Robert Curwen was born in 1850 in the Lancashire town of Fleetwood where his father ,Robert, was a timber merchant. In 1865 he was working in the Liverpool office of Christopher Ellison, a well connected architect with a strong Wesleyan clientele. He stayed with Ellison until around 1870 when he moved to London and worked in the offices of Sir Gilbert Scott, an eminent and well respected architect with many church projects to his credit, but very few of which were for the Wesleyans (or any other Non- Conformist congregations). Scott was a great exponent and strong believer in the Gothic Revival style of architecture, with its steep roofs and pointed door and window openings. Curwen would have been influenced into this style and Scott sent him on an Architectural Study Tour of the Continent. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1876 , supported by John Oldrid Scott, son of Sir Gilbert. Curwen's subsequent church designs (all for the Wesleyans as far as we can trace) followed closely his Gothic Revival instincts. Around 1876, and at the time of his marriage he left Scott and set up his own practice, initially with an office in Liverpool and subsequently moving to London where he started his married life.
Thomas May was a Bristol timber merchant (at some time May and Hassall) and also very active in the Victoria Wesleyan Methodist church at Clifton. In the early 1860s the minister there was Punshon, William Morley, LL.D (whose family also were involved in the timber trade in the North East of England) and the two families became lifelong friends. Thomas May had married Ann Constance Bowyer (nee Hill) following the death of her first husband Francis T. Bowyer, both of whom were Methodists. Ann had a daughter by her first marriage, also Ann and it was this Ann who married Robert Curwen in 1876. The ceremony at Clifton Victoria was conducted by Morley Punshon. Curwen profited from these links both in the greater Bristol area with commissions for churches in Redland, Keynsham, Lower Weston (Bath), Radstock and Portishead (the May influence no doubt), but also in the wider context around Liverpool and North Wales. Punshon was a well known speaker around the country and was the initiator of fund raising schemes for planting new churches. The best known was his Watering Places Fund which provided help for new buildings particularly in seaside locations and Curwen again profited from these initiatives with commissions in some of those places. Punshon subsequently became President of the Wesleyan Conference after serving for a spell in Canada. The Punshon link also provided Curwen with the commission to design the Punshon Memorial Church in Bournemouth, destroyed by enemy bombing in 1943. Overall his work took him from Sunderland (St John’s Ashbrooke), said by some to be one of the most important Nonconformist churches in the country, to Liverpool and North Wales; to Bristol where in addition to his church work he designed the Bristol Childrens Hospital (1882). He spent time in the South Somerset and East Devon area with a number of rural church designs, which have been described as “Arts and Crafts Gothic”, and a trip across to the Island of Portland and the Isle of Wight. Curwen hardly rates a mention in the annals of the RIBA except for the dates of his practising, and his involvement with buildings other than specifically churches, is limited to just a couple which have been identified; The Methodist Sailors Home at Eastney, Portsmouth (now demolished) and the former Smith-Dorrien Methodist Soldiers’ Home at Aldershot (in Neo-Tudor style).(1908) Of the buildings which have been identified as from his practice, at least six have been accorded the Listed status of Architectural and Historic interest. He had a long association with Leys School, The, Cambridge a Wesleyan establishment, beginning in 1877 when his first commission was won in competition for the design of the Great Hall. Over the next few years he designed other school buildings and after the death of the first Headmaster, Dr William Moulton (see Moulton family) in 1898, Curwen designed the Moulton Memorial Chapel which was dedicated in 1906. It is now a Grade 2 Listed Building.
His most prolific period seems, from the records which have been traced, to have been from 1876 for the next fifteen years or so, when ill health forced a break and he spent time in the Caribbean recuperating, before returning to the drawing board. He retired in 1909.
He lived all his married life in various parts of London and died there in 1915 at the age of 65 years. With his wife Ann they had six children, 3 boys and 3 girls. The eldest, Robert Basil, became an Anglican clergyman and did not marry, John died at the early age of 16 and Francis was killed in action in France just a few months before Robert’s death in 1915. Of his daughters, Marjorie married Dr George Lawson, a physician from Sydney NSW; Constance married Oscar Griffiths; and Irene remained single.
Other churches designed by Curwen included Bristol, Cotham WM (1877); Chard WM (1896); Colwyn Bay WM (St John's) (1882-87); Preston, St Mary's Street WM (church only) (1884-85).
Entry written by: JP
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