Fire: An architect with a scandalous past

2009-06-19 00:00

WHILE the building he designed has fallen victim to fire amid much controversy, architect William Henry Powe­ll was no stranger to controversy himself — coming to South Africa in 1890 after his affair with a married woman and resultant much-publicised divorce case ended his successful caree­r as an architect in London.

The story is recounted by his son Sydne­y Powell in an unpublished volume of autobiography, Each to His Taste. Sydney was born in 1877, the second of five sons born to Powell and his wife, Anne, who lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburg Square where his father had his offices on the ground floor.

The young Sydney was unwittingly complicit in his father’s affair. At the age of nine, Sydney was sent to a preparatory school in Worthing while the family home moved to Elstree in Hertfordshire, just outside London. Sydney’s fath­er accompanied him on the train to Worthing “and with us went another boy and his mother, the wife of a Gray’s Inn barrister. I had never met the boy before, nor this mother, but my father seemed to know her well.”

This arrangement was repeated at the beginning of each term: the two boys, now the best of friends, being acc­ompanied by the two adults. “I sometimes wondered why they did,” reca­lls Sydney. “It seemed unnecessary, as we were fully capable of travelling unescorted, and did so on the return journey. In the train they used to pay little attention to us, but [seemed] to be taken up with themselves. At the age I was then I was innocent enough to draw no inferences from this.”

Sydney’s schoolfriend enlightened him: “His father had been down to see him [at school] … and had told him that he must think no more about his mother, that she had gone away and he would never see her again. She had bec­ome a bad woman, and he was taking him away from the school because it was my father who had made her bad, and he wished to part his son from the son of that man.”

This was news to Sydney. “Both my parents were still writing, and I hoped for the best. But I did notice that my father’s letters now had his office add­ress on them, while my mother’s were from our home at Elstree.”

At the end of the summer term, Sydney, now turned 11, returned to Elstree. “I was told that I should be seeing my father soon but that he was now living in London … My mother had not said a derogatory word about him and I notic­ed no change in her appearance or manne­r.”

Several years later, his brother, William, told Sydney what had happened: “My father had bolted with the lady. It looked, as my brother said, as if he had gone temporarily out of his mind, for after staying a week with her on the Channel Islands, he returned home. I never discovered whether they quarrelled, or whether he simply told her that all was over.”

The cuckolded barrister sued successfully for divorce and the case made headlines in the London press. “For my father, the result was professional ruin, for people then were more particular than they are now, and he was a well-known man … He hung on until he saw that he had no hope of living the scandal down, then decided to go to South Africa, which was booming, owing to the discovery of gold there. Almost at once he was on his feet again and in fewer than two years had built a comfortable practice and acquired a second reputation. But what he had lost could never, in South Africa, be regained, for he had been on the threshold of a great career.”

Powell set up an architectural practice in Durban, where he was joined by his elder son, William. After an initial separation, Powell’s wife eventually yielded to her husband’s “pleadings for reconciliation. But she had taken a hurt which was never quite to heal.” She, toget­her with Sydney and his two younger brothers, Owen and Stewart, followed a year later. Another son, Norma­n, was born in Durban.

The Powells lived at a house in Ridge Road on the “extreme edge of the Berea” and the 14-year-old Sydney att­ended Durban High School.

Among the notable buildings in Durban designed by Powell are Durban Boys’ High School and the public swimming pool. In Pietermaritzburg, he desig­ned the Victoria Hall at Maritzburg College, the Victoria Club in Longmarket Street and the Colonial Building in Church Street.

Powell won a competition for the design of the Colonial Building and was appointed architect in February 1895. The building was completed in 1901 but Powell did not live to see it. “My father’s health had been failing for some time past,” says Sydney, “and in 1900 he died — at the age of 53.” His widow, Anne, returned to England – “[she] had never liked Natal” — taking the younger children with her.

Sydney joined the Civil Service but dreamt of becoming a writer. After years of wandering, he settled for a while in Australia, until 1925, when his literary career took him to England. He died in 1952.

• This is an edited version of an article previously published in The Witness on July 29, 2004.

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