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.

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