Camille Silvy's portrait photograph of Sir John Kelk in 1861.
[Click on this and the other images for more details.]

Sir John Kelk (1816-1886) was one of the major building contractors for large public works in London. Like other master builders of the Victorian era, he was a man of tremendous energy and drive, who raised himself up in life and became, along with Henry Lovatt, an avid art collector. His later life was overshadowed by the death of two of his adult sons in the mid-1870s, one in his late teens and the other in his early twenties after studying at Merton College, Oxford and the Inner Temple (another son had died long ago in infancy); also by the fate of one of his major public works, Alexandra Palace, undertaken in conjuction with Charles and Thomas Lucas, which was burnt to the ground in 1873, not much more than a fortnight after its opening. Even after having been rebuilt, it seemed "an utter failure" ("Sir John Kelk," 455). Nevertheless, he was still a wealthy man, well-known for his hospitality.

Kelk's father's roots were in Nottingham, but Kelk himself was a true Londoner. His obituary in the Times Register for 1887 tells us that he was born in 1816, the youngest son of John Kelk, an ironmaster, of St Anne's, Westmister, and Martha, daughter of Jacob Germain (probably of Huguenot origin). It was not a high-class background, yet, the obituary continues, he became "a magistrate and deputy-lieutenant for the county of Middlesex, a major in the Engineer Volunteer Staff Corps, and sat in the House of Commons in the Conservative interest, as member for Harwich, from 1865 to 1868. He was created a baronet in 1874" (LXV). Moreover, after moving from Bentley Priory, Great Stanmore, to the estate at South Tidworth in Hampshire (now in Wiltshire), he became high sheriff of the county. All in all, Kelk played a useful and prominent part in public life.

Left: All Saints, Margaret Street, built for William Butterfield. Right: Victoria Station, the Edwardian frontage of the terminus for the line brought across the Thames from Battersea by Kelk and John Fowler.

However, he contributed most to society in his role of building contractor. For this he had the best possible background: an apprenticeship with none other than Thomas Cubbit, the greatest master-builder of them all. Entering into partnerships, first with William Newton, and then with John Elger, Kelk was soon involved with some prestigious projects, including the awkwardly situated All Saints, Margaret Street, for William Butterworth. This was largely complete by 1852, although not yet in use. Another of his early projects was the reconstruction of the Carlton Club on Pall Mall in 1854 (see Hobhouse). Even more prestigious was his work for the future Victoria and Albert Museum, for which his firm built "the Sheepshanks, Turner (1857), and Vernon (1858–9) galleries, the north court (1859–62), part of the south court (1862), and the lecture range in 1864–6" (Hobhouse). His major public works included docks and railways. Examples here are the Commercial Dock Company's south dock in Rotherhithe, and Victoria Station and the Pimlico Railway, bringing the line over the Thames from Battersea, where it had previously terminated, into central London. This link, which he himself proposed, was carried out from 1858–60: it was perhaps the project "upon which he had the most cause to pride and congratulate himself" ("Sir John Kelk," 454). In connection with the railways, he can be numbered among the small band of "leading entrepreneurs in a field where energy and the willingness to take risks were at an unusual premium" (Kellett 72). Here and elsewhere he worked with the engineer, John Fowler.

Left: Smithfield Market, London ECI. Right: Alexander Palace in Muswell Hill, N. London.

In middle age, Hobhouse tells us, Kelk rose to be something more than a contractor, "handing over his firm to his foremen, Smith and Taylor, in 1862." He was now engaged in promoting such large-scale projects, rather than the day-to-day management of them. Interestingly, in view of his father's profession, he was also partner in the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company of Blackwall. This was "the biggest and most important shipbuilding enterprise on the Thames. It also produced ironwork for Blackfriars railway bridge and Hammersmith Bridge, and for many of Kelk's enterprises" (Hobhouse). But his own firm continued to handle large commissions, including the building in 1866-69 of "the great Smithfield Goods Depôt and Meat Market for the Corporation of London, the Great Western, and the Metropolitan Railway Companies" ("Sir John Kelk," 455). Not the least of his later undertakings was the building work for the Albert Memorial, for which he was praised by the architect George Gilbert Scott (see Scott 267), and for which, like Scott himself, he was offered a knighthood — turning it down, Hobhouse suggests, because he had an eye on a baronetcy, which indeed he accepted in 1874.

Left to right: (a) The Albert Memorial under construction, as featured in the Illustrated London News in January 1865. (b) The Albert Memorial today. (c) South Tedworth house, remodelled for the Kelks by John Johnson (and remodelled again after this photograph was taken, as a home for recovering servicemen).

Kelk's lifestyle was commensurate with his wealth. He had married a cousin, Rebecca Anne (d. 1885), the third daughter of his uncle George Kelk of Ayrshire. Their eldest and only surviving son, John William Kelk, was born in 1851, went to Jesus College, Cambridge, and succeeded him in the baronetcy. Catalogues of his art collection and his "Valuable and Important Library" are listed in Google Books, but their contents cannot be seen. Like his fellow-contractor Lovatt, he also appears to have been interested in horticulture: he and his wife and their two eldest sons are listed as life members in the list of contributors to "The New garden at Kensington Gore" in 1861 ("Proceedings of the Horticultural Society of London," 99). Kelk, his wife, and the three sons who predeceased them, as well as the son who inherited the baronetcy, are all buried in the family grave at Kensal Green Cemetery ("John Kelk grave monument").


Burke's Peerage>, 1885. Google Books Free Ebook

Hobhouse, Hermione. "Kelk, Sir John, First Baronet (1816-1886)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. Viewed 8 August 2010.

"John Kelk grave monument in Kensal Green (pt 1) Cemetery, Kensington and Chelsea, London, England." Gravestonephotos. Web. 8 December 2021.

Kellett, John R. The Impact of Railways on Victorian Cities. 1969. London: Routledge: 2014.

Proceedings of the Horticultural Society of London, 1861. Free Ebook. Google Books.

Scott, Sir George Gilbert, R.A. Personal and Professional Recollections, edited by his son, G. Gilbert Scott, F.S.A. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1879. Internet Archive, from a copy in the University of California Libraries. Web. 8 December 2021.

"Sir John Kelk." The Times Register of Events in 1886. London: Times, 1887. LXV-LXVI. Google Books. Web. 7 December 2021.

"Sir John Kelk." Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1887. 451-55. ICE Virtual Library. Web. 8 December 2021.

Created 8 December 2021