Category Archives: London

Pithy Wills

Anyone who spends any time with eighteenth-century probate soon becomes familiar with the lengthy, repetitive, legalistic phraseology that permeates the typical will and which, along with the difficult handwriting, makes reading them a painful and tedious experience. It was rather refreshing, then, to come across the will of William Oram‘s grandson, another William Oram, who died in 1824. The will reads, in its entirety, as follows:

        March the 4th 1820

This is to certify to every body who may be concerned and to prevent trouble amongst relations that I will and bequeath to my wife Sarah Oram all my effects of whatever sort or property whatsoever I may be possessed at her disposal after my decease. Witness my hand William Oram.

Hogarth and the Elephantine Arch

In 1761, George III was crowned in Westminster Hall. As Master Carpenter of the Board of Works, one of William Oram‘s tasks was to construct and decorate a triumphal arch through which the King’s Champion would ride. A print of the arch was engraved by Anthony Walker:

William Henry Pyne included an anecdote about Hogarth, Hayman and other artists teasing Oram during the construction of the arch in his rambling, entertaining, and largely fictitious work, Wine and Walnuts. It should be remembered that Pyne was not yet born when the incident related allegedly took place. However, it is the only extended anecdote involving Oram that I know, so here it is (with Pyne’s epic footnotes suppressed, but eccentric punctuation retained): Continue reading

William Oram

William Oram (d. 1777) was Master Carpenter to the Office of Works when Kirby was appointed as Clerk of the Works at Richmond and Kew. Although he was well-known in artistic circles in his time, his star has faded. Horace Walpole, in his three-volume Anecdotes of Painting, accords Oram precisely one sentence: “William Oram was bred an architect, but taking to landscape-painting, arrived at great merit in that branch; and was made master-carpenter to the board of works, by the interest of Sir Edward Walpole, who has several of his pictures and drawings” [vol II, 711]. The DNB is a little more forthcoming, mentioning his painting of the staircase in Buckingham Palace, and his earliest known published work, an etching of Datchet Bridge printed in 1745.

Very little of his original work is known to have survived. He was popular with nobles having over-door and over-mantle pieces in country houses, as well as painting staircases. Such works have presumably all disappeared, or at least lost attribution. The DNB records his death in 1777, “leaving a widow and a son, Edward” and gives a brief mention of Edward’s own artistic productions from exhibition catalogs.

Against this rather sparse record comes a startling obituary:

On Monday last was interr’d at Hendon in Middlesex, the remains of William Oram, Esq; officer of his Majesty’s Board of Works. He was an affectionate husband, a tender and best of fathers, whose great abilities were universally known; and a sincere friend to his acquaintance. He labored under the most severe affliction for many years, from a hurt in his side. His loss is irreparable to his disconsolate widow and numerous family [Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, Friday, March 28, 1777].

This suggests there may be more to William Oram’s story. Continue reading

Structure of the Board of Ordnance

The Board of Ordnance was in charge of the military’s supply of guns and ammunition, as well as fortifications. As a result, the Ordnance retained a collection of patented craftsmen, although these were not part of the formal organizational structure as they were in the Office of Works. However, there was some overlap between the two groups of tradesmen, so it is necessary to examine the Board of Ordnance a little.

In the eighteenth century the organization of the Office of Ordnance was based on a detailed plan drawn up by Lord Dartmouth and attached to a royal warrant of July 25, 1683. The system changed remarkably little until the Board was abolished in 1855. The plan was called

Instructions for the Government of Our Office of Ordnance under Our Master-General thereof; committed to five Principal Officers, viz. Our Lieutenant-General of Our Ordnance, Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, Clerk of the Ordnance, Keeper of the Stores, Clerk of Deliveries.

The Instructions go on to give detailed guidance on the duties (and pay) of each member of the Board and supporting positions such as office clerks and messengers. The entire document is reproduced in Cleaveland’s Early History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, where it runs some 30 pages.

The position of Master-General was prestigious, and occupied by senior officers. In Kirby’s day it was Earl Ligonier until 1763, and then the Marquis of Granby. The Lieutenant-General acted as deputy to the Master-General. The remaining four members of the Board operated as a series of checks and balances against each other to assure quality of good and prevent corruption. The Surveyor-General was in charge of checking the quality of all goods purchased or works carried out by the Board; the Clerk of the Ordnance was responsible for purchasing the supplies; the Storekeeper was in charge of storage and maintenance (including large stores of gunpowder and ammunition), and the Clerk of the Deliveries was in charge of issuing supplies from storage. Any supplies that had been issued, but not used, had to be checked by the Surveyor before they could be re-entered into storage.

As mentioned above, the Instructions go into considerable detail about the responsibilities of each Board Member. Here is one sample paragraph from the section on the general duties of the Board Members:

To suffer no vagrant or suspicious person, or any foreigner or stranger (without knowledge of his quality, or some trusty person to attend them) to haunt or to have intercourse in the offices or storehouses, especially in the powder room, which, for more assurance, we will command to be kept under two locks with divers keys, whereof our Storekeeper may have one, and the rest of our Principal Officers the other, to be kept in their common chest, in the Office, whereof every one to have a key, so as there may be no access to the powder without the personal presence of two of them at least.

In later posts we will look at some of the construction and maintenance carried out by the master craftsmen associated to the Board.

For related posts, see the Office of Works and Kew category.


Cleaveland, F.D. Notes on the Early History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Woolwich, 1892.

Hogg, O.F.G. The Royal Arsenal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright (d. 1780) was Deputy Surveyor and Master Mason to the Office of Works when Kirby was appointed as Clerk of the Works at Richmond and Kew. Wright was a protégé of William Kent, although exactly how and when they first came into contact is not known. Wright’s DNB article speculates that he is the ‘Stephen’ referred to in some of Kent’s letters from 1738, and he was certainly working for Kent by 1741. In the beginning he was chiefly employed as a `measurer’, gradually taking on more significant responsibilities. That Kent and Wright had a close personal as well as business relationship is clear. When making out his will in October 1743, Kent singled out Wright for a legacy of £50. This is the only monetary legacy Kent left outside of his family (there is a great long list of paintings and busts to be given to specific friends). Shortly before his death in 1748, Kent added a codicil giving more gifts to friends, including half a dozen members of the Office of Works, and the codicil was witnessed by Wright (PROB 11/761/245). Kent’s residual legatee was his nephew William Pearson who only outlived Kent by a few months. Pearson in turn left all Kent’s pictures and drawings to be disposed of by Wright (and John Ferrett), and Wright was named as one of Pearson’s pall bearers. Pearson also left £10 to, “Mrs. Wright the wife of the said Stephen Wright … to buy her Mourning and a ring” (PROB 11/762/373).

Wright’s first appointment in the Office of Works, presumably on the influence of Burlington, was as Clerk of the Works at Hampton Court in December 1746 in the place of John Vardy, who was promoted to Clerk of Works at Whitehall, St. James’s, and Westminster. Along with his government position, Wright began building a private practice. Late in his life, Kent was working on renovations to Henry Pelham’s London house, 22 Arlington Street. When Kent died in 1748, Wright took over the completion of the work.

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Henry Flitcroft

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. Continue reading

Thomas Worsley

When George III came to the throne, he and the Earl of Bute had a plan, and part of it involve installing the new King’s favoured people in the Office of Works, reflecting his (and Bute’s) interest in architecture. The first appointment was that of Thomas Worsley to Surveyor General. Although the official appointment was on 15 December 1760, it was obviously known to the participants earlier; Henry Finch, the previous incumbent, stopped attending Board meetings three weeks before, and, on 5 December 1760, Horace Walpole wrote to his friend Henry Mann that Worsley “is made Master of the Board of Works; he was this King’s equerry, and passes for having a taste for architecture, of which I told you the King was fond” (Correspondence, 26, 460).

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