First version of biography
Name: Sir James Gowans
Designation: Architect, Builder
Born: 1 August 1821 Died: 25 June 1890
James Gowans was born at Blackness on 1 August 1821, the third child of Walter Gowans, quarrymaster and builder, and Isabella de Grote (or Grotte). He was educated at the Hamilton Place Academy in Stockbridge and took classes at David Bryce’s architectural academy as part of his training for the family business, which bought Bentyfoulds and St Andrew’s Yards at Armadale for quarrying in January 1842, renaming them Gowanbank, and built David Rhind’s Commercial Bank head office in 1844-47 and the Edinburgh Gas Works Chimney in 1846-49. From 1847 onward the firm was heavily involved in railway contracts, building the Edinburgh and North Berwick section of the North British line, and sections of the Edinburgh and Bathgate line. In the same year Walter Gowans extended the family’s quarrying interests by taking on lease of Redhall Quarry from John Inglis, where James experimented with quarrying by drilling and galvanic batteries; he also held patents and shares in stone-dressing machinery associated with Joseph-Eldicott Holmes of the Strand, London.
In 1848 Gowans married Elizabeth Mitchell, daughter of James Mitchell railway contractor, Broughty Ferry, and moved from Lynedoch Place to 1 Randolph Cliff, part of a large development embracing the north side of Randolph Crescent, which he built to Rhind’s design in 1846-49. In October 1849 James took full control of the family business, all debts being paid by 1854, perhaps not without some difficulty as his family moved out of Randolph Cliff to Pittacher House, Crieff (where Gowans was then building the Crieff Branch line) with an Edinburgh base at 34 Rosebank Cottages, a development of thirty-five model workers’ dwellings that he built in 1854-55.
On 7 April 1858 Walter Gowans died. James’s first wife Elizabeth also died in that year while in her bath and was buried at the Grange. Gowans designed and built Rockville in Napier Road, Merchiston for his second wife Mary Brodie, apparently a relative of William Brodie who provided the sculpture for the project. In this large towered house Gowans introduced his personal methods of design and construction based on two-foot modules and angles of twenty-two-and-a-half, forty-five and sixty-seven-and-a-half degrees; a similar but smaller house Lammerburn was built opposite for Francis Sheppard, apparently a relative of Gowans’s clerk-of-works Moxey Sheppard who had had experience in Calcutta.
The building of Rockville was financed by an increasing number of large railway contracts, notably the Lochee diversion of the Dundee and Newtyle Railway (1859-61), the Creetown section of the Portpatrick Railway (1859) and the Birnam to Dalguise and the Dalwhinnie to Kingussie sections of the Inverness and Perth Junction Railway (1861-65). In 1871 he laid the lines of the Edinburgh Street Tramways Company between Edinburgh and Leith for which John Macrae was engineer.
From 1875 to 1877 Gowans incurred heavy losses on the New Edinburgh Theatre, which was built to his design with interior work by Frederick Thomas Pilkington. He and Pilkington were the largest shareholders in the Edinburgh Theatre, Wintergarden and Aquarium Company Incorporated on 14 July 1875 with a capital of £65,000. It opened on 20 December 1875 but ran into difficulties, was mortgaged for £20,000 in April 1877, and sold to the United Presbyterian Church later in the same year for £26,700, approximately one third of what it had cost to build.
In 1885 Gowans became Dean of Guild and he was the prime mover of the Edinburgh International Exhibition of 1886. The effort affected his business and in turn his now seriously impaired financial position. Although knighted at the Queen’s visit on 18 August Gowans was obliged to sell Rockville and move to a smaller house in Blantyre Terrace nearby: on 5 May 1887 a trust fund to help him was set up at a meeting in Dowell’s on George Street; but in 1888 the Caledonian Railway opposed the extension of his quarry at Redhall, which seems to have precipitated his bankruptcy on 5 November of the same year. He died at midnight on 25 June 1890 and was buried with his first wife at the Grange.
Second version of biography
Sir James Gowans 1821 – 1890
Architect. Born in Blackness (Falkirk), the son of mason Walter Gowans (d.1859), James Gowans was educated in Edinburgh. He became a pupil of noted architect David Bryce (1803-76). Staying with Bryce until 1846, his work included mounting Sir John Steell’s bronze of the Duke of Wellington in front of Register House.
He worked as manager of several quarries and this gave him a fascination, some say obsession, with stone. He is noted for building several villas in Edinburgh, including a home for himself, Rockville on Napier Road, although this was demolished in 1965. Gowans was also an early pioneer of good housing for workers, building worker’s cottages and tenement blocks. Outside Edinburgh, he extended and remodelled Gowanbank (which had originally been built by his father), near Armadale as his country ‘seat’ and built railway stations at Creetown (1859) and Lochee (1861).
Gowans married the daughter of sculptor William Brodie (1815 – 81).
He became Lord Dean of Guild in 1885 and was a prime mover in bringing about the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1886, acting as the event’s Chairman. He designed at least two exhibits which are still extant; the unusual Brass-founder’s Column (now in Nicholson Square), which was made by local craftsmen, and the impressive pillars at either end of the Meadows, which contain specimen stone from many Scottish quarries. These pillars were paid for by publishers William and Thomas Nelson (1816-86 and 1822-92 respectively), who were grateful to the City for its help when their Hope Park Works was burned to the ground in 1878.
Gowans is buried in Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh.
Gowanbank, although technically the heart of industrial West Lothian, feels like a world apart. It was here in 1862 that the architect, the builder and visionary Sir James Gowans, developed his model village. All the buildings exemplified his original theories of social and constructional engineering.
Gowans was a Victorian colossus. He qualified as an architect in the 1830s and worked until his death in 1890. He built railways, stations, roads, tenement blocks and numerous grand villas around the capital.
The chief fascination of his life was stone. The son of a master mason, he had a near religious belief in rock and at one time was believed to own all the working quarries in Scotland.
Perhaps his most notable achievement was to develop a modular system of building design. When Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius expounded similar ideas in the 1930s, they were hailed as mould-breakers. But if you look at the work of Gowans, you realise that they were at least 50 years behind him.
Gowans’ system was based on a pattern of 2 sq ft repeated again and again. He standardised the angles used in construction, using 22.5 degrees, 45 degrees and 67.5 degrees over and over. Gowans’ hope was that, through standardisation, he could build homes much more cheaply. This, in turn, would provide quality accommodation for working people — some of whom, like those at Gowanbank, would work in his quarries. He also created a highly individual aesthetic style. Construction — of course — is of stone. The horizontal bands that are one of Gowans’ trademarks are evident on the elaborate chimney stacks, as are the deep, bracketed eaves and the maroon timberwork. On other buildings he used cheaper, uncut stone arranged in the pattern of daisy petals — gowan being the Scots word for a daisy.
For much of the period since Gowans’ demise, he has been little celebrated. His most fanciful achievement, Rockville, a home for himself in Napier Road, Edinburgh, was demolished in 1965. A determined observer can find other traces of his work in Edinburgh, but you would need to be dedicated. By the early 1990s, Gowanbank appeared to be in a state of terminal decay and was A-listed by Historic Scotland. There was a modest exhibition of Gowans’ drawings, and a slim appreciation of his work was published.
The houses at Gowanbank — there are seven — were bought by a hardy, but unrelated, bunch of enthusiastic renovators. Among them was Malcolm Le Maistre, who was once a member of the Incredible String Band and now The Barrow Band. He was still part of the Gowanbank community up until 2012. The restoration of Gowanbank Village was awarded first prize in the “Henry Ford European Conservation Engineering Awards” UK Competition.