SOUTHCOTT, JAMES THOMAS, carpenter, builder, and architect; b. 10 May 1824 in Exeter, England, son of John Southcott, a carpenter, and Mary —; m. 15 June 1852 Georgina Norman in St John’s, and they had one son and seven daughters; d. there 19 April 1898.
James Thomas Southcott and his elder brother, John, arrived in Newfoundland in 1847 to assist in the rebuilding of St John’s following the great fire of the previous year. They were among the large number of craftsmen who came from England’s West Country to work on the reconstruction. Although many of their fellow masons, carpenters, and architects moved on after the building boom was over, the Southcotts remained to establish a firm, J. and J. T. Southcott, that was to dominate the Newfoundland building trade and have a marked influence on the island’s architecture for almost half a century.
Nothing is known of their work in the decade following the 1846 fire. Indeed, one wonders how they survived given that there was a run of poor fisheries in the late forties and a general depression of the economy in 1849. The only record of James Southcott during this period is his marriage to a fellow citizen of Exeter, Georgina Norman, and the birth of their first child, John Thomas, in 1853. The Exeter connection seems to have been fairly strong as the firm’s two known projects during the 1850s, Gower Street Methodist Church in 1856 and Hope Cottage in 1857, were for people from that city.
These projects indicate the range of the Southcotts’ capabilities. Although presumably trained as carpenters, they were able to work in brick and stone, to serve as general contractors (their role in the church project), and to design houses. Hope Cottage, built for the linen-draper John Steer, a member of the Methodist congregation, was in the Gothic Revival style, one of a number of buildings in this style that can be attributed to James Southcott. His own house, Exon, also built in this manner, across the road from Hope Cottage and about a mile from the centre of town, was part of a slow, but steadily growing trend towards civilized living in what until then had been a very rude mercantile settlement. The 1846 fire, as well as the intolerable atmosphere (occasioned by the odour of drying fish) of a summer on the harbour, encouraged those who could afford it to take to higher, more salubrious ground and to build in a more adventurous style.
The Southcotts’ position as the colony’s major contractors was confirmed when in 1866 they began an association with the Anglo-American Telegraph Company that was to last out the century. At Heart’s Content, where the first successful transatlantic cable was landed [see Frederic Newton Gisborne], they constructed the cable offices as well as the various ranges of staff houses. They were able to sustain this relationship because of their absolute reliability, a reliability which prompted the superintendent to recommend at one time that they be allowed to proceed on a project without contract. Further evidence of their stature can be seen in the fact that in 1875 they were given the contract to build David Stirling*’s design for the St John’s Athenæum, a large brick structure in a Ruskinian Gothic manner which demonstrated the growing cultural sophistication of the community.
In the same year James’s son, John Thomas, returned from architectural studies in England and the firm entered a new stage of development. In 1878 the Southcotts acquired the Warne estate on Rennies Mill and Monkstown roads, a suburb at the top of the hill overlooking St John’s and situated between the Roman Catholic cathedral and Government House. There between 1883 and 1887 they built six houses in the Second Empire style, which presumably were designed by John Thomas. The style has since come to be associated with the Southcotts in St John’s and is, in fact, the characteristic architecture of the city. But it was not limited to St John’s. In 1881 the firm had built a number of two-storey (the typical St John’s houses have three storeys) mansard-roofed houses for the senior staff at Heart’s Content, and the style seems to have become the accepted new form after the return of the younger Southcott. None the less, apart from Heart’s Content the firm appears to have done little work outside the capital and not all its work during this time is in the Second Empire style. The Southcotts continued to work in variants of the Gothic mode much as they had in the 1850s, although it is not clear whether the designs for these houses are from the hand of James or his son.
The great fire of 1892 destroyed the whole east end of St John’s and, in the rebuilding that followed, the influence, if not the work, of the Southcotts is visible. On every substantial residential street in the downtown area rows of mansard-roofed houses and shops were constructed. What the family had established as the suitable style for the large houses of the merchant class in the previous decade now became fashionable for the middle class. But their influence was not to last. The fire had brought in new architects with new ideas, which, introduced via the commercial buildings of Water Street, were soon to permeate the taste of those who wanted houses. Before this change took place James Southcott died in April 1898, having maintained his family’s position as Newfoundland’s most important builders. That they reached and held such a position can be attributed to the trustworthiness, competence, and ability of James himself, for he appears to have been the firm’s manager. As the superintendent at Heart’s Content commented, Southcott was “hard but honest: he would not drive a nail free but what he said he would do I could always rely on being done.”
Cathedral of St John the Baptist (Anglican) (St John’s), Reg. of marriages, 15 June 1852 (copy at PANL). Devon Record Office (Exeter, Eng.), St Edmund (Exeter), reg. of baptisms, 12 Sept. 1824. Nfld., Registry of Deeds, Companies & Securities (St John’s), Deeds, Newfoundland District, 14: f.230. PANL, P7/B/47, letter-books, 1866–96, esp. 14 Sept. 1866; 6 June, 16 July 1868; 20 March 1871; 18 Nov. 1880; 29 March 1884. Private arch., G. M. Story (St John’s), Agreement for the building of Hope Cottage, 1857. Nfld. men (Mott). Evening Telegram (St John’s), 1879–98, esp. 15 July 1894, 14 April 1898. Newfoundlander, 1844–84, esp. 20 Jan. 1848, 5 Nov. 1875. Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 1832–95, esp. 20 Dec. 1876. E.-V. Chafe, “A new life on Uncle Sam’s farm: Newfoundlanders in Massachusetts, 1846–1859” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., St John’s, 1984).