Surveyor and architect Stewart Gordon, born in Derry in 1801, would go on during his professional life to be responsible for many of the most notable buildings still with us to this day, not just in the city but also the county.
On May 17, 1834, he was appointed as surveyor for County Derry, a position he retained until his death, and he was also surveyor for the Honorable The Irish Society. The following year, 1835, he was a founding member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in Ireland.
As well as his public appointment, Gordon also undertook private practise projects. In the city of Derry his first such major project came three years after he had secured his important public position when in 1837, his design for the Presbyterian Church at Great James’ Street came into fruition.
A contemporary report about Great James’ Street church said: “The Presbyterian Meeting House (now in the process of erection), which like the former is in connexion with the Synod of Ulster, is so situated at Great James’ Street and forms a considerable ornament to the suburb of Edenballymore.
“The first stone was laid on April 27, 1835, by Sir Robert A Ferguson, on which occasion an appropriate address was delivered by the Rev George Hay.
“The building is rectangular and measures 80 feet by 50. It has four Ionic columns and four pilasters. The design was furnished by Stewart Gordon Esq, the County Surveyor and the estimated cost is £2,000, (£220,000 today) which has been raised by voluntary contributions. The material is chiefly whinstone, but the pillars, flags and steps are of freestone from Scotland. It is intended for the accommodation of 1,200 persons.”
Whilst the building ceased to be a place of worship in 1982 it then temporarily housed Derry’s main public library in the latter part of that decade and after that became home to the Foyle Language School. But, once it became unused and at the whim of the elements, the old church and its adjoining manse grew ever closer to demolition. But a cash injection of £2.5 million announced in 2015 has seen both buildings thankfully become fully integrated to the Culturlann Ui Chanain, a music and cultural hub next door.
A decade later in 1847, Stewart Gordon was also behind the design of Strand Road Presbyterian Church just a couple of hundred yards away from the Great James’ Street building.
The new building was opened for worship on March 12, 1848 by the Rev Dr Henry Cooke. The project cost £1,450 the equivalent of just under £170,000 in today’s terms.
Neo-Gothic in design, Strand Road Presbyterian was a hall-type church with an octagonal tower with a series of pinnacles placed over the entrance and it was constructed in sandstone with the rest of the building built from whinstone. The building has also ceased to operate as a church in 2010 following a decision take by its Presbytery in 2009 but it remains one of the most striking constructions in Derry’s city centre.
By the early 1850s, Stewart Gordon was overseeing the plans for the construction of Magee College in Derry as resident architect with the designer E.P. Gribbon of Dublin. The college was constructed between 1856 and 1865 as a Presbyterian theological training institution and Christian arts centre.
With regard to his public position as County Surveyor however, Stewart Gordon like his counterparts in the other 31 counties of Ireland, was regularly held to account for his professional life by the government of the day.
A batch of Westminster parliamentary papers compiled by government commissioners in the 1840s reveals that he was annually obligated to give details of his activities and indeed expenditure and comment as well on what today would be called a declaration of any conflicts of interest.
As a result, the Parliamentary Commissioners report of 1842 contains an account submitted by Mr Gordon which said that his public sector earnings where: “£300 (£33,000 today) per annum and £50 for paying salary to a clerk and for expenses of office. I receive no fees whatever, on the contrary about two-thirds of my salary is expended on travelling expenses,” wrote Gordon.
The architect was also clearly obliged to pay due deference to the person who oversaw his public appointment and declare his understanding that any breach of the rules of public appointment could see him sacked.
Stewart Gordon also wrote: “Surveyors are liable to be dismissed by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, or by the Grand Jury of the respective counties. I was appointed on the 16th day of May 1834, by his Excellency The Most Noble, the Marquis Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.”
Wellesley’s younger brother was the 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley who conquered Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.
The Derry man also declared: “I reside in the County; I have an office in the County. My County duties oblige me to travel about 200 days in the year and I attend my office almost the whole of the remaining portion of the year. I have always discharged my duties in person; I have not held any other County office.
“I do private business more by deputy than in person. I have not done any act connected with Grand Jury presentments for private persons, nor have I ever received any gratuity, recompense or reward for any extra services.
“In two instances I have been desired by the Grand Jury to execute works where they allowed the sums disbursed by me-1st, the sum of £8 8s was presented to chainmen employed in the levelling and extensive line of new road, and 2s, the sum of £100 was presented to persons employed by me in surveying the state of Coleraine Bridge-from 60 to 65 miles of new road completed-about 1,450 miles in my charge, and I have four assistants, costing £200 a year.”
In his personal life, Gordon obviously also had an assiduous eye for fine architecture. He lived at Aberfoyle, originally known as Richmond House, on the city’s Northland Road which now forms part of the Ulster University campus at Magee.
Aberfoyle House was an Italian style mansion built for local whiskey distiller David Watt in 1845 and after Gordon’s death was also inhabited by shipping magnate Bartholomew McCorkell in the 1870s and by Sir Basil McFarland who remained there until his death in 1986.
Stewart Gordon lived at Aberfoyle with his wife Sarah Hannah , daughter Matilda and sons Stewart Jr and James.
Work projects for the Derry surveyor and architect continued at great pace. In 1836, in his role for The Honorable The Irish Society he oversaw the reclamation of the slob land and embankment at Coleraine. In the same year, also for the Irish Society he also undertook the construction of the Coleraine and Portrush Road bridges. Between 1841-1844 he was also at hand to oversee the construction of the bridge over the River Bann at Coleraine and between 1850-52 he worked on the construction of the old Coleraine Courthouse on the Castlerock Road.
As County Surveyor in 1852 he was responsible for the new market place, now Victoria Market on Derry’s Strand Road whilst three years later in 1855 he designed the new infant school at Coleraine and between 1857-1859 Gordon supervised and was consultant architect when the town hall was reconstructed at The Diamond in the East Derry town.
Amongst other projects on behalf of the Irish Society were housing projects at Balloughry, Molenan and Killea on the outskirts of Derry city in 1858-1859, as well as the Boghill School House at Coleraine.
But, two further major projects undertaken by Stewart Gordon in this era particularly stand out.
The first was the Bridewell (jail) at Magherafelt. In the 19th Century countless prisoners learned of their fate at the south Derry courthouse that occupied the site where the town’s library now stands. A history of the town records that the former court building: “Consisted of a spacious hall at one end and two jury rooms at the other. The intervening space was fitted up with jury boxes on either side which opened into the jury rooms. At one end there were benches for the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions and magistrates and the dock was situated at the other end near the door.”
Initially, there were cells for prisoners beneath the north end of the courthouse, but when James Boyle visited Magherafelt in 1836 as part of the Ordnance Survey mapping of Ireland he described the conditions as: “Unhealthy in the extreme and totally unfit for the confinement of human beings. There are two small damp cells, each 15 by 12 feet, one opening off the other, without any kind of furniture and as many as 28 unfortunate creatures have been at one time during the quarter sessions confined at night.”
After this report, the London Company of Salters, the landowners of Magherafelt, agreed that a Bridewell should be erected next to the courthouse. The new jail was designed by Stewart Gordon in his capacity as County Surveyor in 1839 at a cost of £515.
When in 1845, a Mr Valentine a representative of the Salters Company visited the Bridewell he described the building as “clean and in excellent order.”
The second project was the overall of Dungiven Castle in 1839 on behalf of Robert Ogilby. The castle dates back to the 17th Century and the reign of the O’Cahan clan, but later became the historic seat of the Ogilby’s and most of the current building dates from the Derry architects time in charge of the project.
Stewart Gordon died at Aberfoyle House aged just 59 on June 17, 1860 and was buried in Derry City Cemetery. It would tragically appear that remainder of his family sadly also passed away well before their time.
Stewart Gordon was joined by his wife Sarah Hannah just a year later on June 7, 1861 when she was aged 53 or 54. On April 29, 1862 their daughter Matilda died at just 12-years-old and Stewart Gordon Jr died on July 28, 1892 at the age of 35.
It was also recorded that at the time of his death, Stewart Gordon Jr was living at Greencastle in Co Donegal and left £1,111 (£138,000 in today’s terms) to his brother James in his will. But, left without any living immediate relatives, it is unclear what became of James Gordon, but it appears that he was not buried with his parents, brother or sister.
CAPTION: The Presbyterian Church at Great James' Street in Derry.
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