William Telford Gunson (1839-1924)

William Telford Gunson

Written by David A Cross

Occupations: Architect, Civil Engineer and Surveyor


William Telford Gunson was born on 18 November 1839 at East Rainton, near Houghton-le-Spring, Co. Durham, the son of William Wilson Gunson [1803-1882], a coal miner originally from Royds Green, Wakefield and his wife Sarah Telford [1807-1888].  William Wilson Gunson was the son of Christopher Gunson [b.1789] originally from Dewsbury and his wife Elizabeth Wilson.  Sarah was the daughter of Robert Telford [1775-1838] of Falstone near Bellingham, Northumberland and his wife Dorothy Musgrove [1775-1862], who were married in 1798 at Dalton-le-Dale, near Seaham Harbour.   If Musgrove is taken as a variant of Musgrave, it seems that these three family names: Gunson, Telford and Musgrove, all have Cumbrian antecedants.  William and Sarah were married at the parish church at Houghton-le-Spring, on Christmas Day 1829 and their other children were Mary A. Gunson [b.1829] who married Robert Freeborough [b.1829] in Liverpool in 1865 and Elijah Robert Gunson [1841-1916], a grocer who married Isabella Baker [1846-1907], the daughter of William Baker [b.1811] a Durham stonemason, in 1868 at Outwood, near Wakefield.  This marriage indicates how they maintained links with William Wilson Gunson’s birthplace and the place to which he retired.

By 1851 William and Sarah had moved seven miles to the south west of East Rainton and lived at Dragon Villa [now Dragonville] near Gilesgate, Durham, where there was considerable activity in the Belmont, Grange and Kepier collieries quite close to the city and about one hundred miners lived nearby.  In 1861 they had moved to Gilesgate itself where their neighbours included a retired maltster, a solicitor’s clerk and a proprietor of houses.  Before 1871, by luck, latent skill and accumulated experience, the elder William had advanced to the important role of sinker, part of the mining elite.  This dangerous occupation, the best paid in the colliery, involved the sinking and lining of the new shafts and would have doubled the family income.  The most able sinkers were able to evolve into engineers, so the elder William’s proto-engineering dexterity came to fruition vicariously in the person of his elder son.  

William Telford Gunson learned ‘mensuration with practical illustrations and the elements of land surveying and levelling’ at school in Durham or perhaps via the Mechanics’ Institute.  He is also said to have ‘won medals and prizes’ via evening classes at the Durham School of Art, following its foundation in 1853, having followed a syllabus set by the department of science and art at South Kensington.  There were annual examinations in free hand, model and geometrical drawing and in perspective and this training was intended to create a taste for the beautiful among the people and in so doing stimulate good design.  Spurred by his prizes, this trajectory led William, as a keen and successful student, to his work in surveying, architecture and engineering.  Despite this ambition he appears to have been occupied as a pupil teacher, before becoming a schoolmaster, an occupation which enabled him to make his considerable social leap. For a miner’s son, without any obvious professional contacts, his achievement is remarkable.    

Great Broughton School

At any rate, in 1861, aged twenty one, William was appointed headmaster of Great Broughton National School, near Cockermouth, which had been founded by Joseph Ashley, in 1722.  He held this post until 1863, lodging in the village with Mrs Jane Paisley, the thirty seven year old widow of Joseph Paisley, a ‘landed proprietor’ in her own right.  Several of their neighbours in the village here were also coal miners.  Though styled headmaster, he was the only teacher of almost 40 children, but was assisted by monitors. The original school log book from 21 June 1861 is written up in his elegant copperplate hand, continuing until his last entry in 19 June 1863. Most of the details are banal but he does refer in December 1862 to school inspectors noting that his discipline was ‘partial’ and making the recommendation that he should use the monitors more.  At this date they announced that they could not ‘issue his certificate’.  There was also a disturbance resulting in him being ‘locked out’ by pupils on Shrove Tuesday, 17 February 1863 and his entry of the following day records his newly adopted disciplinary strength as he ‘severely punished the ringleaders of yesterday’s riot’.  Such high jinks as locking out the master were traditional in rural Cumbria on Shrove Tuesday but the children here seem to have overstepped the mark.

At the Paris Exhibition of 1867, Britain was beaten in most categories and the resulting criticisms led to the Education Act of 1870.  Had this watershed pre-dated William’s experience in schools, he might have decided to remain as a teacher but he was more ambitious and sought to explore another professional route, building on his existing skills in mensuration. Somehow he had saved, or had been loaned, sufficient money to pay the premium required for him to serve his articles in London, where in 1863 there were relatively few surveying firms, one of which was St. Quintin, Son and Stanley.  On completing his articles, William became an assistant ‘in various London offices’ and then returned north to be appointed to the city surveyor’s office in Manchester, where he worked for ten years. During this period, he doubtless discovered the frustrations of reporting to a senior surveyor and hankered after independence.  

Marriage and Family

William had kept in touch with the orphaned Phillis Caldcleugh [1840-1900], whom he knew in Durham prior to his departure, where they may have been pupil teachers together.  Phyllis’s father William Caldcleugh [1805-1854] and grandfather Thomas Caldcleugh [1770-1856], ran businesses in leather and ink making in Durham city and were successively postmasters from 1823-1854.  As orphans, Phillis and her seven siblings were brought up initially by their uncle and guardian George Caldcleugh [1793-1858], the landlord of the Half Moon at Durham, who was the mail coach agent and also ran businesses as a brewer and hatter. On his death, the younger children were moved to the care of their aunt Elizabeth Tyler [1805-1906] but by then Phillis was eighteen and almost independent.  Indeed, it seems likely that William’s encounter with the dynamic Caldcleugh family of Durham enhanced his determination to make something more of himself.  Intriguingly, Phillis’s uncle Francis Caldcleugh [1800-1850] was a surveyor in London, but had died too young to have been a useful direct contact, though his son Francis [1837-1916] had returned to Durham, becoming a master builder.  As Francis senior died young, it seems possible that William knew Francis junior, his near contemporary.  Phillis was William’s junior by a year and had become a schoolmistress in Derby, so they were married there at St. Peter’s church by the Rev. William Hope on 21st November 1864. Their marriage certificate gives his occupation as ‘surveyor’, but upon the baptism of their first child Fanny at St. Paul’s, Stretford Rd., Hulme, Manchester on 31st July 1867, he calls himself an ‘engineering draughtsman’ thus underlining the fluidity of professional boundaries at this date.  

William and Phillis had eight children: Fanny [1867-1936]; Ernest [1869-1940]; Agnes [1871-1942]; Telford [1872-1881]; William Frank [1875-1924]; Harold [1878.1958], Phillis [1882-1963] and Reginald [1882-1960].  They had a rather chequered relationship with Manchester’s churches, probably reflecting their search for stability and social status.  Fanny and Ernest were baptised at St Paul’s, Stretford Rd, Hulme in 1867 and 1870; Agnes and Telford were both baptised on 25th February 1872 at St Matthew’s, Ardwick and Harold and Phillis were both baptised in Manchester cathedral in 1877 and 1882.  Phillis, rather bizarrely, was given four names: Phillis Catherine Unice Christian, which she continued to use later in life. Uniquely, William Frank was baptised at St Mary Magdalene, Outwood, in Yorkshire in 1875, on a visit to the Gunson grandparents.  

In 1871 the Gunsons lived at 193, South St., Gorton and William by then described himself as a civil engineer.  They had one servant, Hannah McCall, aged 22, from Haydock, near St Helen’s and their neighbours included a pawn broker, a newspaper reporter and a commercial traveller in biscuits.  By 1881, they lived at 3, Newton Terrace, Longsight, where they had one servant, Georgina Rolfe, from Lymm, aged 17.  Among their neighbours were Daniel Flatteley J.P., a brewer; John Clayton, a young solicitor and William Mitchell, an auctioneer, a joint indication of how the family had prospered.  Nonetheless, 1881 was a sad year for the family as little Telford, their fourth child, died aged only nine.  

Founding the Firm

To have a dual occupation was common in the period but required considerable intellectual dexterity and powerful skills in self-fashioning.  That he joined the Shakespeare Lodge of Freemasons [1009] in Manchester in 1872, gave him valuable contacts which may well have benefited the development of his business, especially in the early years.  By working in the city surveyor’s office in Manchester, he hugely enhanced his experience and confidence, so in 1873, he set up a partnership with Richard Liron Mestayer [1843-1921] who was principal engineering assistant to the corporation.  In the early 1870s Mesteyer lived at Leigh Place, Ardwick, Manchester as a lodger.  

Perhaps building on his contacts in Derbyshire, he was commissioned to design and build Buxton Gas Works from 1874-76 in Ashwood Dale, Mesteyer and Gunson probably working on this together.  Later on William may have designed the refuse destructor on the same site in 1886 and the extensions to the gasworks in 1904-06.  Eventually the partners operated in a range of professional areas: surveying, valuation, architecture and civil engineering, Mesteyer having already worked with James Simpson [1799-1869] in several London waterworks projects. In this period of huge industrial and commercial expansion, as has been observed above there was a blurred line between the professions, qualifications were less necessary and an able man could move seamlessly between them as a generalist, provided he fulfilled his clients’ needs.  As the historian Micklethwaite wrote, rather cynically, on the subject: ‘any man worth a brass plate and a door to put it on, may dub himself an architect.’  By the 1860s this state of affairs had incensed some of the more established practitioners and gradually professional institutes were founded, gaining power and credibility with time, which sought to control qualifications and standards. The Institute of Civil Engineering had been founded as early as 1818 and the RIBA had been founded in 1834 but William was slightly ahead of the game, in that the Institute of Chartered Surveyors was not established in London until 1868.  Clients did not deem it necessary in this period to be a paid up member of one or more professional organisation.

Mestayer was of Huguenot descent and an ancestor Lewis Mesteyer [d.1791] had worked for the East India Company in Bengal.  His father, also Richard, was a bank manager and his grandfather was ‘of the bank of England’. As a child, he lived in Clerkenwell, London, so it seems possible that William and Richard trained together as surveyors or met later via a London or Manchester office. That William, aged thirty four, was able to secure as his partner, a middle class surveyor from the south is a strong indication of his own growing social and professional credibility.  Phyllis, also from a prosperous middle class family in Durham, would have enhanced this process, by offering encouragement and providing templates of bourgeois behaviour and language.  It may be that as Richard and William came from very different social drawers, the firm was named Mestayer and Gunson at this point, although William was the elder partner by four years.  This distinction may also have resulted from Richard’s access to family capital, which enabled them to establish their first offices at 32, Mansfield Chambers, 17, St Ann’s Square, quite a prestigious address.

By 1877 the partners needed more space, perhaps to include a draughtsman and secretary, so they moved that November to ‘more commodious premises’ at 10, Marsden St., off Brown St., which were let from William Cottrill of Seedley Rd., Pendleton at eighty pounds per annum.  Marsden St. itself was very narrow and was a tight squeeze for the Gunson motor vehicles of the future but the building, initially called ‘Marsden Chambers’ was retained until the 1960s, long after William’s time.  The offices were on the first floor and reached by a simple counterbalanced lift, controlled by pulling on a rope, a relatively new invention at the time. It seems possible that William took a special interest in this, as the conveyance of people or goods up and down a shaft is an absolute parallel of his father’s work as a sinker. It was a curious system and as Alan Bennett wrote of a similar contrivance: ‘I must apologise for the lift.  It dates from the period before lifts were invented.’  Eventually Mesteyer met Katherine Kesteven, the daughter of William Bedford Kesteven, a doctor and after their marriage on 30 July 1878, the new couple lived in a flat above new offices. 

Several editions of Slater’s Directory reiterate their areas of operation, which in the late 1870s included land agency. They were also the sole agents for Homan and Rodgers of London, makers of fire proof flooring and steel skeleton buildings. In the 1880s Julius Homan and his son Ernest soon established factories at Gorton, Manchester and advertised using the Marsden St address.  One of their later contracts was a survey of the township of Rainford, St Helens which they signed on April 1878.  Mestayer may have been more gifted and ambitious than Gunson but, for reasons unknown, after eight years of working together, they dissolved the partnership in 1879.  In 1881, Mesteyer was living with his wife and small daughter Marjorie Katherine [1880-1955] at 3, Seedley Mount, Pendleton, Salford, where he was until 1883 deputy borough engineer.  In this year the Mesteyers travelled to New South Wales, Australia and later to New Zealand, where Richard had a varied career which included the building of drainage and sewage schemes for Wellington, designing the Mangorei hydro-electric scheme at Taranaki and coming up with the solution to Auckland’s water shortage, achieved later by Hugh Monro Wilson [1865-1929], which was the damming of the Waitakere river. Katherine Mesteyer’s brother Leighton Kesteven was a doctor in Fiji and later in Australia and her daughter Marjorie became an eminent conchologist with several species, including the sea snail Cumia mesteyerae named after her.  It is to be hoped that the breaking of the Mesteyer-Gunson partnership was an amicable affair but it may not be insignificant that William in later years only took on his son Ernest as a partner.  

Solo Career

In 1881-1883, William designed and built the Longsight Free Christian church, a small gothic Unitarian chapel, at the junction of Plymouth Grove and Birch Lane.  This contract was at the behest of the Rev. William Gaskell [1805-1884], the popular preacher at the Cross St. Chapel, which was now too small for his growing following.  It was one of several satellite chapels Gaskell commissioned in this period.  The clergyman’s late wife Elizabeth Gaskell [1810-1865], was the successful novelist of Cranford and North and South.  William Gaskell laid the foundation stone on 23rd September 1882 and the church, costing £3000, was opened on 7th June 1883.  The commemorative trowel for the foundation ceremony was exhibited at the Portico Library in the 1980s and a letter to William Gaskell while staying at Wray Castle with his friend Rupert Potter [1832-1914], the father of Beatrix Potter’s father, refers to Gunson and the new church and states that the architect had been present at the opening.  

Other work included an early steam bakery, the Bread Factory on Stockport Road, Longsight of 1882 with automated dough making, smokeless ovens and large cooling rooms.  He designed Cheetham Reform Club and Bowling Green in 1880 which had a newspaper room and a ‘snug quoiting ground’.  Then from 1882-3 Hyde Reform Club was conceived in ‘Queen Anne style’ in red brick with stone facings in the Market Place, Hyde which had a distinctive clock tower, 63 feet high, and a balcony for giving speeches at election time.  Built for a limited company by Peter Green at a cost of £4,500, the foundation stone was laid by the mayor Thomas Ashton [1808-1898], the father of the 1st Lord Ashton [1855-1933].  Here there was ‘a commodious refreshment room’, committee room, billiard room with three tables, card room and reading room.  Both these contracts may have derived from his membership of the Manchester Reform Club [est.1870].  Among domestic properties he designed 10-12, Cateaton St. in the 1880s, for the Trustees of the late James Jardine, which building has been redeveloped as the cathedral visitors’ centre and opened by the Queen in 2002. This building was erected on top of the medieval Hanging Bridge of 1421, which was excavated in 2001 and the arches are now again visible in the basement.  Here too, in 1880, a bronze age axe was discovered.  

Manchester was the largest industrial city in the world, the centre of the great cotton manufacturing industry, a hugely influential place in Britain and to Benjamin Disraeli, ‘as great a human exploit as Athens’.  As the city grew, numerous buildings were commissioned from the rising group of architects and civil engineers. William maintained his occupational dexterity and was at this point also a member of the Manchester Society of Surveyors and Valuers.  Apart from local work, he responded to a range of requests in Lancashire, Cheshire and even north Wales.  He designed Crewe Cattle Market and Abattoir in 1883 on a five acre site adjacent to the main LMS railway line to expedite the transport of cattle, sheep and pigs, particularly from Ireland, via steamers to Holyhead.  Accommodation and nearby grazing was provided for 1500 cattle, 6000 sheep and 500 pigs and by using the railway the livestock arrived in better condition.  This complex was successfully exploited by Henry Manley [1829-1903] and his sons Robert and Edmund, auctioneers and valuers of Aston, near Wrenbury, Cheshire.

Between 1883 and 1891, during the tenure of chief constable Lt. Col. Henry Martin Moorsom MVO [1839-1921], Gunson was commissioned to design at least ten Lancashire county police stations, including that at Green Lane, Patricroft, Eccles. Some of these have finely carved stone lettering and the coat of arms of the Duchy of Lancaster with hound supporters, on the facade.  When tenders were sought, copies of the plans were available for one guinea each and tenders were to be submitted to the chief constable.  In 1889 he was also commissioned to make alterations to the Police Courts at Strangeways Prison and in 1890 to design an inspector’s residence adjacent to Withington police station.  The chief constable was exactly Gunson’s contemporary, which must have helped in these projects.  In 1889 a wall collapsed in Deansgate, killing a man and William was brought in to give expert advice.

The Isle of Man

William was also appointed valuer to the Overseers of the Poor in North Manchester and from this experience he became valuer to Manchester Corporation, to Lancashire County Council and finally both architect and valuer to the County Justices of Lancashire [Manchester Division] for fifteen years. The further growth of his professional and social confidence, in tandem with this accumulation of posts, led to his election in 1881 as a member of the Rusholme Local Board following the resignation of Mr Heywood from overwork.  Then in 1884 at the age of forty five he was elected as a city councillor for the Rusholme ward, being re-elected unopposed until 1892, being involved inter alia on the water committee.  

From 1882-1890, William was also the appointed engineer on the newly floated Isle of Man Tramways Ltd., having patented ‘an invention of improvements’ for such transport systems in 1879.  Described recently as ‘a testimony to Victorian engineering and endurance’, the Douglas Horse Trams have been in existence since 1876 and were founded by Thomas Lightfoot [1814-1893] to exploit the booming tourist trade.  Such trams had evolved from industrial use with the earliest used at Swansea in 1807. Lightfoot had sold the business in 1882 as he was involved with building the Grand Theatre for the town, designed by Frank Matcham, which opened in 1888. Douglas boasts the oldest surviving horse drawn tramway in the world and William was involved in updating and doubling the track to increase the capacity.  He also doubled the number of cars and extended the route to run for 1.6 miles, the whole length of the ‘magnificent sweep’ of the promenade of Douglas Bay.

In 1884 he was appointed as surveyor and architect to the newly constituted Old Caergwrle Forge company in Flintshire which had been in business for 180 years making tools, spades and agricultural equipment.  With a worldwide reputation, their axes were also used by the Gladstone family on their Hawarden estate nearby, the prime minister being a keen woodsman.  At Caergwrle William was involved in the planning of extensions for this company. Amongst commercial property he designed Canada Chambers and Tower Chambers, Brown St., Manchester.  

Thirlmere Dam and the Manchester Ship Canal

A key link here between William’s professional and political life is his involvement also from 1884 in securing a greater and more secure water supply for the growing city of Manchester.  He was active in the surveying and planning of the Thirlmere dam and the 96 mile route of the largely culverted aqueduct, which operated without pumps by a gravity routed siphon, to provide 10,000 gallons of fresh Lakeland water for Manchester per day.  Being the second highest major lake, Thirlmere was chosen for its potential for a good gravitational flow and also the high cliffs at its northern end only needed a modest dam to contain a vast quantity of water.  His son Ernest was one of the young surveyors who also contributed to this work, which eventually employed 5000 men, the route commencing with a five kilometre tunnel under Dunmail Raise. The aqueduct was completed in 1892 and as a member of the water committee, William’s name appears below the Manchester city arms on the elaborate commemorative monument to the scheme on the dam which delivered safe water to the distant city: a lasting positive legacy.  At the opening festivities in 1894, he was in company with the chairman of the committee, Sir John James Harwood [1832-1906]; the senior engineer, George Henry Hill [1827-1919]; Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley [1851-1920], co-founder of the National Trust; Sir James Cropper [1823-1910], the Kendal papermaker; and other worthies, who attended the luncheon.  Rawnsley had initially opposed the scheme, as a member of the Thirlmere Defence Association established by Robert Somervell, but eventually came to see that the imperatives of demography outweighed the environmental considerations, proposing a toast to the members of the waterworks committee on this occasion. In 2018, at the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, William Telford Gunson was recognised as ‘one of the most influential surveyors of the past 150 years’ for his involvement in bringing fresh water to Manchester and identified as one of 64 surveyors to have made a ‘great impact’ in the country.

As a civil engineer and city councillor, Gunson observed the contractors excavating the channel and building the infrastructure for the Manchester Ship Canal from 1885 to 1894.  This massive project eventually created a new waterway from Manchester to the sea with the goal of enhancing the commercial possibilities for the city at the expense of Liverpool.  Eleven of the twenty one seats on the canal board were allocated to the city council and it seems possible that William had been disappointed by not being chosen.  As a self-made man, probably up against more established individuals, he held, despite his relative affluence, an ambiguous social position.  Originally costed at 8 million sterling, the project eventually cost fifteen million.  The canal company was bailed out by the city council but the city’s debts rose hugely and the rates rose by 26%.  With his considerable experience of working with contractors and having to budget precisely for his own projects, Gunson felt that the accumulated overspend was excessive.  It would be interesting to know whether he had tendered for any of this work.  In vain he remonstrated with the senior councillors on the canal committee but they ignored him.  Eventually, feeling snubbed, angry and deeply frustrated, he wrote a stiff letter to the editor of The Times and was reported on the front page that in his view Manchester city council had been ‘hoodwinked’ by the contractors. Despite the very evident veracity of his protest, his fellow councillors were outraged at his temerity and he was forced to resign his seat on the council.  From this event we get an idea of William’s energetic and combative personality, which had, until this point, been an advantage in his career, being until then kept largely under control. The Ship Canal furore probably damaged his business, but he was sufficiently astute and well enough respected in the city to be able to survive this highly charged moment in his career, when he appeared as a late Victorian whistle blower.  As Queen Victoria opened the canal officially on 21st May 1894, his words had been a genuine embarrassment. As is so often the case with these projects, several senior figures, with whom he had crossed swords, were knighted.  At William’s death, his brief funeral notice referred euphemistically to his ‘interest’ in the ship canal.

In 1891 the Gunsons lived at Falcon House, Clarence Rd, Victoria Park, Longsight, where their neighbours were Charles R. Allen, a solicitor and Issachar S. Thorp, a yarn agent and William still described himself as a civil engineer. By then Ernest [21], was a surveyor; William [16] was an apprentice mechanical engineer and Agnes, [20] was a sculpture student at art college, though no trace survives of her work. The other children were still at school and their servant by then was Marian Daniels, aged 19.  In about 1894, William and Phillis moved to Plymouth Grove House, a large property in the tree-lined Plymouth Grove, with an extensive garden, across the road from The Little Sisters of the Poor Convent.  The house, as before, provided easy access to both the commercial centre of the city and places of entertainment but was at that date some distance from the more noisy and polluted industrial areas. During these years, the Gaskell house at 84, Plymouth Grove continued to be ‘the nearest possible approach to an absolute centre of the social life of educated Manchester’.  Though William Gaskell had died in 1884, his daughter Meta Gaskell was a neighbour until 1913.  Their immediate neighbours in 1901 were David Haines, a fruit merchant, Daniel Jones, a congregational minister and Villy Herbert and E.E. Sictaferus, both vocalists. Though Plymouth Grove House was demolished in the 1960s, the curtilage wall, entrance paving and kerbs remain and in the garden their large plane tree still flourishes.

The pier at Lytham had originally been built by the veteran pier builder Eugenius Birch [1818-1884] in 1864-5, one of fourteen to his credit, but reconstructed and extended with a large pavilion in 1892 by W.T. Gunson at a further cost of £12,000.  Following the ill-fate of many piers, the structure was badly damaged by being struck by two barges in 1903 and split in two.  Yet again restored, there was then a fire and the pier was closed in 1938 and finally demolished in March 1960.  A veil seems to have been drawn over this project and Geoffrey Keeling, the senior partner at Gunson’s c.1979, said it was the ‘skeleton in the cupboard’ of the firm.  It appears that W.T.Gunson, for once, had erred in his calculations as the construction should, perhaps, have been rigid enough to survive this collision.

Following the success of the horse tramways, he must have made some more business contacts on the Isle of Man as there followed his designing the Ramsey Hydropathic Establishment, which was built on a headland from 1895-1897 as a large hotel on the site occupied by Beachmount, a country house owned by Aaron Williams at Ramsey in the Isle of Man.  It had terraced lawns rising from the sandy beach and was built by William Kelly.  Known locally as the Hydro, it offered the first brine baths in the Isle of Man and was later known as the Grand Island Hotel, latterly having fifty four bedrooms, all en suite.  Hydros seem to be popular with the Gunsons and his son Ernest regularly stayed at Conishead Priory Hydro in the 1920s.

His Son Ernest as Partner

William and Phillis’s eldest son Ernest Gunson [1869-1940] attended Manchester Grammar School, where he was no scholar but very keen on sport, including water polo and boxing. He served his articles with his father from 1886-89, remaining as his assistant from 1889-91.  Following a brief spell of independent practice, perhaps to take a break from his father’s authority, he was accepted as a partner and the firm became W. Telford Gunson and Son in late 1891. This change of name also indicates that they did not waste the implication that there was a family link with the great engineer Thomas Telford [1757-1834], though there is no evidence that they were related and the great Telford neither married nor had children.  Soon afterwards Ernest met Beatrice Ashworth [1871-1951], the attractive second daughter of the formidable widow Mrs Thomas Baker Ashworth of Rochdale [1847-1913] and Southport. Trixie’s grandfathers had both been Lancashire textile industrialists and her great uncle Thomas Ashworth [1816-1869] was the fourth mayor of that town.  A couple of years later, on 5th September 1894, he married Trixie at the Church of the Holy Name in Chorlton-under-Medlock, then a more prosperous area of the city.  

As architect to the Prestwich Board of Guardians, William designed the Prestwich Union Tramp Wards and the Prestwich Union Offices, Cheetham Hill Road in 1895 and later, made alterations to Salford Workhouse.  In 1895 the firm advertised for tenders for carting away building materials from a site at Brown St and Spring gardens.  In 1895 William was also involved with an arbitration claim in court regarding expenses and having agreed to split the difference with the opposition, the judge stated that ‘Mr Gunson had acted in a very reasonable way’.  

In 1900, a few years after the unwanted Ship Canal publicity and its undoubted unpleasant aftermath, Phillis Gunson died rather prematurely, aged only 59 but William and his younger children continued to live at Plymouth Grove: Fanny, Harold, Phillis and Reginald, with two servants: a housemaid and a cook from the Isle of Man.  William could not employ all his sons in the firm, but they all appear to have been trained in related fields and following the example of Richard Mestayer, several emigrated. William Frank Gunson [1875-1924] went to Canada c.1896, married Gertrude Smith in Brantford, Ontario in 1898, worked as a tool maker and died in Wentworth, Ontario.  His father William Telford Gunson crossed the Atlantic himself on the Majestic, in 1904, probably to visit him.  Harold Caldcleugh Gunson [1878-1958], went to Montreal in 1905 and became a mechanical engineer in Victoria, British Colombia. Reginald Wilson Gunson [1882-after 1917] was training in another architect’s office in Manchester in 1901 but over the next sixteen years appears as a peripatetic civil engineer based in Shanghai, leaving traces in California, Port Said, Australia, New Zealand and Cape Town.  He was the donor of a fine pair of cloissonnee vases to his sister-in-law.  Fanny Gunson [1867-1942] lived for a while in Blackburn but in 1936, aged 69, travelled to New York and back, probably to visit her sister Phyllis.  Agnes Gunson [1871-1942] lived unmarried with her father, then with her uncle Horace Caldcleugh [1846-1923], a chemist in Jesmond, Newcastle and later in Yorkshire.  In 1906, William’s youngest daughter Phillis Catherine Unice Gunson [1882-1963] married Ernest William Rigby [1879-1939], another engineer and the son of William Bradshaw Rigby [1852-1907], a surgeon in Withington.  Following her brother Horace, they moved to British Columbia in 1906 and lived in Vancouver. 

There followed Wilton Club, named for the 1st earl of Wilton who sold Heaton Park to the city in 1902.  In 1903-5 William also designed extensive gardens for a large site on the sea front at Rhyl in North Wales in with proposals for caverns, lakes, rustic bridges, a concert hall, a skating rink and the usual range of seaside activities, including archery butts.  To his great frustration, this ambitious scheme overstretched the company, which went into liquidation in August 1905 and the scheme was not realised.  Rhyl was not perhaps a good choice of resort as the earlier Winter Gardens company which had opened a range of facilities in 1876 had failed and its assets were sold in 1883.  Perhaps the history of this earlier venture was kept from him ?  This project demonstrates the precarity of speculative development in a period of great expansion.


In 1906 William Telford Gunson senior, received several puffs in the local press upon his retirement, the Manchester Courier and Lancaster General Advertiser of 17th November 1906 announcing that ‘on Sunday Mr W.T. Gunson enters his 68th year’ and adds that he has been ‘a prominent civil engineer, architect and surveyor for over 30 years’.  At this date Ernest Gunson, aged 37, became the senior partner of the firm, and continued to operate primarily as a surveyor but also as an architect and valuer.  A Gunson letterhead of 10, Marsden St. in 1907 states that Ernest had succeeded his father as valuer to the County Justices of Lancashire and to both the North and South Manchester Boards of Guardians.  Two years into his retirement on 31st January 1908, the Manchester Courier averred that ‘from different standpoints; age, length of public service and breadth of experience alike Mr William Telford Gunson must rank among the first flight of civil engineers in the country’. With Ernest at the helm, the firm grew in the 1920s and 1930s taking on several young partners.  Much of his work was in surveying, spending much time as the independent rating surveyor in Cumberland but he did build several churches, notably the huge Corpus Christi basilica at Miles Platting and a terrace of houses as a pension for his father. He was elected as an Associate of the RIBA in 1907.

Towards the end of his life William lived at Kingswood, 87, Reeds Road, Blackpool with Mary Fernley, his much younger second wife [1886-1944], whom he married in Blackpool in 1920 when he was 80 and she was only thirty four. Considering William’s age, it seems likely that she had been his housekeeper and carer, rather than his mistress, and that he married her not only for domestic support but also to ensure her future security.  The last photograph of him shows him seated in an armchair surrounded by books and small pieces of sculpture and wearing a large diamond ring, a tangible symbol of his achievements.  William died aged 84 on 9 August 1924 and was buried at Blackpool Cemetery on 13 August.  Having been a freemason for more than fifty years, the service was taken by the Rev. P.B. Thorburn, a masonic minister. It seems likely that Ernest and Trixie did not approve of his second wife but they did attend the funeral, with Fanny and Agnes. The role of stepmother, especially a young one, is notoriously difficult and it appears that there was little contact with her and the rest of the family. William’s death notices are brief but the Manchester City News of 9th August 1924 in a column headed EX-COUNCILLOR DIES, diplomatically states that he ‘took a keen interest in the Ship Canal and Thirlmere Waterworks schemes.’ 

In his will, dated August 1920, he left his entire estate to Mary including his property at 13-33, Everton Rd., Manchester and 51 and 53 Milton St., Stockport Rd, Manchester. His witnesses were Richard Eaton [1856-1937], provision merchant of 11, Cookson St., Blackpool and Arthur Spittle [1868-1948], hotel manager of 2, King St., Blackpool.  The estate was valued at £756..7s..2d which was not a vast sum at that date, suggesting that he had already made provision for some of his children.  Ernest, of course, had inherited the firm.  Mary Gunson lived on until 1944, at 5, Lincoln Rd., Blackpool and latterly in Liverpool, where she died aged only 58, leaving her estate to the RSPCA.  

That William had the drive and imagination to raise himself by his own efforts in business and politics to a position of being a significant grand old man of the city, parallels the trajectory urged by Samuel Smiles [1812-1904].  Smiles’s book Self Help [1845], advocating self-improvement and his Lives of the Great Engineers [1862], celebrating major technical achievements may well have been part of his study. His life clearly demonstrates the benefits a bright young man accrues by launching himself upon ‘a course of sturdy self-reliance and enquiry’.  That his firm survives today as the oldest surveyors’ practice in the city is a testament to his acumen and also to that of his successors.


  • W.B.Tracey and W.B. Pike, Contemporary Biographies, Manchester 1899
  • Sir John James Harwood, History and Description of the Thirlmere Water Scheme, 1895
  • Sir Bosdin Leech, History of the Manchester Ship Canal, 1907
  • Ray Dobie, History of Great Broughton School, 2009
  • Harriet Ritvo, The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere and Modern Environmentalism, 2009
  • John La Roche and Karen Astwood, Waiktekere Ranges Water System, 2011 p.7
  • Commissioners of Patents Journal 17 October 1879 p.1072 patent 4198
  • Building News and Engineering Journal, vol. 92, Jan.-Jun 1907
  • W.T. Gunson website www.wtgunson.co.uk
  • Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors website www.rics.org accessed soon after their 150th anniversary.  See ‘Pride of Profession’
  • www.manchestervictorianarchitects.org.uk
  • http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/9712/ Michael Lucas, The growth of technical education in Darlington [Co. Durham]1825-1915, 1967, pp.71-115
  • www.bbc.co.uk/isleofman/    13 November 2014
  • www.visitisleofman.com/experience/douglas-bay
  • Manchester Guardian 9 November 1877 p.5
  • Manchester Guardian 27 November 1877 p.1
  • Liverpool Mercury 17 April 1878 p.1
  • Rhyl Advertiser 2 July 1881 p.2
  • Manchester City News 23 July 1881 p.8
  • Manchester Guardian 21 February 1882 p.1
  • Manchester Guardian 18 November 1882 p.4 
  • Manchester Guardian 26 May 1883 p.5
  • Manchester Courier 8 June 1883 p.1
  • Manchester Guardian 2 July 1883 p.4
  • Manchester Guardian 12 October 1883 p.6
  • Manchester Guardian 18 August 1885 p.3
  • Manchester Guardian 21 August 1885 p.1
  • Manchester Guardian 12 June 1886
  • Manchester Courier 17 August 1889 p.12
  • Manchester Courier 9 December 1890 p.3
  • Manchester Courier 7 April 1891 p.1
  • Manchester Courier 9 May 1891 p.1
  • Manchester City News 5 April 1892 p.8
  • Manchester Guardian 28 April 1894 p.4
  • Manchester City News 11 May 1895 p.8
  • Blackpool Gazette and Herald, 14 August 1924, obituaries
  • Great Broughton School day book, Carlisle CRO DS41/1
  • Surviving records held by WT Gunson; regrettably most of their records were destroyed in an office fire 
  • Architectural drawings in St Peter’s Square Library, Manchester, studied in 1985.
  • Local history records such as waterworks committee minutes consulted 1980-86, St Peter’s Square Library
  • Family records and www.ancestry.com
  • Conversations with several partners of WT Gunson’s from 1980-2016
  • Conversations with William Telford Gunson’s great grandson Malcolm Cross [1925-2015]
  • Conversations with Janet Allan, chairman of Manchester Historic Buildings Trust