Dereham man with a vision who helped shape Norwich, Norfolk... and beyond
- Credit: Frontier Publishing
Should this Dereham-born gentleman who helped to shape our city and county be more highly regarded as a great English architect of national importance? Derek James looks at a new book about George Skipper
For the young art/architecture student travelling on the train between Dereham and Norwich in the 1870s every day there was much to see out of the window.
The details of arches, walls and iron pillars of the railway stops and small stations were of great interest to George John Skipper as he made the journey of more than 20 miles from his home to Norwich Art School.
He became a man with a rare vision and look around, we in Norfolk have much to thank him for. He was true artist-architect.
Yes, there are his famous landmarks in Norwich such as The Royal Arcade, Surrey House and the Jarrold building, but Skipper’s work can be seen and admired across the county and the rest of the country.
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He is a man who deserves to become better known. We should all be proud of him and his legacy.
A book out this week takes an in-depth and comprehensive look at the life and times of this extraordinary gentleman has just been published and is a fitting tribute
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George Skipper: The Architects Life and Works by Richard Barnes is a must for anyone interested in the buildings which surround us and the man himself who designed them with such style.
Richard arrived in Norwich in the 1970s and at first didn’t realise the Royal Arcade, Haymarket Chambers and what is now St Giles House were all designed by the same man.
“My own interest is in British sculpture, and I work a book about a 19th century ancestor, the sculptor John Bell (1811-1895) who came from Norfolk,” said Richard.
The work of Skipper captured his imagination so he embarked on an investigation…to discover more about him and just what made him tick.
It is quite a story.
He was born on August 6, 1856 in Back Lane, Dereham, the second son of Robert and Elizabeth Skipper was described as a sturdy, fair-haired little chap.
His father, Robert Skipper, was a respected builder and brick and tile manufacturer, who would buy plots of land, build houses and then sell them. He employed 50 men at a time and was capable of completing public commissions such as King’s Lynn Railway Station.
George’s mother, born on New Year’s day in 1825, was the second of four daughters of a former farmer and later tailor, Richard Wilemer and his wife Ann, of Great Ellingham.
Tragedy struck when Elizabeth died when George was 11. He and his brothers went off to be boarders at Bracondale School in Norwich.
He enjoyed drawing lessons, gained a school prize for his art and saw a glimpse of his future.His next stop was Norwich Art School and, like so many others, he learned and listened…. his talents were nurtured and encouraged.
His career as an architect was starting. Aged 17 he travelled to Belgium before heading for London where he worked beneath and among the greatest architectural figures of that time, in the biggest and richest city in the world.
George was probably the errand boy at the beginning but with his Dereham background he knew how to make himself understood by builders and suppliers – and he could draw.
By the time he was 20 George was back in Norfolk working as an architect and draughtsman in his father’s building and contracting officers. There are many buildings in and around Dereham built by Robert and his team.
After a couple of years he became an architect in his own right and started to design houses in Dereham and a place of worship for the Primitive Methodists at Whinburgh – now a three-bedroomed house.
Soon the offers of work from across the country were coming in. He entered a design for a competition to design a hospital and associated cottages at Shepton Mallet in Somerset and it was accepted.
Prestige, a degree of notoriety, money, and more work to come – came his way.
For the next 10 years, from 1880. His work was shaped by the prize he had won. He designed small hospitals, schools and a new “old village” on the other side of England. And a good deal of work in Somerset.
Author Barnes goes into great detail as we follow George’s professional and, often tragic, private life. His first wife Elizabeth died in 1890 after just a few years of marriage.
At his office in Norwich he was designing the buildings we know and love in the city and across Norfolk today as his reputation grew. From houses to town halls and large hotels on the coast to grand buildings in the city such as the Norwich Union HQ.
With his team of artists and artisans, Sennowe Park at Guist was transformed and so many other buildings, large and small, stand as a lasting tribute and reminded of a man who lived a life of ups and down.
The First World War was a watershed in George’s life. His work dried up, he was lost money through bad investments and he was newly married to his wife Alice with young children to support.
He worked hard to revive his career in peacetime with council and private houses and an entire village for the new Kent coalfield. He was invited to work on the Royal estate at Sandringham and designed landmark London buildings. Especially in Mayfair and Sackville Street off Piccadilly.
George was often on the train between Norwich and London. On one occasion he was walking briskly, heading for the platform to catch the London train when he heard a whistle blast and caught sight of the train in motion. “STOP THAT TRAIN,” he roared, in the mode of a Sergeant Major. Surprisingly the guard on the platform signalled to the driver, and the train slowed to a halt.
The smartly-dressed, white-haired gentleman had a word with the staff for attempting to leave early, then climbed aboard as if nothing was unusual.
By reading this book we get to know all about George, and his talented family, both at work and at home. It follows his life well.
George Skipper died on August 1, 1948 at a residential home, Heigham Hall in Norwich, five days before what would have been his 92nd birthday. His wish to be buried in the grave of his first wife, Elizabeth, who had died in 1890 was fulfilled.
His son Edward, also a talented architect, went on to be chairman of The Norwich Society, which continues its important work as guardian of the city’s built environment.
You can buy the book, by Frontier Publishing, in Jarrold – take a look at the top of the building (one of Skippers) when it opens but you can also buy it online at https://www.jarrold.co.uk/departments/books/local-books where there is a picture and a click and buy facility. It costs £30.
About the author
Richard Barnes was born in 1950 and lives in South Norfolk.
His background is in photography and books but in 1999 he started to write an ancestor, John Bell (1811-1895), a sculptor who came from Hopton-on-Sea and then went to London where he made a corner of the Albert Memorial, as well as the Guards Crimean War Memorial, the first war memorial in Britain.
This led to an almost full-time interest in public sculpture, a Spotlight on Sculpture series in the EDP in 2004, an English Heritage book about Britain’s obelisks and then in 2010 he was asked to survey British sculpture in India with co-author Prof Mary Ann-Steggles of Winnepeg, Four years later he produced a book on Sculpture in the Cemeteries of London.
“Maybe the most exciting venture was way back in 1977, when I bought a Norfolk cob and rode 1,500 miles to the Highlands of Scotland and back, living outside and seeing old Britain in the days of blacksmiths and before mobile phones.
“I wrote a book about this called Eye on the Hill – Horse Travels in Britain with a brief preface by George Ewart Evans who lived in South Norfolk,” said Richard.
It took him about 15 months to research and write the George Skipper book. “I found I had an old friend who was connected to the Skipper family, and this gave me valuable information which other writers were not so fortunate to be able to draw on.
“So with these advantages, and my camera, and some important research already carried out by Stephen Thomas I decided to start, went on, and finished,” added Richard.