A chance question and conversation led a Rothwell historian to discover more about the man behind one of the town’s most notable buildings.
William Franklin was chatting to a resident of Jesus Hospital, a group of buildings in the town dating from the Elizabethan and later times, when the man asked him who Henry Dormer, a previous principal of the hospital, was.
Intrigued, Mr Franklin decided to find out more.
Jesus Hospital was endowed to the town by Mr Dormer, a former school master, philanthropist and resident of Rothwell using money he had inherited. The entrance to the hospital, now sheltered housing, is via a Tudor gate beyond which is a courtyard. Above a small entrance way leading to the gardens there is a large grey stone with an inscription and the name Henry Dormer, Principal (the founders used the title Principal for the master of the hospital) and this is what prompted the question and subsequent research.
A review of the records shows that Henry Dormer, who became principal of the hospital in 1702, was a well-educated man with immaculate handwriting and an interest in history. From his arrival at Jesus Hospital on October 22, 1702, he appears to have set about ordering the books and accounts of the hospital. He gathered together the extant documents and drew up lists of governors, assistants (assistant governors were known as assistants) and principals from the foundation of the hospital in 1591 to his tenure in office. He also surveyed the hospital’s property in nearby Orton and Old and drew up terriers (an inventory of land or other property).
In one of Mr Dormer’s account books he records a census of the residents of the hospital in 1705, in which he states: “The Principall Henry Dormer, at Brampton, Aged 65.” This gives a year of birth for Henry Dormer of 1640, and the location of his birthplace as Brampton (Ash), Northamptonshire.
Little is known about his early life in Brampton or any other aspect of his life prior to 1680. It is possible that he was the Henry Dormer who married Mary Downes in Dingley in 1686. What is clear, though, is that he was trained as a surveyor and that he also undertook architectural works – in the late 17th and early 18th centuries the role of architect had barely emerged as a profession separate from that of surveyor or builder.
The earliest known work of Henry Dormer is from an estimate he provided for some slates at Lamport Hall in 1680, by which time he would have been 40 years old. In 1684 he was at Balscott in Oxfordshire, where he made a detailed map, which is housed at Trinity College, Oxford, and in the following year he is thought to have been the architect and person overseeing the rebuilding of the upper stages of the church tower at Carlton Curlieu, in Leicestershire.
In 1686 Mr Dormer was working at Lamport Hall. His work at the hall was probably that of surveyor and supervisor. Documents at the Northamptonshire Record Office show that he measured walls and windows at Lamport. Another local landowner, Thomas Maydwell of Geddington, employed him in 1687 to survey the Maydwell lands there, from which he produced a terrier.
He was the architect and supervisor for the work undertaken at the Chapel of St Mary in Arden, Great Bowden, Leicestershire, between 1693 and 1694. Here he built a small chapel over the south aisle of a former church, which had been demolished.
His biggest commission (that we know of) came in 1696 when he acted for Daniel Finch, 2nd Earl of Nottingham, who on acquiring an estate at Burley-on-the-Hill, Rutland, set about building a new mansion. Henry Dormer is not thought to have been the architect for the work, but certainly supervised the building work over the winter of 1696/67. In April 1697, John Lumley of Northampton, who remained in charge until the house was completed, succeeded him. John Lumley was more experienced in supervising the internal fittings of a grand house whereas Henry Dormer, who was principally a surveyor, was better suited to supervising the work on the shell of such a grand building.
The Burley-on-the-Hill project was a major undertaking. Finch wanted a grand house completed within a year. The footings were to be of stone and the upper courses in brick. Because most of the building work took place over the winter numerous difficulties arose. Added to that the client, Daniel Finch, was himself a meticulous man who was heavily involved in the project and kept very detailed records of the building work and costs.
What commissions were undertaken by Henry Dormer after 1697 are not known. In 1702, at the age of 62, he applied for and was elected as principal of Jesus Hospital, succeeding William Goode who died earlier that year. According to his election notice, at the time of his election he was living in Middleton.
Although Henry’s inscription says that he and the men were at the hospital: “To live contented, private, and resign’d, free from life’s toils and humours of Mankind”, it is clear that in his early years at Jesus Hospital he was not that content with life and on occasions tendered for work which, had he been successful, would have required his resignation from the hospital. The statutes or rules of the hospital impose strict limits on the number of nights away from the hospital that the principal could have.
He did, however, undertake surveying work for the local gentry. One such survey was undertaken for Allen Edward Young of Orlingbury in 1710 for which a terrier survives in the Northamptonshire Record Office.