The family man who created Southsea

AUTHOR Sue Pike and husband John. Picture: Allan Hutchings (131786-632)
AUTHOR Sue Pike and husband John. Picture: Allan Hutchings (131786-632)
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Almost 200 years-ago, when Southsea was just a boggy marshland where cows and sheep roamed, a visionary architect decided to build a community.

Thomas Ellis Owen is known as the designer behind some of the most elegant villas and terraces in the city – sought-after properties which change hands for up to £1m each.

But there is a theory that, unlike the developers of today who go all-out to make as much money as they can, the 19th century developer was driven to build not just houses but a community.

His work left an indelible mark on the area and inspired Sue Pike to write her book, Shaper of Portsmouth, Father of Southsea.

She explains that, although he made money from the grand properties he built, he also had a strong social conscience borne out of being part of a large, close family.

Sue said: ‘He grew up in a family that was big and close-knit. He married Catherine and had a daughter, Louisa-Ann.

‘But when Owen was in his late 20s his whole family – parents and brothers and sisters – went to live in Dublin where his father Jacob had got a job as a canal engineer.

‘Thomas probably knew he wasn’t going to have any more children and, in some respects, I’m sure he would have been bereft.

‘I think perhaps if his family had stayed, Southsea probably would not have been built. He had the time and a gap in his life.

‘He not only wanted to build a suburb but a community.

‘There’s St Jude’s Church and houses around it. There was the Portland Hotel with halls where lectures took place.

‘I think it must have stemmed from the feeling that he grew up in a community and he wanted to build one.’

His beautiful classical Regency buildings with large landscaped gardens are seen as precursors to the garden cities.

There are around 160 stunning Owen villas and terraces still standing and nearly all are listed.

Many more were built between the 1830s and 1860s, leased by military top brass and wealthy merchants.

Sue said: ‘Although he was a Victorian architect he would have trained in Georgian times.

‘He seems to have a lightness of touch, which is Georgian.

‘He mixed classical Regency with Gothic revival and his trademarks were narrow, curvy lanes to make it feel as if it were the countryside.

‘There was also heavy landscaping, to give a feeling of space, and pointy gables and ornate barge boards.’

Owen was born in 1805 and lived in Cold Harbour, where the Guildhall now stands, with his parents and 12 brothers and sisters.

His daughter married Rev Thomas Richard Brownrigg and Sue believes the marriage was the driving force behind Owen’s decision to build St Jude’s Church, in Kent Road.

Sue said: ‘He would have been looking at some way of keeping his daughter in Southsea.

‘Her husband was a vicar in Liss and he must have felt he had to do something to get her back and keep her close.

‘I’m sure he knew building a church would attract people to move to the area but I think it much more likely he wanted to keep Louisa-Ann in Southsea.

‘Obviously it wouldn’t have been very manly to admit that though. I’m sure his wife would have been nagging him behind the scenes.’

Owen was mayor of Portsmouth twice, including when he died in the library of his home, Dover Court, in Kent Road. It was the largest home in Southsea with grand gardens.

As with modern-day property developers, Owen would have been a wealthy man. But Sue does not believe his motivation was money.

She said: ‘He was active politically and got involved with the Public Health Act.

‘But when it was rejected he was so exasperated he wasn’t politically involved again.

‘The Act would have introduced mains drainage and made sure people had toilets and did not have slop buckets.

‘It meant people would be living in sanitary conditions.

‘It would have cost property owners money but that did not worry Owen.

‘He already did it in his properties. Once again, he had a very precious daughter and he would not have wanted her to catch any of the deadly diseases of the day – even if he lost money.

‘This family thing is quite important.

‘I think it made him the man he was.’

Sue’s husband John was the conservation officer at Portsmouth City Council for 20 years until last year.

He is also interested in Owen’s work.

He said: ‘My job at the council was really to encourage people to look after the properties and not to alter them in any way that would detract from their character.’

The former Mayflower pub in Highland Road, Eastney, is one of the only Owen buildings to be demolished in recent years but many were destroyed by bombs during the war.

· Thomas Ellis Owen, Father of Southsea, Shaper of Portsmouth, is available at £25. Go to thomasellisowen.co.uk to order a copy.