Edmund Beckett, (Lord Grimthorpe), 1816- 1905

Mr. E. B. Denison, later as Sir Edmund Beckett, and today known as Lord Grimthorpe, was an amazing polymath. Grimthorpe’s father, the Chairman of the Great Northern, was described as ‘the greatest benefactor to Doncaster that the town has ever known’. The family came from Leeds where their considerable wealth was derived from the bank, Beckett and Co., which their ancestors had established in the city in the late eighteenth century, enabling the family to pursue the role of enlightened benefactors. The destruction of St. George’s, Doncaster, provided a good opportunity for Grimthorpe’s father to demonstrate beneficence by donating £200 to the rebuilding fund. However his son gave £500 and was also able to give the people of Doncaster have the benefit of his passionate interest in architecture. Grimthorpe went to Eton and graduated with distinction from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1838. He trained as a lawyer, was called to the Bar in 1841, and became a Queen’s Counsel in 1854. While at Cambridge he developed an interest in mathematics and architecture, which was encouraged by his tutor William Whewell (1794-1866), who was to become Master of Trinity in 1841. Grimthorpe applied his mathematical interests to clock-making, and designed a clock for a church which his Beckett cousins were building in 1849, on their estate at Meanwood, near Leeds. It was here that he had his first encounter with an architect. This was William Railton (c.1801-77), the designer of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, whom Grimthorpe accused of shabby tricks and an incompetent use of Gothic features in his church.

Grimthorpe also designed the clock for the Houses of Parliament in association with a professional clock-maker, E. J. Dent, but when they and the architect, Sir Charles Barry, inspected the tower in course of construction, they found that it would not fit, and the clock had to be redesigned. Grimthorpe was furious and never forgave Barry. He had a notoriously combative approach to all his problems. There is no doubt that he enjoyed controversy and treated anybody who disagreed with him as an enemy to be exposed and crushed, and, from these encounters with architects, he assumed that the architectural profession was composed of fraudsters and incompetents. Sir George Gilbert Scott described Grimthorpe as:

my friend & then my tormentor … He was a strenuous supporter however of doing it well & a very liberal supporter of the funds & were it not that he has an unpleasant way of doing things which makes one hate ones best works I should have far more reason to thank than to complain of him.

It was at St Albans that Scott had his final and fiercest confrontation with Grimthorpe. In July 1875 Scott gave a dinner at St Albans ‘to the Council of the Institute & many friends & we had a jolly field day in the abbey’. But he made the fateful decision to invite Grimthorpe to the dinner where he heard Scott appeal for another £30,000 to continue the restoration of the abbey. Grimthorpe answered the appeal and this was the start of his interference in the restoration of the abbey and the hounding of Scott in the last few years of his life. Grimthorpe liked a good fight so there was nothing more useless than opponents who just collapsed. He urged Scott to be vigorous and forthright in his restorations and to fight off those who were pleading for restraint. In a book on the restoration of St Albans Abbey, published seven years after Scott’s death, Grimthorpe makes a vicious attack on the dying architect, when Scott was hardly in a position to defend himself. This may have been an attempt to partially justify his own take-over of the Abbey, but it reveals a nastiness in Grimthorpe which Scott was either too naive to appreciate, or too charitable to acknowledge. However, shortly after his death, Grimthorpe declared that Scott’s fault was that he was too timid in defending his position and was, he said, ‘in every sense of the word, the pleasantest man he had ever met with’.