851.

The Cheesmans played a significant role in the development of Brighton in the early 1800s. They were the chosen contractors of the Wagner family, who contributed much of their personal wealth to a programme of church building, and it was this partnership which saw the Cheesman family stamp their mark across the town.

George Cheesman Senior was born in 1789 and was the founder of the building firm. George was the third son to John Cheesman, whose mother Barbara Childrens had been from a ‘desperately poor family, receiving support under the poor law.’[ii]

The first building project that bore the Cheesman name was The Church Hill Poorhouse. Built in 1820 as a replacement to The Market Street Workhouse, the new workhouse was on the outskirts of the town, keeping the poor out of the sight and minds of the fashionable high-society crowd that had been flocking to the town since 1750. The Governor of the new workhouse was ‘to be under the supervision of John Cheesman, the builder who later became a Guardian.’[iii]

This may be surprising, but Guardians were elected by the Town Commissioners, and were often highly thought-of men such as land or property owners, clergymen or local wardens. George Cheesman Snr., a highly respected member of the town, also later became a member of the Directors and Guardians of the poor.

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George Cheesman Snr.’s building work appears to start with the development of Brunswick Square.

John Hoare’s comprehensive website references George’s obituary in the Brighton Gazette of 15 February 1866, which states that ‘Mr Cheesman built the house at the south-east corner of Brunswick Square’. Read more about this here

In 1833 George Snr. created a partnership with his second son, Charles, becoming ‘Cheesman & Son’. Just a year later, George was commissioned by the Rev. Henry Wagner, Vicar of Brighton, to build a new vicarage in the Montpelier area. This was the beginning of a strong relationship between the Cheesmans and Wagners, which would last many years.

George Cheesman Jnr. worked alongside his family’s business as an architectural designer. He was responsible for the iconic ceremonial arch that was erected at Preston Circus to welcome Queen Victoria on her first visit to Brighton in 1837.

The population of Brighton grew rapidly from around 1,500 in 1730 to 40,000 in 1841. The Cheesman family were commissioned by Rev. Henry Wagner to design and construct many new churches in the town to address the increased need; these were predominantly in poorer areas. Wagner’s first church, All Souls’, opened in 1834 serving the fast-growing area to the east of the town. Four years later, Cheesman completed the construction of Christ Church on Montpelier Road, again commissioned by Wagner, which was ‘built in Gothic style of brick and stucco…with a rather depressing exterior. Its tall spire, modelled upon that of Chichester Cathedral.’[iv]

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This was quickly followed by St John’s Church on Carlton Hill in 1840, designed by George Jnr. and built by George Snr., which was ‘intended to serve not the wealthy and fashionable residents and visitors of Brighton, but the enormous population of poor people that was then growing in the streets of small houses round about Carlton Hill.’[v]

The church is now owned by the Greek Orthodox Community.

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St Paul’s Church on West Street was Wagner’s fourth church and was personally funded at a cost of £14,000.

The town was densely populated by this point, and the railway had arrived in Brighton, bringing many visitors to the town. Cheesman was again appointed as the church builder.

Following the church’s completion Rev. Henry Wagner appointed perpetual curacy to his son Arthur Wagner, who remained in this role until his death in 1902. Arthur continued on with his father’s quest, building a further five churches, including St Bartholomew’s, and also 400 houses in the Hanover area.

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Ref: HOW 41/5 East Sussex Records Office

Clients viewed two documents relating to a dispensary on Windsor Terrace; a land conveyance dated 1848 and a contract between ‘Messrs George Cheesman and Sons’ with ‘The Building Committee of the Brighthelmston Dispensary’, dated 1 February 1849.

The contract is signed and rubber stamped by George Cheesman Snr, George Cheesman Jnr. and Thomas Cheesman. The Committee included Henry Michell Wagner, ‘clerk’, Thomas Attree, ‘Esquire’ and a number of ‘doctors of medicine’ and surgeons. The agreed cost of the dispensary was £2883.

The Cheesmans’ rise to a high status within the town secured a contract at The Royal Pavilion, making and dismantling scaffolding for the painters. Daily returns of the bricklayer’s work, which BHT Heritage clients viewed at The Keep, begun on 23 September 1850 and finished on 19 December 1850. The returns show that the labourers worked between 10 – 15 hours per day.

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The Cheesmans’ role in St Stephen’s Church was a little different to the firm’s previous projects.

The church begun its history as a ballroom in 1766 in Castle Square, built to attract the fashionable wealthy to the town. It was a popular venue for many years, but competed with The Old Ship Hotel for custom, and eventually lost out The Old Ship’s eagerness to provide new entertainment, and of course its location and sea views.

Following the ballroom’s closure, the Prince Regent seized the opportunity, while redesigning The Royal Pavilion, to convert the ballroom into a private chapel, which served George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria. It is well-known however that Queen Victoria disliked Brighton, and The Royal Pavilion. During a sell-off of parts of the Pavilion estate in 1850, the chapel was destined for demolition.

However, a claim put forward by the Bishop of Chichester stating that the chapel was consecrated and therefore could not be demolished, was accepted.

An alternative site was offered by Mary-Anne Wagner, sister to Rev. Henry Wagner, and the building was re-erected in 1852 by the Cheesman builders on Montpelier Place. It was at this stage that the neo-classical street façade and octagonal lantern, designed by George Cheesman Jnr, were added.[vi]

Rev. George Wagner, Henry Wagner’s nephew, who was appointed Minister at St Stephen’s Church, regarded it as ‘pre-eminently ugly in an architectural point of view.’[vii]

The rebuilding of St Stephen’s Church was followed by the construction of All Saints church on Compton Road in 1853, which was designed by the same architect as St Paul’s Church, Richard Cromwell Carpenter. The church’s closure and subsequent demolition was propelled by World War II bomb damage.

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Ref: PAR 263/4/1/4 East Sussex Records Office

By 1861 George Cheesman Snr was such a prolific builder within the town that he had 190 employees.[viii]

This large workforce was required, as in 1862 Cheesman was commissioned to build what would be Rev. Henry Wagner’s final church, St Anne’s on Burlington Street, not far from his first church on Eastern Road.

The contract, viewed by BHT Heritage clients at The Keep, was dated the 22 May 1862 was held between George Cheesman, Vincent Payne Freeman, George’s business partner, and the Rev. A. Cooper. Within it, it states that the building work, including the removal of scaffolding and rubbish, must be completed by the ‘1st day of May 1863’, and that the Church must be ‘fit for devine service’.

A penalty of £5 per day would be charged for a delay in completion. On the back of the contract payments for the building of the church, which began on 30 June 1862 and finished in November 1863, were recorded and stamped.

Also kept at The Keep is a letter to Rev A. Cooper from G. Cheesman, dated May 3rd 1862, accepting the contract to build St Anne’s.

In 1866 George Cheesman Snr died and the family workshop on Kensington Street was sold. The firm continued in the hands of Charles, and traded, at times, under the name of ‘Cheesman and Co.’

In 1867 a new workhouse opened on Race Hill.

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Ref: HB 103/2 East Sussex Records Office

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Ref: HB 103/2 East Sussex Records Office

The arrival of the railway had led to extensive development around the Clifton area of the town, where the Church Hill workhouse was situated.

The new workhouse could accommodate 861 people, and the transfer of ‘inmates’ from Church Hill to the new site took 10 days.[ix]

Technical drawings available to view at The Keep show plans for enlargement of the ‘lunatic ward’.

The drawings for ‘G. Cheesman & Co.’, which show an additional wing at the rear of the block, were received by the Poor Law Board on 17 June 1870, and were subsequently sealed as approved.

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Following the sale of The Pavilion estate in 1850, it was decided that the town should have a museum, and so the Great Kitchen and first floor rooms were used for this purpose for a short while.

Philip Lockwood designed a picture gallery and entrance, the work for which was carried out by the Cheesman firm.

The art gallery and museum opened in 1873.[x] When the Brighton Board of Guardians vacated the site to the west of the museum, which they had used since 1856 to provide poor relief, the site formed the newly remodelled Library.

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In 1875 Middle Street Synagogue, designed by Thomas Lainson, who also created the Wick Farm estate, was built by the Cheesman builders one road over from St Paul’s Church on West Street.

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Ref: DB/D 7/2448 East Sussex Records Office

While researching the Cheesman builders at The Keep BHT Heritage clients also viewed plans dated 1886 and signed by George Cheesman Jnr., relating to boarding house additions at Brighton College.

However we were unable to find any information to confirm whether this bid had been successful and the works had been carried out.

George Cheesman Jnr died in 1882. Projects during the late 1800s mainly consisted of residential properties, including Warleigh Road, Vere Road and Percival Terrace. By this stage Charles’ sons, Charles (b. 1843) and Frank (b. 1848) had been brought into the business.

This study was undertaken by a small group of BHT Heritage clients who were interested in developing their learning and understanding of the architectural history of the city.

They researched the Cheesman family using a range of sources, including literature, the internet, historic documents held at The Keep and information available at local museums.

[i], The History of the Workhouse, Higginbotham P., 25 January 2016

[ii], John Hoare’s Family History Site, Hoare J., 25 January 2016

[iii] Gardner J. A History of the Brighton Workhouses Brighton: James Gardner, 2012

[iv] Musgrave C. Life in Brighton Stroud: The History Press, 2011

[v] ibid

[vi] Berry S. “The Castle Inn Assembly Room, Brighton and John Crunden” The Georgian Group Journal Volume XXI England: The Georgian Group, 2013

[vii] Musgrave C. Life in Brighton Stroud: The History Press, 2011

[viii], Brighton History, 25 January 2016

[ix], MyBrightonandHove: A Community Archive, Carder T., 25 January 2016

[x], Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton and Hove, 25 January 2016