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Dowbiggin(g), Thomas (1788–1854)

Dowbiggin(g) or Dowbiggen, Thomas

Lancaster and Mount Street London; cabinet maker and upholsterer, founder of Dowbiggin & Son, later Holland & Son (b.1788–d.1854)

Thomas Dowbiggin headed a celebrated and prosperous furniture, decorating and building business, and was a pioneer in establishing Mount Street as the most fashionable cabinet-making centre of Victorian London. He was patronized by the Royal Household and some of the most important families of the country; and was succeeded by another successful Victorian firm, Holland & Sons, who collaborated with him during his final years and eventually leased his premises in 1851. The two firms continued to act independently, but Dowbiggin's increasing age and lack of a direct successor in the family encouraged the close association with Holland's firm, which by Dowbiggin's death in 1854 was absorbing and settling the older firm's commitments. Dowbiggin's reputation was such that Holland & Sons are listed in directories under Dowbiggin's name until as late as 1895. ‘Holland, late Dowbiggin’ can be found in later Victorian references. It was even used on the furniture bills connected with the opening of Parliament in 1901 and the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902.

Thomas Dowbiggin was the son of Francis Dowbiggin, cabinet maker of Lancaster (free 1782-83), and grandson of Thomas Dowbiggin senior, cabinet maker, who was Gillow’s foreman. His great uncle was John Dowbiggin senior and his uncle John Dowbiggin junior. He was, therefore, one of the third generation of Dowbiggins who learnt their trade in Lancaster and had strong Gillow connections. Thomas Dowbiggin was apprenticed to Robert Gillow (1764-1838) in Lancaster, and his brothers George (1766-1822) and Richard Gillow  (1772-1849) of Oxford Street to serve from 2 February 1803. He might, like other apprentices, have served part of his time in the Oxford Street shop. He became a Lancaster freeman in 1806-07 when, as the son of a freeman, he was entitled to take up his freedom. His father Francis may have had a workshop and showroom in Sun Street, Lancaster, in the early 19th century and Thomas may have worked in the family business after completing his apprenticeship with Gillows and before setting up his own business at 128 Mount Street, London, about 1816. London directories give Dowbiggin's name and address at 128 Mount St. He is listed at no. 12 in 1821, and nos 22, 23 and 25 from 1823–39, and remained at no. 23 until his retirement, c. 1852–54. In association with Holland & Sons, Dowbiggin leased property in Adam Mews, Hanover Sq., from the Earl of Grosvenor in 1821. This reversionary lease, preserved amongst other related legal documents in the V&A Museum, was for fifty-two years. In 1830 Dowbiggin renewed his lease of the Mount St premises from the Earl. Sun Insurance policies show that the premises in Adam Mews were a workshop and warehouse. Dowbiggin insured stock, utensils and goods there on 10 February 1820 for £2,200; on 14 February 1821 for £2,700; on 27 December 1821 for £3,000; and on 24 January 1822 for £5,000. He insured his house and goods for £1,490 on 5 June 1822.

Clearly prospering financially, Dowbiggin's reputation was also flourishing. In 1831 he was recommended with Gillow by the Select Committee appointed by Parliament to investigate the excessive charges of Morel & Seddon, the firm responsible for the refurnishing of Windsor Castle for George IV. Dowbiggin and Gillow were to give a ‘fair trade price’ for the furniture. Dowbiggin declined the invitation but was paid for his trouble.

His prosperity is witnessed by his purchase in 1833 of Bute House, in the fast-growing fashionable area of Brompton. Bute House had been built in the Italian taste by James, brother of Robert Adam, for his own occupation. Sold in 1782, it was later owned by the 1st Marquis of Bute between 1795–c. 1804, hence its name. Dowbiggin may have lived in the house himself for a time, but by 1841 it was occupied by Viscount Ingestre, and demolished, 1845–46. Dowbiggin laid out Bute Street in its grounds between 1846–48; and between 1843–50 was engaged on other building projects in the Grosvenor Square area.

A much-respected figure, Dowbiggin was appointed an adviser on furniture and upholstery for the Great Exhibition, 1851. Both he and Holland exhibited, separately, and were awarded medals for their novel furniture using unusual new timbers and painted china decoration. Dowbiggin appears to have spent his last years at Abercorn Lodge, St John's Wood, since payments by him for upholstery work there are recorded in Holland's Sales Journal, 1849–54. He died in 1854, and his obituary in the March issue of the Gents Magazine read: ‘January 6. At Abercorn Lodge, St. John's Wood, aged 65, Thomas Dowbiggin, Esq., head of the late eminent firm of Dowbiggin and Son, cabinet makers and upholsterers, Mount-street, Grosvenor Square’.  One of his daughters, Elizabeth Halsell (b. 1819), married Charles Trotter, son of William Trotter, in 1840 at Christ Church, Marylebone, London. 

Holland's Sales Journal, 1849–54, lists some of Dowbiggin's clients, including Lady Cardigan, Lord Winchelsea and Lord Casterleagh, but details of work are not given.

Documented commissions are as follows:

  • BURTON CONSTABLE, Yorkshire. Dowbiggin's name appears among the firms engaged on the refurnishing, after Sir Clifford Constable's succession to the house in the early 1820s. Other well-known London firms engaged in the house were Miles & Edwards and Charles Hindley.
  • APSLEY HOUSE, London. From 1825 Dowbiggin was in charge of refurnishing Apsley House, during its alteration by Benjamin Dean Wyatt, for the Duke of Wellington. A bill from Dowbiggin for work there is preserved in the Wellington archives at Stratfield Saye, the Duke's country seat in Hampshire. Dated 1826, it totals £1,553 1s 11d and lists a considerable amount of cleaning, repairing, decorating and varnishing, as well as the supply of furniture and upholstery. Upholstery accounted for most of the bill, and some expensive materials were used, such as 470 yards of gold silk costing £152 15s. On 30 October 1829 Benjamin Wyatt wrote to the Duke: ‘Mr. Dowbiggin has mentioned to me what Your Grace desired him to say concerning three large looking glasses. I certainly think they would be a great acquisition to the Room with frames in character with the rest of the decorations. Mr. Dowbiggin also mentioned to me that Your Grace had some idea of hanging the walls of the Gallery with yellow damask.’ Dowbiggin continued working for the Duke at Apsley House until the early 1850s, and, with Holland, undertook the Duke's funeral in 1852. The bulk of the arrangements, however, seem to have been handled by Holland's, who by 1853 had taken over completely Dowbiggin's position as cabinet maker to the Duke.
  • WYNYARD PARK, Co. Durham. Dowbiggin & Co. are named in the accounts of 1820 regarding furnishing the new hall for the Marquis of Londonderry.
  • Lord Willoughby (May - June 1829) ‘for Piccadilly’, submitting a bill totalling £55 1s 6d. Items described included Italian walnut chairs, ‘Montague’ chairs with white and gold legs, covered with crimson ‘taffety’ and finished with silk cord; and ‘A Large Handsome Sofa with Richly Carved Elbows and Legs Finished White and Gold Stuffed in the Best Manner in Fine Linen’, costing £23. Lord Willoughby's accounts, specified for GRIMSTHORPE, from 3–6 June 1829 total £335 17s 1d and record payments to Dowbiggin for two chests of drawers, £50; and various wall hangings including ‘Blue India Silk Damask for the Drawing Room Walls’, £63; and ‘Gold Coton India Damask for the Duchess of Suffolks Bedroom’, £57. A set of Spanish mahogany dining tables ‘of Fine Wood on Sliding Frames, Reeded Legs’ cost £64. The accounts for 4 July-17 October 1829 describe further notable purchases made for DRUMMOND CASTLE, including ‘A Handsome Mahogany French Bedstead Richly Carved of Fine Wood’, £26 12s; walnut conversation chairs, richly-carved mahogany elbow chairs, various ottomans, three ‘with Mahogany Pedestal Ends of Fine Wood French Polished Stuff'd in the Best Manner & Covered with your Persian Carpet, the Bolsters with Green Morocco and Fine Green Cloth Border’, £39; ‘2 Handsome Mahogany Wash Tables with Shaped Tops and Legs Richly Carved & French Polished’ with marble slabs, £41; and on 6 October ‘An Antique Bedstead with Carved Footboard & Turned Foot Pillars, Strong Tester Frame and Large Cornice Covered with Crimson Velvet’, £39 10s. The last known bill from Dowbiggin to Lord Willoughby is for June-July 1831 and includes ‘A Large Chinese Commode Mounted with Brass, 3 Drawers Enclosed by Doors with Marble Slab on the Top’, costing £10; and an ottoman covered with blue silk damask, £20 6s. During the years 1823–31 Lord Willoughby bought furniture from Dowbiggin totalling in the region of £1,300
  • AUDLEY END, Essex
  • BILLINGBEAR, Berkshire, or Lord Braybrooke's London house. In October 1827 Dowbiggin received £8 4s for a screen.
  • STAFFORD HOUSE, London. In 1838 Dowbiggin supplied ‘new furniture’ costing £95.
  • WREST PARK, Bedfordshire. Much furniture provided for Earl de Grey in 1839.
  • ASHBURNHAM PLACE, Sussex, and the Earl of Ashburnham's London house in Upper Grosvenor St. Three sets of accounts, now in the E. Sussex Record Office, show that the firm carried out cleaning, repairing, painting, woodworking, plumbing and bricklaying, as well as supplying furniture and fitting carpets and curtains, between July 1837 and December 1840. The first bill, for work done between July 1837 and July 1838, amounted to £722 12s 6d (receipted 17 September 1838). The second bill, covering January 1839 to December 1814, came to £200 0s 11d (receipted 5 May 1842). These two bills are almost entirely concerned with work in the London house. The third and largest bill, amounting to £1,236 13s 5d (not receipted) was for work at  Ashburnham Place between May and August 1840. There seem to be few pieces of exceptional cost or importance among the furniture in the bills. The most expensive single item is a wainscot bookcase of five compartments made for Ashburnham Place in 1840 for £89. Items such as a ‘couch with scroll ends’ and a ‘Grecian couch’ suggest that the furniture was generally in the late Regency ‘Grecian’ classical style. The earliest bill gives more details of furniture than the other two, and shows that the firm followed the prevailing fashion of using woods which were considered particularly ‘suited to the purpose to which each apartment is intended’, as Henry Whitaker expressed it in his Treasury of Designs, 1847. Two bedrooms described in detail rang the changes on mahogany, oak and birch. The ‘Back Drawing Room’ was furnished in mahogany. In the Library, most of the furniture was in fashionable oak, which Whitaker described as ‘the most quiet wood’ for the room which ‘should have an air of quiet and repose’. In the Dining Room mahogany predominated, while the Drawing Room had practically all rosewood, with mention of some satinwood and zebrawood. The third bill refers to the graining of wood, which had been growing in fashion since the early years of the century when the French wars seriously disrupted timber imports and encouraged methods of imitating woods. In the Library at Ashburnham Place, £23 was charged for ‘92 yds windows, doors, lining etc. 5 oils grained oak and twice varnished with copal @ 5s.’ Two guineas were charged for oak-graining six dozen sash frames; and £8 for ‘32 yds to painting outside of Bookcase 4 times in oil, grained Oak and twice varnished’, in the Small Dining Room. One specialist grainer was apparently employed. The grained oak of the Ashburnham accounts was most probably imitation pollard oak which became very fashionable according to the most important trade manual of the time, Nathaniel Whittock's The Decorative Painter and Glazier's Guide, first published in 1827, and reissued in 1828, 1832 and 1841. A red damask bed, window curtains, pelmet cornice, valances and a sofa supplied by Dowbiggin to Ashburnham are now at Basildon House, Berks.
  • WINDSOR CASTLE & BUCKINGHAM PALACE. Dowbiggin's name appears among the seven firms which submitted tenders for supplying furniture in the Louis XV style for the Ball Room at Windsor for George IV. Dowbiggin received commissions from the Queen at the beginning of her reign and had the distinction of making the State Throne in 1837 at a cost of £1,187. The firm supplied furniture to Windsor Castle and upholstery for Buckingham Palace between 1837–50; and from about 1845 the names of the firms of Dowbiggin and Holland are first found linked together in connection with the furnishing of Osborne House, Isle of Wight, for the Queen. At the same period Dowbiggin was working alone at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, showing that the two firms were still independent at this time. In 1846 charges for work commissioned for St George's Hall, Windsor, including a set of mahogany dining tables £378 14s 0d, plus carriage and cost of 2 cabinet makers fixing tables together at Windsor. For the later a daily wage of 7/2 was charged. The last reference to Dowbiggin in the Lord Chamberlain's accounts of work done for the Royal family is in 1853.

The firm of Dowbiggin advertised on the west coast of Scotland in the Greenock 'Telegraph' in 1807. However, it secured major country house commissions in the east of Scotland, significantly:

  • DALMENY (in 1819 for the Earl of Roseberry)
  • HOPETOUN (both West Lothian) 
  • KINFAUNS CASTLE, Perthshire (for Francis 14th Lord Gray in 1826) and Brechin (Forfarsh)
  • DRUMMOND CASTLE, Tayside, Scotland. Lord Gwydir, Lord Willoughby de Eresby, appears to have been one of Dowbiggin's most notable patrons, buying much clearly sumptuous furniture from him between 1823–31, some of which was for Drummond Castle, and some for Grimsthorpe, Lincolnshire. Bills do not always specify, however, where work was done. In July 1823 the firm fitted a mahogany staircase for £59 12s, and supplied ‘A Mahogany French Bedstead with Stuffed Ends, Reeded Legs & Castors, French Polished’, costing £5 18s. In March 1825 they received £43 1s 2d for fitting silvered-glass plates into Drawing Room doors. A bill of February—October 1825 specified that items were to be sent to Drummond Castle, and included ‘A Mahogany Escarte Table of fine Woods, French Polished, Lined with Crimson Cloth’, and looking-glasses in carved frames ‘gilt in matt and burnished gold’. A long bill of 1826 totalling £341 14s 7d is for repairs, alterations and making window drapes, and lists green silk, leather and velvet; also ‘Yellow Gros de Naples’ drapes with Parisian fringe ‘for piers in the ante room’. Other items on the bill include ‘A Handsome Carved Frame Gilt in Matt and Burnished Gold for Plate’, with a richly carved and gilt pediment, costing £67 19s; and ‘A Montague Chair with Carved Legs, Japan'd White & Burnished Gold’, covered in green silk and costing £11 0s 7d.

Sources: DEFM; Joy, ‘The Royal Victorian Furniture-Makers, 1837-87’, The Burlington Magazine (November 1969); Jones,’ William Trotter's Furniture for the 'Chinease' Rooms at Kinfauns Castle, Perthshire’ (1997); Jones and Urquart, ‘Gillow in Scotland, 1770-1830’, Regional Furniture (1998);Stuart, Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730-1840 (2008), II, p. 232.

The original entry from Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 can be found at British History Online.