The Coliseum in Stockton-on-Tees: Unpicking W. Basil Scott’s ‘First English Steel-Framed Building’

Today it is generally accepted that James Frank Doyle’s Royal Insurance Building in Liverpool was the first significant steel-framed building to be erected in the UK. Although it was designed around 1895-96, it was not erected until 1900-03. The Scottish engineer William Basil Scott (1877-1933), an employee of Redpath, Brown & Co. Ltd., was unaware of the primacy of the Royal Insurance Building when he made claims for one of his own buildings in the early 20th century. Alas, he didn’t have a clear memory of what that building was, or where it was located, creating something of a mystery for future architectural historians and industrial archaeologists.

In 1928 Scott stated: ‘as far as I can ascertain, the first English steel-framed building was a furniture warehouse in West Hartlepool’. Then in 1929, during a lecture, he claimed: ‘about 1896 I designed a steel frame for a furniture warehouse in West Hartlepool, which may be the first English steel-skeleton building’. He expanded on this in an ensuing discussion: ‘For the possible first British examples [ie: of skeleton construction] and for which his firm, Redpath, Brown & Co. Ltd., supplied the steelwork, he referred, from memory, to a furniture warehouse in West Hartlepool, built in 1896, Major Harry Barnes being the architect’. Then in 1930 Scott corrected his story by including this entry in a chronology of iron and steel: ‘1898. Warehouse at Stockton-on-Tees constructed. The first recorded example of steel skeleton construction in Britain’.

Scott thus sowed the seeds of much confusion, for he left people guessing.

In an article published in 1958 Kent & Kirkland named the first steel-framed building as Robinson’s Emporium in West Hartlepool, designed in 1896 by W. Basil Scott. This was accepted for the next 40 years. It was repeated in local publications and accepted by the late Michael Stratton, who wrote in 1999: ‘The first fully steel-framed building proper was reputedly Robinson’s Emporium, Hartlepool, dating to 1896-98. The frame was designed by W. Basil Scott of the engineering firm, Redpath, Brown & Co.’  But Stratton also noted: ‘W. B. Scott claimed retrospectively that the Mathias Robinson store in Stockton-on-Tees was the first fully steel-framed building’. The idea that Scott had been referring to this building, until recently occupied by Debenhams, appears to have been suggested by Alastair A. Jackson in 1998. BBC2 researchers, however, had a different opinion. In 2002 the production team of What the Victorians Did for Us responded to a viewer’s enquiry by identifying the first steel-framed building as the drapery store of Grey, Peverell & Co., later Binns and now Wilko, in West Hartlepool. This prompted its listing by English Heritage.

Wilko, West Hartlepool, showing the original Grey, Peverell & Co. frontage. (Photo: 2005)

To unpick this, we are looking for a furniture store, built in the period 1896-98, with a steel frame, involving Scott and Barnes, in either West Hartlepool or Stockton-on-Tees.

The starting point must be Mathias Robinson’s various premises in West Hartlepool. Robinson had established his drapery store, Manchester House at 77-83 Lynn Street, in 1875, then purchased the Coliseum, situated across the street at 94-98 Lynn Street, as a furniture store in 1891. The Coliseum was subsequently ‘improved’. In 1899, for example, the walls of the ground floor were removed and replaced by steel girders to create an open-plan interior. Robinson went on to build two new stores in West Hartlepool, Lynn House in 1906-07 and Birmingham House in 1913; he also acquired the Bon Marché, previously a mantle warehouse, in 1907. Intriguingly, Lynn House, by Barnes & Burton, was one of the first retail buildings to have a ferro-concrete frame. It is evident, however, that none of Robinson’s West Hartlepool buildings could have been the one referred to by Scott.

Wilko, West Hartlepool, showing Binns extension. (Photo: 2005)

So, what about the other front runner, Grey, Peverell & Co.? Their red brick store was erected in several phases. The earliest dates from 1901-03 and was designed by local architect James Garry. The columns that support steel girders inside the building appear to be of cast iron, effectively ruling it out. Minor additions were made in 1907 and 1919, but the bulk of the present-day structure was erected by Binns in 1926, with a fully evolved steel frame. It is unlikely that Scott was talking about Grey, Peverell & Co.

There are no other potential candidates in West Hartlepool, so we must turn to Stockton-on-Tees. Jackson was right in identifying Mathias Robinson’s Coliseum store at 149-150 High Street as the strongest contender, although the date is problematic: it was begun in 1900 and opened in May 1901. An account of the opening specified: ‘the construction of the building is of the steel skeleton type, of girders and stanchions encased in plaster’. Attention was drawn to its impressively wide spans. It was designed by Barnes & Coates (Harry Barnes and Frederick Ernest Coates) of Sunderland. All seems well, except for the date.

Debenhams in Stockton-on-Tees was built as The Coliseum – Mathias Robinson’s drapery and furniture store – in 1900-01. It closed in 2020. (Photo: 2021)

A possible solution emerges once we learn that the Coliseum replaced an earlier store, built for Robinson’s in 1896, which was destroyed by fire on 16 December 1899. Might this lost building be the one referred to by Scott?

Sadly, not. The opening of the original Coliseum in Stockton was well covered by the press in May 1896. An existing house had been bought, gutted, rebuilt and extended over the garden. To contemporaries, the most intriguing features of the new store were its electric lighting and a flat roof which was strewn with cobbles, gravel and sand on a layer of vulcanite. The building clearly had a steel structure – but not by Redpath, Brown & Co. The girders were supplied by Dorman, Long & Co. and the steel columns by Messrs Golightly, while the architect was not Harry Barnes but a local man, Edward A. Whipham. One account of the fire of 1899 described ‘steel supports and girders twisted into all kinds of crooked shapes’. This was accompanied by an illustration showing distorted steelwork behind a conventional façade: to the front of the building the girders had probably been embedded in pre-existing load-bearing exterior walls.

To conclude, if Scott had nothing to do with the original Coliseum, he was probably involved – as a very young man – in its replacement of 1900-01. He correctly remembered the name of the architect, Harry Barnes, who worked for Robinson on several occasions. The date 1896 may have stuck in his mind, as it marked the establishment of the Coliseum in Stockton-on-Tees. Scott’s confusion between West Hartlepool and Stockton possibly arose because those involved with designing the new store in Stockton dealt directly with Robinson’s office in West Hartlepool. Scott, working in Edinburgh, may never have visited the site. Perhaps if future building work exposes the steel frame – something inevitable following Debenham’s demise – the name ‘Redpath Brown’ will be found stamped on the girders and stanchions, confirming the connection for once and for all.

Debenham’s ‘arcade’ frontage in Stockton-on-Tees – a rare survival, especially on this scale, of a once popular shopfront type. (Photo: 2021)

Whether or not Scott had a hand in its design, the Coliseum is evidently an important early example of a steel-framed retail establishment and it is ironic that, unlike Grey, Peverell & Co. in West Hartlepool, it is not currently a listed building. Its story is paralleled by that of Laurie & McConnal in Cambridge, who rebuilt their Universal Stores (now, coincidentally, Wilko) after a fire in February 1903. When the new premises opened in November 1903 newspapers declared: ‘These are the first entirely steel-framed buildings in this country’. So it was not just W. Basil Scott who was blithely unaware of contemporary projects by fellow engineers.

Suggested Reading

Alastair A. Jackson, ‘The Development of Steel Framed Buildings in Britain, 1880-1905, Construction History 14, 1998, 21.

Lewis E. Kent and G. W Kirkland, ‘Construction of Steel-Framed Buildings’, The Structural Engineer, July 1958, 102-110

Michael Stratton, ‘New materials for a New Age: Steel and Concrete Construction in the North of England, 1860-1939’, Industrial Archaeology Review, XXI, 1, June 1999, 5-24.

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