Richard Knill Freeman

This web site will eventually contain detailed information about the Bolton architect Richard Knill Freeman and full details of his buildings. In the meantime, this essay gives a brief description of his career.

Richard Knill Freeman was a prolific and versatile architect who is now little remembered. He practiced mainly in north-west England, particularly in the Bolton area where he lived. His work was mainly ecclesiastical (new churches, restorations, fittings and vicarages) but he also designed houses, schools, municipal buildings, hospitals and even made additions to the piers at Blackpool and Southport. He worked on over 140 buildings of which about sixty were new buildings. About half of the buildings survive in some form. Freeman was Diocesan Surveyor of Ecclesiastical Dilapidations for Manchester and president of the Manchester Society of Architects (of which he was a fellow) from 1890-91. He was elected FRIBA on 9 January 1882 on the nomination of L Booth, A Darbyshire and GT Redmayne.

He was born in 1840 in Stepney. Little is known of his early life; from 1854 to 1860 he was articled to George Rake of Portsea, and between 1861 and 1863 seems to have been working in both Portsmouth and Bolton. His obituary in the Building News states that “In the early sixties Mr Freeman gained some distinction as an architect at Derby, where for a time he had an office”, (although as Building News gets his name wrong this may not be the most reliable information). He moved to Bolton in about 1865 living first in Manchester Road, then at Haulgh Hall. He eventually settled in about 1874 at 114 Radcliffe Road where he lived until his death in 1904.

His original office seems to have been Haulgh Hall, Bolton; he then moved to 17 Wood Street prior to 1874 and after 1892 to 24 Nelson Square. In his capacity as Diocesan Surveyor of Ecclesiastical Dilapidations he also had an office at Diocesan Chambers, 51 South King Street, Manchester.

Although his work was mainly in the north-west, he also designed buildings abroad: he built the only Anglican church in Moscow and a church and house in San Remo.

The new churches that he designed and that still stand include the impressive St Augustine, Tonge Moor, Bolton (1883-86); St Peter, Farnworth, Bolton (1885); Ribbleton Parish Church, Preston (1889-91); Holy Trinity, South Shore, Blackpool (1894-5); St Aidan, Bamber Bridge (1894-95); St. Lawrence, Barton (1895); Christ Church, Heaton, Bolton (1895-96); St Simon and St Jude, Great Lever, Bolton (1899-1901, with attached school and hall); St. Catherine, Horwich (1902; extended by his son in 1932); Johnson Memorial church, Bickershaw (1904-5), one of his last works, possibly completed by his son); and the Pendleton Wesleyan Methodist church. Pevsner considers Holy Trinity, Blackpool to be his “chef d’oeuvre”. His most prolific period was the mid to late 1890s when he was working on about ten new churches.

Substantial additions to churches that remain include Lytham St. Annes (tower, 1887), Horwich Parish church (chancel, 1903) and St. Margaret Hollinwood (tower).

He seems to have had a particularly good relationship with the parish of Farnworth and Kearsley beginning in 1867 when he produced plans for walls and railings for the Parish church of St John. Further works to the church followed with a major restoration (new chancel, reseating, new choir stalls and encaustic tile floor) in 1872 and in 1885 a font, reredos and baptistery window. In 1904, one of his last works, he designed St. Johns parish school which Pevsner describes as “rather nice”, but incorrectly dates as c.1880. In the same parish he built two new churches: All Saints Moses Gate in 1897 (demolished in 2007) and St Peters in 1885 (declared redundant in December 2007).

Much of his non-ecclesiastical work came from winning competitions. His obituary in Building News states that he “went in freely for architectural competitions, in which he was far more successful than the majority of those who regard that form of speculation as a profitable investment of time and money”. The Builder mentions at least 14 of his competition entries. In May 1878 he won two major competitions: Bolton Infirmary (judged by Charles Barry, then president of the Institute of British architects) and the Heaton Cemetery memorial chapels. Other commissions won by competition include West Hartlepool municipal offices and Derby library and museum. Competitions that he didn’t win include town halls at Taunton, Wakefield Leamington and Over Darwen, Dublin Museum of Science and Art and Hindley cemetery. He later became a competition judge: for example in 1897 for Bury art gallery, in 1892 Shrewsbury Police Station and in 1902 for Withington cemetery.

He was associated with various other architects. His first partnership was with George Cunliffe of Bolton, as Cunliffe and Freeman, between 1865 and 1870/71. He was also involved with SD Robins (Freeman and Robins, 1888-1897) who did work in the Newcastle area, but it is probable that they just collaborated on competition entries or on projects in the North East. He was also associated with a number of other local architects. Charles Thomas Marshall (1889-1891), John Oliver Harris, Marshall Robinson, and Dan Gibson were assistants and Thomas Mawson worked with Knill Freeman on some projects such as the large house at Graythwaite in the Lake District. Orlando Prescott, who practised in Wigan, was a pupil. There is also an unsubstantiated claim that Freeman trained in Austin and Paley’s office.

He built in a variety of styles: “semi-Dutch, semi-Flamboyant a la George & Peto” at West Hartlepool, half-timbered on houses and schools (for example Bryerswood and Peel school. For churches he favoured late Gothic styles, often with a French influence. Pevsner (2005) likens his work to that of R B Preston, referring to his “effective but reserved Arts and Crafts detailing”.

Knill Freeman died on June 23 1904 aged 67. Hints of his character can be found in his obituaries: he was “conservative in politics, in religion a member of the High Church party and at one time an earnest supporter of the local branch of the English Church Union” (an Anglo-Catholic advocacy group within the Church of England) according to the Bolton Journal. He held office in connection with St Stephen and All Martyrs, Lever Bridge.

The Building News stated that he “was a very active, energetic, and distinctly clever man; he could speak well and easily. He had corns, as those who trod on them were apt to find out; he sometimes forgot that others might have corns too.” He was considered an authority on church architecture and the practice of designing church fabrics not only in Lancashire but also in the country and on the continent. He was a member of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society from 1885 until his death. He exhibited at the Royal Academy on seven occasions between 1882 and 1894.

After his death, in 1907, The Waifs and Strays' Society opened his former house at 114 Radcliffe Road as a home, after ten years of fundraising within the Manchester Diocese. The extent of Freeman’s involvement in this is not clear but he was involved in other charitable schemes. He also had an interest in housing for the working classes and published some plans of model dwellings, but it is not known if any of these were built.

His son, Frank Richard Freeman, LRIBA (1870-1934), continued the practice after his death as Freeman & Son. He built a number of churches in a somewhat similar style to his father such as St, Bede, Morris Green, Bolton (1931), Bolton; St Pauls, Marton (1908 and tower c.1933) and Holy Trinity, Failsworth (1906-09).

A number of Knill Freeman’s buildings, particularly in Bolton, are not listed. All Saints, Moses Gates was demolished in 2007, the interior having been destroyed prior to an English heritage visit to consider listing it, and St. Peters, Farnworth was declared redundant in 2007. Knill Freeman deserves to be better known, especially in Bolton where he did much of his work, and consideration should be given to protecting the buildings that remain.

Provisional list of buildings

© David French, 2009

Many thanks to Michael Shippobottom and Graham Potts for providing information used in this article.

Note: There is much more work to do on Knill Freeman. If you have information about Knill Freeman, please contact me