York Civic Trust plaques

John Carr (1723-1807)

Yorkshire's foremost architect of the Georgian period

Locations of plaques: In Castlegate on Castlegate House and Fairfax House

SOME of the finest Georgian buildings in York were designed by John Carr – a man who, early in his career, liked to describe himself as a 'stonecutter' and mason. They include Bootham Park Hospital, the female prison at the Eye of York (now part of the Castle Museum) and, of course, Fairfax House. Not bad for a stonemason...

Carr was born on April 28, 1723 at Horbury near Wakefield. His parents, Robert Carr and Rose Lascels, were relatively prosperous: the family owned two quarries and several properties around Horbury.

The Carr family were well-established masons. He left school at 14 to join the family firm and demonstrated an early aptitude for design and the mason’s craft. His skills were obviously valued by the merchants and squires of the West Riding as he was responsible for a number of substantial houses in the 1740s including Huthwaite Hall near Thurgoland (1748), Kirby Hall at Little Ouseburn, (1748-52), and Thorp Arch Hall (1750-6).

Carr’s business was prospering to such an extent that he moved to York in the early 1750s. In 1752 he applied to be made a freeman of York, a requirement if he was to practice his profession in the city. There was a large application fee of £25, which was deducted from the fees paid for his first commission in York: the design of the enclosure to Pikeing Well, a medicinal spring on the New Walk promenade along the River Ouse.

The turning point for Carr in his progression from country mason to prosperous provincial architect to an architect of national importance came with a competition entry for a new grandstand at York Racecourse. The previous racecourse in York was subject to flooding, so a new site was established at Knavesmire. York race meetings were one of the high points in the Yorkshire aristocracy’s social calendar, so the commission to design suitable accommodation was one of the most important contracts of the decade. Carr’s design won against stiff competition from leading architects such as James Paine; his unique, bold and straightforward design set a new model for the design of grandstands. Two other commissions for racecourse grandstands followed, at Doncaster and Nottingham.

Increasing wealth enabled John to build a large town house for himself in Skeldergate (1765-6). But wealth and prosperity and a social position in York came with civic responsibilities which Carr found irksome. Freemen of York were required to serve on the City Council. On January 11, 1766, Carr was elected as city chamberlain. The following year he was appointed sheriff. In 1769 he was selected as alderman and justice of the peace. This led to him becoming Lord Mayor of York in 1770. He served a second term as Lord Mayor in 1785.

In old age, John Carr suffered from inflammation of the eyes. Although he kept his town house in Skeldergate, he moved out of the city to Askham Hall in 1801 to be looked after by his niece, Amelia Clark. He died at Askham Hall on February 22, 1807 and was interred in the family vault at St Peter’s Church, Horbury (1791-4), a church he had built at the height of his career.

Principal buildings in York by John Carr

1752: 47 Bootham

1752-6 Pikeing Well, New Walk

1753 Micklegate House, 88-90 Micklegate

1754-7 Knavesmire Grandstand, demolished

1761-5 Fairfax House, Castlegate, alterations

1762-5 Castlegate House, Castlegate

1765-6 Skeldergate House, Skeldergate, demolished

1772-6 Assize Courts, York Castle

1774-7 County Lunatic Asylum (Bootham Park Hospital)

1779-83 Female Prison, York Castle (Castle Museum)