78 Derngate was famously re-modelled by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1916 for his client, Northampton model engineer, W.J Bassett-Lowke.
Purchased for Bassett-Lowke by his father as a wedding present, the house had originally been constructed 100 years previously.
On this page you will find detailed information about the interesting history of this small terraced house, the visionary owner and its radical transformation by Mackintosh. A further section provides detail about the restoration of 78 Derngate in 2002-3. If you are interested in more detailed information about topics covered here, the final section 'Further information' provides some references to wider sources.
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The house is a typical early-nineteenth century brick terrace, built c. 1815-20. It consisted of basement kitchen and offices (opening into the garden at the back, because of the fall of the land), two ground floor rooms, two floors of two bedrooms each, and an attic room with dormer window, added later. It had a small courtyard at the rear, with a well and outside W.C.
It was built by William Mobbs, plumber and glazier, whose father John Mobbs, victualler, had bought two acres of the Tower Close in 1808. William was the great-grandfather of Edgar Mobbs, hero of the rugby field and First World War. In 1815 John Mobbs gave his son William a plot 59 feet from north to south and 113 feet from east to west, fronting the road to St. Thomas’ Well (i.e. now Derngate). On this plot William built numbers 76, 78 and (slightly later) 80. They were built as investment property, and leased out to respectable people of the lower middle class.
Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke (1877 – 1953) was the son of Joseph Tom Lowke. Tom Lowke’s stepfather, Absalom Bassett, had established a boiler making business in Kingswell Street, Northampton, in 1859. Tom Lowke continued the business, and when he married he gave his two sons, Wenman and Harold, the middle name of ‘Bassett’ in honour of his stepfather. W. J. himself married Florence Jane Jones, the daughter of Charles Jones, one of the founders of the Crockett and Jones shoe manufactory, still in business today.
It was for their impending marriage in the spring of 1917 that Tom Lowke bought them 78 Derngate. Bassett-Lowke was already interested in modern architecture and design and he wanted to encourage good design in others. He was an early member of the Design and Industries Association, established in 1915 to encourage good design in all aspects of manufacture. His personal taste was for the modern and the streamlined. He agreed with the DIA slogan: ‘fitness for purpose’. He was also intrigued by ingenious gadgets, and delighted in the mechanical toys that he bought on his frequent trips to the continent.
By the mid-1920s Bassett-Lowke was able to commission a completely new house. He approached the German architect Peter Behrens, who was in the forefront of the modern movement in Germany, fusing art and industry. Like Mackintosh, he worked for Bassett-Lowke without visiting Northampton. In April 1925 Bassett-Lowke and his builder Charles Green had one meeting with Behrens in Paris and in 1926 the Bassett-Lowkes moved into their remarkable new house.
Each year from 1922 Bassett-Lowke commissioned a personal Christmas card. Charles Rennie Mackintosh drew the first. Bassett-Lowke’s interests were reflected in these cards. The cards represented the turning of the New Year, conveying a sense of speed and optimism. Only in the darker days leading up to and during the Second World War did social and political anxieties colour the choice of subject. His pacifism and social conscience shone through. So, too, did his interest in travel, in planes, ships and trains. Always eager to see new places, to record them on film, he still had a great attachment for his hometown, which was recorded one year in a photomontage card.
Although Bassett-Lowke left school at thirteen, he absorbed many new ideas from his travelling and contact with people from all walks of life. He went on fact-finding missions to Germany and Holland. He was also keen to ensure that the outside world appreciated the benefits of Northampton. In 1932, he was instrumental in producing a film showing Northampton’s history and current attractions. Despite his incessant travel, Bassett-Lowke never thought of leaving Northampton. He was a member of many societies, including the Rotary Club, of which he was a founder. His work on the Council gave him most opportunity to influence the future of Northampton. He was also a founder Director of the Northampton Repertory Theatre in 1926.
The son of a boiler-maker and a governess, Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke left school at thirteen. He spent eighteen-months in an architect’s office, before joining his father in the family business. He took up the hobby of making model stationary steam engines. Realising the impossibility for the ordinary enthusiast of purchasing small parts, which he had made in his father’s workshops, he soon began a small mail-order business. His father’s bookkeeper, H. F. R. Franklin, joined him in the project.
Bassett-Lowke was a born salesman and in 1899 he and his partner published their first catalogue. Realising the value of photographs, but unable to afford printed ones, they laboriously pasted real photographs into the catalogue. Later ones were fully illustrated and had striking covers designed by well-known draughtsmen.
Bassett-Lowke was inspired by his visit to the Paris Exhibition in 1900, where he made contact with German manufacturers, from whom he bought model trains painted in British livery. Soon he began manufacture in Northampton. The company began making ‘waterline’ ship models in 1908. This type of model, showing only the parts above the waterline, were used in wartime as training aids for the Navy and Air Force. Yachts were also made to sail on boating lakes. Large shipping companies commissioned models of their luxury liners to display in their offices. Miniature railways were made for wealthy individuals and for exhibitions and resorts. The skilled model maker E. W. Twining formed Twining Models Ltd., which produced the highest quality architectural models with Bassett-Lowke Ltd.
In the 1914-18 war Bassett-Lowke Ltd. made the gauges which tested the standard parts of guns. During the 1939-45 war a great variety of work was done. A method of training for aircraft recognition using mirrors was devised. They produced training models of the sectional Inglis and later Bailey bridges. Perhaps the most important construction of this nature was the model of the floating Mulberry harbour, which was used to land troops in Normandy in 1944.
In 1908 Bassett-Lowke opened his first London shop at 257 High Holborn, moving to number 112 in 1910. His company made great use of trade shows, not only displaying their own goods, but often supplying companies with models, too. Many 15” gauge railways were installed to carry visitors around exhibitions. Usually the displays were of smaller gauge models and large tabletop systems. However, mail order remained an important part of the business.
After W.J.’s death in 1953 the company continued to make high-quality ship and industrial models. The Bassett-Lowke and Franklin families sold their shares in 1967. Models are no longer made in Northampton.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born in Glasgow on 7th June 1868 at no 70 Parson Street, Townhead, Glasgow. [ Location on Google Maps ]. Charles was fourth in a line of eleven children born to William McIntosh ( the Superintendent and Chief Clerk of The City of Glasgow Police ) and Margaret Rennie, his wife. William changed the spelling of his name to 'Mackintosh' and Charles followed suit sometime around 1893. [ Confusion surrounds the use of the family name, sometimes used incorrectly in modern times. In his own lifetime Charles called himself 'Charles Rennie Mackintosh', 'Mackintosh', 'C.R. Mackintosh', 'Chas. R. Mackintosh' and he was 'Toshie' to his friends but never 'Rennie Mackintosh'; 'Rennie' being his middle name and not part of his surname. ]
Mackintosh left school at 14 and began to train as an architect. Aged 21 in 1889 he joined the firm of Honeyman and Keppie whilst also continuing to attend evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art.
This was to be important not only for his artistic development, but also personally, for it was there that he met his future wife, Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933). She and her sister Frances were talented artists, and with Mackintosh and his friend Herbert McNair they became known as ‘The Four’. The young artists contributed significantly to the distinctive style of decorative art then developing in Glasgow and the group of artists, known as The Glasgow School.
Mackintosh went on to have a brilliant but brief career as an architect, most of his commissions being completed in and around Glasgow between 1896 and 1911. His major works include The Glasgow School of Art, The Hill House, Scotland Street School and the remarkable tea room interiors for Miss Catherine Cranston. In the early 1900s, Margaret Macdonald worked with her husband on the decorative detailing of his interiors.
In March 1917 Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke and his bride Florence Jones moved in. Over the previous nine months the house had been transformed from a rather pokey and old-fashioned house into a modern and convenient home. One of the most significant features was the addition of a rectangular extension at the rear, enlarging the kitchen and the dining room above, and forming an enclosed balcony for the master bedroom and an open one for the guest bedroom.
The transformation had been achieved by Bassett-Lowke with the help of Northampton-based architect Alexander Ellis Anderson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There are still some areas of uncertainty as to who was responsible for what, although the over-all effect was created by Mackintosh.
The primary documentary evidence consists of plans submitted for building regulation in June 1916; a number of drawings and plans by Mackintosh; six letters from Bassett-Lowke to Mackintosh, 1916-1919; some notes which Bassett-Lowke wrote later in life and correspondence he had with Thomas Howarth, Mackintosh’ biographer in the late 1940s; numerous black and white photographs taken by Bassett-Lowke. There were also a number of contemporary articles published about the transformation. [Copies of all these documents, articles and photographs are in the 78 Derngate Archive]. From these sources, it would seem that in the late spring of 1916 Bassett-Lowke had his eye on this house, conveniently close to his work in Kingswell Street, relatively cheap, being a hundred years old, but in a street that was seeing something of a revival.
A number of neighbouring houses had recently been improved, including number 70, ‘Sarnia’, by his friend, the architect Keighley Cobb. Possibly in consultation with Cobb, Bassett-Lowke got plans drawn up by a Scottish architect long resident in Northampton, Alexander Ellis Anderson. These plans were submitted to the Planning Authority on 1 June 1916. They show a flat-roofed bay extension at the front, and a two story flat-roofed extension at the back. They also show the staircase moved around through 90 degrees.
Around this time Bassett-Lowke was introduced to Mackintosh – in a later note he says that he cannot remember who introduced them ‘a friend in connection with the Glasgow School of Art’ (quite possibly Francis Newbery, Headmaster of the School). By 31 July 1916, in the first surviving letter to Mackintosh, he is thanking him for ‘the drawings’, and saying that he has taken possession of the house that day (the deed was drawn up on 1 July). Although Bassett-Lowke told Howarth in 1946 that the structural alterations were already taking place when he met Mackintosh, it is possible that Mackintosh took the basic idea as shown in the Anderson plans, and suggested carrying the bay up the entire elevation, creating the veranda and balcony to the bedrooms.
It is the stunning interior décor which is Mackintosh’s real contribution to 78 Derngate. The majority of the Mackintosh drawings relate to the decoration of the lounge-hall and the dining room. There are also drawings of the front door and of furniture, some actually made and some not. The originals are in the Mackintosh Collection at the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow.
78 Derngate was bought by Northampton High School for Girls in 1964. It was listed Grade II* in 1968. At first the house was let out as offices, then used as classrooms. There was growing concern in Northampton and in the Mackintosh world about the preservation of the building. This concern came to a peak in the early 1990s when the school decided to sell all the property it had acquired in Derngate. Local people united with members of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society to campaign for its preservation, restoration and opening to the public.
The Borough Council was enabled to buy a 999-year lease on 78 and 80 Derngate through the generosity of Maggie Barwell in 1996. Two years later the 78 Derngate Northampton Trust was formed, with Keith Barwell as chairman. Support was forthcoming from a number of sources, including The Horne Foundation, the Phillips Trust, EB Nationwide, Servite Housing Association, Hobden Associates, Northampton Borough Council and Northamptonshire County Council. This match-funding enabled a bid to be put in for Heritage Lottery funding. A grant of £999,000 was approved in the autumn of 2001. The cost of the restoration of 78 and 80 Derngate was £1.4m.
The architects who drew up the plans for the bid and who have overseen all the work in 78 and 80 Derngate were John McAslan + Partners, a firm of international reputation. The Mackintosh-designed interior and exterior of 78 was sensitively restored and reinstated to the original 1916 – 1919 scheme.
The whole of 80 was completely remodelled to create a new visitor centre and exhibition space. Linking the galleries is a new staircase that wraps around the 4-storey glass cabinet which holds a series of exhibits relating to both Mackintosh and Bassett-Lowke. It is accompanied by a wall-mounted exhibition relating to the original design of the house and to Bassett-Lowke’s business.
The main building contractors were William Anelay Ltd. of York. This firm, established in 1749, specialises in restoration work, and has been given a Civic Award for its work on Blackwell, the Arts and Crafts house in Cumbria. Other specialist contractors from around the country have brought their skills to bear.
Before any work could be done careful examination of the house itself and of related photographs and documents was undertaken.
Perilla Kinchin, historical researcher, Mary Schoeser, fabric expert, Allyson McDermott, wallpaper conservator, and many more worked painstakingly under the direction of Sarah Jackson of John McAslan + Partners to determine the correct approach to the restoration. Wallpapers and paint finishes were recreated and curtains and carpets woven. Jake Kaner of Buckinghamshire New University, made replicas of the settle and cloaks cupboard for the lounge hall and of the beds, bedside cabinet, mirror, chairs and washstand for the guest bedroom. We are indebted to a family member for certain other items of furniture.
Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke by Janet Bassett-Lowke, Chester - RailRomances, 2000. ISBN: 1-900622-01-7
Charles Rennie Mackintosh