Open main menu

BLACKBURN, WILLIAM (1750–1790), surveyor and architect, was born in Southwark. His father was a tradesman of St. John's parish, and his mother a native of Spain. His limited education was derived from a oommon school, and at a proper age he wan placed under a surveyor — one, however, of so little note that few advantages could be obtained in the knowlenlge of his profession. But his intelligence and perseverance soon overcame these early drawbacks, and he managed to make the acquaintance of men of reputation, several of whom belonged to the Royal Academy. Encouraged and assisted by them, he bcame a student in that institution, and worked so industriously that in 1773 he was presented with the medal for the best drawing of the interior of St. Stephen's church. Walbrook, 'the chef d'œuvre of Sir Christopher Wren,' as Pennant has justly called it ; and on receiving the prize, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the president, highly eulogised his abilities and prognosticated his future success.

Soon after entering into business on his own account in Southwark, his reputation steadily increased, until at length his name was brought into public notice by the following circumstance. An act of parliament had passed in 1779 declaring that 'if any offenders convicted of crimes for which transportation had been usually inflicted were ordered to solitary confinement, accompanied by well regulated labour and religious instruction, it might be the means, under Providence, not only of deterring others from the commission of the like crimes, but also of reforming,' &c. &c. By this act his nuijesty was authorised to appoint three supervisors of the buildings to be erected, who were to fix upon any common, heath, or waste in Middlesex, Essex, Kent, or Surrey, on which should be built two plain strong edifices, to be called 'Penitentiary Houses,' one for six hundred males the other for three hundred females. In the same year three supervisors were appointed John Howard (who had been strongly solicited by Sir William Blackstone, a great friend of the scheme), John Fothergill, M.D. (a friend of Howard's), and George Whatley, treasurer of the Foundling Hospital. This commission, however, was soon dissolved, for Dr. Fothergill died in 1780, and Mr. Howard, not being able to coalesce with his remaining colleague, resigned shortly afterwards. In 1781 a new commission was formed, consisting of Sir Gilbert Elliot, bart., Sir Charles of what a prison ought to be. In person he Bunbury, bart., and Thomas Bowdler. These gentlemen being desirous that the penitentiary houses should be constructed in the manner most conducive to the ends of solitary confinement, useful labour, and moral reform, proposed premiums for the best plans for such buildings; and the highest premium of one hundred guineas was unanimously awarded to Blackburn in March 1782. In due course he was appointed to the office of architect and surveyor of the proposed buildings. But after the plan of a penitentiary for male offenders had been arranged, and a great part of the work contracted for, the attention of public men was diverted from this important social scheme, and the designs of government were not carried into execution. Popular feeling had become so strongly stimulated in favour of the erection of prisons in conformity to his ideas, that many gaols and other stnictures throughout the country were built under Blackburn's inspection. But before he had reached his fortieth year, he died suddenly at Preston, in Lancashire, on 28 Oct. 1790, while on a journey to Scotland, taken at the instance of the Duke of Buccleuch and the lord provost of Glasgow, with view to erect a new gaol in that city. His body was removed to London, and interred in the Bunhill Fields burial-ground.

During Blackburn's short career his labour had been very extensive. The gaol of Newgate in Dublin was indebted to him for many of its improvements : the plan of a new prison for Limerick was his design, and, shortly before his death, negotiations had commenced for the erection of a penitentiary house for Ireland ; he constructed the tank in Cornhill and the prison at Oxford. His abilities were employed also in preparing designs of churches, houses, villas; and of three elegant designs for a new church at Hackney, one had been selected for early execution, when his untimely death set aside the undertaking. It was at one time intended to have engraved and published a series of his principal drawings, which displayed great taste and a thorough mastery of his favourite study of architecture, but we cannot find that this project was ever carried out.

Blackburn belonged to the presbyterian denomination, and was intimate with the most prominent members of that persuasion both in town and country. The most agreeable association connected with his memory is his intimate friendship with John Howard, whose benevolent designs he endeavoured to promote. Howard used to say that Blackburn was the only man who was capable of delineating to his mind upon paper his ideas was of middle stature, and from his early youth was very corpulent. A widow, Lydia, daughter of Joshua Hobson, a well-known builder of Southwark, whom he had married in 1783, and four young children survived him.

[Gent. Mag. xlix. 567, lv. 326, lx. 1063; Aikin's Life of Howard.]

J. W.-G.