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  • Writer's pictureSadie

The arrival of John Cathles Hill - 'maker of modern Fletton' Part 2

In the second part of my blog, we discover how John Cathles Hill became such an integral part of Fletton.

John Cathles Hill was born in Dundee, Forfarshire, on the 12th December 1857. His parents were Robert, a cartwright, and Elizabeth. Robert and Elizabeth had been married for just five years, but John was their fifth child.

John’s childhood years were spent in the village where his father Robert was born, and where his parents were married, Auchterhouse, seven miles from Dundee. Robert succeeded his father and grandfather before him as the tollbooth keeper. He was a man of aspiration and as well as tollbooth keeper he continued his occupations of cartwright, master joiner and farmer.

After John attended the local parish school, he was apprenticed to his father. Robert was a Kirk Elder and John was brought up with a strict moral code and a strong work ethic, which stemmed from the families Presbyterian faith. In a close-knit community John found life in the small village restrictive and, at the age of 17, he left home and embarked on the life of a self-employed journeyman carpenter. By 1876 he had made his way to Glasgow and attended the Mechanics Institute where he learnt the principles of both architecture and construction.

Glasgow gave John a glimpse of possibilities. His cousin was a speculative builder, in London. Encouraged by stories of his success and learning of the opportunities that were available in the capital to someone who was prepared to work hard and take a risk, at 21 John boarded a boat and headed south. Once in London, aided by family connections, John’s fortunes grew quickly. On arrival John earnt 9d an hour but within nine months he had risen to foreman and had saved £50. Once John had a capital of £150, he joined so many others at this time and began building houses. Just two years later, at the tender age of 23, John was recorded in the 1881 census as a builder employing eight men. He was lodging at 9 Albert Road, Tottenham and living locally were two of his associates, William Thomson and George C. Porter, both Scottish by birth.

John could see the huge potential that there was for house building in north London, around Islington, for those commuters of moderate means who wanted to live outside of the dirt of the capital in leafy suburbs. He had also witnessed the mistakes of the development that had initially taken place, along the routes of the railways, which had resulted in tightly packed housing for the working class with no amenities or community provision. His intention was to rectify these mistakes by including in his plans rows of shops, elaborate public houses and provision for leisure and entertainment. For example, in his development in Palmer’s Green, Enfield, John opened ‘Rosalies’ a purpose built roller skating rink to great acclaim where 700 skaters tested the marble floor whilst a full military band played. To give these communities the best chance to become established John also placed his own managers in the shops until they were profitable enough to sell.

These early years of John’s new life in London were busy and exciting and included a courtship. John married Matilda Mose, in Tottenham in 1882. Matilda, who was born in Birmingham, was the daughter of William Mose, a grocer. Their wedding photograph shows a young couple who are smartly dressed and John, although only 25, already has a certain confident air and stance about him. Matilda quietly supported John and in return John valued his wife’s opinion. As the 1880s progressed Matilda’s time was stretched with the birth of their three children: Constance Mary born on 24th March 1883, Robert William born in 1884 and John Edgar born in 1887. John’s childhood faith remained strong, and the children were taken to St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Tottenham to be baptised. With such a busy household it was convenient that the family took up residence at The Neuk, 71 Whitehall Park, which was local to John’s offices in Archway Road, Islington.

John and Matilda's wedding photo

As the 1890s dawned, like many other local speculative builders such as James Edmondson, W. J. Collins and William Hodson, John’s ambitions remained undiminished. He continued to develop areas in Harringay and Crouch End by creating housing estates such as Rathcoole Gardens, Felix Avenue and Fairfield Garden. These estates also included fashionable shopping centres, with hotels like ‘The Queens’, which was the culmination of the Broadway Parade in Crouch End and described by Pevsner as ‘one of suburban London’s outstanding grand pubs’.

To meet the demands created by this expansion in housebuilding John needed a constant supply of bricks at a good price. To keep costs down transport links were vital. Fletton was conveniently placed on the railway line from London, heading north. After a buying trip to Fletton, where it is rumoured, that John purchased all the bricks available, he realised the advantage of owning his own brickyard. He purchased the recently bankrupt, but still operational, Hardy’s Yard. As well as Fletton John also purchased brickyards at Enfield, Middlesex and Great Pentley, Essex. Within a few years, via a series of takeovers and mergers, the company that John established in Fletton, The London Brick Company, covered 1,300 acres of brickfields and produced two million bricks a week.

With a thriving business to attend too, and with growing interests in local politics, including seats on the Local and Urban District Council, Huntingdonshire County Council not to mention the London County Council, Fletton became John’s second home. Taking advantage of the improved rail connection, with London, John’s visits could be as often as weekly. Attributed the title ‘maker of modern Fletton,’ John was typical of the age in which he lived. He was paternalistic by nature and was referred to as ‘a just and generous employer’. He was not just interested in making a profit. He was concerned about the industry that he led, the workers within it, and the conditions in which they lived. To assist in his aims John founded the Institute of Clayworkers, in 1890. This institute encouraged smaller independent brickyards to join forces, so they had an increased voice in matters relevant to their industry, such as the cost the railways charged for hauling coal to the brickyards and the bricks away from them.

John’s time at the Mechanic’s Institute in Glasgow may have also been influential. He was able to witness, at close hand, the example set by Robert Owen in the nearby cotton village of New Lanark, where housing and community provision sat side by side. In Fletton John’s aim was to create, for his workers, modern housing with paved roads. He also contributed to the establishment of new schools, installed drainage systems, built shops and provided community amenities, including the Coffee Palace.

The Minute Book of the Norman Cross Rural District Council, for the 24th September 1898, records that a plan was approved for the building of what became known as the ‘Coffee Palace’. John had built and gained licenses for notable public houses and hotels in London including ‘The Queens’ in Crouch End and ‘The Salisbury’ in Haringay. He thought that as Fletton was an up and coming district there was need for a Gentleman’s Club. However, the Temperance Movement in Peterborough was evidently more rigid amongst the local council members than it was in London, where Hill’s previous license applications were granted. Despite offers to donate all proceeds to the District Nursing Association for the next 10 years, the license application for the Coffee Palace was refused in 1899. The building gained the name of the Coffee Palace and became a Gentleman’s Coffee Club. In 1917 the building was purchased by Peerless Foods and became their offices and a depot. It once again came back into the ownership of the London Brick Company in 1928 and was used for offices. The building was then known as ‘Phorpres House’. This is derived from the process of brickmaking, where the brick is pressed twice in each direction hence ‘four pressed’.

John provided his workers with rest and refreshment. Every year his entire workforce, including wives and children, could look forward to a day’s outing to Great Yarmouth with food and entertainment paid for. There was also an annual tea at the local school and numerous prizes were awarded to diligent students. This included the J. C. Hill award which in 1913 was given to Mabel Carter.

The J. C. Hill Award given to Mabel Carter

In 1894 John, at almost 40 years of age, was reported as being ‘quite the young man, with a directness of speech and manner quite refreshing’. John felt that the time had come to have a home that befitted his status and prosperity, one suitable for entertaining and meeting other men of influence. Southwood Hall in Highgate, North London, fitted the bill perfectly and in 1895 the family moved in. Matilda’s days were full, supporting her husband’s business and social needs, running the household with only three servants to assist all whilst caring for three young children. But she still found time to join the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution and to purchase her own plots of brickmaking land in the Fletton area with John Rowe.

As John’s business expanded in Fletton he needed someone who he could trust to oversee his interests in his absence, to be his eyes and ears. John turned to his family. His father and mother were willing candidates to assist, exchanging life in rural Auchterhouse for a new position in industrial Fletton. This move must have brought with it a vastly different life to the one they were used to. Making the move with them was their widowed daughter, Clementina Christie and her daughter Lizzie. Clementina became involved with the Fletton community teaching at the Fletton Board School.

As a Kirk Elder, living next door to brickyard manager Adam Adams a Wesleyan Preacher, and not far from Arthur Itter and Herbert Colman who were committed Methodists, it would be tempting to imagine them engaging in discussions of a theological nature at the Coffee Palace. John even arranged his parents domestic help employing Louise Toon, a relative to his own domestic servant Elsie Toon.

Elizabeth died, age 73, in 1902 and Robert died, age 84, in 1908. Interestingly they were buried in the neighbouring parish of Woodston. As a fitting tribute to his parents, who were evidently an important part of John’s life, their memorials are prominent in the Woodston cemetery, beside the funeral chapel. A memorial tablet to John was also added on this memorial.

Robert and Elizabeth's memorial, Woodston

It has been estimated that John built 2,347 houses. These were built in an uncrowded way on spacious streets planted with trees at the kerbside and complete with public parks. But financing speculative house building was a risky affair and John funded his ventures through a series of complicated mortgages. This method was successful in times of boom but precarious when the economy was in decline. At the turn of the century there was a reduction in cash flow and despite John’s best efforts the mortgages were called in. John and his family had no alternative but to downsize. In 1905 the Hill family moved to more modest accommodation, a 11 roomed apartment at Linden Gardens, Hornsey Road, Highgate. Although not verified John may have built this block of apartments as no 1 was the largest. Later the family downsized further by moving to number 7.

Linden Gardens

Although in reduced circumstances the family’s outward appearance, for the credibility of the business, was vital. When John and Matilda’s daughter Constance Mary, married John Murdoch Beddall, a draper shopkeeper, at the Presbyterian Church, Highgate Hill in 1906 a description of the wedding was that it was ‘rich and luxurious’.

Despite John’s best efforts, in 1912 he was declared bankrupt. His debts amounted to one million pounds, which today is approximately 78 million pounds, and he had assets of only one fifth of this. The spectacular failure of such a large business was reported as far away as the Australian press. The irony is that ultimately John’s business ventures may have come to fruition; apart from housebuilding he also had valuable contracts with the Great Central Railway to supply 25 million bricks. Given time he may also have been able to realise the value of his properties. Unfortunately, his creditors would not be patient.

After three years John was conditionally discharged from bankruptcy, but he did not have time to restore his business career. For four years he had been suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and whilst on a visit at 20 Ventnor Villas, Hove he died, on 15th April 1915 from a heart attack. True to his aspirational nature John was laid to rest in Highgate cemetery. For someone who had such influence his memorial is rather neglected and difficult to find amidst the tangle of brambles and undergrowth.

On his passing John’s glowing obituary in The British Clayworker spoke of a man of ‘remarkable business capacity’ who was ‘kindly and sympathetic’ who had succeeded in his endeavours relying only on ‘his own courage, shrewdness, adaptability, and determination’. The local newspaper, the Peterborough Standard, commented on his ‘grains and grit’ and his determination to help his fellow Scots who were less fortunate in life, than himself, by offering employment, housing and the prospect of a familiar community.

John Hill's grave in Highgate

John Hill's memorial on his parent's gravestone, Woodston

The word of John’s good fortune in Fletton spread to other family members and encouraged them to journey south. Cousins of John, Robert and Isabella Ogilvy, were living at 83 Aldermans Drive, Peterborough in 1911. They had migrated to Peterborough from Liverpool. Robert’s career had begun as a railway office boy before moving to Liverpool and gaining employment as a coach builder. Robert had undoubtedly heard about the opportunities that were available in Peterborough from his uncle and working for the railways eased the migration process. These opportunities were realised as by 1925 Robert had risen in the ranks from carriage builder to railway district superintendent.

To continue John’s legacy were his sons, Robert and John Edgar. Robert and John assisted directly in the family business and played an even greater role after their father’s bankruptcy when they were able to continue his enterprise in their own names. After attending Felsted School, Robert married Marjorie Jane. They moved to Hampstead where Robert carried on his father’s housebuilding business, but under his own name. They later lived at The Summit, Fitzroy Park, Highgate. Tragically Robert’s involvement in the business was cut short when he was killed at St. Julien during the Battle of Ypres on 31 July 1917 where he was Captain in the 1st Cambridgeshire regiment.

John concentrated on the brickmaking side of the business and played a pivotal role in the future of the brickmaking industry. He became managing director of the Star Brick Company in Peterborough. The Star Pressed Brick Company became the Star Brick Company in 1915 and was officially taken over by the London Brick Company in 1925. John was responsible for restructuring much of the brick industry when the London Brick Company amalgamated with Forders Ltd.

Star Pressed Brick Company

But that as they say is another story!

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