16 June 2012

William Hollins and Family

1763-1843. Sculptor and architect working in Birmingham all his life.

William Hollins as sculpted by his son Peter.
The bust is part of a memorial to many of the
Hollins family which is found inside St. Paul's
church in Birmingham.
Find all posts concerning William Hollins : Thomas Hollins

Many of the Hollins family were artistic with varying talents. Thomas, William's brother, was a glass painter, engraver and artist and his (Thomas's) son John moved to London and became a well known artist. Of all of William's sons, the third eldest, Peter, became the most renowned.

It has been suggested that William Hollins was Birmingham’s first architect, he was of the generation of ‘builder-architects’ of the time,* and previous names had come from outside the town, but William lived and worked in Birmingham for most of his life. According to his burial monument in St. Paul's churchyard he was born in 1763 in Shiffnal (Shropshire), his parents being John and Mary. The family moved to Birmingham when William was a boy,* and some sources state that the family originally had come from Moseley.* He trained as a stonemason and sculpted throughout his career producing a number of monuments that still survive inside several standing churches. He was very much self-taught as an architect, reading Vitruvius who he claimed as his favourite author; his obituary stating that ‘he boldly forged a key to the temple of knowledge’.*

Relatively early in his career William assisted George Saunders (a London architect) in the 1793 rebuilding of the interior of New Street’s Theatre Royal, after fire. Following this he received a number of commissions for buildings in and around Birmingham,* his work being mostly in the Greek Revival style, he was also commissioned for work on what is now Alton Towers. He was known outside the UK as Catherine the Great invited him to work in Russia, though he declined the offer.

In 1806 he put forward a proposal for a tributary monument to Lord Nelson which Birmingham was commissioning, but lost out to Sir Richard Westmacott whose work still stands in the Bull Ring. William’s design was much more complex and expensive in comparison with the simple statue that was chosen and included a post office and dispensary. A year later he designed a water conduit to surround the existing pump in the newly cleared Bull Ring which proved very unpopular. The sculpture had been personally commissioned by Richard Pratchett who lived on High Street, in order to conceal the pump that was now exposed after the clearing of the Shambles (old tightly packed buildings that had filled the wide space in the Bull Ring). William called the sculpture the 'Egyptian Conduit', the local people named it 'Pratchett’s Folly'. It was designed as a tribute to Nelson’s victories on the Nile, and may have been an elaborate show of what William could have done with the previous Nelson monument. It was in the shape of a pyramid, combining Egyptian, Grecian and English styles, and was ornamented with papyrus, Grecian honeysuckle and a lion’s head, all with associated mythological symbolism, and crowned with an urn (which was a representation of the ashes of Nelson).* It can just be seen in the image above in front of St. Martin’s, just behind the first pair of horses. It seems that the sculpture was thought of as pretentious, with too much symbolism, unlike the statue of Nelson that was straight forward and to the point.*
Hollins' commissions seems to lessen after 1807, but it is not clear whether the negative reaction to his Bull Ring sculpture is responsible for this, or whether it is simply a gap in the knowledge of his work.

William built up his business and lived at 17 Great Hampton Street. He had many children with his wife Catherine and most of his sons followed his trade, Peter becoming the most well known. William can be found at Great Hampton Street on the 1841 census with his son George Hollins (organist at St. Paul's from 1838, and at the Town Hall from 1837-1841) living next door at number 18, and another son Thomas, a 'mason', living in the court behind the house. Thomas is the only resident of court 5, and the whole area was probably used for the family’s stonemasonry. William Hollins died at his house on 12th January 1843 aged 80 and was buried at St. Paul’s, where his wife and many other members of the Hollins family were buried. A granite monument marks William's grave at the rear of the church, and there is a memorial bust inside. His son Peter, who took over the business after his father’s death, designed a memorial window in St. Paul’s dedicated to his father’s memory.

Find out about how some of William Hollins' memorial monument work that still sits in St. Philip's was recieved by contemporaries here.

Work of William Hollins
Follow the links for visit these buildings.
1796-1797: Revisions to Soho House.
1798-1799: Library in Union Street (demolished)
1805-1813: Christ Church (excluding spire and portico) on the corner of New Street and Ann Street (generally believed, demolished)
1805-1807: Public Offices and prison in Moor Street (demolished)
1806-1808: General Dispensary in Union Street (demolished, though an ornament by Hollins depicting Hygeia (goddess of health) that was above the door still survives)
1807: Sculpture surrounding the pump in the Bull Ring (demolished)
1808-1809: St. Austin’s church.....
1813: Union Mill on Grosvenor Street West (attributed as a possibility by Andy Foster)
1813: Polychrome trophy of ancient and modern arms over the door to the Gun Barrel Proof House in Banbury Street (proof house designed by John Horton of Deritend*)
1820: Restoration of St. Mary’s church, Handsworth (in the Gothic style, with his son Peter)
1831: Almshouses in Warner Street, Bordesley (demolished, decorated panels survive, which may be his son Peter’s work)
(Additional to this list is the Athenaeum, which I am researching at present as there is disparity in the sources.)
David Owen was a timber merchant living in Selly Grove in the parish of Northfield.
*References available on request
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  1. Is anyone able to confirm the name of William's wife?

    1. I believe her name is on the memorial at St. Paul's, Birmingham

  2. Catherine Holbrook