Basic Biographical Details

Name: David Whitham
Designation: Architect, Surveyor
Born: 1927
Bio Notes: David Whitham was born in 1927 at the mining town of Seaham Harbour, County Durham, and went to school there. His first interest was in civil engineering, and he was articled for a time to the District Council Surveyor, Jack Abbey, who was responsible for a number of council housing schemes in the town. In May 1943, shortly before his arrival in Abbey’s office, a German bomb had caused extensive destruction to a large area of poor-quality Seaham housing, and so Whitham was, as he recalls, ‘thrown in at the deep end’ with building condition surveys of the damaged homes. He would retain an interest in housing and in such survey work for the rest of his life.

Whitham’s apprenticeship was cut short when Abbey left to become Housing Manager at Bristol. Whitham then attended Newcastle School of Architecture, where his tutors and lecturers included Guy Oddie and Gordon Ryder and his contemporaries included Ron Simpson (who later went to Canada), Jack Laine (later of Sheffield) and Peter Smithson. After a year there he was called up into the Royal Air Force. While on active service he made a decision not to return to Newcastle, perhaps put off by the fact that Professor Edwards ‘thought that housing really wasn’t a sort of subject architects should be involved with’. He resolved instead to try for Cambridge; and he did indeed secure a place there, at Christ’s College. He remembers the Cambridge School of Architecture, then overseen by James Macgregor, former head of the Edinburgh School of Architecture, as ‘very old-fashioned’. On completion of the three-year Cambridge course he secured a post in the Newcastle City Architect’s Office, but found the work unfulfilling as it involved little more than ‘producing stock housing’.

He left the Newcastle office to complete his architectural training with two years of study at the Architectural Association in London, where he was tutored by Arthur Korn and Felix Samuely. Among his classmates were John Bell and John Richards; the latter was interviewed with Whitham for positions at Hertfordshire County Council working on prefabricated schools, but they were not appointed. By this time Whitham had developed a great affection for Scotland, largely because of his enjoyment of mountaineering; and he had also become fascinated with the architecture related to coal mining. Egon Riss, then architect to the National Coal Board of Scotland, was a friend of Korn’s, and it was through this connection that Whitham, Bell and Richards secured interviews with the Coal Board. All three were successful. Whitham recalls that on their arrival to work there, Richards was sent to the Welfare Division, which was responsible for structures such as pithead baths and canteens, while he himself was assigned to the production department; the two sections ‘didn’t speak to each other, for reasons that I’ve never been able to fathom’. Whitham was set to work on the car haul at the Barony Colliery in Ayrshire. He recalls Riss, who worked upstairs in the Victorian house in Edinburgh’s west end where the offices were based, preparing plans and charcoal perspectives of industrial complexes on an enormous easel, which were then sent downstairs to his staff to be detailed and built. While the work was less rewarding than he had expected, with no room for creativity in design, Whitham appreciated Riss’s ‘fantastic character’ – that of a ‘complete Central European’.

After about a year, Whitham left the Coal Board to join a school-building development team in the Scottish Education Department, working on prefabricated and system-built schools in Kirkcudbrightshire. The method of prefabrication had been developed by Gilbert Ash in collaboration with the English Ministry of Education. Components for the schools were cast locally and distributed to the sites of the three large and several smaller schools for which Kirkcudbrightshire then had an urgent need. It was in this work that Whitham finally found himself in a position to make significant design decisions; he recalls that ‘at that time every new school building was allocated a case officer and you saw the job right through from commissioning to the building being finished’. He rose to become the regional architect for the Department.

In 1962 he went to Ghana to work on the planning of the Volta River scheme, which involved the construction of a dam and electricity generating plant at Akosombo and the resettlement of some 80,000 people in nearby villages following the creation of the world’s largest man-made lake. He found the leadership on this project – both from his boss, a Ghanaian civil servant named Kobra Kolitse who had trained at the University of Ghana, Legon and Harvard, and from close collaborators the Social Development Department – as very good, and he found the work interesting. However, while sometimes ‘happy there living quite simply’, the frustrations and stresses of some aspects of life in Africa became too much of a burden, and in 1964 he returned to what was by then the Scottish Development Department where he became involved in building regulations work.

Initially working on educational buildings in a small team run by John Ogleby and George Rose, in 1967 he was called by Jack Fleming, assistant secretary in charge of the Housing Division, to join a team to implement the terms of the Cullingworth Report, which highlighted the need for Scotland’s outdated housing stock to be replaced with more adequate provision. He remained in the same office for several years, and was latterly in charge of the Joint Housing Development Unit which was composed of staff from the Scottish Development Department and the Scottish Special Housing Association. This Unit carried out studies on such subjects as self-build housing and the improvement of run-down council estates, and produced handbooks on housing standards for the disabled and for the elderly, among others.

His career changed direction in 1975 when he was invited by Simon Atkinson, the leader of the Urban Design Course at Oxford Polytechnic, to apply for a teaching post there. He specialised in housing studies, and his students were graduates and professionals – architects, engineers and planners. The approach was an experimental one, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) being regarded as the main competition in the field, and Whitham recalls this period as the happiest of his working life – at least until a systemic preoccupation with administration and management began to overshadow the teaching work.

In 1983, not ready for retirement, he secured a job in Housing Development at the London Borough of Haringey. There, he was occupied mainly with expenditure management, repair programmes, the London House Condition Survey, and negotiations over the funding of modernisation of Greater London Council estates as the GLC was being dismantled, along with a small amount of building work in the sheltered housing sector. He remained in that office until he retired a few years later, taking a course in social history at Middlesex Polytechnic in his spare time.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect, surveyor:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 6Seaham Harbour, County Durham, EnglandPrivate1927Mid 1940s 
Item 2 of 6Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, EnglandPrivateLate 1940s Studying at the University
Item 3 of 6Newcastle, EnglandPrivateMid 1940s While studying for a year at the University
Item 4 of 6London, EnglandPrivateEarly 1950s(?) * Studying at Architectural Association
Item 5 of 6Akosombo?, GhanaBusiness19621964Working on the Volta River scheme
Item 6 of 6Oxford, Oxfordshire, EnglandBusiness19751983Teaching at Oxford Polytechnic

* earliest date known from documented sources.

Employment and Training


The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this architect, surveyor (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 6Seaham District Council Surveyor's Officec. 1943 Apprentice 
Item 2 of 6National Coal Board, Scottish Division1950s  for about a year
Item 3 of 6Scottish Education Department Architects1950s  latterly as Regional Architect
Item 4 of 6Newcastle City Architect's Officec. 1950   
Item 5 of 6Department of Health for Scotland (Scottish Board of Health; later Scottish Development Department)19641975  
Item 6 of 6London Borough of Haringey Housing Department1983  until retirement

Buildings and Designs

This architect, surveyor 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 51950sBarony Colliery car haulAuchinleck AyrshireScotlandworking for National Coal Board
Item 2 of 51950sPrefabricated schools  KirkcudbrightshireScotland 
Item 3 of 51958Castle Douglas High SchoolCastle Douglas KirkcudbrightshireScotlandassistant to George Lackie in Scottish Education Department
Item 4 of 51962Volta River scheme  AkosomboGhanaworking for the Volta River Authority
Item 5 of 51965Creetown Primary SchoolCreetown KirkcudbrightshireScotlandworking for Scottish Development Department


Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect, surveyor:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 1Courtesy of David WhithamInterview of David Whitham by Jessica Taylor, 25 March 2009