Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

John Hallam - “A poor mean Country Joyner” of Nottinghamshire

This phrase was used by Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim Palace, to describe John Hallam (c1681/2-1729) of Mansfield Woodhouse in his letter of 1725. Vanbrugh knew Hallam in a professional capacity as their civil service roles for the Office of (Royal) Works overlapped - Vanbrugh was Comptroller (1702-1726) and Surveyor of Gardens & Waters (1715-1726) while Hallam was Secretary to the Board of the Office of Works and Clerk of Works for Whitehall, Westminster & St James's Palace (1719-1726), a joint post. Hallam was appointed to these roles by Sir Thomas Hewett, of Shireoaks Hall (near Worksop), after he had been appointed as Surveyor-General of the Office of Works in 1719; this was the top post on the Board, and coveted by Vanbrugh. I encountered John Hallam, with his Nottinghamshire connections, during my current research project about Shireoaks Hall and Sir Thomas Hewett, and have been able to augment what is known about him from documents held at Nottinghamshire Archives.

The first record of Hallam's trade as a ‘joyner’ was made on his marriage, age 26, to Isabell Rughills/Ruggels at Worksop Priory on 28 January 1707/8. He was noted then as being from Heath, Derbyshire, near Hardwick Hall; his father, also John, lived there in 1729 although there is no evidence of Hallam’s birth there. John Hallam Sr may be the J Hallam recorded as a joiner working at Chatsworth in 1691, although Hallam was a fairly common name in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire area. One older relative (Thomas Bettison) was a joiner at Nottingham and Ollerton, however, the head of a related family, Thomas Hallam of Chadson (Chaddesden), near Derby, was a bodice maker, possibly previously from West Bridgford.

It is not known when the couple established themselves in Mansfield Woodhouse, however, it was possibly from that location that Hallam met Sir Thomas Hewett, when Hewett lived at Kings Clipstone for a year or two about 1709. Then, Hewett had permission from the Duke of Newcastle to alter the house he had taken a lease on, and may have used a local joiner to do so. Hallam was later (1719) described as Hewett’s acquaintance.

This association led to the previously mentioned posts in London which gave Hallam an income of £190 per annum at the age of 37. This was a very good salary for a joiner, although Vanbrugh later alleged that Hewett kept most of it for himself. The minutes of the Board meetings show that Hallam was involved in surveying and estimating repairs and minor new works, for example, making an estimate for a new library at St James's Palace (1721).

In his 1725 letter Vanbrugh also related that Hallam's wife was running an alehouse in Nottinghamshire with an additional vague allusion to Hallam's “Notorious crimes” - what these were has not come to light as yet. The exact location in Mansfield Woodhouse of the alehouse is unknown, but the rooms of the building are known - a private parlour with closet, the main ‘house’ room, kitchen, pantry, passage, brew-house with cellar, two (bed) chambers on the first floor, and a garret with accommodation for one servant, as well as storage for malt.

After Sir Thomas Hewett died in April 1726, Hallam was soon dismissed from his posts. In October 1726 he was still owed money by the executor of Hewett’s will, although it is not clear what this was for. A few instances show that his enhanced skills were utilised in the local area - in 1728 he designed the “Bath Summer-house” at Rufford Abbey for Sir George Savile, later converted to an Orangery, and restored about 20 years ago (Listed Grade II*). Documents relating to this building, including Hallam's architectural plans and letters, are also held at Nottinghamshire Archives, and were summarised by Alice Dugdale in an article published in the Georgian Group Journal, 1997. During this project he was also paid for advice “about altering the house” at Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, in June 1729.

Unfortunately, he died of unknown causes during the construction of the summer-house in August 1729, age 47. His last known letter was dated 14th July, his will was written on 17th July, then he was buried on 15th August back at Heath, where his father lived, at the Old Church which is now ruins. His death inventory reveals his architect and joinery trades: there was a drawing table in the parlour closet, lumber stored in 5 rooms, and a dozen made-up sashes (windows) in the garret. The goods listed had a value of £154, and included a clock, a bird cage, books, and 46 pictures, all indicators of comfortable living. He was also able to leave his wife, Isabell, substantial property as the couple appear to have left no children. Four new brick houses in Knightsbridge and Mayfair, three houses in Rotherham, and two houses with land in Mansfield Woodhouse were itemised. Another bequest was a gold mourning ring worth one guinea to the mason Robert Birch (-1750) of Mansfield, hired to work with him on the summer-house (March 1729) at Rufford Abbey.

His wife Isabell died 12 years later and left her property and possessions, which included the lease of a colliery at “Inkersal & Stavely”, to her niece and three nephews (from a Worksop family called Sugar), one a carpenter and one a joiner. Perhaps their choice of trade was influenced by her late husband.

There are still outstanding questions - did John Hallam ever undertake building work at Shireoaks Hall, or at any other estates or smaller houses in Nottinghamshire and surrounding area? Perhaps others have come across him in their research - I would be interested to know.

Megan Doole