Coventry Society committee member Peter Walters reflects on one of Coventry’s most prolific Architects. James Murray (1831 – 1863) created some of the most famous buildings that shaped the city in the Victorian era.
Of all the high Victorian memorials in Coventry’s London Road cemetery, few can match the melancholy beauty and grace of the stone obelisk raised to mark the grave of the architect James Murray.
It reflects the palpable grief felt at the early death of a young family man, who was just 31 when he died. But also, perhaps, despair at the loss of an extraordinary talent that had he lived longer would surely have made him a prominent figure in the great age of Victorian Gothic architecture.
In bursts of almost frantic creative energy over little more than a decade, James Murray dramatically re-shaped the appearance of Coventry at a time when the city was undergoing something of a development boom.
His style as an architect, described as ‘virile Gothic’ in the latest edition of Pevsner, gave Coventry in the second half of the nineteenth century a decorative beauty now hard to imagine.
Sadly, relatively little of his work survives, either in the city or elsewhere, but to his contemporaries the word genius did not seem an over-statement.
Born in Armagh, Northern Ireland on 9 December 1831, Murray moved with his family to England as a child and in 1845 was articled to the practice of architect Walter Scott in Liverpool. On qualifying he joined forces with Thomas Denville Barry, then making a name for himself as a cemetery designer in the north of England but later to become Engineer to the Boards of Health and Waterworks for Leamington Spa.
Murray was clearly a young man in a hurry and before long the firm of Barry & Murray was expanding its range to commissions far from Liverpool, including new buildings for the Holy Trinity Parish Schools in Ford Street, Coventry, which opened in 1854.
By that time Murray had already moved to Coventry, taking offices in Bayley Lane, and over the next few years began to leave his mark on the city. Commissions to design St Michael’s Parish Schools and two teachers’ houses in Much Park Street and some houses in The Quadrant (both 1855), were followed by a re-modelling of the Lychgate cottages in Priory Row (1856) and then his new design for the Blue Coat School in Priory Row (1856-57), in the style of a French chateau.
The projects were coming thick and fast, among them a new Corn Exchange for Coventry, perhaps his grandest building commission in the city, the Hundred Houses cottage factory complex in Kingfield for the silk-weaving firm of J and J Cash (1857) and the following year St Michaels’ Baptist Church, squeezed onto a tiny site on the corner of Hay Lane.
But new pastures beckoned and in that year Murray moved to London to go into partnership with Edward Welby Pugin, son of the great Augustus Pugin, who was himself a noted architect, particularly of churches.
Together they produced a number of buildings; Almshouses at Albury in Surrey, St Peter’s Church School in Woolwich, the Church of Our Lady and St Hubert at Great Harwood in Lancashire and a Gothic warehouse for the firm of Messrs Bennock on Silver Street in the City of London.
But creative, and possibly personal, tensions began to emerge and in 1859 Murray failed to win an architectural competition to design the Church of Saints Paul and Peter at Cork in Ireland, because of ‘differences with Mr Pugin’.
The partnership was dissolved and in 1860 Murray moved back to Coventry, not before, however, receiving the most important accolade of his still fledgling career. On March 19 of that year, at the age of just 28, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the youngest Fellow in its history. It was a remarkable honour and promised much to come.
Back in Coventry, Murray concentrated initially on church work, enlarging St Michael’s church in Stoke (1861) and then restoring All Saints Church at Allesley (1862-63).
The census of 1861 found him living with his wife Maria, son James and daughters Marguerite and Ethel at Stoneleigh Terrace, close to the city’s railway station in an area described as Warwick Green South. Murray himself may have designed the Terrace, a handsome row of substantial villas occupied by many well-to-do members of Coventry society at the time.
In October 1862, he published Illustrations of Modern Architecture, Ecclesiastic, Civil and Domestic, concentrating on Gothic and Classic buildings erected since 1850, and designed to be the first of a series of papers setting out his ideas on architecture.
He went on to produce a clutch of important buildings in Coventry, including the Freemen’s Charity School in Swanswell Place, Coventry School of Art in Ford Street, arguably his most striking building, and a police station and courts complex in St Mary’s Street (all 1863).
Sadly, along with the old Blue Coat School, Murray’s Justice Rooms extension to St Mary’s Hall, described as ‘similar to that of the ancient structure’ and with ‘great diversity of outline’ is almost all that survives of him in the centre of Coventry.
On 24 October 1863, after many years of frail health, Murray died of consumption at his home, surrounded by his young family.
A life-long Roman Catholic, he wanted to be buried in the shadow of Augustus Pugin’s Church of St Augustine in Kenilworth, but instead was interred, with full Catholic rites, in London Road cemetery. Edward Pugin was present at his funeral, having made a special journey from Belgium, where he was working.
In a fulsome obituary, the Coventry Herald wrote of Murray, ‘Born an artist and having an intuitive perception of the beautiful and true, he had by study brought these natural instincts under the subjection of his will so as to be ever available and ready. Has any other man of his years ever done as much to illustrate Coventry as he has.’
Murray, it went on, possessed such mental power and arrangement that he could solve complicated constructional problems virtually without recourse to paper, and because of that could perform large designs in an incredibly short space of time.
If he had had longer, we might have had more of him left to admire.
James Murray in Coventry – the major works.
c1850. Restoration of interior of St Michael’s Church, Bayley Lane.
1850s. Work to complete St Osburg’s Church, Barras Lane (probable).
1854. Holy Trinity Parish Schools, Ford Street.
1854-55. St Michael’s Parish Schools and two teachers’ houses, Much Park Street.
1855. Three houses in The Quadrant, Warwick Road.
1856. Re-modelling of Lychgate cottages, Priory Row.
1856. Corn Exchange, Hertford Street.
1856-57. Old Blue Coat School, Priory Row.
1857. Cash’s Hundred Houses, Kingfield.
1858. St Michael’s Baptist Church, Hay Lane.
1858. Three houses, Hales Street.
1861. Stoneleigh Terrace (probable).
1861. Enlargement of St Michael’s Church, Stoke.
1862-63. Restoration of All Saints Church, Allesley.
1863. Justice Rooms extension of St Mary’s Hall, St Mary’s Street.
1863. Coventry School of Art, Ford Street.
1863. Freemen’s Charity School, Swanswell Place.
And in Warwickshire:
from 1853. St James’s Church, Guild Street, Stratford-on-Avon.
1854-55. Restoration of chancel at St Chad’s Church, Bishops Tachbrook.
1854-61. All Saints Church, Emscote, Warwick.
1855. New Almshouses at 10-13 The Bank, Stoneleigh, for Lord Leigh.
1855. Church school, Brinklow.
1855-56. Corn Exchange, Warwick.
1856-57. The Hill, Stratford-on-Avon, private house for the Flowers brewing family.
1858. Town Hall and Corn Exchange, Rugby.
1860. Two pairs of cottages at Stoneleigh for Lord Leigh.
1861. The Lodge, Kenilworth, private house for Thomas Hennell.