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  Thomas Prosser

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Thomas Prosser was the first architect permanently employed by the NER. being appointed on 1 December 1854, only four months after the merger which brought the North Eastern Railway into being. Prior to this, the companies which made up the NER had employed architects in private practice, such as G.T. Andrews, John Dobson and the Greens, or else made use of their engineering staff. After the Hudson debacle of 1849, the need for economy made the latter course the norm. Thus during 1849-53 the York & North Midland Railway relied on their Engineer, Thomas Cabry, only turning to Andrews for works at York Station and a modest hotel at Cattal.

The need for something different was seen by the NER Engineer in Chief, Thomas Elliot Harrison, who did much to shape the organisation of the new company. His initial proposal spoke of a 'clerk of works' to supervise repairs and alterations to existing buildings, but the concept was soon expanded into an architect, who could also handle a full range of new works. It was evidently Harrison who brought Prosser to the Board's attention, having encountered him serving as a clerk of works on the construction of John Dobson's Newcastle Central Station. Prosser went on to build up a substantial and effective office prior to his retirement, due to ill health, in 1874. He was immediately answerable to Harrison and the directors, and attended the meetings of their Locomotive & Works Committee, which scrutinised all building proposals, however trivial. Harrison and Prosser clearly enjoyed a good working relationship, the monument to which is York Station, even though this was not completed until 1877, three years after Prosser's departure. Prosser appears to have been the first architect appointed to a permanent post by any British railway, and the office he developed continued to serve the industry until the privatisation of British Rail in 1996.

Thomas Prosser was born in London in about 1817. His father, also Thomas, evidently worked for Benjamin Dean Wyatt and his brother Philip, members of  a noted architectural dynasty. Philip was able but indolent, one of his few individual commissions being the rebuilding of Wynyard Park, in County Durham, as a grand neo-classical country residence for the third Marquess of Londonderry. The elder Prosser moved north to supervise this work, which got underway in 1822, and remained with the Marquess as estate surveyor and, in a minor way, architect. Londonderry was an important coal-owner, and to serve his mines created the new port of Seaham Harbour, which is graced by Prosser's parish church of St. John the Evangelist, begun in 1836 in a rather weak late-gothic style. Prosser died at Seaham on 24 February 1842, aged only 55.

Thomas Prosser (c1817-1888)


Young Thomas grew up on the Wynyard estate and it was said that he 'ever after had a love for horsemanship', though he was 'generally in a greater hurry than his beast'. Another legacy of this country upbringing may have been the little dog which accompanied him on visits to NER building sites. While he will have learned something of building from his father, Prosser's formal training was conducted in the office of Ignatius Bonomi (1787-1870). Based in the city of Durham, Bonomi had extensive contacts among the gentry and clergy and was also Surveyor of Bridges for the county, hence his appointment to design the Skerne bridge for George Stephenson's Stockton & Darlington Railway. Bonomi was also called in to restore Wynyard after its being badly damaged by fire in 1841.

Prosser moved to Newcastle to work for John Dobson on the preparation of some of the numerous drawings required for Newcastle Central Station and then became a clerk of works on the project (completed in 1851) before setting up his own practice there. No works have been traced prior to his engagement by the NER but it is possible that Harrison may have employed his services privately for some new works on the York Newcastle & Berwick Railway (YNB), such as their Gateshead locomotive workshops.

Although York housed the NER head office, Newcastle was home to the Accountant and Engineer, Harrison having an office in Central Station with Prosser based nearby. Harrison's extensive private consultancy meant that he spent the first half of each year in London and only the second half in the North East, but this did nothing to lessen his involvement in NER business. It did mean, however, that his immediate subordinates enjoyed a degree of freedom. At the outset, he split civil engineering activities between Northern and Southern Divisions, based in Newcastle and York, under John Bourne and Thomas Cabry. These two engineers looked after maintenance and devised new works up to a certain scale, liaising with Prosser as to the buildings required. All these schemes were subject to scrutiny by Harrison. Major works were generally thought through by Harrison with details being drawn up in his office and execution supervised by his brother-in-law Robert Hodgson. In all this, Prosser and the office he built up remained responsible for the design of buildings, often with a major input from Harrison himself, and supervising their erection. This meant the whole building: Prosser's staff had to be equally capable in dealing with a large station trainshed, such as York or Leeds, a warehouse, an engine shed, and an office building.

An early work by Prosser is Durham Station, opened to passengers in 1857. The cathedral city had been bypassed by the original east coast main line, and the new station was sited on a branch to Bishop Auckland, intended to capture traffic from the Stockton & Darlington Railway. It comprised a pleasent but unremarkable Tudor-revival office range with a sturdy battlemented portico, fronting a one-platform, two-track trainshed. In the sixties, the NER embarked on a pair of links, to Gateshead and Ferryhill, which gave Durham its present place on the main line. This called for something more spacious than the original station, which was remodelled with four through tracks and a broad west (down) platform with bays. The frontage building was retained but the trainshed was superseded by an unusual design of low-level platform roofing which allowed quite long spans between columns. The result is an attractive ensemble, blending elements from both early and late years of Prosser's career.

Prosser's buildings were generally very good at meeting the functional requirements of the NER. Their aesthetic success is more patchy. Durham came out well but Harrogate Station, opened in 1862, combined another interesting platform roof, anticipating that found at Durham, with a relentlessly dull frontage of arched windows barely enlivened by the rusticated entrance in the centre. Yet on occasion Prosser  could rise to a bold dignity, as at Newcastle's Forth Goods Station, opened in two phases: 1871 and 1874.. This was the most impressive of all NER goods stations, meticulously detailed, with the grand scale of the arcaded lower wall level played off against the strings of small windows above. Inside was a single space, a vast transhipment shed with the roof spans borne on a cast-iron arcade redolent more of a passenger station.

York Station displays the strengths and weaknesses of the Harrison-Prosser partnership. The trainshed is one of the great 'cathedrals' of the Railway Age, with some exuberant and persuasive detailing, all worked through in Prosser's office on the basis of Harrison's outline. Yet the entrance building, though pleasant, dignified and carefully detailed, is very tame stuff. The main drawings for York were completed in 1873 and the finished building complies with these in all major respects but Prosser was unable to see the project through. In January 1873, the directors had appointed a Southern Division Architect, Benjamin Burleigh, to ease Prosser's workload and supervise the actual construction of the various new works at York, which also included a new goods station and engine shed. However, Prosser's health was deteriorating and he was obliged to retire in May 1874. Burleigh took his place but died two years later, and the NER had acquired two further Chief Architects by the time the station was completed in 1877, with its hotel opening a year later.

Prosser's resignation letter remarked that I ought perhaps to have taken this step sooner but I have hoped from day to day to recover so as to perform satisfactorily the duties to which I am so much attached. It would appear that he was suffering from a degenerative condition, and the directors, who received the news with regret, granted him an allowance of £300 a year, nominally in respect 'of such services as he may be able to tender the Company when specially applied to.' This continued until the end of June 1884, by which time he was living in the care of his brother Robert, who was granted a monthly allowance instead. Thomas Prosser died on 2 March 1888. He had never married, and most of his household possessions, including a substantial art collection, had been dispersed at auction in September 1882 after giving up his own home and moving into Newcastle's Union Club, prior to living with his brother.   .






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© W. Fawcett, 2011