John Usher Architect and Surveyor 1822-1904
by Linda Ayres
John Usher was born in 1822 at Blunham. He was the son of the Surveyor to the River Ivel Navigation, which was eventually closed by Act of Parliament. Having acquired professional knowledge and experience in his father’s business, he came to Bedford as a young man in the 1840s, and started as a surveyor in St. Peter’s Green.
Later he built and carried on his practice of surveyor and architect in Mill Street. In about 1866 he had offices in the upper rooms of the fine old picturesque building at No. 44 High Street, a property which he shared with a wine merchant, T.T. Gray, who occupied the ground floor. Willshaw (fish game and poultry dealers), occupied the cellar and lower part of the premises.
On the sale of the High Street premises, Mr Gray built offices at 9 St. Paul’s Square, which were designed by John Usher, and both Usher and Gray moved in there. In the 1870’s Usher was joined by his nephew Mr Alfred Ernest Anthony who was initially employed as an assistant. Later Anthony was taken into partnership and from January 1880 the firm was changed to Usher and Antony. John Usher gradually withdrew from the business, and at the time of his death in 1904 it was reported that he had been a virtual recluse towards the end of his life. Thus A.E. Anthony effectively ran the practice from the mid-1880s. The partnership was finally dissolved two or three years before Usher’s death, but the firm retained the name Usher and Anthony until after the second world war.
Mr Usher was in practice at the time of the laying out of Bedford Cemetery, and he prepared the first map of the ground for the purposes of the interments.
Among the buildings or restorations of buildings which he designed and saw carried out, were in 1873, the mansion and lodges at Clapham Park for Mr. James Howard; the first part of the Bunyan rooms (the additions being also the work of the firm); Mill Street Baptist Chapel and restoration of the Howard Chapel. There were also, numerous buildings designed by the firm, such as the Baptist Chapel in Rothsay Road, the Bedford Liberal Club, the Woodlands at Clapham, and Great Barford House.
In 1867, John Usher designed his own house “Hiawatha” or “Ivel Cottage,” 6 Goldington Road. The building was a striking example of Usher’s high Victorian style, with heavily carved bargeboards, multi coloured brickwork Venetian Gothic windows and coloured tiles. The house stood derelict for many years and demolished in 1968. One of his finest surviving examples is the 1869 “Holly Lodge,” 43 The Grove.
John Usher designed the Thomas Wesley Turley Fountain which was erected in St Paul’s Square in 1870. It was opened just before Christmas that year, ‘without the least ceremony’ (in accordance with the expressed wish of the donor), and erected ‘regardless of cost’ in the Gothic Style. It stood 23ft in height on a concrete foundation 18ft square and three tiers of solid York stone steps. On the upper landing rested a massive octagonal basin of Portland stone with two dog troughs projecting from the side. The superstructure, in Ancaster stone, was intersected by an upper basin serving as a filter, and on each side of the shaft was a richly carved panel, the upper portions of which were inlaid work, majolien tiles and polished Brocatelle marble. The cost was £200. John Usher’s elaborate design was pulled down in 1880; a featureless replacement was put up on the corner of the churchyard, and the steps were used as the base for John Howard’s statue a few yards away.
Messrs Usher and Anthony were the first surveyors to the Trustees of the St. John’s Hospital, laid out Waldeck Avenue and De Parys Avenue, and said to have first planned the public park in the course of the preliminaries that led to the scheme under the St. John’s Hospital (Bedford) Act. As auctioneers, they conducted the first sale of land for St. John’s Trustees.
All through his life, Mr. Usher exercised a quiet influence in many ways. As a young man, he was a strong supporter of temperance, and a frequent chairman of the Temperance Society, and remained virtually an abstainer from alcohol to the end of his days. He was a member of the Bible Christians, and in his early days was an active reformer, above all in movements that improved the morals of the people. In these matters, it sometimes occurs that local influences are too strong for the local reformers, in his experience he believed an appeal to higher authority might bring about the desired result.
Mr. Usher was the first man in Bedford to wear a beard after a long spell of the beardless mode in the middle of the 19th century. At that time, he seems to have made quite a study of the beard as the natural adornment and protection of man, and so much was he impressed with its utility that he is said to have re-set the trend locally.
In his early years, he was a reader and a student, and always a thinker. He gave lectures and read many papers on a variety of subjects, such as ancient religious temples and similar subjects having a bearing upon his professional studies. In the course of his career, he regularly gave evidence in legal proceedings and arbitration cases. He was always a dependable and conscientious witness, who refused to prevaricate under cross-examination and there was no doubt whatsoever that property owners had assurance in the reliability of his judgement.
He used to attend Howard Chapel but during his latter years he shut himself off from the world, and joined an exclusive religious group which worshipped in the Bedford Hall in Greenhill Street, and of which he may have been regarded as leader. He had in effect retired because of his ill health leaving his nephew and partner Mr. Alfred Ernest Anthony in control of the business. He was married twice, his first wife died in 1857, who was an enthusiast in all good works, he had one daughter, and she with his second wife survived him.
John Usher passed away at his residence, Hiawatha, on Saturday November 5th 1904.
The funeral took place the following Wednesday afternoon, a service was held at “Hiawatha” before the remains were conveyed to the Cemetery, where Mr. Connor (of Eastbourne) and Mr. Newman (of St Ives) continued the funeral service, in the presence of a large congregation, and numerous representatives of “The Brethren.” Grave Ref B8.49
Messrs Freshwater and Sons, Castle Hill, were the undertakers. The coffin of polished oak with brass fittings bore the inscription “John Usher born July 2nd 1822, died 5th November 1904. His memorial does not show his name or inscription. This might have been at his request owing to the fact he became a recluse in his later life.
Bedfordshire Times & Independent 1870 & 1904
Census 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891. 1901
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