1. Setting In Context

Introduction to the Architecture Section

In the early C17th there was a revolution in British architecture when the neo-classical style finally came to England. It was based on that of Greece and Rome (first to fourth century) and influenced by the Renaissance in Italy (fifteenth to sixteenth century). During the next two hundred years it would transform the way the British built their houses. Inigo Jones (1573-1652) brought classical architecture to Britain. Twice in the early C17th he visited Italy and studied monuments of ancient Rome. He used as his guide “The Four Books of Architecture” by the Italian architect Palladio (1508-1580). One of Inigo Jones’s early commissions was to design the Queen’s House in Greenwich, and later the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

The story of Grey Friars as it stands today begins in 1755 when the Rev John Halls, vicar of Easthorpe, wanted a town house, and he “built a very handsome house” better described as a small mansion for himself and his wife Elizabeth Selley, when they married in 1747. He also shared the house with his mother-in-law. The details of the house taken from Morant’s second edition of his “History and Antiquities of Colchester” 1768 state that the Rev John Halls “made good gardens with other improvements.”

Evidence of skilled craftsmanship can still be seen throughout the building with a great deal of elaborate plaster and woodwork in some rooms. The simpler nature of two of them may suggest that they were for Halls’ own use (perhaps a concession to his calling), leaving the more opulent areas for his wife’s use. He added the north-facing “Garden front” in 1780.

In 1904 a group of French nuns (The Sisters of Nazareth) added the east and west wings after being driven away from France by the restrictions of the Law of Associations. They may have settled first of all at the Minories – just over the road – and then transferred when the extensions to Grey Friars were completed. They required additional large rooms for use as workshops because they were embroiderers. They also included a chapel in which to celebrate their faith. Their newly acquired space also allowed them to open a school in 1910. They may have lived in the small late C18th building of Hillcrest, next door on the western side, using Grey Friars as their workplace.

The present Grey Friars building therefore has three distinct stages – 1755, 1780 and 1904, but the sum of the parts has retained the neo-classical style. Neo-classical buildings were always very symmetrical and built with special emphasis on the outside and its appearance – rather than from the functions of the various rooms inside. The Palladian influence ensured that, externally, a mirror image was invariably achieved and whatever architectural features appeared on the left also appeared on the right.

No further large structural alterations were made to the building from 1920 to 1957 when it was occupied by the preparatory and junior departments of Colchester County High School for Girls, and the grounds and gardens were maintained as elegantly as before, although the imposing conservatory was by now beginning to fall into disrepair. The building was listed grade 2* in 1950 and its educational function continued from 1957 to 2008 when it was the headquarters of Colchester’s Adult Community College. Its delightful garden, however, gradually disappeared to give way to car-parking facilities as the quest and need for learning and qualifications in adult life increased.

The following section of the book looks at the architecture of the existing building and relates that to its occupants – the householders, nuns, schoolchildren and adult students who have passed through its doors. Evidence of previous buildings and archaeological remains are also explored and after this initial overview the text is written in the form of a guided tour which looks at the exterior, interior and grounds through the eyes of numerous generations of occupants, and the traces of seven distinct phases through which the site has passed.

Please note that this is only a précis of what appears in the book. For a full set of illustrations, charts and maps please refer to the printed version. Also, for updates and additional material, please search this website for contributions from others.

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Grey Friars’ Setting in Context

Grey Friars is very much part of a collection of neo-classical buildings which stretch along this part of the High Street and down both sides of East Hill, many of them sharing the distinctive features which define neo-classicism. However, within this little oasis there is much evidence of earlier occupancies. Grey Friars stands on the same side of the road as the Norman castle to the west and all around there are reminders of Roman times. There are also Victorian flourishes, Gothic-style extravagancies, C21st modernist architecture and many of these reveal Colchester’s role in art and education. All these are worth exploring by visitors to Colchester.

On the opposite side of the road, a little to the west of Grey Friars, is the Minories (number 74 High Street). This house in a very similar style to Grey Friars was bought in 1731 by Isaac Boggis a merchant in the wool trade. The house remained in the family for nearly 200 years. In 1776 Thomas Boggis, who was an alderman and mayor of the town, bought number 73 which partially overlapped number 74, and rebuilt the latter in the same Palladian style as Grey Friars. Similarities between the two are still evident. In 1923 Geoffrey Bensusan-Butt bought the houses number 73 and 74 together with the land to the south of the garden which contained a Gothic-style folly known firstly as the Dovecot and later as the Summer House. In 1958 number 74 was opened as an art gallery and extended into number 73 in 1976. Currently, they form part of Colchester Institute’s facilities for post-graduate study in art and the ground floor remains an art gallery.

 Minories / East Hill House 

Immediately opposite Grey Friars is another neo-classical building – East Hill House. It was rebuilt by George Wegg in about 1730. The extensive gardens ran from the Roman wall adjoining Priory Street and the churchyard of St James’ passing behind the houses on that side of the road, almost to Queen Street. At the western end of this long garden the Gothic-style folly was created around 1745 inspired by some of the standardised plans made available for restored ancient architecture. It was intended as a fanciful garden shelter and this folly now stands in the present garden of the Minories. It is, of course, a very early eccentric example of the Gothic revival period (now listed grade 2) and dating even before Strawberry Hill was designed and built by Horace Walpole. East Hill House itself has an imposing frontage to the High Street and an early photographic postcard of the rear written in 1904 seems to confirm that it once had a function as a Dame School. As well as the message on the back that “the children have cameras of their own and have taken the photograph” the writer indicates on the front that “all the top rooms are the schoolroom apartments which I have to keep tidy. You won’t see all the school room windows as they (the children) have not got this all in – you can only see one.” The atmosphere of this type of school with its individual approach, strict discipline and ethic of respect can be captured by viewing Frederick George Cotman’s painting “The Dame School” 1887 (below) held by Colchester and Ipswich Museum Services.

Only a short distance from Grey Friars’ front door and part-way down East Hill is the remains of the Roman wall which originally completely encircled the town. A plaque high up on a house indicates that this is also the former position of East Gate which fell down in 1651. From here it is possible to trace the wall as it progresses northwards and then turns westwards towards Duncan’s Gate. This is behind the present Grey Friars building enclosing what was formerly land occupied by the Franciscan Friars.

Duncan’s Gate was one of six gates through which movement took place in Roman Colchester. The remains of only two of the six gates survive above ground, the most visible of which is Balkerne Gate on the western side of town. Other openings in the wall were made during the medieval period. Duncan’s Gate, the nearest to Grey Friars, was built about AD65 to 80 and has been named after the doctor who excavated it in 1853. The town’s defences were strengthened in the C4th and the gate went out of use and was blocked. The gatehouse originally had an upper storey which collapsed hundreds of years ago, but from the inside of today’s ruin the remains of an arched window can be seen. From Duncan’s Gate the Roman wall continues westward and as it passes to the north of Colchester Castle it completes the little quadrant in the north-east corner of Colchester which encloses Grey Friars and forms the focal point of this book.