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Stephen Geary? ……………………………. Anyone?

No, I must admit it wasn’t a name that I was familiar with, but Mr Geary definitely left his mark on both the advancement of mankind and also London, although probably more so for the latter.

Over 160 years after his death, Geary is tucked away right at the back of history cupboard, in fact there doesn’t seem to be a picture or a likeness of him anywhere although Geary has amassed quite a lot in the historical credit column.

Geary was born in Dean’s Yard, Westminster, on 31 August 1797. Well there’s a bit of a misnomer for a start. Late eighteenth century and a yard. That conjures up squalor and degradation, you can almost smell the filth!

However, Deans Yard comprises most of the remaining precincts of the monastery or abbey of Westminster and is now known to the inmates of Westminster School as the “Green”

He was baptised on 16th September at St. Margarets, Westminster, his parents listed as Stephen & Ann. So possibly given his surroundings we can assume that his was a fairly well to do family and lifestyle.

He first comes to attention when he gains an apprenticeship aged 13 with the architect Thomas Leverton, who design many grand houses and also the Grocers Hall which stood on Poultry.

On leaving Levertons practice he enrolled at the Royal Academy architecture schools and exhibited drawings and models at the Royal Academy on six occasions.

As an architect, possibly his career would show him to be a bit of a journeyman. I could only find four projects against his name, but we’ll come back to these later. He seems to have turned his career focus to something that I always think of as being synonymous with the Victorian age that of invention.

In the list of British Patents he is credited with

  1. ‘Improved Fuel’

  2. ‘Wood Paving’

  3. ‘Street Watering Machine’

  4. ‘Fire proofing buildings and fire escapes’

  5. ‘Street Watering Machine’

  6. ‘Supplying piped water to streets for cleaning and fire fighting

  7. ‘Motive Power’

Unfortunately I can’t find any pictorial record concerning these patents, some of which were exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

However, one tangible link could be regarding the patent for Wood Paving. Although I have no evidence to support the theory I believe that the date of Wood Paving patent in 1839 coincides with a large trial of wood block paving that was used in London streets in the same year. The only surviving stretch of these wooden cobbles is on Chequer Street EC1, just across from Bunhill Fields. Although unpopular due to traction problems when wet, wood was widely use in the City as it reduced noise and was still in use in the 1930’s.

So it seems he was quite a prolific inventor, although nothing major, so tlets turn to his architectural offerings, as one of which is probably known world wide.

His first architectural credit is St Pancras Collegiate School, London. Designed but not built, so not a great start.

His second is a bit more ethereal, given the times that he lived in.

I think its fair to say that a majority of Britains lower classes sought some respite from time to time in the bottom of a glass. The Beerhouse Act of 1830 freed up the selling of alcohol and anyone was entitled to open a Beerhouse after paying the sum of two Guineas. This lead to a huge expansion of licensed premises, however, quantity and quality did not always go hand in hand.

Someone, who’s name is lost in the mists of time came up with the novel idea of elevating the run of the mill Beerhouse above and beyond the spit and sawdust level of establishment that proliferated. These highly ornate and sumptuous decorated premises later became known a Gin Palaces and Stephen Geary is credited with the design of some of the first. The only remaining building has gone the same was as so many London pubs and closed, now open as a restaurant. It was called the Bell and stood on Pentonville Road from from 1832 until the mid 1960s. Luckily the exterior still remains, but looks a shadow of its 19th century glory (inset).

His next effort has more of an effect on the capital, but possibly not in the way he intended.

Geary designed an edifice that had in not have been commissioned would have lead to millions of commuters catching trains at Battlebridge Station rather than Kings Cross.

Battle Bridge was an ancient crossing point on the Fleet River, wrongly attributed to being the site of the battle between Boudica and the Roman. Through the Tudor period it was a small hamlet which grew over the centuries to become part of the late Georgian and early Victorian metropolis.

King George IV was not the most popular of monarchs and was somewhat of a recluse during the latter part of his ten year reign which came to an end when he died in 1830, so when it was proposed that a magnificent structure glorifying his reign should be created, some eyebrows must have been raised, and then raised even further when it was decided to fund the project by public donation.

Its unclear if there was some type of competition to pick the best design or if Geary was handed what would turn into something of a hot potato. It appears that not only was he made responsible for the design, but also the raising of the subscriptions to pay for it.

It became clear early on that the public’s interest in glorifying this recently departed monarch was not high in the nations psyche.

In all £25 was spent on building the monument, just short of £3,000 in todays value. Geary’s design was continually pared down, until no further savings could be made from reducing its size and ornamentation, so changes were made to the materials used.

The monument was sixty feet high and topped by an eleven-foot-high statue of the king and was constructed of bricks and mortar, and finished in a manner that gave it the appearance of stone, at least to the general population. To those that knew and commented on such things, the structure was considered an eyesore, with the writer Thomas Thornbury commenting that it was “a ridiculous octagonal structure crowned by an absurd statue

To compound the misery of this unloved structure it was badly sited and became a traffic hazard standing as it did where New Road (later Euston Road), Gray’s Inn Road, and Pentonville Road met.

By 1842 the Kings statue had been removed and was replaced by a Camera Obscura with a Police Station and latterly a Public House in the main body of the building. By 1845 what was widely regarded as London’s worst architectural joke was unceremoniously torn down but lived on in the name of the area to be commemorated in 1852 with the building of Kings Cross Station.

Geary also had another unsuccessful connection with the area to be known as Kings Cross. In the 1820’s he drew up plans along with an Italian music teacher Gesualdo Lanza to build a lavish pleasure gardens for the newly formed Panharmonium Company on what was shown on maps of the era as undeveloped land to the south. The pleasure gardens never came to fruition, and so the North London equivalent of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were never realised, but one building he designed did get built on the site and was later used as the Kings Cross Theatre.

So far I suppose that you could say his career had been less than auspicious, but its for his final project that he should be remembered.

In 1836 he established the London Cemetery Company, the commercial force behind both Highgate and Nunhead Cemeteries. Geary conducted the initial surveys for the proposed Highgate site.

In 1839 The original or western part of Highgate Cemetery was opened. On Monday 20 May 1839, Highgate (West) Cemetery was dedicated to St. James by the Right Reverend Charles James Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London. Fifteen acres were consecrated for the use of the Church of England, and two acres set aside for Dissenters.

Geary was responsible for the design of two of the most outstanding architectural features of the western cemetery. Possibly picking up on the growing interest for all things Egyptian, he designed the Egyptian Avenue and catacombes, transforming that part of North London into Cairo or Luxor.

He also had the idea of locating another set of catacombs beneath the roots of a large Cedar tree.

It was also a very astute financial move, as the fashionable and well off clamoured to buy their plots in advance of their demise. The average price for a plot was £120 (around £13,000 today).

In the 1850s Geary and his family were living at number 19 Euston Place (now buried under Euston Square Underground Station), when he contracted cholera and subsequently died.

He was buried at Highgate Cemetery in a very simple grave, the inscription reading ‘Sacred to the memory of Stephen Geary Esq. architect and founder of this cemetery who departed this life August 28th 1854 in the 57th year of his age’.

So those were the works of a man now largely forgotten, but one who in some ways left his mark on the capital, oh yes and one last connection, his Great-Great Grandson is ex Chancellor of the Exchequer and current Editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne.

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