Sampson Society

Sunglow (formerly Wychwood Cottage), Seafield Road, Sidmouth

Sunglow was the first of a number of houses built in Sidmouth by the architect Robert William Sampson (1866-1950) for his own occupation. The house was built in 1899 and was initially named Wychwood Cottage. The name originates from the village of Milton under Wychwood, the village where Sampson’s wife, Helen, was brought up.

Robert Sampson was born in Shoreditch, London in 1866, the son of George and Eliza Sampson. His father is described in various census records as a hatter manufacturer, although in later life he became a timber merchant, having inherited the business from his own father, John Sampson.

Robert Sampson attended the Royal Academy and Architectural Association Schools. He was articled to Thomas Goodchild (1883-1885) and Charles Bell (1885-1890), remaining with Bell as assistant (1890- 1891). He was appointed assistant architect to Robert Cunninghame Murray in 1891. Murray, although based in London, had been contracted as architect to the Sidmouth Manor Estate that same year, and so it was that in 1891 Sampson came to Sidmouth as the firm’s representative.

Sampson married his first wife, Helen Martha (nee Groves) on 28 December 1891 at the church of St Mary Magdelan, Oxford. Helen was born in the Oxfordshire village of Milton under Wychwood where her parents ran a local building and timber business. The firm still operates as a family business today, specialising in high quality timber buildings and conservation work.

When they arrived in Sidmouth the newly married couple set up house together at 3 The Myrtles on the High Street. The ground floor of their house together with the other houses in the terrace have long since been converted to shops. Sampson worked from the Manor Estate Office which was located in what is presently the Arts Centre and bar area of the Manor Pavilion. The building also acted as a base for William Hastings, a solicitor and agent for the Manor Estates.

Much of Sampson’s work in those early years was taken up by the demands placed on him by the Manor Estate. However, in 1895 following expiry of the original contract, Sampson decided to establish his own architectural practice. He was encouraged to stay in the town by William Hastings with whom he developed a life long friendship. They both continued to work from the Manor Estate Offices until moving across the road to Fortfield Chambers, designed by Sampson in 1928.

Sampson stayed in the town for the rest of his life. His architectural output was prolific for a period of more than 40 years from his first arrival in Sidmouth. He is thus responsible for so many of the buildings we see in the town today.

The land on which Sunglow now stands was originally part of an 11 acre field known as ‘Back Fortfield’. The pasture extended from the rear of Fortfield Terrace, and was bounded by Seafield Road to the east and the Bickwell Brook to the west. Manor Road was constructed through the field and the Manor Estate office and Manor Hall built in 1891 at the junction of Station Road.

Sampson had designed a house at the corner of Seafield Road and Manor Road for his friend William Hastings in 1893. The house, now known as Crossways, has the appearance of a late Victorian villa, and is typical of Sampson’s early work in the town.

By comparison, Sunglow and its nearby neighbours broke new ground. It was here in 1899 that Sampson first showed his Arts and Crafts tendencies, a style of architecture that he developed over the years that followed. Sampson’s interpretation of the Arts and Crafts style often included unique features which can be seen on his buildings, whether mansions or Council houses, throughout the town.

If Sampson had built a typical late Victorian villa here at Seafield Road it would have faced road and be designed to impress. The house would probably have had the principal rooms with bay windows facing the road. The lesser rooms would be accessed by narrow corridors through to the back of the house, with the kitchen, scullery, outhouses and yard area to the rear, away from public view.

Sampson realised that this traditional layout would deprive the principal rooms of sunlight, since they would face north east. Furthermore, this approach would have failed to take advantage of views over the extensive garden area.

In a break with tradition therefore, Sampson decided to site the house at the northernmost corner of the plot, adjacent to the road frontage. The south facing living room was positioned away from the road, giving extensive views over the side and rear garden area. Conversely, Sampson placed the working area of the house at the north eastern end, adjacent to the road frontage. This must have raised a few eyebrows at the time, since it was the scullery, yard area and outhouses which were on public view from the road. It’s interesting to note that it was not until the 1960’s that the placing of a kitchen at the front of a house became more commonplace; some would even now regard this arrangement as odd.

In a further break from tradition, Sampson placed the front door of the house on the side elevation. This was unavoidable given that it was the ‘back’ of the house that faced the road (the arrangement is not uncommon in houses designed by Sampson).

The location of the front door did have one advantage, in that it provided access to a square shaped hall located in the centre of the house. This enabled all the main rooms to be easily accessed without the need for those narrow corridors. The staircase incorporates a series of half landings and, significantly, large windows enabling light to stream into the centre of the house. This is an arrangement that Sampson returned to frequently in the design of later houses, with the large staircase windows often a dominant feature.

The internal layout is very much Arts and Crafts inspired. It has been said that Arts and Crafts architects designed their houses from the inside outwards. This is the exact opposite approach to the Victorians, and particularly the Georgians. They designed from the outside inwards, since they were essentially concerned with external appearance, particularly that of the frontage. Sampson’s approach was to design a house to live in; to design light and airy houses with well proportioned rooms. Principal rooms would always face south to gain maximum sunlight and maximise views out.

The south facing living room at Sunglow thus overlooks the garden. It runs across the width of the house, almost akin to a through living room of the typical modern house. In fact, the room layout generally resembles more closely a house from the 1990’s rather than one designed 100 years earlier. The original dining room in the centre of the house also has a southerly outlook across the garden area.

By contrast, the kitchen area (the servant’s working area when the house was built) is on the north eastern side of the house. Although now converted to a single space housing a kitchen/diner, there would originally have been a multitude of rooms here - kitchen, scullery, larder and so on. This whole area is set at a lower level than the rest of the house and accessed down a few steps from the hallway. The split level arrangement continues through the house, and thus the main staircase has a series of half landings. A utility area is located off the kitchen, housed in a later single storey extension.

The house was built with three bedrooms on the first floor. The largest of these rooms at the southern end of the house has since been subdivided to create an en-suite for the middle bedroom. The staircase continues to the attic level where there is a further bedroom (now used as a study) and another room, probably designed for storage. The attic bedroom was probably occupied by servants. The windows to this bedroom and the original kitchen on the ground floor both face the road, thus giving the servants early warning of any approaching visitors.

Externally the house is built of a soft orange brick, almost certainly from the Manor Estate’s own brickworks. Sampson also employed other materials, such as tile hanging on the gable ends at the attic level. More

notable are the decorative render panels which run along each side of the house at first floor level. Arts and Crafts architects considered that the quality of materials and craftsmanship were of particular importance and often took their inspiration from medieval buildings. Here at Sunglow the render panels display the same sort of patterns often found in medieval buildings.

The house includes a mixture of sash and casement windows, thus giving Sampson complete flexibility over the size and proportion of window openings. All appear to be inset by a half brick, thus giving the elevations more depth in appearance. Later bays have been added to the ground floor rooms, and most of the windows have been replaced by modern UPVC units. The chunky front door, relieved with its glazed panel in an ‘art nouveau’ style, is original, as indeed are most of the internal doors.

As with many Sampson buildings, the roof forms a dominant feature. The use of his favoured plain clay tiles with a steep roof pitch enabled Sampson to loose the attics entirely within the roof space. In typical fashion, there are deep overhangs at eaves level, supported by exposed rafters. This enabled the eaves level to be brought down, thus reducing the apparent scale of the building. The deep overhangs also appear at the gable ends where not only the section of tile hanging, but also the gable itself is supported by shaped brackets. These timber brackets were used on many of Sampson’s buildings, and might be regarded as one of his unique trademarks.

Perhaps the most interesting external feature of the building is the render panel set within the rear elevation. The decorative panel features the inscription “RWS & H 1899”. Whilst date inscriptions are not uncommon, and occasionally they might include the initials of the person for whom the house was built, it seems particularly unusual to include the initials of partners - “H” of course standing for Helen, Robert Sampson’s first wife.

With only minor alterations the house remains today broadly as Sampson designed it. A garage, built sometime after the house itself, is set at the lower level on the Seafield Road frontage. More recently, a modern garage has been built within the garden area adjacent to the rear lane. The lane serves a number of houses in the area and gives vehicular access to Manor Road.

Robert and Helen first occupied the house in December 1899. Their first daughter, Winifred Mary, was born shortly after they moved in, and their second daughter, Helen Joyce, was born here in 1902. During this period Sampson was heavily involved with significant projects - the design of the Victoria Hotel and the opening up of Bickwell Valley. With a growing family he decided to move on and designed a second house for his own occupation on a plot of land overlooking the Bickwell Valley. Thus it was that in May 1904 the family left the house in Seafield Road for Bickwell House on Convent Road (now known as Valley Mead). It was here that their third daughter, Violet Daphne, was born.

Martin Mallinson - October 2016