The Burtons were commissioned to erect ‘edifices suitable
to the reception of genteel families’, but Gill Metcalfe wonders
if they’re now past their sell-by date?

All the Burton children practised archery on the archery ground at the bottom of West Hill Rd. St. Leonards

With the partial collapse of the ceiling of the Marina colonnade on the St Leonards seafront, it’s perhaps the time to look again at the legacy of James Burton and his son Decimus. Have these buildings, constructed in record time more than 150 years ago, reached their sell-by date? Was he a jerry-builder, desperate for quick a return to support his large, and growing family? Most definitely not! 

A Georgian DFL with strong London connections
The many houses, institutions, porticoes, arches and colonnades that the Burtons built in London, St. Leonards and Tunbridge Wells (and throughout the country) are monuments to the days when the classical beauty of proportion in town planning was equal to considerations of practicality. Our architectural heritage deserves our constant attention and upkeep – it’s our inheritance and responsibility – and the Georgian and Victorian eras bequeathed some wonderful examples to us.

It is usually the Victorians who amaze us with their dynamism, vision and overriding confidence.  But James Burton was born in 1761, firmly rooted in the Georgian era. He was a builder and property developer, ‘probably the most significant builder of Georgian London’ (and certainly of St Leonards-on-Sea). By the time he died in 1837 – the year Queen Victoria came to the throne – he had built over 3,000 properties.

19th century draftsman instruments

James Burton married his wife Elizabeth at 22 and they went on to have twelve children – six sons and six daughters. Many of these children had distinguished careers; including an Egyptologist and physician.  His tenth son, aptly named Decimus, trained as an architect and worked on and off with his father. The famous Georgian architect, John Nash, promoted Decimus’s early career in return for James funding the Regents Park development. In fact, much of the design work as well as for other famous classical mansions in London was later attributed to Decimus Burton rather than to Nash. 

St. Leonards. And how did it all begin?
It was James who had the idea of building a seaside resort in St Leonards-on-Sea. His plans started taking shape in 1828 when he negotiated the purchase of a strip of coast west of Hastings and part of what was Gensing Farm. This included the wooded valley and lake of Old Woman’s Tap Shaw, the picturesque setting for fine houses and villas built around what is now St Leonards Gardens. Although primarily a builder and developer, he designed many of the buildings himself. His son Decimus later purchased acres of adjacent land and in 1850 began a second phase of the development including the Mount, the Uplands and the Lawn, including landmark buildings such as North Lodge.

Mechanics and explosives
James was a man of many interests. During the Napoleonic wars, he financed and raised a troop of 1,600 skilled mechanics, The Loyal British Artificers, and appointed himself Colonel. It is not clear what he intended to do with them – a sort of Dad’s Army to defend us against French invaders? He also founded a gunpowder manufacturing company, at Powdermills, with his son William, later run by his nephew Alfred – who later became Mayor of Hastings. 

Recent references to James acknowledge his major influence in the development of Regency and Georgian building throughout Britain, yet he is barely mentioned in earlier books on architecture. Why should this be? Is it because he was seen as ‘just a builder?’ Nonsense!  We take for granted the respect and admiration in which he is held in Hastings and St Leonards, but this should be extended nationwide. 

James ‘ signature from a building contract

And now for Decimus
Decimus fares somewhat better. His name trips lightly off the respectful tongue. Was this because he had letters after his name: Decimus Burton, FRS, FRSA, FSA, FRIBA? But without his father’s introductions and his liaison with John Nash, he would have had an uphill struggle to achieve fame.

Decimus was born in Bloomsbury in 1800, but later moved to the family mansion in Kent where he went to Tonbridge school. On leaving in 1816 he then went straight to the Royal Academy of Arts, his father’s contacts enabling him to bypass being articled to an architect. His early collaboration with John Nash didn’t last, but this didn’t inhibit his progress; he went on to impose his own style on many well-known buildings in London, including the Colosseum and the Athenaeum of which he and his father were members. 

His extensive library was evidence that Decimus, like his father, was a man of wide interests In his will, he left all his books, notes, drawings and plans to the Royal Institute of British Architects. But his wishes were never carried out; instead they were distributed among members of the family – including two maiden aunts who sold their share. According to one study of the Burton family, it was this loss of documentation and records that diminished his architectural reputation. Like his father, Decimus became sidelined in the list of influential architects of the 19th century.

Those lucky enough to experience the calm elegance of houses designed by the Burtons will know at first hand the impression their great legacy bestows. Everywhere you go in St Leonards you see evidence of the extraordinary work of these two men, whether in the ‘genteel mansions’, the Assembly Rooms (now the Masonic Hall), the Royal Victoria Hotel beloved by Queen Victoria, or the little streets of terraced houses designed for servants, grooms, and washerwomen, but now in demand by the middles class. 

In 1895 the local council quietly demolished Burton’s triumphal arch on the sea-front that marked the point between East and West St Leonards. Let’s not lose more of our inheritance!  Repairing the famous Marina colonnade is the first step towards saving what was once the forefront to a charming row of shops and dainty tea-rooms with their waitresses, lace cloths and bentwood chairs. There is still a lot more to do.

We are indebted to Dana Arnold for her study ‘Who were the Burtons?’ for some references in this article.
The Burton’s Blue Plaque can be seen at The Royal Victoria Hotel, Marina, St Leonards-on-Sea.
Hastings Museum holds an impressive archive of the work of both James and his son Decimus.

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