THOMAS RICKMAN (1776-1841):  Antiquary, Quaker, Architect

image courtesy of The Athenaeum, Liverpool

The antiquary and architect Thomas Rickman was born into an extended Quaker family from Lewes, an historic town in Sussex.  Rickman himself was actually born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, to Joseph Rickman, an apothecary and grocer, and his wife, Sarah Neave, also from Sussex.  His uncles included Richard Peters Rickman, a prosperous brewer and inn keeper in Lewes, and Thomas ‘Clio’ Rickman, known to Rickman as Uncle Clio, a bookseller and poet in London.  Both uncles married outside their faith and were important influences in his life – Richard Rickman reluctantly became Rickman’s father-in-law when his daughter Lucy married Thomas Rickman against the family’s wishes.  As the marriage of first cousins was forbidden by the Quakers, this led to their formal exclusion from their faith, although in a typically Quaker compromise, the two married cousins were allowed to still attend Meeting and did so.  They were married by a sympathetic Anglican vicar in Lewes.  They settled in London in 1804, living in Bermondsey near the ruins of the ancient Abbey.  Thomas Rickman tried various business ventures without success, the last leading to his bankruptcy in 1806, another situation which prevented his full participation in the Quaker faith until all his debts had been repaid some years later.  During their life in London, Thomas and Lucy Rickman became close to their ‘Uncle Clio’, the biographer of the half-Quaker Thomas Paine, also of Sussex and a radical thinker whose most famous publication was The Rights of Man.  Paine had lived with Thomas Clio Rickman for a time in London.

In 1807, Thomas Rickman left London to begin a new life in Liverpool, a burgeoning town full of business prospects and an established Quaker network he was to use for his professional advancement.  Almost immediately he became employed as a book-keeper and accountant, a type of work to which he was well suited given his strong sense of order, and his methodical nature.  However, his beloved wife Lucy died a month later, which plunged Thomas into a deep depression of many months’ duration.  The situation was undoubtedly made worse by his being far from home, although he had already begun to make many contacts and new friendships in Liverpool.  One of them was the iron founder Thomas Harrison, whose family home in the ancient city of Chester became a sanctuary for Rickman during his period of recovery.  He ‘discovered’ the great cathedral of Chester, with its varied periods of medieval architecture, and this was a major factor in sparking his interest in gothic architecture.  By 1811 Thomas had developed a checklist of features to consider when attempting to date an ancient church; the chronology of medieval architecture was still a subject of some debate, and there was no agreement regarding the nomenclature of gothic – that is, how to characterise the various architectural styles which Rickman observed in Chester Cathedral.

All this was to change with the publication in Liverpool of an extended article on the subject in 1815 in James Smith’s Panorama of Science and Art, followed in 1817 by the publication of An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture, the first accurate account of the development of medieval architecture in England.  Rickman’s Attempt was a scholarly milestone which resulted in greater understanding and appreciation for medieval architecture; its clear schematic illustrations of the varied styles of Norman and gothic architecture enabled architects to employ the styles more knowledgeably in their executed buildings.  With his developing reputation as an authority, Rickman began to supply designs for gothic tracery in windows and ornamental designs.  By 1812 he was advising Charles Scarisbrick in the remodelling of Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire, now an independent school which retains a west wing substantially designed by Rickman.  Also in 1812 he advised a leading Liverpool architect, John Foster the Younger, on the window design of St Luke, Berry Street, which survives today as a shell, a casualty of the second world war.

Rickman had always been interested in new technologies, and for a time he was captivated by the production of cast iron, perhaps going back to his friendship with Harrison in Chester.  He teamed up with a local iron founder, John Cragg, and assisted Cragg in designing a small but well-known group of churches in Toxteth and Liverpool which made extensive use of cast iron.  Perhaps the most famous of these is the Church of St George, Everton (1812-15), privately funded by the Rev. George Buddicome.  The church is still in use today.  Everton Brow had been one of the spots to which Rickman often walked during his period of depression, when he used the long summer evenings to travel far and wide in the study of ancient and traditional architecture.  He was often accompanied by the amiable Quaker school mistress, Christiana Hornor, one of his early friendships in Liverpool.  Christiana came from a well-known family in Hull and shared Thomas’s interests in science and the natural world.  They attended evening lectures on these subjects together.  Christiana eventually became his second wife in 1813 but died in childbirth the following year.  Their daughter, Lucy, survived until 1816 before succumbing to a childhood illness.  Rickman’s personal diaries, which he began writing in 1807, chronicle the tragedies of his personal life as well as his developing antiquarian and architectural interests. Thanks to these detailed diaries, which continued into the 1830s, we are able to gain an unusual degree of insight into this fascinating man, his networks of contacts, his friends, family, and the times in which he lived.

At about the time of his marriage to Christiana Hornor, Rickman had found congenial employers in the form of Thomas and J. Ashton Case, leading citizens of Liverpool who ran an insurance firm.  They increasingly allowed Rickman time to pursue his antiquarian and architectural studies, and were supportive when he eventually left their employment to found an office as an architect in the Liverpool Exchange Buildings in 1819, taking as his assistant the willowy Henry Hutchinson (1800-1831), then only a teenager.  The occasion of his change of career was prompted by the 1818 Church Building Act and Thomas’s securing his first of several promised commissions to build ‘Commissioners Churches’ – that is, the church of St George in Birmingham, now marked only by a few fragments, including Rickman’s tomb monument.  In 1820 Rickman relocated to Birmingham, leaving his younger brother Edwin Swan Rickman in charge of the Liverpool office for a few years until it closed.

In Birmingham, Rickman soon made contacts with local Quakers like the Cadburys and with industrialists like Matthew Boulton.  In 1825 he married his third, much younger wife, Elizabeth Miller, of a distinguished family of Edinburgh Quakers.  He began to spend more time travelling and studying the architecture of Scotland.  This happy marriage produced two children, Mary Ann and Thomas Miller Rickman, who became a successful quantity surveyor and president of the Architectural Association in London.  The bulk of Thomas Rickman’s professional architectural career was carried out from his Birmingham office; he eventually took as his second partner Richard Charles Hussey, who survived him and substantially ran the practice during the later 1830s owing to Rickman’s increasing periods of illness from liver disease, which eventually killed him in 1841.

Rickman devoted a great deal of his time during this late period of illness to sketching and planning a new edition of his Attempt, which had already been through four editions.  It was to go through three more posthumous editions, the seventh and last in 1881, attesting to the very great success and renown of this publication throughout the nineteenth century.  During the 1830s Rickman made two tours of northern France, one of them in the company of the distinguished Cambridge academic William Whewell, who became a firm friend.  Rickman began to suspect that gothic architecture had originated in France, a controversial idea amongst English scholars at that time.  Rickman published two papers on this subject on the occasion of his being elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, a long-coveted mark of recognition for his antiquarian studies which formed the core of all that he did, and was, in his busy, active life.

Architect and Antiquary