Story: Thatcher, Frederick

Page 1 - Thatcher, Frederick

Thatcher, Frederick

1814–1890

Architect, public servant, clergyman

This biography was written by Margaret Alington and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

The youngest of the four children of Robert Thatcher and his wife, Mary Ann Stanford, Frederick Thatcher was born on 5 September 1814 at Hastings, Sussex, England. His mother owned land, and his father was a riding officer.

By the late 1830s he was practising as an architect and surveyor in London, and was one of the first 15 associates of the Institute of British Architects. His first marriage was to Elizabeth Watt on 30 June 1840 in London. She died within a few years, and he came out to New Zealand with her brother, Isaac Newton Watt, on the Himalaya, arriving in New Plymouth on 23 December 1843.

Thatcher took up New Zealand Company land, and was licensed as an auctioneer for the sale of land. On 6 November 1849 he married Caroline Wright, sister-in-law of Taranaki's first vicar, William Bolland. Their only child, Ernest Grey, was named after Sir George and Lady Grey, who were his godparents. After leaving Taranaki for Auckland Thatcher was superintendent of public works (1845–46), lieutenant in the Auckland Militia (1845), assistant private secretary to Governor Grey (1846–48), and a student at St John's College (1848–53), as well as its architect and for a time its bursar and auditor.

Thatcher was ordained deacon on 24 December 1848. Over the next 4½ years he learned Maori and was responsible for educational work in the parish of St Paul's, Auckland, under the Reverend J. F. Churton. He was a member of the commission of churchmen which, in November 1852, suspended the missionary William Colenso. He was ordained priest at St Paul's on 22 May 1853, with the Reverend B. Y. Ashwell; at the same ceremony the Reverend Rota Waitoa became the first Maori deacon. Between 1853 and 1856 Thatcher was the first vicar of the parish of St Matthew's, where he designed his own vicarage and schoolroom cum church, and set up a school for poor children. He inspired the parishioners to establish a fund for a stone church for St Matthew's.

Thatcher applied for leave of absence because of a 'relaxed throat', and with his wife and son sailed for England on 18 December 1856. After a lengthy rest he worked in country parishes. He continued to collect money for the St Matthew's stone church fund and to keep in touch with a London architect, William Butterfield, over a design. The sale of his library in Auckland in 1859 suggests that he intended to remain in England among relations. Bishop G. A. Selwyn, however, had other plans for him; on 14 August 1861 Frederick and Caroline arrived in Wellington, where Thatcher was appointed to St Paul's Church, Thorndon, rejoining their friends from Auckland days, Bishop Charles Abraham and Caroline Abraham.

Thatcher was now 47 years old. To his parish duties were added those of the standing committee of the diocese, where his business and architectural experience was constantly in demand. He drew the plans for St Paul's Church and as vicar collected £2,000 towards its cost. But continued poor health led him to resign from parish work and become Governor Grey's private secretary, leaving Wellington for Auckland on 25 October 1864. Caroline Thatcher went back to England to be near their son, Ernest, who was at school there. After Grey's term ended Frederick joined her in 1868, sailing in February on the Kaikoura.

In England Thatcher was secretary to Bishop Selwyn, by then translated to Lichfield, and to Selwyn's successor there. After Selwyn's death he worked with Bishop Abraham, who had also retired to Lichfield, to establish Selwyn College at Cambridge. In 1883 he was made a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral. He spent his last years living with his son. After his death at Bakewell in Derbyshire on 19 October 1890 he was buried in the grounds of Lichfield Cathedral, beside his wife, Caroline, and close to Selwyn's grave. There is an alabaster tablet to his memory inside the cathedral.

Thatcher is remembered primarily as an architect. Concurrently with his several careers he was constantly engaged in architectural work for Bishop Selwyn and for Grey. As a young man he had been influenced by the new architectural movement embodied in the Cambridge Camden Society, later the Ecclesiological Society. Its principal tenet was that English medieval Gothic was the only permissible style for a church. Both Selwyn and Abraham were patrons of the society, and all the Selwyn–Thatcher churches conformed with ingenuity to the society's ideas. Like Selwyn, Thatcher longed to build in stone and considered wood a temporary expedient. His most masterly example of an ecclesiological church adapted to the requirements of colonial Gothic is Old St Paul's, Wellington, where the handsome interior reflects the integrity of its architect and his serene, confident approach to life. His influence is also apparent in a number of country churches. These included churches of the Auckland district built in the so-called Selwyn style (more appropriately described as the St John's style), and modest churches like those at Karori (1866), Makara (1867) and the mortuary chapel in Wellington's Bolton Street cemetery (1866). Thatcher's other buildings include the workhouse at Battle, Sussex (1840), St Mary's Church (1846) and The Gables (1848) at New Plymouth, and the Kinder House (1857) and Selwyn Court (1862–65) at Parnell, Auckland.

His buildings, while not spectacular, were well proportioned, human in scale and carefully controlled. They faithfully reflected ecclesiological principles, yet they were never monotonous. In spite of misgivings about the suitability of wood, he achieved with his 'colonial Gothic' a quality that demonstrated his recognition of the importance of architecture in a developing country.

Bearded, with a genial, friendly manner, he was everywhere respected. 'A rare man', Sarah Selwyn called him, 'attracting all by the sweetness of his nature', and combining 'strong good sense with no lack of backbone…and a great capacity for business.'