Surrey Greats: Who was Royal Holloway architect William H Crossland?

William Henry Crossland. Image copyright Sheila Binns

William Henry Crossland. Image copyright Sheila Binns - Credit: Archant

The Egham college was a £600,000 “gift to the nation” by entrepreneur Thomas Holloway

The south wing at Royal Holloway. Image copyright Sheila Binns

The south wing at Royal Holloway. Image copyright Sheila Binns - Credit: Archant

Mystery surrounds the life of the architect of the Holloway Sanatorium and The Royal Holloway College.

The Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water (now Virginia Park) and the Royal Holloway College in Egham (now Founder’s Building, Royal Holloway, University of London) were inspirations of the phenomenally rich entrepreneur and philanthropist Thomas Holloway, and two of the most spectacular buildings of the end of the 19th century - a £600,000 ‘gift to the nation’.

Born in Huddersfield, William Henry Crossland trained under George Gilbert Scott, which gave him a certain status. He established a good reputation in Yorkshire designing churches and secular buildings, mostly in or near his home town. He also designed one large and truly outstanding building: Rochdale Town Hall in Lancashire, which opened in 1871. He is also known for several striking commercial buildings in central Huddersfield.

Winning the architectural competition to design Thomas Holloway’s Sanatorium at Virginia Water brought Crossland to Surrey in 1872 and changed his life utterly. Crossland used the interior public areas at Rochdale Town Hall as his template. As at Rochdale, every surface is decorated. Holloway’s own initials and those of his wife are among an extraordinarily rich and bizarre combination of naturalistic motifs and grotesques.

Royal Holloway College. Image copyright Sheila Binns

Royal Holloway College. Image copyright Sheila Binns - Credit: Archant

The Great Hall contains life-sized portraits of historical figures as well as a small painting of W.H. Crossland himself – one of the few remaining images of him. Its most striking architectural feature, as at Rochdale, is its hammer-beam roof – a style that was something of a Crossland trademark.

Holloway was an exacting patron, prepared to spend a great deal of money but ensuring it was spent wisely. He visited the Sanatorium building site almost daily to check progress. The chapel, landscaping and several smaller buildings were also to Crossland’s designs.

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Remarkably, in 1873, having barely begun work at Virginia Water, Thomas Holloway envisaged a second institution – a convalescent home for incurables. Architectural taste was changing and the Renaissance architecture of the châteaux of the Loire valley in France was becoming popular. Holloway discussed his idea with Crossland asking what he would do if he were to win a competition for the second institution. Crossland replied that, once supervision at the Sanatorium was properly organised, he would go to the Loire to sketch and measure up. Plainly impressed, Holloway immediately offered the huge project to Crossland, saying he had had enough of competitions.

Encouraged by his wife, Holloway changed his mind regarding his second project in favour of a college for the higher education of women. Crossland was to design on a grand scale - a college for 250, based on the château at Chambord, that was to be unique in the world. Designs changed many times so that the final building looks less like that château than originally intended.

Holloway Sanatorium. Image copyright Sheila Binns

Holloway Sanatorium. Image copyright Sheila Binns - Credit: Archant

The building is colossal – about a tenth of a mile long. Its plan is simple: two quadrangles with a central spine. Crossland overcame the problem of a steeply sloping hill with an extra storey at the southern end, where the tower is higher than the north tower, creating an optical illusion of equal height. The glorious chapel was the heart of the College. Crossland was particularly pleased with the antiqued effect of the decoration of its ceiling likening it to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

The quality of building is exceptionally high. Notably, tuck pointing is used throughout, an expensive method of mortaring which gives the illusion of a very thin line of mortar. Decorative features added to the expense, including stone carving, bullseye windows and curved glass. The glorious skyline is a mixture of motifs from different Loire châteaux.

The famous double staircase at Chambord is notably absent. Instead, Crossland’s staircases fitted the footprint of a single room, permitting broad vistas along the exceptionally wide corridors. Student accommodation elsewhere was on staircases leading directly from quadrangles, so this was innovatory - and doubtless much safer for a female community.

Crossland recognised that it was his great good fortune to work in a way that most architects enjoyed only in their dreams. Holloway seldom praised anyone but made it clear that he was well pleased with his architect.

The interior of the chapel at Royal Holloway College. Image copyright Sheila Binns

The interior of the chapel at Royal Holloway College. Image copyright Sheila Binns - Credit: Archant

The Sanatorium opened in 1885 and the College in 1886. They made Crossland famous and for a few years he enjoyed celebrity status and it was generally recognised that, in the design of the college, Crossland came as near as any architect to creating a truly Victorian style of architecture.

W.H. Crossland: An Architectural Biography, by Sheila Binns is out now published by the Lutterworth Press (