Axtell One Name Study
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Family of Thomas AXTELL
|Partner:||Thomas AXTELL ( - )|
|Children:||AXTELL ( - )|
Husband: Thomas AXTELL
Child 1: AXTELL
Note on Husband: Thomas AXTELL (1)
Partner to Joshua Symm as part of the building company Symm Group . [Jon Axtell]
Note on Husband: Thomas AXTELL (2) - shared note
Symm Group (Joshua Symm, Thomas Axtell and great grandson Malcolm Axtell)
The story of Symm, part three
As we have seen in previous instalments, by the middle of the
nineteenth century the business was prospering under the
leadership of Joshua Symm. Having developed an enduring
relationship with Exeter College, this led to other commissions such
as Meadow Buildings, for Christ Church College. Designed by
architect T. N. Deane, one half of the architectural partnership
which created the Oxford Museum, the building is in the Venetian
Gothic style beloved of John Ruskin, the most influential
architectural critic of the day. Like the Museum itself, it came in for
a mixed critical appraisal (Ruskin himself was rarely satisfied with
the realisation of his ideas by his devotees.) but now stands as
another interesting document in the history of architectural taste.
The building was commissioned by the
head of the College, Dean Liddell. A friend
of the Revd. Charles Dodgson (Lewis
Carroll), he was the father of Alice Liddell,
the inspiration of Alice in Wonderland.
Liddell was an energetic client, and he also
commissioned Sir Gilbert Scott
to restore Christ Church Cathedral
in the 1870s. The cost,
£24,000, made it a major
project, which involved new
windows, a large, new main
entrance, and the rebuilding of
both the seventeenth century
south porch and the east end of
the building. A new black and
white marble floor was laid, and
the stonework was stripped of
whitewash and restored. Symm,
who had already worked with
Scott on Exeter College, provided
the joiners who made the stalls
and seating for the nave and choir
(pictured) in intricately carved
In yet another literary
reference, it is reported by Law
(see below) that this project was
mirrored in the Thomas Hardy
novel Jude the Obscure, which
describes the restoration of the
fictional Cardinal College,
Christminster. The hero of the
novel takes up employment in a
stoneyard believed to be modelled
on Symm's, and muses that as
the masons worked to recreate
"the broken lines of the original
idea...here in the stoneyard was a centre of
effort as worthy as that dignified by the name of
scholarly study within the noblest of colleges."
Symm also won the competitive tender for the
construction of the Clarendon Laboratory, a
university-level project to construction one of
the first purpose-built physics laboratories
in Europe. Again a project of the 1870s,
the building is now more remarkable for
its place in the history of academic
development than its contribution to the
science itself. In the 1870s, still wedded to
the fashion of the Gothic Revival,
the finished building looked more
like a religious building than a
modern laboratory, and was
quickly outmoded. However, it
must be remembered that the
universities of the early nineteenth
century were still institutions
primarily regarded as colleges for
Anglican clergymen, and that the
growth of the sciences in these
bastions of tradition was slow.
The surge of activity at
Symm in the 1870's reflects
Joshua Symm's appointment of
three junior partners, including
one Thomas Axtell, a gifted
stonemason, who would lead the
company into the next phase of its
Symm, who are now regularly
called into refurbish the buildings
created in their early years, can be
contacted on 01865 254900.
For further information, see
Building Oxford's Heritage: Symm
and Company from 1815, by
Brian R. Law. Thanks to Design
Fusion for providing the
History of Symm
Symm Group has had a continuous presence in Oxford since the reign of King George III. It employs the real characters behind some of the city’s glorious buildings - indeed the current Chairman, Malcolm Axtell (pictured above), is the great grandson of the talented mason, Thomas Axtell. Thomas was a partner of the Victorian master builder, Joshua Symm; their building and decorating history stretches back 200 years.
The first fully documented project was the building of a classical church, completed in 1815 - it’s still in use today! In the mid 1800s, Symm embarked on a six-year extensive new build programme at Exeter College. Conceived by renowned architect, Sir Gilbert Scott, the buildings included the Rector’s Lodgings, Library and striking gothic chapel, modelled on Ste. Chapelle in Paris.
The Symm archives make interesting reading and to ensure that the information was not lost for ever, Malcolm Axtell embarked on chronicling the fascinating history of the past two centuries in an illustrated book: BUILDING OXFORD’S HERITAGE. Copies available on request.
DANIEL EVANS (1769-1846) and JOSHUA SYMM (1809-1887), Oxford builders, at 34 St Giles’, Oxford
Daniel Evans was born c.1769 probably in Fairford, Gloucestershire. He began as a bricklayer working from London; his first Oxford venture was the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, New Inn Hall Street, in 1817. He was the first building contractor in Oxford and his first college contract came with the building of Magdalen Hall, now Hertford College, completed in 1822. Until his death in 1846 he lived at 34 St Giles’, part of a terrace of three houses he had designed and built in 1829.
Joshua Symm was born in Allendale, Northumberland in 1808. He joined Evans as a stonemason in the 1830s and married his only daughter Elizabeth. After the death of Evans he took over the firm’s business, constructing a good proportion of all new nineteenth century college buildings such as Exeter College Chapel to the design of Gilbert Scott, the Meadow Buildings at Christ Church, the Clarendon Laboratory (T.N.Deane) and city buildings e.g. the main Post Office (E.G.Rivers). The firm’s craftsmen in wood and stone also worked on the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian, the Cathedral, Tom Tower and many other buildings of both town and gown.
Symm & Co. continues today and still plays a major part in maintaining the fabric of Oxford. Malcolm Axtell, the Managing Director, is descended from Thomas Axtell, the foreman mason who became a partner of Joshua Symm in 1874. 34 St Giles’ remained the administrative headquarters until 1969 when they transferred to Osney Mead.
Source: Brian R.Law: Building Oxford’s Heritage, Symm & Co. from 1815
The plaque was unveiled on 19 October 2004 by the architectural historian, Sir Howard Colvin.
Building tradition marked with Blue Plaque
19 October 2004
The work of Daniel Evans, the first general building contractor in Oxford, whose firm constructed many of today’s Oxford landmarks – from the city’s main Post Office to Exeter College Chapel – has been celebrated with the erection of county’s 22nd Blue Plaque. Also commemorated is his son-in-law, and later business partner, Joshua Symm.
The Plaque is on 34, St Giles, which today houses the University’s Humanities and Social Sciences Divisional Offices, but which was designed and built by Evans as his home. Until 1969, it was the base for Symm and Company – as the firm is now known – which still works on many construction and restoration projects across the collegiate University.
The current chairman of the company, Malcolm Axtell, is the great grandson of the mason Thomas Axtell, himself a partner of Joshua Symm more than 150 years ago. He visited the plaque in St Giles, the site where his own career in the family trade began.
Building city treasures
If you look at almost any major restoration project in Oxford, particularly in the University heartland of the city, there is an even chance that the name Symm will be emblazoned across the scaffolding.
What many people may not realise is that the company's origins go back nearly 200 years, and in that time its builders and craftsmen have made a significant contribution to the creation and preservation of Oxford's architectural heritage.
Many of the city's most treasured buildings - notably the Sheldonian Theatre, Bodleian Library, Christ Church Cathedral and Tom Tower - owe their survival to Symm and Co.
The firm's founder, Daniel Evans, was born in 1769, but little is known of his early life. He is believed to have been born in Fairford, Gloucestershire, making his first acquaintance with Oxford as an apprentice upholsterer.
He also seems to have spent time in London, where he apparently worked as a bricklayer, although where and when he learnt his trade is not known.
His conversion to Methodism at the turn of the century resulted in his first major commission - the building of a Wesleyan Chapel in Leicester, to designs by architect and Methodist minister the Rev William Jenkins. Soon afterwards, the Oxford Methodists asked Jenkins to design a similar chapel for their newly-acquired site in New Inn Hall Street, and Evans was the obvious choice to undertake the building.
He completed the new chapel in 1817, at a cost of £2,965 (roughly equivalent to just under £180,000 today), and instantly established a reputation locally for his supreme craftsmanship.
A series of commissions from Magdalen College swiftly followed, starting with the building of the new Magdalen Hall in Catte Street (now Hertford College).
The foundation stone was laid on May 3, 1820, and the building was completed two years later. The twin blocks were designed by William Garbett, surveyor to Winchester Cathedral, and their rather forbidding frontage was denounced by one local as "a barbarous modern building".
Over the next four years, Evans was engaged on extensive building and restoration work on the main Magdalen College site, including renovation of the 15th century chapel, the cloister quadrangle and the dining hall, interior refurbishment and alterations to the library, and the addition of new wings in 1824.
The work on the cloister quadrangle found Evans caught up in a bitter controversy between various senior members of the college, resulting in the unauthorised demolition of the entire north front in August 1822.
Although he was acting on Fellows' instructions, Evans was directly implicated in the College History: "The work . . . hastily pushed on by a builder employed by the College, without full authority, was stopped . . . for some time the College was the battleground of contending architects who poured forth more or less impossible designs for rebuilding, altering or completing this, and other portions of the building."
In the end, it was London architect Joseph Parkinson whose designs were approved for the north and east cloisters, but it was the last contract he was awarded in Oxford. Evans, on the other hand, seems to have emerged from the episode with his reputation intact.
Over the next couple of decades, he continued to work on various projects within the University, including alterations to Merton College Chapel, the building of the Broad Street frontage of Exeter College, and extensive renovations and modifications to Pembroke College buildings.
Other notable projects during this period included the building of Nuneham Courtenay Rectory in 1824, the Radcliffe Asylum in 1833 (now the Warneford Hospital) and Nos 20-22 St John Street, as well as restoration work at St Aldate's Church, Great Tew Church and Great Haseley Church.
In 1829, he completed a row of three terraced houses in St Giles, one of which - No 34 - became his home. He established a builder's yard just beyond his back garden, facing onto Little Clarendon Street, which gave him room to store materials and to stable horses.
The elegant, three-storey, richly-decorated buildings, faced with Bath stone, were deliberately designed to be an eye-catching advertisement for Evans's skills.
In 1840, Evans invited his son-in-law, Joshua Symm, to become his partner, and it was Evans and Symm who completed the substantial modifications to the chapel quad at Pembroke College in 1846. It was Evans's final gift to Oxford. He died in November that year, paving the way for Joshua Symm to take over the running of the company.
For over 20 years, Symm enjoyed a harmonious relationship with the architect Sir Gilbert Scott, and together they undertook a number of significant projects at Exeter College, University College and Christ Church.
One of the pinnacles of their achievement was the new Exeter College Chapel, built between 1856 and 1859, after the old chapel had been condemned as undersized and dangerous.
Scott's design was inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and its most remarkable features are the statues that adorn each of the tall, narrow buttresses, the ornate stone and wood carving, and the distinctive tower that is plainly visible from Broad Street and Ship Street. The interior is quite spectacular, with its soaring, stone-ribbed vault, magnificent stained-glass windows, and the eye-catching tapestry designed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones - both undergraduates at Exeter while building was in progress.
Symm's work at Christ Church - which included the building of new student accommodation, as well as restoration of the cathedral - brought him into contact with Dean Liddell, now chiefly remembered as the father of the Liddell girls, who inspired Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
By the time Symm died in 1887, at the age of 78, he had passed the reins to a gifted young stonemason, Thomas Axtell, and another trusted associate, Benjamin Hart, who continued to carry out work in and around Oxford to the same exacting standards set by Evans and Symm.
A blue plaque was placed at 34 St Giles in 2004, in lasting recognition of the role Evans and Symm played in helping to shape Oxford's architectural heritage.
But perhaps their most lasting memorial is their company, Symm & Co Ltd, which continues to flourish, ensuring the survival of Oxford's most treasured buildings for future generations.
With thanks to Malcolm J Axtell, great-grandson of Thomas Axtell and current chairman of Symm & Co Ltd, and to Yvonne Macken of Design Fusion for the historic photographs Further reading: Building Oxford's Heritage by Brian R Law (Prelude Promotion, 1998) ISBN 0 9532873 0 0
SHARP + HOWSE TEAM
The Sharp + Howse Management Team, based in Oxford, UK has the depth of experience and skill to handle the most demanding and interesting projects in the UK.
BOB SHELLEY ACIBSE, CDir MIoD
CHRIS VANE FCA
AIDAN MORTIMER MSc MCIOB FRSA
MALCOLM AXTELL FCIOB