Basic Biographical Details

Name: William Nixon
Designation: Architect
Born: 20 February 1811
Died: 24 March 1848
Bio Notes: William Nixon was born in London on 20 February 1811 the first son of William Nixon, builder and surveyor in Cumberland, and his wife Elizabeth (likely Glazard). He was christened at St Mary’s Church on St Marylebone Road on 15th May 1811 and went to a private school in Brighton. William and Elizabeth had at least three further children, daughters Mary and Eleanor (b.1816) and a son Charles. Charles (1814-1873) became a successful civil engineer and railway developer in Ireland.

William Nixon Sr was Clerk of Works for John Nash and worked with him on several projects including Buckingham Palace, where he was the main Clerk of Works with three clerks serving under him. From 1815 the family moved to Brighton where Nixon Sr supervised the construction of the Royal Pavilion. Nash’s regard for him is evident in a discussion over expenses; ‘… but Nixon more than me is entitled to this praise – he is the most diligent attentive and most honest Clerk of the Works I have ever met’ Nixon Sr died in 1826. His son Charles worked for John Nash from 1832-5 as an agent or manager and it is therefore probable that William also began his career in Nash’s office. In any case he soon after entered the Public Works Office and was transferred to Phoenix Park, Dublin in the latter 1830’s. In or before 1835 he married Fanny Taylor and they had a son William born in England in 1836.

In April 1840 he transferred to Edinburgh to serve in the Office of HM Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works and Buildings ( Office of Works). He was appointed in a downgraded role from the previous incumbent Robert Reid whose role as ‘Sole Master of our works and general Overseer and Inspector and Architect and Surveyor of all our Palaces and public buildings in Scotland’ was abolished in 1839. Nixon is variously described as either architect or clerk of works, but on at least one occasion he is noted as ‘Queen’s Architect’, perhaps his own description.

The role, as the previous title describes, involved the maintenance and repair of Crown owned buildings. Nixon himself was involved in works to the Cathedrals at Elgin, St Giles, Glasgow, St Andrews, Kirkwall and Dunfermline Abbey. With the latter he surveyed the building with a view to reroofing and glazing the building at a cost of £2000. He also dealt with Crown buildings and planned works to Holyrood Palace, its approaches, and the extensive road system around Arthur’s Seat.

In Edinburgh he was involved in alterations to the law complex at Parliament Square including the provision of four new Outer House courtrooms. Today two of these plain and austere courtrooms remain intact. He also designed the new Police Office on the corner of Parliament Square and High Street following the resignation of Robert Paterson (1790-1846). His appointment to this job sparked debate about whether it was appropriate that a Public works architect should be chosen. The architect David Bryce spoke of Mr Nixon with the highest respect, but added that his connection with the Woods and forests Office was ‘the very reverse of a recommendation’. Nixon also designed the interior fittings of Gillespie Graham’s General Assembly Hall in the Tolbooth Church.

In St Andrews he finished the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard began by his predecessor Robert Reid in 1829. Nixon designed the north wing, cloister and screen walling. He also designed the West Infant School (1844) and the Martyrs Monument (1842). The monument is a 10m obelisk dedicated to the martyrs of the Protestant reformation, and featured unusual heavy neo-classical decoration on its base.

In 1846 he was involved with the location of the remains of Queen Mary of Guelders during the proposed demolition of the Trinity Church in Edinburgh, which went ahead in 1848.

In 1847 he became ill and had to resign as the architect for the Police Offices on the High Street in November that year.

After around six months of illness he died on 24th March 1848 at his home at 2 Duncan Street, Newington, Edinburgh, his cause of death being recorded as an abcess. An obituary in the Scotsman of March 29 1848 noted;
‘Mr Nixon received his appointment under her Majesty’s Commissioners of Woods and Forests about eight years ago, and since that time his zeal and assiduity in the public service, and kind and courteous demeanour, acquired for him universal esteem’.

Obituaries tend to express the better nature of their recipients but a less praiseworthy analysis appeared a few years later in an article on recent architecture in Edinburgh (Scotsman Sep 14th 1850) which discussed the ‘parasite’ buildings attached to the Parliament Hall. It is not clear whether the article refers to the Parliament Square range designed by Robert Reid, but as these has been there for some time, it is much more likely to refer to the court rooms added to the south elevation of Parliament Hall in 1840.

‘Most of the later buildings were, we believe, the work of the deceased Mr Nixon. He was a man of great ability and practical skill – but as for taste ! we shall not venture to characterise his’

His will left his estate to his wife and son who continued to live in Edinburgh until the early 1850’s when they moved to London. By 1857 when his widow was writing her own will their only son had died (1854) and her estate was to pass to William’s sisters Mary and Eleanor, with an allowance for Alice Nixon (b.1854) the young daughter of his brother Charles Nixon and his wife Elizabeth Alice Grant who lived next door to Fanny at Upper Belgrave Place, London

Nixon was succeeded in his post by his former assistant Robert Matheson.

Research and biography by Steven Robb

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 2Phoenix Park, Dublin, EireBusinessAfter 1825April 1840 
Item 2 of 22, Duncan Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandPrivate1848 *  

* earliest date known from documented sources.

Employment and Training


The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 1H M Office of Works (later Ministry of Works, Department of the Environment and Property Services Agency)1840March 1848Chief ArchitectIn Edinburgh office - Principal Clerk of Works

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 2James Millar1840September 1840Second ClerkIn H M Office of Works, Edinburgh
Item 2 of 2Jesse Hall18421848Clerk of Works 

Buildings and Designs

This architect was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 18After 1831Royal Botanic Garden, Head Gardener's House  EdinburghScotlandProbably Nixon responsible for remodeling.
Item 2 of 18After 1841Dundrennan AbbeyDundrennan KirkcudbrightshireScotlandRepairs - Nixon as architect for Scotland in the Office of Works
Item 3 of 181842Martyrs MonumentSt Andrews FifeScotland 
Item 4 of 181842Palace of Holyroodhouse  EdinburghScotlandInternal alterations - as architect for Scotland in the Office of Works
Item 5 of 181842Tolbooth Church  EdinburghScotlandFurnishing
Item 6 of 181844Madras Infant SchoolSt Andrews FifeScotland 
Item 7 of 181844University of St Andrews, St Salvator's CollegeSt Andrews FifeScotlandNew north range and alterations to east range - as Architect for Scotland in H M Office of Works. Colvin states that the buildings by Reid were completed to a 'simplified design'.
Item 8 of 181845Dunblane CathedralDunblane PerthshireScotlandIron gates - as Architect for Scotland in H M Office of Works
Item 9 of 181845Dunfermline AbbeyDunfermline FifeScotlandRestoration - Nixon as architect in charge of the Office of Works in Scotland, with Matheson as assistant
Item 10 of 181845Police Office, High Street  EdinburghScotlandAs Architect for Scotland in the Office of Works
Item 11 of 181845St Andrews CathedralSt Andrews FifeScotlandNew entrance - as Architect for Scotland in H M Office of Works
Item 12 of 181846University of St Andrews, Chapel of St SalvatorSt Andrews FifeScotlandCloister behind chapel, and scheme for enclosure of area to south of chapel - as Architect for Scotland in H M Office of Works
Item 13 of 181846University of St Andrews, St Salvator's CollegeSt Andrews FifeScotlandBoundary walls
Item 14 of 181847Brechin CathedralBrechin AngusScotlandApex of spire and ball finial replaced. Also semi-ciruclar wooden platforms and ladders added to round tower.
Item 15 of 181847Kirkwall CathedralKirkwallMainlandOrkneyScotlandRestoration and removal of post-Reformation furnishings - as architect of Office of Works
Item 16 of 181848Parliament House, Supreme Courts of Scotland  EdinburghScotlandAlterations below Lord Ordinary's Court, as architect to the Office of Works (completed in 1849, after Nixon's death)
Item 17 of 18Before 1848Glasgow Cathedral  GlasgowScotlandFrom 1848 onwards general repairs and new west front to design by Edward Blore. Nixon as clerk of works in the Office of Works in Scotland
Item 18 of 18Late 1840sElgin CathedralElgin MorayshireScotlandRestoration - as Architect for Scotland in H M Office of Works


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 3Colvin, H M1995A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-18403rd editionNew Haven and London: Yale University Press 
Item 2 of 3Pride, Glen L1999The Kingdom of Fife2nd EditionThe Rutland Pressp122
Item 3 of 3Summerson, John1980The Life and Work of John Nash, architect   

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 3Courtesy of Steven RobbInformation via website Sent 2012
Item 2 of 3Irish Architectural ArchiveDictionary of Irish Architects 1720-1940  
Item 3 of 3New Register HouseWarriston Cemetery Records March 24 1848