Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

During his career, English architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, worked on several buildings, including the New Bodleian Library, Battersea Power Station and Liverpool Cathedral. He blended Gothic and modern styles in his architectural designs, resulting in many well-known landmarks. Yet, it is not only these buildings for which we remember him. Scott’s most famous creation was the iconic red telephone box, which still appears on streets in the United Kingdom, Malta, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

Born in Hampstead, London, on 9th November 1880, Giles was one of six children born to George Gilbert Scott Jr. (1839-1897) and Ellen King Sampson. Both his father and grandfather were architects, and the latter, Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-78), produced designs for the Albert Memorial in Kensington and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station. Yet, neither man inspired the young Giles’ interest in architecture; that was his mother.

In 1883, Giles’ father experienced a mental breakdown, which resulted in a lengthy stay at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. The children rarely saw their father and grew close to their mother, who lived in a flat in Battersea. At the weekends and school holidays, they often visited Hollis Street Farm, near Ninfield, Sussex, bequeathed to them by their uncle. On such occasions, Ellen took her sons on trips around the county to study the architecture of impressive buildings. No doubt she wanted her children to learn about their father’s passions rather than his mental illness.

The Scotts were Roman Catholics and Giles attended Beaumont College, run by the Society of Jesus. Yet, the choice of school had little to do with religion, but rather the architecture of the establishment. Due to his father’s reputation and his mother’s encouragement, Giles naturally sought an apprenticeship with an architect after finishing school. In 1899, Giles joined the office of Temple Moore (1856-1920), who once studied with his father. As well as teaching Giles about architecture, Moore taught his pupil about his father’s work, making him feel closer to the man who had been absent for most of his childhood.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning design

In 1901, the diocese of Liverpool announced a competition to design a new cathedral. Two well-known architects were assigned to judge the submissions: George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), who had connections with the decorative arts manufacturer Morris & Co., and Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), the designer of the Piccadilly Hotel in London. At least 103 architects entered the competition, including Temple Moore who also allowed his pupil to submit an entry. Remarkably, Bodley and Shaw selected Scott as the winning architect.

Unsurprisingly, many contested the result, arguing that a 22-year-old with no experience was not a good enough architect for the job. Nonetheless, the diocese accepted Bodley and Shaw’s choice, although asked Bodley to oversee the work. Unfortunately, Bodley had commitments in the United States and was rarely on hand to support the young architect. As a result, the process was slow and frustrating, causing Scott to contemplate handing in his resignation. Before Scott could put this thought into action, Bodley unexpectedly passed away in 1907, leaving Scott in charge of the project.

Scott’s 1910 redesign

Without Bodley to hold him back, Scott made rapid progress with the cathedral, but he no longer liked his original idea. After receiving permission from the diocese, Scott redesigned the building, making it simpler and symmetrical, allowing for more interior space. By the end of 1910, the first part of the building – the Lady Chapel – was constructed and consecrated, but the First World War slowed down the rest of the work.

The main body of the cathedral was erected in 1924 and consecrated in the presence of King George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1953). The Second World War caused problems with the construction and, although Scott worked on the project for the rest of his life, he never saw the finished cathedral. The building works finally came to an end in 1978.

Although Scott spent his entire career working on Liverpool Cathedral, he simultaneously produced designs for other buildings. His first completed construction was the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Bournemouth, followed by other churches in Norfolk, Kent, and the Isle of Man. He also worked on a house in Surrey with his brother, Adrian (1882-1963). During the First World War, while work on Liverpool Cathedral slowed, Scott became a Major in the Royal Marines and oversaw the construction of sea defences on the English coast.

While working in Liverpool, Scott met and married Louise Wallbank Hughes. His mother expressed disapproval about their relationship because Louise was a protestant, but the marriage was a happy one. The couple had three sons, although one died in infancy. One son, Richard Gilbert Scott (1923-2017), worked on several buildings at the London Guildhall amongst other constructions.

During the 1920s, Scott’s reputation as an architect soared, earning him many commissions. Cambridge University, for example, hired him to design a memorial court outside Clare College. Several churches also sought Scott’s expertise, including the Benedictine monastery Downside Abbey, for whom he produced a new nave. In Bath, Scott received the commission to design the Church of Our Lady & St Alphege, which he described as his “first essay into the Romanesque style of architecture.” He later declared the church one of his favourite works.

Chester House

Scott did not produce many domestic buildings during his career, but he is celebrated for the Cropthorne Court mansion block in Maida Vale. Scott also designed a house for his family in Clarendon Place, Paddington, called Chester House, where he lived for the rest of his life. The construction earned him the medal for London street architecture of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1928 and is now on the Grade II list for the National Heritage List for England.

K2 red telephone boxes preserved as a tourist attraction near Covent Garden

Scott’s most iconic design of the 1920s was his entry to a competition held by the Royal Fine Art Commission. They asked architects to submit ideas for the General Post Office’s new public telephone box. The first standard public telephone kiosk (K1) installed in 1921 did not meet everyone’s approval, particularly in London. The competition of 1924 aimed to find a design that suited the London Metropolitan Boroughs.

The dome of Sir John Soane’s mausoleum

Shortly before the competition opened, Scott became a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. The museum, formerly the home of the neo-classical architect, John Soane (1753-1837), contains drawings and architectural models of Soane’s projects, plus the paintings and antiquities he collected throughout his career. With this new position fresh in his mind, Scott based his entry on the dome of Soane’s mausoleum, which Soane designed before his death. 

The Post Office selected Scott’s entry as the winning design, although they wished to make a few changes. Whilst they kept the shape, they decided to paint it red like their postboxes, rather than silver with a greeny-blue interior as Scott suggested. They also rejected Scott’s proposal to build the kiosk from steel, in preference to cast iron. By 1926, the new telephone box (K2) appeared on the streets of London. Over time, alterations were made, but the general shape of Scott’s design remains the same. K4, for example, combined the telephone box with a stamp-machine, but various technical issues rendered them useless. K6, a shorter, streamlined version, appeared in 1936 to mark the Silver Jubilee of George V (1865-1936), and it is this version that proved most popular. Examples of the original K2 boxes are displayed near Covent Garden.

Battersea Power Station

At the beginning of the 1930s, the London Power Company hired Scott as a consulting architect for their new power station at Battersea. Electrical engineer Leonard Pearce (1873-1947) had already drawn up designs for the building, but they desired Scott’s input on the external appearance. The public was not happy about a coal-fired power station appearing on their doorstep, so Scott’s task was to make it look as attractive as possible. Scott opted for a brick-cathedral style, remodelling the four chimneys to look like classical columns. The interior designer tried to match Scott’s design by adding Art Deco components to the control rooms. When Battersea Power Station opened in 1933, critics labelled it “one of the finest sights in London”.

In 1933, the Royal Institute of British Architects elected Scott as their president. He encouraged architects to think about their choice of technique and materials to create practical but beautiful buildings, as he was then doing in Cambridge. The University asked Scott to build a library next to the memorial court he developed the previous decade. The library was to replace the old, impractical building that did not have room for Cambridge University’s growing collection of books. Scott designed a large reading room featuring a 12 storey tower, which is visible for several miles around the city.

Weston Library, Oxford

After completing the Cambridge University Library, Scott travelled to Oxford to work on their main research library. The Weston Library, or New Bodleian Library as it is also known, needed to be large enough to accommodate several millions of books. So as not to produce a construction that towered high above the surrounding buildings, Scott dug deep into the ground so that only part of the library is visible at street level. Conscious that the rest of the street featured a mix of architectural styles from Gothic (16th century) to Victorian (19th century), Scott opted for something in between: Jacobean (17th century). Unfortunately, it is not considered one of his greatest works.

Scott often searched for the “middle line” when producing designs. He combined modern architecture with the age of the surrounding buildings. Whilst this technique generally worked well, the Bishop of Coventry, who wished him to draw up plans for a modern cathedral, rejected his proposals. The Royal Fine Arts Commission, on the other hand, thought the new cathedral should resemble the old and not contain any contemporary elements. Despite working on the project for five years, Scott resigned in 1947 because he felt unable to satisfy both parties.

The Second World War temporarily halted many projects, but in the aftermath, many bombed-out buildings needed reconstructing. The House of Commons hired Scott to rebuild the Commons Chamber at the Palace of Westminster. On this occasion, Scott decided not to search for a middle line, but rather design something that complemented the rest of the palace. After a fire in 1834, British architect Charles Barry (1795-1860), remodelled the building in a Gothic style, which designer Augustus Pugin (1812-52) augmented with the interior design. Scott argued that any other architectural style would clash with the surviving parts, and after much discussion, Parliament approved his proposal.

Tate Modern

Gradually, post-war repair work died down, and Scott became available to accept other commissions. Although he opposed the mass construction of industrial buildings, Scott agreed to redevelop Bankside Power Station on the River Thames. In some ways, Scott’s design resembled a modern church, with the 99-metre tall chimney standing in the centre. Nonetheless, it was a stark contrast with the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral on the opposite bank. 

Bankside Power Station closed down in the 1980s, and the Tate Modern art gallery took over the building in 2000. Despite disliking industrial buildings, Scott agreed to design North Tees Power Station in Durham and Rye House Power Station in Hertfordshire. Neither building still stands today.

Scott worked as an architect for the rest of his life, mostly on religious buildings. He designed many Roman Catholic Churches, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Kensington and St Anthony’s Church in Preston. He worked on two Anglican churches: St Leonard’s Church in Sussex and St Mark’s Church in the London Borough of Bromley. Scott also drew up the plans for the Trinity College Chapel in Toronto, Canada.

During his late seventies, Scott developed lung cancer, but he was determined to finish all his design projects, even if he would not live to see them built. When he was admitted to the University College Hospital in London, Scott took his plans for the Church of Christ the King in Plymouth with him and worked on them from his hospital bed. By the time he passed away on 8th February 1960 at the age of 79, his final design was complete.

Scott’s grave at Liverpool Cathedral

Giles Gilbert Scott’s funeral took place at St James’s Roman Catholic Church, London, on 17th February 1960 before his body travelled north for burial outside Liverpool Cathedral. Although the cathedral was Scott’s first project, the construction did not finish until 1978, 18 years after his death. In the plans, Scott stipulated that burials were not to take place inside the church because he did not want the cathedral to become a mausoleum. Nonetheless, the Diocese of Liverpool honoured the architect with a memorial stone set into the floor of the cathedral.

For an architect, Scott’s gravestone is rather modest, but who needs a monument when buried next to a cathedral of his own design? Since not many people know his name, Giles Gilbert Scott was probably not a great celebrity during his lifetime, but he did win a few awards. Early in his career, Scott received a knighthood from George V. In 1944, George VI appointed Scott a Member of the Order of Merit (OM).

During his career, Scott designed many buildings, including some that are now familiar landmarks. Arguably, his most famous design is the K2 Telephone Box. Although it is rare to see one in use, the design is synonymous with London and a great tourist attraction. But how many people look at a telephone box and think about the man who made them? The same goes for buildings. We are aware buildings do not just appear, but without the vision of an architect, they would not be built. We must remember and celebrate the lives of people such as Giles Gilbert Scott, for, without them, many famous landmarks would not exist.


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3 thoughts on “Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

  1. Fascinating insight into his career, and how reputation plus continually drawing up ideas for others to accept or decline was the way to secure work. Brilliant writing Hazel and I applaud your range of characters you bring to life through your articles. Thank you, I always feel blessed having read your work. Thank you for sharing your talent.

  2. A very informative blog about someone I had never heard of. Who would have known that so many well known places were designed by him!

  3. I really enjoyed reading about this architect – somewhere at the back of my mind I think I knew about the telephone boxes but nothing about all his other work. Well done once again for bringing him to life.

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