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Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire$

G. A. Bremner

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198713326

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198713326.001.0001

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Early Colonial Architecture

(p.19) 1 Beginnings
Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire

Daniel Maudlin

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the colonial architecture of the early British empire. Initially, colonists built the buildings they needed to survive and prosper in a range of locations and climates. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries colonial activity in the British Atlantic world, including Ireland, was typified by large-scale settlement and displacement of the indigenous population. Under the East India Company on the Indian subcontinent, however, colonial activity was largely restricted to trade, administration, and the government of the native population, whereas in West Africa it was exclusively related to trade. Across all these architectures there was a constant tension between the powerful universalizing force of a neoclassical design culture and the contingencies of local building production. However, overall, we may conclude that a coherent, intercontinental form of British imperial architecture was established by the late eighteenth century.

Keywords:   Atlantic world, early colonial, British empire, classicism, vernacular, architecture, India

During the earliest phases of British imperial expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a range of similar-looking buildings were erected in the Atlantic colonies to the west and on the Indian subcontinent to the east. Indeed, by the later eighteenth century, from fort to church to house, the consistency of neoclassical architectural forms, spaces, and ornament had given a remarkable visual and spatial coherence to the colonial built environment. Although self-evident, this phenomenon nevertheless requires further examination. As soon as one digs down into the complexities of designing buildings for different people in different places at different times, a range of architectural contingences, adaptations, and hybridities emerge that can be seen to subvert British architectural norms on foreign soil. This chapter therefore sets out the physical and conceptual parameters that frame our understanding of the British empire’s early architectural history. Looking at these in practice, it considers in particular the craft-based production and consumption of neoclassical architecture as it related to key aspects of the early colonial experience: what here will be referred to as landfall, government, religion, and the home.

The historic period covered by this chapter begins with the foundation of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and ends with American independence in 1783. Within this period the geographical parameters of the British empire extended to the British Atlantic world of the thirteen American colonies; Maritime Canada, including Quebec and river navigations to the Great Lakes (which became British territories following British victory in the Seven Years’ War (1754–63) against France); various islands in the Caribbean; and the fortified trading ports of West Africa serving the Atlantic slave trade. To the east it included the territories of the quasi-governmental East India Company (EIC), consisting of the three presidencies of Bengal (centred on Calcutta in eastern India), Bombay to the west, and Madras in the south.1 The early British empire also included the four nations of the (p.20) British Isles: England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, where Westminster’s rule over the ‘Celtic nations’ is considered by some as a process of internal colonialism with activities such as the Protestant Anglo-Irish settlement of Ireland and the pacification and commercial exploitation of the Scottish Highlands continuing far into the early modern period.2 The history of the early British empire must also account for the impact of empire on the home nations. Britain was transformed by the wealth of trade goods and raw materials that entered ports such as Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow supplying the Industrial Revolution, enriching merchants and introducing new worlds to British culture, including ‘exotic’ art and design traditions (see Chapter 4). While many of the architectural themes considered here extended into the nineteenth century, this chapter does not include the architectural history of the independent United States, or other territories colonized post-1783, such as Western Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, or Australia, which are covered elsewhere in this volume.

Colonial Cultural Landscapes

Within these parameters of time and geography each site of colonial activity was colonized and settled through a specific set of historic circumstances and by a specific group of people (individuals, private and semi-public organizations, and government bodies operating independently or in partnership). Accordingly, different buildings were needed by different people for different purposes in different places at different times. Early colonial architecture, therefore, compromises a rich built environment of towns, cities, forts, government offices, commercial offices, court houses, churches, inns, farmhouses, townhouses, and country houses. This array of buildings reflects the complex cultural landscapes that emerged within the empire, where occupation and inhabitation by a group of people—in this case British colonists—changed the physical landscape in a way that not only came to represent their values but also, in the process, changed and redefined their sense of identity.3 However, across the length and breadth of these landscapes two building types stand out as forms of universal architecture: forts and churches. In British North America pioneer town-settlements and small colonial dwelling-houses can be added as a third early archetype; this is simply because in British America early forts were generally built to defend settlers, whereas in British India and West Africa, where settlement was limited, they were built to defend trade.4 These were the pioneer species of empire-building, providing physical and spiritual sanctuary in alien, often hostile, lands. As colonies became established the need arose for on-site colonial government to run day-to-day affairs and, therefore, colonial (p.21) government buildings to house its functions and rituals. By the later eighteenth century public buildings also became a common type.

Housing is more complicated. Patterns of colonial house building vary considerably across the empire in relation to patterns of settlement. For example, Massachusetts—one of the six most northerly of the thirteen American colonies that constituted New England—is famously associated with settlement by Puritan emigrants in the seventeenth century. The Puritans were a devout Protestant Christian religious group who eschewed luxury and wealth, valued close(d) social groups, and were intent on becoming self-supporting farming communities. Therefore, the early colonial architecture of Massachusetts is typified by small towns, modest meeting-houses, and small farmhouses. British colonists in India were very different people from those in New England. In India colonial activities were dominated by the EIC, a London-based joint-stock company, and were focused not on settlement and farming but on extracting profit for its agents, directors, and stock holders. By the later eighteenth century profits mainly came from export (notably opium to China) and through local tax revenues. Therefore, early British colonists in India were mostly male merchants, administrators, and military officers in the employ of the EIC. These men looked to return to Britain for a life of comfortable, moneyed retirement. Indeed, these so-called nabobs left a rich architectural heritage of retirement villas, often along the English south coast, embellished with Indian architectural fragments recalled from memory such as the ‘verandah’ (a projecting open sun-porch). In India the EIC built forts, docks, administrative complexes, club houses, and churches, not farmhouses. Settlement by British colonists and the associated building of homes, especially in the interior of the subcontinent, did not take place on a significant scale until direct rule in the second half of the nineteenth century and the establishment of the governmental apparatus and administrative class of the British Raj.

The slave-plantations of the southern American colonies and the Caribbean also developed unique settlement patterns and housing needs. Where rural New England was characterized by an architecturally rich patchwork of small holdings and small towns, the landscape of the South and Caribbean was turned to vast single-owner plantations where cotton, rice, and sugar were produced by slave labour. Here there were very few early modern houses: one plantation house per plantation, plus the rudimentary, hut-like dwellings provided for slaves. However, in contrast to the modesty of the typical New England farmhouse, plantation houses were of a scale and luxury that rivalled many British country houses. Building in West Africa was even more limited where it was restricted almost exclusively to forts or fortified port-towns built as trading posts and containment centres for African slaves bound for the Caribbean or North America. It should also be remembered that many British country houses were financed by profits from the slave trade, sugar, and cotton, or more directly through plantation ownership. For example, Saltram House in Devon, today owned by the National Trust and celebrated for its interiors by the architect Robert Adam, was the seat of the Parker family who profited from the Caribbean sugar trade (for the impact of colonial trade on the metropolis, see Chapter 4, pp. 126–40).

Craft, Design, and Taste

The cultural landscape of colonial architecture is further complicated when the processes of building manufacture and construction are taken into account. From region to region there are myriad differences even when comparing like with like, such as Anglican churches. In a pre-industrial society such as the early British empire, building construction relied heavily on the availability of local materials. Small components such as door handles and window frames could be shipped, but the main mass of a building—the walls and roof—needed a ready source close to hand. This depended upon local climate and geology, whether timber in North America, stone in Scotland, brick in southern England, or coral-blocks in the Caribbean. While unwanted variations in the appearance of materials could often be hidden beneath a veneer of plaster or paint, the structural qualities of different materials could not. This led to regional distinctiveness in the design and appearance of buildings according to factors such as how high a material allowed walls to be raised, how thick they needed to be to support floor and roof loads, or how wide a single-span interior space could be built. Climate led to regional inventions emerging where colonists found themselves forced to adapt standard building types to often extreme weather conditions such as the widespread introduction of open porches and balconies to counter the heat in both India and the American South; the introduction of detached summer kitchens in Canada to keep the swarms of flies away from the main house; hurricane-proofing in the Caribbean; or the prominence of fully enclosed storm porches to keep the cold, wet weather out in Highland Scotland. Consequently the craftsmen who designed and made buildings also changed their practices in response to regional conditions.

Moreover, in the settled urban populations of colonial America, the specific skills needed by craftsmen to work different indigenous woods and stone led to the establishment of regional craft centres which subsequently developed their own traditions and distinct practices by the mid- to late eighteenth century. Thus, buildings were both produced and consumed locally, yet conceived within an intercontinental cultural space. Colonial craftsmen were also exposed to the craft traditions of the colonized culture. In some colonies this led to new hybrid architectures where imported British design fused with indigenous craft traditions, while in others there was no cultural exchange at all. New England, for example, was viewed by the Puritans as a tabula rasa—an empty virgin wilderness—where they could make a new, godly, civilization. They did not consider the indigenous Native American population they encountered as a ‘civilization’ (a culture with its own architectural traditions), so did not consider indigenous design when building their churches and homes. In complete contrast, the early British colonists in India encountered the highly sophisticated culture of the Mughal Empire with its rich and, to British eyes, fantastical architectures and material culture. As such, when it came to building, British colonists in India had to build within an already complex built environment and designers often incorporated local motifs into their work. Furthermore, in contrast to North America, there were few colonial craftsmen, so the British were able to draw upon highly developed indigenous craft centres (p.23) (whose artisans often introduced their own construction techniques and decorative details to the designs provided by the British).

However, despite all these variations and contingencies, the buildings of the early British empire did have an architectural coherence: a sameness that is immediately recognizable. Buildings built by the British in Canada, India, and the Caribbean for all their regional differences were built by people who belonged to the same culture. In the early modern period architectural sameness meant the common spatial and decorative language of neoclassicism, with white external finishes whether in stone, render, or painted timber. This approach was universally adopted by architects, builders, carpenters, and homeowners by the later eighteenth century (regional vernacular forms that were commonplace in the seventeenth century were gradually straightened out, given symmetry, and codified through the eighteenth century). As such, the design history of the British empire within the early modern period is part of the wider history of post-Renaissance Europe and the ongoing reinterpretations of classicism (the art and design of ancient Rome and, later, ancient Greece) that defined European art and design from the fifteenth century onwards. British design in the mid- to late eighteenth century was dominated by the strict symmetries, architectural proportions, and stripped-back decorative systems of northern European (Protestant) neoclassicism, which is often referred to in Britain as Georgian (but is also common to northern France, the Low Countries, northern Germany, and Scandinavia). As such, British design was by no means unique, but, in parallel with and at times overlapping with the French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish, it was Britain that held political and economic dominion over the geographic regions of the British empire, and a version of plain neoclassicism was exported and imposed that soldiers, traders, and emigrants would have both recognized and identified as British.

From the perspective of the consumer (the observer, user, or occupant) in the context of an extended overseas empire, a common architectural language was an important asset as it gave visual, experiential, and spatial coherence to a geographically diffuse culture. Arriving in port in Bristol or Calcutta, a ship’s company would have been met with the reassuring view of familiar buildings.5 Once inside an inn, tavern, or private residence, those same travellers may have had difficulty knowing exactly in which part of the world they were save for the local weather (hot and humid in Calcutta, cold and damp in Bristol). A common architecture communicated familiarity and a shared sense of identity and belonging but, more than this ready reassurance, classicism also had profound cultural symbolism. For British social groups, neoclassicism was a universally recognized standard of ‘good taste’, which was seen as maintaining and communicating particular social standards. Good taste in design represented adherence to a set of ‘British’ values that neoclassicism was understood to embody from education to morality to godliness, domesticity, good governance, (p.24) and modernity.6 This culturally coded language was read and understood by visually informed Britons throughout Britain and the wider British world whether they be farmers in Canada, EIC officers, or plantation owners in Jamaica. However, it was at the same time incomprehensible to indigenous populations who did not share this common culture and were not familiar with its visual symbolism. Thus, neoclassicism maintained social groups or hierarchies and served both to include and exclude.7 Indeed, with time, many colonized peoples, whether they be Native Americans, Indian Sepoys serving with the EIC, Irish Gaels, or African slaves, learnt to read a very different set of meanings into British neoclassical buildings, including fear, violence, and oppression.

Trans-colonialism and the Transmission of Ideas

Neoclassical design was disseminated and maintained across the vast geography of Britain’s empire by the ships that ploughed the various shipping routes between British ports, North America, the Caribbean, West Africa, and east into Asia. As a set of abstract design principles, neoclassicism could be carried in printed books, commissioned plans, or as knowledge embedded in the skills of a migrant builder. For example, architectural pattern books produced in London were widely available in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world, and were known to be used by colonial craftsmen.8 Organizations such as the EIC, the British Army, and the Church of England commissioned forts, churches, and entire settlements overseas which were either drawn up in Britain prior to departure or designed on arrival by in-house surveyors or engineers. Either way, identifiably British design was effectively transmitted from Britain to the wider British colonial world.

Design practices also followed diverse migration and trade networks as craftsmen moved between colonies. For example, the model for British Canadian farmhouses came not from Britain but from New England as the post-independence Loyalist exodus from that part of the newly established United States included a large number of craftsmen who, in turn, trained apprentices in Canada. The stream of architectural ideas also flowed back into Britain. While, for good or ill, neoclassicism stood out as identifying Britain and British culture in India, Mughal and Hindu architectural motifs stood out as exotic and ‘exciting’ when used to adorn (p.25) buildings such as the Prince Regent’s seaside palace at Brighton, or a nabob’s villa in Sidmouth. As more recent interpretations of history would suggest, including the impact of post-colonial studies, this understanding of how neoclassicism was disseminated within Britain and the wider British world must recognize that both the colonizer and the colonized were transformed by the experience.9 It also acknowledges that architects and builders did not necessarily take their lead from the metropolis, but that regional influence was a substantive factor also.10 This trans-colonial or ‘transnational’ model of overlapping spheres of influence linked by networks of exchange transcends the ‘nation’ as the primary narrative and has largely replaced the ‘outward ripple’ or centre-periphery model in what has become known as New Imperial History—an approach that has had a strong influence in shaping geographically contiguous fields of inquiry such as Atlantic History.11 However, British and American architectural history has been slow to consider the implications of this thinking on our understanding of building design, production, and use in the early modern period. Currently only a handful of studies on the early modern period—mostly referenced in this chapter—by a small number of scholars such as Bernard L. Herman, Peter Guillery, Carl Lounsbury, and Louis Nelson have moved beyond conventional national narratives in taking a more transnational perspective.12

The remainder of this chapter will take this perspective in examining some of the key public and private spaces that framed life in the early colonial period, including early settlements and fortifications, government and public buildings, as well as religious and domestic spaces. Besides these key spaces, and only touched upon in this chapter, was the vernacular or everyday built environment of ports, warehouses, storehouses, and factories (spinning cotton grown by African slaves on American plantations). While perhaps lacking architectural expression, these utilitarian buildings were arguably the most common building type within the British empire, making up a significant element of the built environment in every port, city, and town from Boston to Bristol, Calcutta to Cardiff. Monumental projects such as Jesse Hartley’s Albert Docks, Liverpool, would follow in the mid- to late nineteenth century, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these buildings were typically simple box-like structures which in their geometry of form and plan and regular arrangement of windows nevertheless observed the rules of what can be called ‘vernacular neoclassicism’, as executed by skilled but anonymous masons and house carpenters.13 That is, the small-scale, everyday buildings of the high street, farm, and harbour front of the later eighteenth century may have been (p.26) buildings designed and made by unknown hands, but they were nonetheless works of neoclassical architecture.


In the context of the early British empire, landfall meant the first arrival of British colonists in a new and unfamiliar land where their presence was more often than not challenged by the indigenous population and/or by other colonial powers. Therefore, the most common landfall building works of Britain’s earliest colonial ventures were fortifications. The term ‘fort’ simply denotes a defensible structure that could be a single building or a large compound enclosing a military garrison or a pioneer settlement. Forts were built to defend colonists from the natives, pirates, and other colonial powers whether by EIC engineers in Madras or pioneer farmers in New England. A fort or fortified settlement with high, thick walls had two roles: to defend a settlement from attack, and to appear strong. Where pioneer settlements often consisted of poorly built temporary dwellings, the fort was a symbol of colonial rule as well as a sanctuary from attack and was intended to convey the idea of British authority to indigenous peoples and/or other colonial powers, as well as providing physical strength. In terms of design, British imperial fortifications of the seventeenth and eighteenth century for the most part shared a common architectural pattern language of geometric plans—triangles, octagons, rectangles, and stars—with high walls and projecting triangular bastions.14 This formula placed British colonial fortifications within the wider context of contemporary European fortifications. In the sixteenth century the acute return angles of the star-shaped fort, including the projecting triangular bastion, came to typify military architecture across Europe as engineers responded to the rules of post-Renaissance classical architecture and the new technology of cannon (with new architectural consequences for issuing and receiving fire).

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.1. A Mappe of the Somer Isles and Fortresses, from Captain John Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles (1624) (Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries).

The first British settlement in the New World, Jamestown, was established as the capital of the Virginia Plantation by the Virginia Company of London in 1607. Jamestown was initially called James Fort, reflecting the close connection between forts and early British settlement in America. A 1608 sketch by Pedro Zunida, ambassador to King Phillip III of Spain, depicts a small settlement sheltered by a triangular-plan fort with projecting corner bastions. Like other early fortified settlements in North America, James Fort was most likely built of timber palisades. Little is known of the first dwellings built by the colonists in James Fort and similar settlements in British North America, but the need for quick construction suggests simple vernacular structures built from local materials. Shortly after the foundation of Jamestown, the Virginia Company founded its second Atlantic colony of Bermuda in 1612, where stone-built geometric forts—the triangular-plan Smiths Fort, the semi-circular Pagetts Fort, and the circular Warwicks Fort—as (p.27) well as numerous square-plan blockhouses, were built quickly along the coast to defend the island (Figure 1.1).15

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.2. The ‘Indian Village of Pomeiooc’, from Theodor de Bry’s ‘America’ (1590), after a drawing of John White (© The British Library Board).

To the north of Jamestown in New England, British forces were also busy building timber forts such as that at Castle William, Boston, founded in 1634. This simple structure was rebuilt in 1701 using extensive earthwork ramparts, and at this time named Castle William after King William III. It was later rebuilt to a five-sided plan by American forces in 1776 when it was abandoned by the British (and renamed Fort Adams after Revolutionary hero James Adams). Despite these developments, it should be noted that fort architecture per se was neither introduced by nor limited to European colonialists. A published engraving of John White’s 1585 watercolour of the fortified settlement of Pomeiooc in the Outer Banks (present day North Carolina), for instance, depicts an indigenous defensive enclosure containing numerous, single-span, curved-roof dwellings of rectangular plan, covered with bark or plant-fibre matting (Figure 1.2).16

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.3. Eighteenth-century etched mirror picture depicting Fort St George, Port of Madras (courtesy of Thomas Coulborn & Sons).

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.4. Cape Coast Castle, Ghana (after Greenhill), 1682.

(p.28) At much the same time in Asia (1639), the EIC founded Fort St George, Madras (Figure 1.3). Fort St George featured the same arrangement of high stone walls and star-shaped bastions. Reflecting the Company’s concern for maritime trade, with limited interest for inland conquest during this period, the only access to the fort was via a water-gate. The Company also built Fort William, Calcutta, in 1696 (p.29) (see Figure 8.1).17 West Africa is the exception to this seventeenth-century pattern of geometric colonial fort-building. In British West Africa colonial forts were not the first buildings—with churches, offices, and houses usually following—but the only ones to be built. In the early colonial period there was never any intention of settling or governing West Africa, and forts were established exclusively as defensible trading centres for gold, ivory, and the transatlantic trade in slaves (most fell into disuse with the decline of the slave trade in the nineteenth century).18 The first of these forts was founded at Kormantin in coastal Ghana in 1631. These forts rarely followed the European model of geometric-plan and projecting bastions. Most were very basic providing only rough shelter and necessary defence, generally from other colonial powers attacking from the sea, not local African rulers (indeed most forts paid ground rent to a local ruler). Yamyamacunda, for example, was founded on the Gambia River in the 1730s and consisted only of a collection of huts in the indigenous vernacular style. In West Africa building was functional and expedient; buildings were not intended to last, and architecture had no representational role to play.19 The most architecturally significant fort in West Africa was Cape Coast Castle captured by the Royal Africa Company from the Swedish in 1664 and expanded in the 1670s to form a typical, triangular-plan European fort with stone bastions (Figure 1.4).20

(p.30) Early colonial fort architecture can be considered within the same design tradition as British forts of the period such as the Royal Citadel, Plymouth, built on the orders of Charles II during the Dutch Wars (1664–7). This typology was carried to and established in Ireland, too. In Ulster (present day Northern Ireland), for example, a colonial venture to settle Catholic Ireland with Protestant Scots and English (on land grants known as ‘plantations’) was established under the Stuart rulers of England and Scotland. From 1610 through to the 1630s, across the modern counties of Donegal, Cavan, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Londonderry, and Armagh, lands and titles were confiscated from the hereditary Irish Gaelic nobility and the peasantry forcibly cleared from the land (new land grants stipulated that no tenancies on plantations were to be given to the native Irish). Settlement under the plantation system was highly organized and administered by and from Westminster. Building regulations stated that all plantations must erect a ‘castle’ and a ‘strong court or bawn’ or fortified enclosure constructed of stone and lime. Designed and built by migrant craftsmen from Scotland and England, plans for these defensive complexes reveal geometrically planned bawns with projecting corner bastions, as seen at Manorhamilton, Co. Lentrim, built by ‘undertaker’ Sir Frederick Hamilton in the 1630s (for more on Ireland, see Chapter 3, pp. 87–98).21

As colonies were pacified, early fortified settlements eventually yielded to urban planning. Towards the end of the seventeenth century in British North America the capital of the Virginia Plantation was moved from Jamestown to an inland site known as Middle Plantation when the Jamestown state house burned down in (p.31) 1698. The new settlement was renamed Williamsburg by Royal Governor Francis Nicholson after William III. The new, unfortified town was laid out to a grid-plan by government surveyor Theodorick Bland and centred on the existing structure of the College of William and Mary (for Williamsburg, see Chapter 5, pp. 185–6).

Nicholson’s colonial career as a British officer gives us an insight into the transatlantic processes that led to the foundation of settlements and their associated fortifications. After establishing Williamsburg, Nicholson went on to serve in various imperial campaigns, including the successful expedition to capture Port Royal in Nova Scotia from the French Acadians in 1710, where he oversaw the construction of Fort Anne and the town of Annapolis, the provincial capital until the foundation of Halifax in 1748. The present star-shaped structure of Fort Anne, with heavy earthwork ramparts, was built during King George’s War in the 1740s.

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.5. Thomas Holme, A portraiture of the city of Philadelphia in the province of Pennsylvania in America (1683) (Athenaeum of Philadelphia).

A decade prior to the foundation of Williamsburg by Nicholson, the city of Philadelphia was founded on the Delaware River by the Quaker William Penn in 1681 as a utopian planned-city, the capital of the Pennsylvania Colony (the lands were gifted to Penn by Charles II as repayment of a debt). The plan, designed by Penn, was a hierarchical grid centred on a municipal square, although Penn’s grid was compromised from the outset with dense housing built along the waterfront and High Street (Figure 1.5; see also Chapter 2, p. 62).22 Earlier British (p.32) colonial towns were laid out to grid plans such as New Haven (1638), but, significantly, Penn’s plan for Philadelphia included public squares as well as the central civic centre. Furthermore, and most importantly in terms of the evolution of American city planning, Philadelphia was not fortified or centred on a fort (although it was close to the fortified Swedish settlement of Fort Cristina founded 1638, and Fort Beversreede built by the Dutch in 1648).

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.6. ‘A View of Halifax Drawn from Ye Topmasthead [1750]’, Moses Harris (1750) (Nova Scotia Archives).

Despite rapid urban growth in some colonial cities, the early eighteenth century saw ongoing military building activity in the Atlantic colonies as the British government fought the French and later its own American colonists. Prominent among British North American fortified settlements and forts in this later period is Fort George, Halifax, Nova Scotia, overlooking Halifax harbour and built by the British in 1749, one of several forts and blockhouses initially built to defend against attack from the French and the native Mic Mac Indians. Fort George originally consisted of a flat earthwork plinth topped with timber palisades (Figure 1.6). The present day, eight-sided, star-shaped stone structure was completed in 1856.

By the late eighteenth century (1773) the EIC had also rebuilt Fort William in Calcutta following its fall to the nawab of Bengal in 1756. While in Britain at this time, Fort George, Inverness, was also being erected in the Scottish Highlands. Fort George, built between 1748 and 1757, is a trapezoid-plan structure with projecting triangular bastions, again built with extensive earth and stonework ramparts. The interior also comprises the typical regular arrangement of offices, barracks, etc. Fort George is also an imperial fort. It was built by the British (p.33) (Westminster) government following the failed Jacobite Uprising (1745–6) to ensure that the Highland clans could not be raised again in rebellion against the Hanoverian crown. Significantly, Fort George overlooks the entrance to Loch Ness and the Great Glen, and therefore controlled access between Europe and the central Highlands.

An overview of early British defensive settlements from Jamestown to Ulster reveals that there was a clear universal system of fort building and town planning across the British empire characterized by simple geometric configurations. Plans, surveyors’ chains (for laying out sites), building tools, and small building components regularly formed part of a ship’s cargo alongside other supplies. Settlement parties also often included trained military engineers or surveyors capable of producing a simple geometric plan on landfall. Thus, whether transmitted from Britain to Bermuda or Madras, in print, or in the imagination of a military surveyor, architectural plans and their circulation gave a distinct degree of formal coherence to colonial settlements of the early British empire.

Good Government

Although more detailed accounts of state and civic architectures are given in subsequent chapters of this volume, for the period under discussion here it is nevertheless important to outline the key attributes as they were seen to develop across the British world during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One such attribute is that the meanings conveyed by the architecture of state—through its decoration, materials, or scale—was frequently of equal value to its utility. This kind of architecture included structures such as seats of legislature, law courts, town halls, state houses, government offices, and official residences, as well as civic infrastructure such as roads and harbours. State architecture was intended not only to represent the power and authority of the state but also to signify other values held to be true by the nation state such as morality, justice, and godliness. With the exception of West Africa, where no lands or peoples were colonized in this period, buildings of this sort were needed throughout the empire. Once a territory had been claimed, conquered, and pacified, it had to be governed—although this did not necessarily mean the governance of British colonists as was the pattern in North America. The indigenous population of those parts of India under EIC rule also had to be governed, taxed, and made accountable to Company law. Hence buildings in India were required to house British officials who administered trade relations and who governed over the native population.

The eighteenth century saw a building boom in urban civic architecture throughout Britain and its empire.23 With few exceptions, these buildings were designed according to the architectural conventions of the metropolis, namely neoclassicism.24 Furthermore, whether in India or North America, the forms and (p.34) motifs of classicism—columns, porticoes, and cornices—were intended to convey much the same cultural values, whether a law court or state house, in a commonly understood visual language. However, while forts can be understood as a pioneer species of architecture, civic buildings were required only where a colony had a significant population to govern. In British North America this meant governance over the white, European colonial population; whereas, in eighteenth-century India, it meant the EIC’s rule over the indigenous population (where Company rule existed). In America a significant colonial population meant the existence of local craft centres, resulting in public buildings often, though not always, being designed by colonial craftsmen rather than a British architect. Such buildings were also often financed by local government, or privately owned, as in the case of governor’s residences. Therefore, while classicism prevailed as the common architectural language of British colonial government in North America, there was also a large element of regional variation evident as craftsmen in different locations, cities, and towns developed their own distinct character. For example, by the later eighteenth century the city of Philadelphia had a thriving community of craftsmen, the Carpenter’s Company, with their own impressive neoclassical guild hall, Carpenter’s Hall, designed by the Scottish-born, Philadelphia architect Robert Smith in 1770. The neoclassical Pennsylvania State House (1732–5) was also design by local master-builder Edmund Woolley, an early member of the Carpenter’s Company (see Plate 1).

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.7. ‘The Bodleian Plate’ of Williamsburg, Virginia (c.1740), showing the College of William and Mary (top), the Capitol (middle left), the ‘Wren Building’ (middle), and the Governor’s Palace (middle right).

Public buildings in British America were typically modelled on English examples such as the Assize Courts, York (1773–2), by John Carr, as their function and modes of use were founded on the routines and ceremonies of English statecraft. However, the seats of regional colonial government and local legislatures varied considerably in size, form, and decoration. Broadly speaking, in addition to the variances in regional craft traditions, public buildings in cities and ports tended towards more metropolitan, fashionable tastes arriving on ship from London, whereas remote rural counties controlled by leading families tended towards conservatism in design. In the rural Chesapeake, for example, a region dominated by tobacco plantations, substantial, purpose-built court houses and town halls such as those of Virginia county first appeared in the 1730s and were relatively modest single-storey buildings with hipped roofs and low flanking arcades forming a ‘piazza’ to the front. This was a device borrowed from the Capitol Building in Williamsburg (1701–5) designed by Henry Car, who had previously worked on the hipped roof ‘Queen Anne’ style College of William and Mary (1695–1700), reputedly designed, in London, by Sir Christopher Wren (Figure 1.7).25

Although the formal and spatial resonances between public buildings in Britain and the North American colonies reflect their common functions and rituals, they also carried symbolic meaning concerning the ideal of British justice and government across the empire. The South Carolina State House, Charleston (1753–6), (p.35) and the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia (1732–5), for example, both incorporated open, public court-rooms on the ground floor after the model of English county halls of the period. These North American state houses can be compared to the neoclassical pedimented façades of the King’s House, Assembly House, and colonial offices built in the 1760s to form the municipal space of Kings’ Square, Spanish Town, Jamaica (see Plate 13). Inside these buildings the attempt to recreate metropolitan standards of living was extended through their furnishings and fittings. The second-floor council chamber of the South Carolina State House, for instance, was lined with timber panelling that incorporated Corinthian pilasters carved in pine shipped from New England, as well as the Royal Arms carved by a Philadelphia craftsman. A portrait of George III hung on the wall and the room was furnished with items by leading Charleston cabinetmakers.26

As discussed further by Preeti Chopra in Chapter 8, government buildings in eighteenth-century British India, on the other hand, were designed mostly by engineers of the EIC or, later, British army officers. Settlement by Europeans was limited, and British Indian craft centres had not yet developed. Government House in (p.36) Calcutta (1799–1802), for example, was a tripartite, pedimented design by Captain Charles Wyatt (see Figure 8.2). The design was based on Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, but adapted to the Indian climate. Similarly, the Grand Arsenal in Madras (1772), designed by another soldier, Captain Patrick Ross, combines neoclassical form with Indian motifs. However, the Writer’s Building, Calcutta (1777), designed by Thomas Lyon to house the EIC’s administrators, was a three-storey office block, the first in India, of unrelenting neoclassical purity (see detail in Figure 8.1).27 The late eighteenth century also saw the beginning of significant urban planning and infrastructure projects by the British in India, at least within the cities of the three presidencies. Notable among these was the Hornby Vellard project to build a causeway to link the seven islands of Bombay and create a single enclosed harbour, begun in 1782 by William Hornby, governor of Bombay (1771–84), and completed in 1838.

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.8. Custom House, Dublin, Ireland (1781–91), by James Gandon.

Coming back to the British Isles, in particular Ireland, public buildings within the ‘English Pale’ were also part of Britain’s early colonial history. The Pale, first established in the late medieval period, was the region of Ireland, centred on the port city of Dublin, that was securely under English control. Dublin thus became the political and administrative centre of English and later British colonial rule in Ireland. A fortified enclave for much of the seventeenth century, Dublin prospered as the civic centre of Anglo-Irish culture in the eighteenth century, symbolized in the authority of Dublin Castle, the residence of the English Viceroy.28 As in British American cities of this period, there was a flowering of neoclassical public architecture designed and built by both ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ architects as the city evolved its own regional craft centre (also producing high-quality furniture and other decorative arts). The architectural career of the London-born architect James Gandon (1743–1823) encapsulates the relationship between Dublin and London, England and Ireland, during this period. As discussed further by G. A. Bremner in Chapter 3 (pp. 95–8), Gandon designed many of Dublin’s key public buildings, including the neoclassical grandeur of the Custom House (1781–91; Figure 1.8), loosely based on William Chambers’ Somerset House in London (1776); the domed Four Courts (1785–1802); and the Corinthian-columned portico of Parliament House (1784–7).29

In Scotland, following the failed Jacobite Uprising, planned villages were established by the government-directed Annexed Estates Commission (administering the confiscated lands of rebel clan chiefs). These so-called colonae villages were founded at strategic points such as Kinloch Rannoch, Loch Rannoch, or Calendar in the Trossachs and settled with veterans of the Seven Years’ War in Canada. What is significant here in the context of the British empire and colonial architecture is (p.37) that the colonae model was explicitly borrowed from the veteran settlements established by imperial Rome in conquered territories.30 Across the Atlantic in the 1760s the town of Pictou in Nova Scotia was also established as a colonae for veterans of the Seven Years’ War.

Religions and Churches

The relationship between religion, architecture, and empire is covered in detail elsewhere in this volume, suffice to say here that Christianity was a central part of British cultural and political life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Churches were therefore among the most important buildings for British communities, whether for merchants of the City of London, plantation owners in Virginia, farmers in New England, or the officers of the EIC serving in India. Such was the importance placed upon the presence of a church that they were often among the earliest buildings to be erected in a colony. Indeed, many early colonial churches were built within the compounds of forts. However, not all churches of the British empire were the same. Across the empire there were obvious differences in the size of churches according to their location and the size and wealth of their congregations. Larger and grander churches were often found in populous cities, whereas smaller, simpler churches in poorer rural areas. There (p.38) were also differences in building materials and construction according to location and wealth: masonry construction in Scotland, Ireland, and India; stone construction for the richer parish churches and cathedrals of London and, in time, the Atlantic cities of North America, such as Boston and Charleston; while timber construction was standard for churches in the rural towns and farming communities of the Atlantic colonies.

Fundamental variations in church architecture also accorded with denominational difference. Christianity in early modern Britain was divided into distinct groups: the Protestant Church of England (or Anglicans), Roman Catholics, and nonconformist Protestant groups who broke away from the Church of England, such as Puritans, Quakers, and Methodists. Within Britain, religious affiliation and dissent were the source of political and cultural conflict, and British colonial history is as much delineated by the migration of religious groups from Britain caught up in these troubles as it is by trade or war with foreign powers.

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.9. ‘A Meeting House of the Seventeenth Century’ as depicted in E. E. Atwater, History of the Colony of New Haven to its Absorption into Connecticut (1902). This is typical of the kind of meeting-house erected in the early New England colonies in British North America.

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.10. Abington Congregational Church, Pomfret, Connecticut (1751) (Magicpiano).

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.11. St Philip’s Episcopal Church, Charleston (1715–23) (photo: Bill Read <https://www.flickr.com/photos/billread/449558802/>).

Famously, the Puritans left Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620 to create their own Protestant utopia in the New World. In England the Puritans had re-used Anglican churches, stripping-out ‘graven images’. But in seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay and New Haven they found themselves in what they considered to be a virgin wilderness, and new buildings had to be designed and built. As discussed further by G. A. Bremner and Louis Nelson in Chapter 5 (pp. 165–7), there they did not build churches but ‘meeting-houses’. By far the largest structures in each community, these substantial timber buildings were typically of two-storey, square or circular-plan with a pyramidal roof terminating in a bell-tower (Figure 1.9).31 The design of these buildings was derived from Protestant precedents in Europe such as the meeting-houses of the French Huguenots and Dutch Reformed Church, combined with vernacular elements from familiar agricultural buildings. However, by the later eighteenth century most Reformed congregations in New England were building churches—mostly timber-built, gabled boxes with a spired bell-tower over a pedimented entrance, such as Abington Congregational Church, Pomfret, Connecticut, built in 1751 (Figure 1.10). To the South, in contrast, plantation owners in Virginia and the Carolinas actively maintained strong ties with Britain, often holding property on both sides of the Atlantic, travelling regularly between London and America on business, and sharing a common taste in and for design and material culture with their wealthy British peers. Accordingly, southern plantation owners were Anglicans. While appearing from the outside to be similar to the neoclassical buildings of New England, southern Anglican churches of the eighteenth century such as St Philip’s, Charleston (1715–23), are distinguished by the richness of their internal decoration and accoutrements, including lavish plate and vestments, all reflecting the (p.39) (p.40) wealth of their congregations and the aesthetic sensibilities of the High Anglican church on both sides of the Atlantic (Figure 1.11).32

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.12. St Mary’s Church, Madras (1680–1795) (Sylvia Murphy).

Anglicanism and neoclassicism also prevailed in eighteenth-century British India. The first Anglican church built in India was St Mary’s, Madras (1680), erected within the grounds of the EIC’s Fort St George (founded 1639). It was by and large a simple stone box, with a tiered, neoclassical bell-tower and spire (resonant of Hawksmoor or Gibbs) added in the late eighteenth century (Figure 1.12).33 The circumstances were similar at St John’s Anglican church, Calcutta, erected in 1787 to designs by James Agg. As for many Anglican churches in British North America, the design for St John’s was inspired by the churches of London, the principal model being James Gibbs’s St Martin-in-the-Fields (1722–4).

Churches also played a significant role in imperialist activities that took place within Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Scotland, following the religious conflict that underpinned the Jacobite Uprising (1745–6), with the Highland clans supporting the Catholic Stuarts over the Protestant Hanoverians, (p.41) the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), funded the construction of Protestant, Church of Scotland, churches and schools—often in a single, multipurpose structure—throughout the Highlands in the later eighteenth century. This programme of church building was intended to ‘civilize’ the mostly Roman Catholic Gaelic population. The presence of these plain geometric buildings in the Highland landscape was deeply significant.

In Ireland, as part of the programme of plantations in the seventeenth century, Protestantism was forced upon the Roman Catholic population through the confiscation of all lands and buildings belonging to the Catholic Church. All Irish churches, dating from the medieval period to the seventeenth century, were recast as ‘Church of Ireland’ (the name for the Anglican church in Ireland). For example, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Dublin has been the seat of the Church of Ireland since the sixteenth century. However, the church itself dates from the twelfth century and therefore was the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland for over four hundred years. By the eighteenth century, new churches were built to reflect the wealth and taste of the Anglo-Irish establishment. In Dublin, the centre of Anglo-Irish culture, the work of neoclassical architect John Smyth is prominent, as seen, for example, in the pedimented portico of St Catherine’s (1760–9) (see Figure 5.4) and the interior of St Werburgh’s (1754). At both churches, in a direct act of colonial image-making, Smyth’s task was to classicize, (p.42) or make ‘modern’, much older Irish Catholic buildings through a process of superficial remodelling.

Housing and the Home

The home is of course the centre of family life and the private space of the individual. Therefore, the exterior of houses can be read as public displays that communicated what those dwelling inside wanted the outside world to know about their aspirations, while the interior was reserved for the performance of social ritual (and further display) through an arrangement of private and semi-public spaces. By the later eighteenth century, from Nova Scotian farmers to EIC officials, what most homeowners wished to communicate was their ‘good taste’. This idea related to conformity to cultural norms in architecture and design that positively demonstrated a person’s belonging to a specific social group, whether, for example, a prosperous farmer or gentleman landowner (and the values of that group such as modernity, education, and morality).

Within the British world it was only soldiers, sailors, and the very wealthy, such as politicians, merchants, or landowners with overseas interests, who regularly travelled abroad. This latter group was perhaps the only one to experience the British empire as a truly coherent architectural experience from one public or domestic space to the next. Other groups such as farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans, including house-builders, lived within the same intercontinental architectural culture but only experienced it locally—their desire to express social standing through a display of architectural ‘good taste’ was for the benefit of their immediate neighbours, not the wider colonial world.34 Even settler-migrants to North America generally only experienced two sites: the old country and the new. However, while they may have thought locally, the socially defined tastes of farmers and shopkeepers were nonetheless as transnational as those of the gentleman travelling between London and Charleston: prosperous Canadian farmers built similar looking houses to prosperous Scottish farmers, and Southern plantation owners shared their architectural tastes with British country house owners. As with forts and civic buildings, by the later eighteenth century these transnational social identities were expressed architecturally through the common language of neoclassicism where social distinctions were delineated not through sheer size but through an appropriate scale of classical decoration. The homes of aristocrats displayed columns, porticoes, and cornices equivalent to those found in a civic building, whereas the homes of farmers and shopkeepers were expected to be symmetrical and well-proportioned but modestly ornamented. Those with new wealth tended to make grandiose architectural displays, such as southern plantation owners or returning EIC nabobs, who were criticized publicly for falling foul of rules of social decorum (fitness of the habitation to the inhabitant).

(p.43) Across the empire certain common house types, designed in a socially appropriate neoclassical manner, were produced and consumed: country houses (including plantation houses), suburban villas, townhouses, farmhouses, and housing for estate workers. Much of this architecture conformed to the principles laid down by the sixteenth-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–80), especially his designs for villas. ‘Palladianism’, as it became known, was very influential across the British world at this time.35 The characteristic three-part, symmetrical front and pediment of Palladio’s villas was adopted as the (country) house style of the English, mostly Whig, aristocracy in the early eighteenth century and, despite its Italian origins, has come to be identified with a paternalistic idea of Englishness, even if to its original consumers it was seen to represent the Roman Augustan ideal of liberty.

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.13. Strokestown Park, County Roscommon, Ireland (1696–c.1740) (Laurel Lodged).

The spectrum of domestic housing in the British colonial world also included dwellings for the poor and the enslaved, where the architecture represented the values of the owner rather than the occupant, but excludes vernacular dwellings produced by marginalized groups who dwelt within the empire but largely outside of its culturally defined spheres of influence, notably indigenous colonized peoples, Gaelic Irish, and Gaelic Highland Scots. In eighteenth-century Ireland country house building was an intentional process of Anglicization following the forced evictions and confiscation of church land in the seventeenth century. The Anglo-Irish country house sat at the centre of an estate carved up from confiscated lands and intentionally modelled on the English example. Houses such as Strokestown Park, County Roscommon (central block dated 1696, wings and upper storey added by architect Richard Castle, c.1740), mirrored the English Palladian country house with the intention of representing the extension of British rule and British aristocratic culture in Ireland (Figure 1.13).

However, the colonial nature of the Anglo-Irish settlement of Ireland challenged and even contradicted this architectural ideal. Strokestown is a substantial Anglo-Palladian mansion with pavilioned flanking wings that once sat at the centre of an 11,000-acre estate granted by Oliver Cromwell to Captain Nicholas Mahon in 1660 for his part in the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland (1649–53). The later Palladian house was built by Thomas Mahon MP in the 1740s and funded by the estate’s lucrative export of agricultural produce to England. It is significant that the house was built on, and incorporates structural elements of, the medieval tower-house of the O’Conor Roe Gaelic Irish chieftains. While Palladianism represented liberty to the English, in Ireland the Palladian country house was seen by the Gaelic Irish population as a symbol of oppression, with many being burned down in the ‘Burning of the Big Houses’ during the Irish Revolution (1919–23).

The meaning of British Palladianism is thrown further into doubt when we consider the eighteenth-century plantation houses of the southern American colonies and the Caribbean. Wealthy plantation owners viewed themselves as part of the British landowning class. They were Anglicans and worshipped in similar churches. They administered their affairs in similar public buildings and they built (p.44) (p.45) themselves similar country houses at the heart of their estates. However, the moral and political ideas that gave meaning to the neoclassical architecture of Anglo-Palladianism in England would seem out of place in the humid, sun-burned fields of a slave plantation estate such as Drayton Hall, South Carolina (see Plate 2). Drayton Hall (1738–42) lies on the Ashley River outside Charleston and was built by John Drayton as the modish centrepiece of a 400-acre slave plantation focused on rice production. Drayton was a prominent figure in Charleston society and a member of the Royal Governor’s Council. He had family connections and business interests in England, and his son, William Henry, was raised as an ‘English gentlemen’ in England where he attended the University of Oxford.36 Accordingly, the house is a very English Palladian-style mansion with a two-storey columned portico loosely based on a design from Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture (a canonical architectural book of English neoclassical architecture that was widely available in the Atlantic world). The architecture and socio-spatial arrangements at Drayton can be compared to the ‘Great Houses’ of Jamaica’s sugar plantations, such as Rose Hall, Montego Bay, a substantial Palladian mansion built from coral blocks in the 1770s for John Palmer in what today is popularly called the ‘Jamaican Georgian’ style.37

As both the British country house and the colonial plantation house stood at the centre of large agricultural estates, they required a resident labour force which also needed housing. Whether for enslaved workers on North American plantations or free workers (legally, at least) on British country estates, rudimentary workers’ housing was provided. On both sides of the Atlantic, where a new building programme was undertaken, these typically followed the same basic rules of classical design in a utilitarian vernacular form of neoclassicism, vis-à-vis symmetry, regularity, and proportion. Here the regular boxes of the timber-built slave huts at Drayton Hall can be compared functionally and formally to the regular stone-built cottages of the Highland planned village. They were also seen to carry certain moral connotations in so far as these were understood as representing the classically educated landowner who was duty-bound to provide a decent level of housing—although what was meant by ‘decent’ in this context was open to interpretation. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a transatlantic divide opened in workers’ housing, where the humanitarian reform movement in Britain led to considerable improvements in the ‘habitations of the labourer’—the same grassroots political movement that led to the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1833.38

(p.46) This pattern of neoclassical house-building extended to ‘middling sorts’ in the colonies, where suburban villas were built by regional businessmen and politicians. For example, many such villas were built in the countryside surrounding colonial Philadelphia. Among the earliest was Stenton House, built between 1723 and 1730 by James Logan, Secretary to William Penn. Stenton is a two-storey, five-bay neoclassical house with hipped roof and tall chimney stacks to the roof ridge typical of minor English country houses of the early eighteenth century, like Poulton House, Wiltshire (1706).39 To the north in Canada, Uniacke House outside Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a much later example of a colonial suburban retreat in the Palladian manner built in 1813 by Richard John Uniacke, Nova Scotia Attorney General.

Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century neoclassical villas can also be found in British India, built as the residences of EIC officers. Here a specific typology of the flat-roofed house within a secure garden compound evolved. Government House in Madras (1800), for instance, with its three-storey colonnaded verandah and classical detailing in white render, was originally the private residence of a Company official (see Figure 8.4). Similarly, the Madras Club (founded 1831) was housed in a former private compound-style villa featuring a central, pedimented-block flanked by a colonnaded verandah.40 As mentioned, returning EIC officials, having made their fortune abroad, also became associated in Britain with the building of retirement villas, notably on the English south coast, in what many believed to be poor taste. They chose to spend their amassed wealth on luxurious homes infused with Indian architectural elements, such as verandahs that broke established conventions of decorum, marking them as outsiders. As the architect James Malton wrote disparagingly in 1798: ‘the returned Nabob, heated in his pursuit of wealth, imagines he imports the chaleur of the East with its riches; and we behold the stretched awning to form the cool shade, in the moist clime of Britain’.41

Besides officers’ housing and barracks within the EIC’s forts, domestic architecture in British India did not expand much beyond the suburban villa type until the establishment of hill stations with the coming of a larger, more permanent colonial population in the nineteenth century (see Chapter 8, pp. 298–300). As such the history of the small house within the British empire of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is predominantly the history of the British Atlantic world. Whether in London, Glasgow, Charleston, or Philadelphia, the common house type of the Atlantic city was the townhouse: a terrace or row house of three or more storeys with a deep plan behind a narrow front facing the street. The number of storeys, the number of rooms, and the arrangement of the internal plan vary considerably from city to city, social group to social group, and house to house, but the basic type is consistent even though the very wealthy were able to afford detached (p.47) residences with grounds. Artisan live–work spaces were also common, with workshops or stores occupying the ground floor.42 Building materials varied from city to city although by the later eighteenth century stone and brick were common in the houses of the wealthy throughout the Atlantic world, reflecting both status and the danger of fire, while timber structures persisted in the poorer regions of many cities.43

In terms of design, once again, classicism held sway. Whether in London or Boston, the grand townhouses of the wealthy can be viewed in a way as urban appendages to a family’s country residence, and were similarly designed by leading architects or craftsmen and decorated in the latest metropolitan tastes. Moreover, many wealthy colonial families not only maintained a country house and townhouse in North America but also a townhouse in London. For example, Benjamin Franklin owned a three-storey, double-fronted townhouse in Philadelphia from 1763 until his death in 1790, as well as a narrow, three-bay, four-storey 1730s townhouse at 36 Craven St, London (now the Benjamin Franklin House Museum).44 Broad conformity to classical models also characterized the Atlantic houses of the ordinary city dweller, although, as with farm houses, this conformity was based more on simple rules of symmetry, regularity, and proportion rather than any degree of ostentatious ornament. However, unlike wealthy transatlantic gentlemen such as Penn and Franklin, shopkeepers and artisans experienced life locally—in other words, if their architectural tastes were universal, their sources were local.45

The balance between universal and local cultural processes that informed the production and consumption of eighteenth-century vernacular classicism in the urban context of the Atlantic townhouse can be applied equally to the rural context of the Atlantic farmhouse. Whether built by tenant farmers in Scotland, or small-holders in New England or Nova Scotia, farmhouses were mostly unassuming, everyday dwellings, produced by regional craft centres according to transatlantic design archetypes. Built by craftsmen informed by universal ideas of design, these farmhouses, regular in appearance and symmetrical in plan, came to define rural farming landscapes from Virginia and the Chesapeake through to New England and British Canada by the late eighteenth century (see Figure 7.8; see also Chapter 7, pp. 245–50, 258–62). Across these regions timber-frame construction, clapboard siding, timber roof shingles, and sash-and-case windows were predominant, with regional variations in construction and plan, such as gable-end chimneys in Virginia, with the front-to-back central through passage of the ‘shotgun shack’, or the central hearths and stacks of the New England ‘salt box’.46

BeginningsEarly Colonial Architecture

Figure 1.14. David Evans’ House, Chester (c.1780), Chester County, Nova Scotia.

Across North America, universal vernacular classicism emerged as craft cultures in different regions, more or less contemporaneously, absorbed the same transatlantic (p.48) design principles. These design standards superseded diverse regional building patterns of the seventeenth century where the regional craft practices brought by early colonists from home were adapted into distinct colonial practices. It should also be recalled that the traditional buildings of the seventeenth century were themselves a second-generation form of dwelling, replacing the temporary pioneer structures of the earliest settlers. The exception to this pattern is Nova Scotia, British Canada, where eighteenth-century classicism was introduced as part of pioneer farmhouse architecture. Nova Scotia was only extensively settled in the 1780s when the British government provided land and tools to the thousands of refugees who comprised the Loyalists Exodus from New England, such as David Evans, who built his house on the waterfront at Chester, Nova Scotia, around 1780 (Figure 1.14).47 The establishment of sawmills soon enabled the production of timber-frame houses. However, for those who aspired to the Loyalist community’s tastes but could not afford sawn planks, or the services of a skilled craftsmen, cladding a log cabin with the façade of a regular neoclassical farmhouse was sometimes an option.48 All the while, across each of these landscapes, settlers in Ireland, Scotland, and North America forced out indigenous peoples and claimed their lands, with the vernacular architecture of British colonial farmers replacing indigenous settlement patterns.

Imperial and colonial architecture of the early British empire essentially reflected the human activities that took place within the geographic boundaries of that empire. Initially, colonists built the buildings they needed to survive and prosper in a range of locations and climates. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries colonial activity in the British Atlantic world, including Ireland, was typified by large-scale settlement and displacement of indigenous populations. Under the EIC on the Indian subcontinent, however, colonial activity was largely restricted to trade, administration, and the government of the native population, whereas in West Africa it was exclusively related to trade. As colonies developed from first landfall to thriving communities, forts and fortified towns were followed by churches, urban planning, public buildings, and a range of dwellings from townhouses to modest farmhouses to luxurious country houses. Across all these architectures there was a constant tension between the powerful universalizing force of neoclassical design culture and the contingencies of local building production. However, overall, we may conclude that a coherent, intercontinental form of British imperial architecture was established by the late eighteenth century, especially when we consider the sameness of architecture experienced when, for example, manning a fort in Bermuda, Halifax, or Plymouth; sitting in a parlour in London, Edinburgh, or Boston; or when attending an Anglican church in Calcutta, Charleston, or Bath.

Select Bibliography

Bibliography references:

Bach, R. A., Colonial Transformations: The Cultural Production of the New Atlantic World, 1580–1640 (Basingstoke, 2000).

Benes, P., Meetinghouses of Early New England (Amherst, 2012).

Cummings, A. L., The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay 1625–1725 (Cambridge, Mass., 1979).

Cummings, A. L., ‘The Availability of Architectural Books in Eighteenth-Century New England’, in K. Hafertepe and J. F. O’Gorman (eds), American Architects and their Books to 1848 (Amherst, 2001), pp. 1–16.

Duffy, C., Fire and Stone: The Science of Fortress Warfare 1660–1860 (Edison, 2006).

Farnsworth, P., Island Lives: Historical Archaeologies of the Caribbean (Tuscaloosa, 2001).

Hague, S., ‘Historiography and the Origins of the Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World’, in O. Horsfall Turner (ed.), The Mirror of Great Britain: National Identity in Seventeenth-Century British Architecture (Reading, 2012), pp. 233–61.

Herman, B. L., Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780–1830 (Chapel Hill, 2005).

Herman, B. L., and Guillery, P., ‘Negotiating Classicism in Eighteenth-century Deptford and Philadelphia’, in B. Arciszwekas and E. McKellar (eds), Articulating British Classicism: New Approaches to Eighteenth-Century Architecture (Aldershot 2004), pp. 187–227.

(p.50) Lawrence, A. W., Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa (London, 1963).

Loeber, R., ‘The Early Seventeenth-Century Ulster and Midland Plantations, Part II: The New Architecture’, in O. Horsfall Turner (ed.), The Mirror of Great Britain: National Identity in Seventeenth-Century British Architecture (Reading, 2012), pp. 101–39.

Lounsbury, C., Essays in Early American Architectural History: A View from the Chesapeake (Charlottesville, 2011).

McParland, E., Public Architecture in Ireland, 1680–1760 (New Haven and London, 2001).

Mann, E., ‘First Lines of Defence: The Fortification of Bermuda in the Seventeenth Century’, in O. Horsfall Turner (ed.), The Mirror of Great Britain: National Identity in Seventeenth-Century British Architecture (Reading, 2012), pp. 51–73.

Maudlin, D., The Highland House Transformed: Architecture and the Identity on the Edge of Britain 1700–1850 (Dundee, 2009).

Maudlin, D. and Herman, B. L. (eds), Building the Atlantic World: Spaces, Places, and Material Culture, 1600–1850 (Chapel Hill, 2016).

Nelson, L. P., The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2009).

Nelson, L. P., ‘Architecture of West African Enslavement’, Buildings and Landscapes, vol. 21:1 (2014), pp. 88–125.

Nelson, L. P., Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (New Haven and London, 2016).

Nilsson, S., European Architecture in India 1750–1850 (London, 1968).

Olwell, R. and Tully, A., Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America (Baltimore, 2006).

Upton, D., Architecture in the United States (Oxford, 1998).

Vickery, A. and Styles, J. (eds), Gender, Taste and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700–1830 (London and New Haven, 2006).

Volwahsen, A., Splendours of Imperial India: British Architecture in the 18th and 19th Centuries (London, 2004).


(1) The British government did not become directly involved in India until the Regulating Act of 1773, and even then the EIC remained largely in control until Crown rule was imposed in 1858. See S. Bose and A. Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy (Oxford, 2004), pp. 54–62.

(2) See L. Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1823 (New Haven and London, 1992).

(p.22) (3) D. Upton, ‘Architectural History or Landscape History?’, Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 44 (August 1991), pp. 195–9.

(4) See R. A. Bach, Colonial Transformations: The Cultural Production of the New Atlantic World, 1580–1640 (Basingstoke, 2000); R. Blair St George (ed.), Material Life in America, 1600–1860 (Boston, 1988).

(5) On Atlantic identity, see R. Olwell and A. Tully, Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America (Baltimore, 2006).

(6) For discussion of taste and the consumption of classicism in eighteenth-century Britain and the Atlantic world, see B. L Herman and P. Guillery, ‘Negotiating Classicism in Eighteenth-century Deptford and Philadelphia’, in B. Arciszwekas and E. McKellar (eds), Articulating British Classicism: New Approaches to Eighteenth-Century Architecture (Aldershot, 2004), pp. 187–227; D. Maudlin, The Highland House Transformed: Architecture and Identity on the Edge of Britain (Dundee, 2009), pp. 61–79; A. Vickery and J. Styles (eds), Gender, Taste and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700–1830 (New Haven and London, 2006); and essays in D. Maudlin and B. L. Herman (eds), Building the Atlantic World: Spaces, Places, and Material Culture, 1600–1850 (Chapel Hill, 2016).

(7) On Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory of the social distinctiveness of taste in relation to architecture, see H. Webster, Bourdieu for Architects (London, 2011).

(8) A. L. Cummings, ‘The Availability of Architectural Books in Eighteenth-Century New England’, in K. Hafertepe and J. F. O’Gorman (eds), American Architects and their Books to 1848 (Amherst, 2001), pp. 1–16.

(9) See H. K. Bhabha, ‘DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation’, in H. K. Bhabha (ed.), Nation and Narration (London, 1990), pp. 291–332.

(10) Arciszwekas and McKellar, Articulating British Classicism, pp. ix–xxv.

(11) e.g., B. Bailyn, Atlantic History, Concepts and Contours (Cambridge, Mass., 2005); D. Armitage and M. J. Braddick (eds), The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800, 2nd edn (Basingstoke, 2009).

(12) For instance, see C. R. Lounsbury, ‘Early American Architecture: A Transatlantic Perspective’, in C. R. Lounsbury, Essays in Early American Architectural History: A View from the Chesapeake (Charlottesville, 2011), pp. 17–32 ; L. P. Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (New Haven and London, 2016).

(13) D. Maudlin, ‘Crossing Boundaries: Revisiting Some Thresholds of the Vernacular’, Vernacular Architecture, vol. 41 (2010), pp. 10–14.

(14) See C. Duffy, Fire and Stone: The Science of Fortress Warfare 1660–1860 (Edison, N.J., 2006).

(15) E. Mann, ‘First Lines of Defence: The Fortification of Bermuda in the Seventeenth Century’, in O. Horsfall Turner (ed.), The Mirror of Great Britain: National Identity in Seventeenth-Century British Architecture (Reading, 2012), pp. 51–73.

(17) P. Levine, The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset (Harlow, 2013), pp. 70–92.

(18) See A. W. Lawrence, Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa (London, 1963).

(19) C. DeCorse, L. Gijanto, W. Roberts, and B. Sanyang, ‘An Archaeological Appraisal of Early European Settlement in The Gambia’, Nyame Akuma, vol. 73 (2010), pp. 55–64.

(20) L. P. Nelson, ‘Architecture of West African Enslavement’, Buildings and Landscapes, vol. 21:1 (2014), pp. 88–125; C. DeCorse, ‘Tools of Empire: Trade, Slaves, and the British Forts of West Africa’, in Maudlin and Herman, Building the Atlantic World, pp. 165–87. See also A. Van Dantzig, Forts and Castles of Ghana (Accra, 1980), p. 60.

(21) R. Loeber, ‘The Early Seventeenth-Century Ulster and Midland Plantations, Part II: The New Architecture’, in Horsfall Turner, The Mirror of Great Britain, pp. 101–39.

(22) Herman and Guillery, ‘Negotiating Classicism’, p. 207.

(23) For discussion of early modern public buildings in England, see P. Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance: Culture and Society in the Provincial Town, 1660–1770 (Oxford, 1990).

(24) For instance, see S. Nilsson, European Architecture in India 1750–1850 (London, 1968).

(25) C. Lounsbury, The Courthouse of Early Virginia: An Architectural History (Charlottesville, 2005), pp. 109–24.

(26) C. Lounsbury, From Statehouse to Courthouse: An Architectural History of South Carolina’s Colonial Capitol and Charleston County Courthouse (Columbia, S.C., 2001), pp. 39–41.

(27) ‘The Indian Subcontinent’, in D. Cruickshank, A. Saint, P. Blundell Jones, and K. Frampton (eds), Sir Bannister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture, 20th edn (Oxford, 2004), p. 1266. See also Chapter 8 in this volume.

(28) For instance, see ‘Dublin Castle’, in A. Jackson, Buildings of Empire (Oxford, 2013), pp. 12–33.

(29) E. McParland, Public Architecture in Ireland, 1680–1760 (New Haven and London, 2001). See also, H. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600–1840, 3rd edn (New Haven and London, 1995), p. 386.

(30) D. Maudlin, ‘Robert Mylne, Thomas Telford and the Architecture of Improvement: The Planned Villages of the British Fisheries Society, 1786–1820’, Urban History, vol. 34:3 (2007), pp. 453–80.

(31) See P. Benes, Meetinghouses of Early New England (Amherst, 2012).

(32) See L. P. Nelson, The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2009).

(33) Bose and Jalal, Modern South Asia, p. 60.

(p.49) (34) For instance, see D. Upton, Architecture in the United States (Oxford, 1998), pp. 17–36.

(35) R. Tavernor, Palladio and Palladianism (London, 1991), pp. 181–7.

(36) <http://www.draytonhall.org>, accessed 19 June 2014.

(37) For discussion of Jamaican plantation houses, see P. Farnsworth, Island Lives: Historical Archaeologies of the Caribbean (Tuscaloosa, 2001). For early social history of Jamaican plantations, see R. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713 (Chapel Hill, 1972).

(38) D. Maudlin, ‘Habitations of the Labourer: Improvement, Reform and the Neoclassical Cottage in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Design History, vol. 23:1 (2010), pp. 7–20. For the architecture of slavery in particular, see the essays in C. Ellis and R. Ginsburg (eds), Cabin, Quarter, Plantation: Architecture and Landscapes of North American Slavery (New Haven, 2010).

(39) S. Hague, ‘Historiography and the Origins of the Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World’, in Horsfall Turner, The Mirror of Great Britain, pp. 233–61.

(40) Nilsson, European Architecture in India, pp. 107–8; P. Davies, Splendours of the Raj: British Architecture in India 1660–1947 (Harmondworth, 1987), pp. 32–9.

(41) J. Malton, An Essay on British Cottage Architecture (London, 1798), p. 10.

(42) Herman and Guillery, ‘Negotiating Classicism’, p. 207.

(43) Ibid.

(45) Herman and Guillery, ‘Negotiating Classicism’, p. 207.

(46) A. H. Ameri, ‘Housing Ideologies in the New England and Chesapeake Bay Colonies, c. 1650–1700’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians ( JSAH ), vol. 56:1 (1997), pp. 6–15.

(47) Maudlin, Highland House Transformed, pp. 106–27.

(48) R. MacKinnon, ‘Log Architecture on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia: Cultural Borrowing and Adaptation’, Material Culture, vol. 24.3 (1992), pp. 1–18.