CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Essex Life today CLICK HERE

Architect John Johnson, 1732-1814

PUBLISHED: 08:41 30 March 2015 | UPDATED: 08:41 30 March 2015



Essex Record Office

Hannah Salisbury looks through the Essex Record Office archives to share another unique story of one of the county’s most colourful characters

Architect John Johnson (1732-1814), although not an Essex native, helped to shape the built heritage of our county both in his private work and as County Surveyor from 1782-1812.

Johnson was born in Leicester, the eldest son of John Johnson senior, a joiner, and his wife, Frances. Nothing is known of his early life, but by 1760 he was married and living in London.

He began his career as a speculative builder, putting up houses on the Berners estate in Marylebone in the 1760s. In 1767 he moved into 32 Berners Street and ran his business from there for the rest of his working life.

Johnson’s reputation grew through the 1770s as he designed several grand country houses and exhibited designs at the Society of Artists. Some of the country houses he designed for Essex landowners still survive, such as Terling Place (which he worked on from 1772 to c1780), Hatfield Place (1791 to 95) and Bradfield Lodge (1781 to 86).

Johnson is best known, however, for designing Chelmsford’s Shire Hall, one of the town’s most significant landmarks. From its opening in 1791 until 2012, Shire Hall served as the County Court. It replaced the Tudor Market Cross, which had been built in 1569 and which served as both market place and court house. The ground floor of the Market Cross was open-sided, with enclosed galleries above. Despite the fact that it was open to the street and therefore dusty, draughty and noisy, the county Assizes and Quarter Sessions courts were conducted in the open piazza on the ground floor and corn merchants conducted their trade there on Friday market days.

In October 1788, the Tudor building was condemned by the Quarter Sessions as ‘not in a fit condition for transacting the publick [sic] business of the County’, and John Johnson, as County Surveyor, was commissioned to build a new Shire House. We are fortunate at ERO to have Johnson’s original plans for the building, including elevations and internal floor plans. Shire Hall, with its impressive neo-Classical Portland Stone façade, was completed (under budget) in 1791. It included court rooms, a ballroom and was also used as part of the market and as a corn exchange.

On June 3, 1791 the Chelmsford Chronicle gave its verdict on the transformation to the town centre. The new building was judged to ‘[exhibit] a splendid object to all persons coming up the town; this elegant building … will not only do credit to the taste and spirit of the magistrates of this opulent county, and honour to the architect, but will be of the greatest service and accommodation to every person frequenting the public meetings’.

Johnson also rebuilt Moulsham Bridge in stone in 1787 and rebuilt the Nave of St Mary’s Church in Chelmsford when it collapsed in 1800.

As well as his architectural work, Johnson made forays into speculative banking, which made him money at first but bankrupted him in 1803. He retired back to his birthplace of Leicester where he is buried in Leicester Cathedral. He is commemorated on a monument which he had originally designed for his parents.

1 comment

  • I may be missing something, but the pictured building is clearly not the Shire Hall. In which case, where is it please?

    Report this comment


    Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

More from Essex Life

Tue, 12:54

The agricultural heritage of the county cannot be underestimated. Here Stephanie Mackentyre visits three farms that have been feeding Essex for generations

Read more
Tue, 12:23

Laurie Page of the Public Rights of Way Team at Essex County Council shares with us this beautiful six-mile walk around Bradwell’s stunning coastal delights

Read more
Tue, 10:07

As an enduring British institution, it’s incredibly important to get your Sunday lunch right. Here are 12 pubs in Essex that know how to deliver precisely what you require.

Read more
Mon, 12:47

For those still figuring out how to spend your Friday through Sunday, we’ve rounded up 5 of Essex’s best things to do to ensure no second of your weekend is wasted

Read more
Friday, October 12, 2018

Over the October half term Essex will be filled with spooky events that’ll be sure to put you in the ideal mood for Halloween. Here are 15 great places for kids and adults alike

Read more
Wednesday, October 10, 2018

We’ve put together 15 questions that will push your knowledge of Essex to the limit - let us know how you’ve done on social media!

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Paycocke’s House and Gardens, now owned by The National Trust, is one of the county’s most precious historic sites and 2018 marks 500 years since the death of the man who gave the house its name. Ruth McKegney tells the tale of this Coggeshall jewel

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Essex Life Food & Drink Awards for 2018 took place on September 27th at Down Hall Hotel

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Treat yourself to a pint of real ale surrounded by fresh sea air and coastal views at any one of these 12 glorious Essex pubs

Read more
Friday, October 5, 2018

With one of the warmest and driest summers on record, this year has been a difficult one for gardeners. Susie Bulman from The Beth Chatto Gardens at Elmstead Market shares some top tips for plant survival, even in these conditions

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Follow us on Twitter

Like us on Facebook

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search