Henry Flitcroft (1697—1769), the architect, was Comptroller of the Board of Works at the time when Joshua Kirby was appointed Clerk of the Works at Richmond and Kew. Flitcroft had risen by talent and luck from humble beginnings. His father was a labourer at Hampton Court and Flitcroft was apprenticed as a joiner. He got his lucky `break’ when he fell off a ladder in 1719 while working on Burlington House, and came to the attention of the Earl of Burlington, who noticed his drawing ability. With Burlington’s patronage, Flitcroft’s rise was swift. While working for Burlington as a draughtsman, he also gained a place at the Office of Works, being appointed Clerk of the Works at Whitehall, Westminster, and St James’s palaces in May 1726. Flitcroft remained at the Office of Works for the rest of his life, becoming Master Carpenter in 1746, Master Mason and Deputy Surveyor in 1748, and Comptroller in 1758. According to Colvin, during his years of service, he attended ‘at least 1100 Board meetings’ (89).
Alongside his government position with associated draughtsmanship and architectural work, Flitcroft built up a successful private practice, largely following in the Palladian style endorsed by Burlington and his circle. One of his first commissions, in 1725, was to prepare a set of plans for Montagu House, then lived in by John, 2nd Duke of Montagu. The house later became the first location of the British Museum and the plans are now held by the BM.
By 1730 he was designing the new church at St Giles-in-the-Fields, and from 1733 to 1737 was architectural instructor to the Duke of Cumberland (Colvin, 88). A series of important commissions followed. In 1735 be began work on Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, for Thomas Watson-Wentworth, Earl of Malton, breathlessly reported in the papers for its reputed expense. This was followed by Wimpole Hall, Stourhead, and Woburn Abbey, among others.
The eccentric `Alfred’s Tower’ at Stourhead.
Along with these grand commissions, Flitcroft built many regular houses throughout his career, including his own, Frognall Grove, in Hampstead.
Henry Flitcroft married Sarah Minns in 1724. She was the daughter of a successful glazier, Richard Minns of Kensworth in Hertfordshire. His son, Richard, was also a glazier, but seems to have relocated to London, and that perhaps explains the presence of Sarah, who was living in the parish of St. Giles in the Fields at the time of their wedding. Henry and Sarah appear to have had two children in 1740 who died as infants, and then a single surviving son, Henry, in 1742, by which time Sarah was well into her forties. The older Henry was the son of a labourer and apprenticed to a joiner, but the younger was the son of a successful architect and friend of nobility; he went to Cambridge and the law. Sarah’s father seems to have done quite well. In his will of 1749 he gave most of his lands and business to his son, but along with bequests to his three married daughters, he gave “my freehold house in which I now dwell” to his grandson Henry Flitcroft, then seven years old. (This presumably is the house Henry advertised for sale in 1767.)
Henry Flitcroft was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn November 1761, and went on to become a successful lawyer. He took a house in Richmond in 1764 and rose up the legal ranks, becoming an Examiner for the High Court of Chancery and ending as one of the two Principal Examiners. This is where the story becomes complicated. The elder Henry died intestate in 1769 and, according to his widow Sarah, she and her son made an agreement whereby she surrendered the third of the estate she was entitled to in return for an annuity, but her son never paid the annuity. The younger Henry married Jane Fletcher, of a Kent farming family, in 1771. Along with Jane, he brought her much younger brother James, then six or seven, and an unmarried sister Ann Maria to live with them in Richmond. He sent the boy to school at his expense, and then off to sea as a midshipman for a few years before bringing him back to live in Richmond. Jane and Henry did not have any children of their own and she died in 1779.
Henry wrote a will, dated September 11, 1782, which involved a spectacular number of contingencies, but the upshot was that his mother would be taken care of for her life with the principal beneficiaries being James Fletcher and, to a lesser extent, his sister. James Fletcher was also named as sole executor. One week later, on September 18, Henry Flitcroft, “had the misfortune to be deprived of his reason and understanding to so very great a degree as to be totally incapable to govern himself”, in the words of his mother’s will, written on January 13, 1783. His mother had had a Commission of Lunacy appointed, who reported on her son’s incapacity in December 1782.
Sarah died in May 1784, having named her husband’s former apprentice and protégé Kenton Couse as one of her executors for what was doubtless a difficult situation. Henry never recovered. However, he did live on until 1826, so his will was finally proved more than forty years after he wrote it.
One additional complication the government faced was that Henry Flitcroft’s position as Principal Examiner at the Court of Chancery was, as was common at the time, a place held for life. Despite the fact that he had been incapacitated since 1782, it took an Act of Parliament in 1810 to remove him from his position.
For related posts, see the Office of Works and Kew category.
Colvin, H.M., et al. The History of the King’s Works, Volume 5. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1976.