William Alfred Nelson (1860-1929)

William Alfred Nelson

Written by Angus Winchester

Occupation: Architect

Early Life

William Alfred Nelson (1860-1929), architect (known as Alfred), was the youngest of the five sons of Edward Nelson (1813-1891), a builder in Kendal, and Ann (née Braithwaite), daughter of William Braithwaite, innkeeper of the Ring o’ Bells inn.  He was born in Kendal on 19 September 1860.  It seems that he may have suffered an injury while a small boy: in 1864 a ‘furious cow from The Banks ran madly through the crowded streets [of Kendal] and down Stricklandgate, throwing down in its course a little boy, the son of Mr Edward Nelson, carpenter &c, and broke his thigh.  The poor little fellow, we hear, is doing well’ (Kendal Mercury, 12 Nov 1864).  He went at first to a school in Kendal but was later sent away to school, according to his daughter, Doris.  

He joined his father and brothers in the family firm, which traded after Edward’s death in 1891, as ‘Nelson Brothers, Builders’.  He was living with his parents as a ‘house carpenter’ in 1881.  On 27 December 1887 he married Helen Isabella Ruthven (1863-1945), daughter of Richard Ruthven, carpet designer, and granddaughter of John Ruthven, the geologist (q.v.).  They set up home next door to his parents at 9 East Bank, Kendal.  By 1891 his occupation was given as ‘Builder’s Clerk’, perhaps suggesting that he was already moving towards becoming an architect.  By November 1894 he and his young family had moved to 1 Ash Meadows, Scalthwaiterigg, Kendal, which remained their home until c.1904.  By 1897 (Kelly’s Directory) he was listed as an architect, but he remained in the building trade, giving his occupation as ‘Builder’ in the 1901 census and as ‘Architect & Builder’ in 1911.  According to his daughter Doris, he gained his architectural training in evening classes.

His Own Business

In 1904 he built Holmfield, 41 Kendal Green, as his new family home, a striking house in Dutch style with internal details inspired by Baillie Scott’s Blackwell (Coopey 2002, 49-50).  The Nelson Brothers partnership was dissolved in 1909 and Alfred set up on his own as an architect.  During the First World War, when his business suffered, he moved to another house he had built, The Eaves, Kentrigg, where he also owned several fields.  At Kentrigg he had a pony and trap and took his grandchildren for rides along the lanes around Burneside – he was remembered by a granddaughter as being ‘wonderful with babies’ and young children. 

He and Helen were of liberal views.  They remained Anglicans (Alfred served as churchwarden at St Thomas’s church, Kendal) but educated their children at Stramongate School, the Quaker school in Kendal – three of their daughters married Quakers.  They had six children: Walter Ruthven Nelson (1889-1976), a civil engineer who emigrated to Canada; Emily Ruth (1890-1966), who married Samuel Henry Gawith (q.v.), snuff manufacturer of Kendal; Doris (1894-1986), who married Alfred John Hall, a railway engineer in Malaya, who came from Cockermouth; Marion (1897-1931), who married Thomas Mills of Bolton, Lancs.; Francis Ruthven Nelson (1900-1986), an architect; and Helen Marjory (1908-1986), who married Cedric Fry, a laundry proprietor at Skegness.

Alfred Nelson’s architectural work seems to have been largely in the Kendal area and primarily domestic.  In 1907 he entered, unsuccessfully, the competition to design the new public library in Kendal (The Builder, 6 Apr. 1907, 427).  His work included remodelling the west front of Helm Lodge, Burton Road, Kendal, c.1914 (Hyde & Pevsner 2010, 444), and he was involved in the ‘mushroom’ shelter on Scout Scar, built in 1912 to commemorate George V’s coronation.  In the 1920s he built Ivy Crescent, Burneside, a curved terrace of workers’ housing for Croppers paper mill, and several bungalows on one of his fields at Kent Lea, near Kentrigg.

His Death

He collapsed and died while walking down Highgate, Kendal, on 23 September 1929, aged 69.  It is said that he had fallen from a building a few days previously.  He was buried in Kendal Cemetery on Parkside Road, where there is a tombstone to him and Helen.


  • Coopey, J. and J., Kendal Green, a Georgian Wasteland Transformed (Helm Press, 2002).
  • Hyde, M., and Pevsner, N., Cumbria (Buildings of England series, 2010)
  • Cumbria Archive Service (Barrow), BDHJ/423/12/14: notice of dissolution of Nelson Brothers, builders of Kendal & Grange-over-Sands, 26 May 1909.
  • Family memories.