Edmund Sharpe

Place of Birth

Edmund Sharpe was born in Knutsford, Cheshire, the only son of Francis and Martha Sharpe. His father was the organist at the parish church and a music teacher to many of the children of the local gentry. Edmund’s mother, Martha Whittaker, had a sister Mary also living in Knutsford, who was the wife of Dr Peter Holland. It was through becoming part of the extended 'Holland Clan' that the family became involved in local society.  As a child, Edmund played with Elizabeth Stevenson, the future Mrs Gaskell, and a niece too of Dr Holland. It is recorded that when, aged five, Edmund was being drawn around in a nice little carriage with Elizabeth that it overturned, causing him to breakihis arm.

 His father died young in 1823 and in 1824 he left Knutsford with his mother and sister to live in Lancaster near another aunt, Esther, who was married to Benjamin Satterthwaite, wine merchant.  Educated first at Dr Burney's Academy, his education continued at Sedburgh Grammar School. After Sedbergh School, Edmund entered St John's College, Cambridge in 1829 and here came under the influence of Dr William Whewell, Fellow (later Master) of Trinity College, a friend of the Satterthwaites and someone Edmund had met earlier on school holidays in Lancaster. Whewell had been interested since 1822 in architecture and was in 1835 to publish Architectural Notes on German Churches with additional notes on Normandy and Piccardy. He was highly influential in guiding Sharpe towards an architectural career and it was Whewell who suggested to Edmund that he apply in 1832 for one of two University travelling Bachelorships (or scholarships) and that he should study the development of Romanesque and Gothic architecture in France and Germany. It was Whitwell too, who introduced Sharpe to Thomas Rickman. During a brief period in his office in 1832, Sharpe received some instruction from Thomas Rickman, although he never underwent any form of formal articled apprenticeship.

Sharpe made a three-year visit to France and Germany to study Romanesque and Gothic architecture. It was upon his return to England that in 1836 that he decided to become an architect, setting up practice on his own account in Sun Street, Lancaster. E.G. Paley joined the firm as a pupil in 1838 and was taken into partnership in 1845. In an architectural career spanning fifteen years, Sharpe designed some thirty-five churches mostly in the north of England, together with a few houses and sundry smaller commissions. For his early churches he made use of Romanesque designs, a style he returned to for Scotforth at the end of his life. The rest of his churches were in the Gothic style, initially Early English style and later the Decorated upon which he was to become the 'leading authority', through his researches and writings. As an architect, he is perhaps best remembered for his 'Pot Churches'.  The first of these, St Stephen's Church, Lever Bridge, Bolton (1842) is unique 'in being the first English building of the nineteenth century to be constructed almost entirely of terra cotta. It was followed by the Holy Trinity, Platt, Manchester in 1845 and St Paul's Church, Scotforth in I874 In all three cases use was made of terra cotta both for constructional and decorative  purposes though stone was also used for some of the walls.

In 1851 Sharpe officially retired from architectural practice, transferring the chief charge of his practice to E. G. Paley. He was to design only one more church, St. Paul’s at Scotforth in 1874. Paley, who had been responsible for most of the firm’s output from 1847 onwards, continued the practice, first alone and later with H.J. Austin. Thereafter Sharpe pursued his other business interests, especially railways. On the Lancaster and Preston Junction Railway he sub-contracted for masonry work at the Lancaster end of the line. He was also actively involved in the “Little North Western” line to Morecambe and for a time was Secretary and Traffic Manager. In 1856 he was appointed Engineer on the Conway to Lanwrst line and moved to Wales.Sharpe worked abroad from 1863-1866, where he was involved in a scheme to replace the horse drawn tram system of Geneva, and later with a railway line from Perpignan te Prades. Upon his return to Lancaster in 1866 he took up the running of the Phoenix Foundry, which he had owned since 1852 and which for a time had built and repaired railway rolling stock.

In 1843 Sharpe married Elizabeth Fletcher, the daughter of the promoter of his terra-cotta churches, Colonel John Fletcher of Bolton. They had three sons and two daughters.

Sharpe was elected to Lancaster City Council in 1841, becoming mayor in 1847-8. His involvement in local politics lasted until 1853 during which he was the leader in the struggle for sanitary reform, playing a leading role in the implementation of the first Public Health Act in Lancaster. He produced plans for a new clean water supply system from Wyredale and improvements to sewerage installation for the town. By 1855 Lancaster had a new and plentiful supply of clean water to replace the often contaminated supplies drawn from wells.

In 1848, Edmund Sharpe turned his attention to the development of Gothic architecture, becoming, in Pevsner's words 'the greatest connoisseur of flowing tracery of his age'. His books included the Seven Periods of English Architecture, Architectural Parallels, and Decorated Windows. Sharpe saw himself, not as a populariser, but as an author of works intended for the instruction of architects. He believed professional architects rather than by amateurs or academics should carry out such research as a 'constructional' approach was essential.  In the eighteenth century there had been little understanding of the development of Gothic architecture and architects applied its details indiscriminately to Gothick style buildings. As the Gothic Revival progressed, there was a move away from a Gothic style true only in terms of such applied motifs to an archaeologically correct Gothic style, sufficiently accurate to convince the layman that the building was medieval. As a result, there was considerable interest in the nomenclature of Gothic styles and considerable debate about the distinct periods into which pointed architecture could properly be divided. Sharpe's one-time instructor, Thomas Rickman had shown great interest in the Gothic style and had been one of the first systematically to record details of Gothic churches and ruins. His analysis of the Gothic style was published as a series of papers in 1815 under the lengthy title Attempt to discriminate the styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation, preceded by a sketch of the Greek and Roman orders, with notes on nearly 500 English buildings by Thomas Rickman, member of the Literary and Philosophical Societies of Liverpool and Chester. This analysis defined the stages of development as Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular. Longmans published it as a book in 1817.

In 1851 Sharpe published The Seven Periods of Church Architecture. The book attempted a more subtle differentiation of the styles of the Gothic period, especially that which lay between Rickman's 'Early English' and 'Decorated' styles, which Sharpe  labelled 'Geometrical'. This more refined classification of Gothic styles, which Sharpe named as Saxon, Norman, Transitional, Lancet, Geometrical, Curvilinear and Rectilinear, greatly impressed Scott. He wrote in The Builder AMr Rickman's terms must be relinquished. It will never do to keep on talking about Early English and Decorated@. However the new titles never achieved universal acceptance and it is Rickman's simpler classification that has endured.

Besides his writings, Sharpe organised autumnal excursions in England and France for students at the Architectural Association. For his contribution as an architectural historian, the RIBA awarded him the Gold Medal in 1875.

Edmund Sharpe died in Milan in 1877 while gathering material for a history of Gothic architecture in Northern Italy. His body was brought back to England and is buried in Lancaster Cemetery.







Name Designation Formed Dissolved Location
Sharpe and Paley Architectural practice 1845 1851 Lancaster