Sidney Colwyn Foulkes OBE, Hon.M.Arch (Liverpool), FRIBA, FILA., AMTPI.
NB The narrative below focuses on the life and career of Sidney Colwyn Foulkes as it relates primarily to Colwyn Bay.
The Foulkes came from the Clwyd valley and moved to Rhyl when the town was developing and became successful builders. The next generation, Edward Foulkes moved to Colwyn Bay in 1880 to set up a further building business and by the time that ceased to trade in 1900 he had built about a third of the early Colwyn Bay.
One of the few non-speculative jobs was the Colwyn Bay Methodist Church (St John’s) in Pwllycrochan Avenue. This was completed the year that Sidney Colwyn Foulkes was born. The first minister of St John’s suggested that it would be a good idea if the first born of the builder was christened there. This was agreed and when the baby was taken up to the minister he asked the mother what his name was and she said “Sidney” he said ”What’s his other name?” and she replied “He hasn’t got another name”. He responded: ”Oh you must have another name, you can’t call him Sidney Foulkes”. ”Well I haven’t got one”. ”Well we’ll call him Colwyn” and the name has stuck.
Sidney went to the former Conway Road School (now the West End Medical Centre). He was subsequently also one of the first eight pupils at the Denbighshire technical classes held in Douglas Road. While still at school one of his jobs was to get up very early on winter’s mornings and go down to the stables to ensure that the sixty horses were harnessed and ready for work. If they weren’t, inevitably the men were in the pubs, which were open with warm fires. Sidney’s job was to get them out to get the horses harnessed.
Sidney served his time as a joiner with his father which was just as well, for, when he came out of his time at the age of 16, disaster struck due to the building of Station Road. The western side of the road had been his father’s largest speculative job, although the building at the bottom was the Provincial Bank, the Magistrates Court and the first Prison in Colwyn Bay was not a speculation. However it seems likely that he had some difficulty in letting all the shops and a letter to a Mr Ward of Stead and Simpsons asked if he would be interested in one of the shops. Mr Ward wrote back that Colwyn Bay was too small for one of his shoe shops. At this time the Boer War was on, there was a recession in the building trade and his father was involved in a protracted legal battle over a lease for one of the shops. The trade got to hear about it; credit dried up and he ultimately went bankrupt.
In those days going bankrupt was devastating and he died of shame not long after, leaving Sidney, at the tender age of 16, as the sole breadwinner in a family of seven. Sidney was a very resilient chap, all five foot four of him. He carried on as a jobbing builder, taking on only what he could do himself, simply because he could not finance the work.
Sidney attended the bankruptcy hearing to support his father and, at the end of the proceedings, the official conducting them told him to stand up and he said “Let this be a lesson to you, my lad, never extend beyond your means.” Sidney took this very seriously.
Fifty years later he was called to see his bank manager who said “Mr Colwyn Foulkes, it has been drawn to my attention that you are overdrawn by £350. I would like to know what arrangements you propose making to rectify this situation.” Sidney didn’t reply, he was absolutely silent. Mr Price, the manager spluttered on and on and on and still there was no reply. “You must appreciate that this is a very serious situation and my head office requires some kind of security.” At the word security, Sidney, all five foot four of him, leapt up and said “Mr Price, the only security you’re going to get is my reputation. Good morning!”
However back in 1900 his first real break came when he received a letter, addressed to E Foulkes, from a Mr Catlin, Scarborough asking for a price for painting a demountable pierrot stand which was to be built in Colwyn Bay. Sidney took a look at the drawing and thought he could do better, so he redesigned it and quoted a price for building and painting it and sent it to Scarborough. There was no reply for a month or more and then a letter came from Mr Catlin saying that there had been an awful mistake – the letter should have gone to Mr E Foulkes, Decorator, Colwyn Bay. Perhaps Sidney knew that all the time! However Mr Catlin said he much liked what he saw and he proposed to come over to Colwyn Bay the following week. When he arrived he was surprised to find a 16 year old lad! They got on very well and Mr Catlin gave him the money upfront to complete the job. He was very satisfied, for a few years later Mr Catlin returned and asked Sidney to design and build a much grander pierrot stand on the promenade at Colwyn Bay near to the old Colwyn Bay Hotel. The construction board said that the builder was E Foulkes and the architect S Colwyn Foulkes.
Sidney however had decided that he didn’t want to be a builder, he wanted to be an Architect but he could see no prospects of going to Liverpool, he was still the principal breadwinner, so he had to bide his time.
Around this time he applied to Porter and Chadwick, the Architects-cum-agents to the Pwllycrochan Estate about the possibility of becoming articled to them. When they stated their conditions, he realised that he would have to give up his design and build activities in addition to paying a premium. He resolved that, if he ever became an Architect he would never take on articled pupils and he never did.
The next break came in 1910 when a Mr Jones, a businessman of Barnet Green, who also had a house in Colwyn Bay, purchased, to thwart a friend, an old chapel-cum-stables in the middle of Colwyn Bay (now Matthews Hardware) and having purchased it, he didn’t know what to do with it. He approached Sidney, who had just seen the first moving pictures in a tent in Abergele and he came up with a scheme to convert the old chapel into a cinema and to build shops on the frontage with offices above. This became the “Cosy Cinema” and was the first covered cinema in North Wales. There was only one snag. They could never get rid of the smell of horse urine from the old stables so that, during the intervals, the usherettes used to come round with scented “Flit gum”. He was given a completely free rein with the development, acting not only as the Architect and builder but also as the letting agent.
Sidney wrote to Mr Jones suggesting that he would do all the architectural work to convert the first and second floors to offices provided he could occupy half of them, rent free, for twelve months and thereafter pay a rent of £50 per annum. Mr Jones was so delighted with the returns he got on his investment that he gave Sidney the first and second floors rent free for the rest of his life. However they eventually became too small and the practice moved in 1947.
His work on the ‘Cosy ‘ may have led a little later to SCG being commissioned to design what was to become the Rhos Playhouse cinema in Penryn Avenue, Rhos on Sea, which opened in 1914.
Around 1912 Sidney designed a very large house, “Algiers” on the front at Rhos on Sea but decided that he could not undertake the work himself. For the first time he put the work out to tender and a very difficult Manchester contractor got the job. As things were beginning to look up Sidney thought it was time to go over to Liverpool. This he did with a portfolio of his drawings to see the great Professor Charles Reilly, who was not only surprised but impressed with what he saw. Having explained that the aim and objects of the School were to train young people in the art of architecture and send them back into their communities to spread the gospel, Riley offered him a scholarship, which paid for the fees, and he signed up. Early each morning he would go to the various jobs, catch a train to Liverpool and be back in the evening to make a further round of the jobs.
This went on for three years and in 1916 he qualified with distinction and promptly joined the Royal Naval Air Service and within a very short space of time, literally hung his hammock in the tower of the Crystal Palace, with the rank of Chief Petty Officer in the Aircraft Design Department, along with many other architects, including the Chief Architect to the Lyon’s Corner Houses.
While in the Royal Naval Air Service, he attended, part time, at University College, London, under the first Professor of Town Planning, Stanley Adshead, and, in due course in 1919, became one of the Town Planning Institute’s first members.
While in London, many Architects, including the Lyon’s Corner House man, tried to persuade him to join them in London, where they were convinced there were great opportunities, but he had made up his mind, he was going back to Colwyn Bay to get married and continue as Reilly had hoped – but things were much more difficult than he had imagined. The Pwllycrochan Estate still controlled the development land and Porter and Chadwick, from whom he had applied for articles, were still in charge. In addition, of course, he was now bound by the rules and regulations of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and he had to give up his design-and-build activities.
Once again Mr Catlin of Scarborough came to the rescue. Having bought a site very near the old original pierrot stand, he asked Sidney to design a theatre, the Arcadia, which ultimately became a cinema, but has now been demolished.
In addition to the Arcadia, there were individual houses built under licence and war memorials, including the one in Llandudno, and then came the big break. The Committee of the (Colwyn Bay) Cottage Hospital were anxious to replace it with a temporary building, which would serve until such time as they had sufficient money to embark on a bigger project. They approached Sidney and he did a lot of work in finding the site, designing and getting prices for the temporary buildings for twelve beds. The prices were high, the Committee got cold feet and suggested a competition of local Architects to design a completely new hospital – could Sidney advise them. He did and he informed them that that they should comply with the RIBA competition conditions, which meant that an independent assessor should be appointed. This they did and appointed none other than Mr Worthington of Manchester, who, at the time, had one of the largest architectural practices in the country. Many of the Committee were Manchester businessmen who, when they has amassed sufficient money, decided, without consulting Colwyn Bay, to ask Mr Worthington to get on with it. Sidney, one of the newest members of the RIBA, heard about this and, needless to say, was very upset and sent a masterly letter to Mr Worthington, one of the most senior, reminding Mr Worthington that the Committee had sought his advice, he had advised them to proceed in accordance with the RIBA conditions, he, Mr Worthington was appointed as assessor and, as such and being a member of the RIBA he could not act as Architect. Mr Worthington did not take kindly to this upstart but duly resigned.
Sometime previously, Sidney, knowing there was going to be a competition, sent to the RIBA for all the latest books on hospital design. They sent loads of books but he immediately sent them all the ones on British hospitals back saying they were all out of date, but kept the American ones in which he had seen the first departure from the Florence Nightingale ward layout, which had sluice rooms at the ends of the wards. Instead, they were placed centrally on the opposite side of the corridor. Colwyn Bay was the first to adopt this principle.
It was a very big job. No fewer than 34 contractors tendered from all over the country, with tenders ranging from £28,800 to £34,945. The completion of the Hospital marked a turning point in the Client-Architect relationship. Instead of the Architect presenting the person who opened the hospital with a suitably engraved momento, the Management Committee presented a two-chime engraved carriage clock to the Architect, with their grateful thanks.
Sidney’s next big break was with Rydal School, Colwyn Bay. Sidney’s father had built all the original buildings and a new building was to follow similar lines. However when all the drawings were complete and the job ready to go out to tender Sidney had second thoughts. He went to the Headmaster, A.J.Costain, and said that he had made a mistake, would he mind if he redesigned it? Costain got the Governors approval and instead of looking into the bowels of the basement, the building was on a podium with workshops running along underneath, along the front.
Various other jobs in Colwyn Bay included:
- The Williams Deacon’s Bank on Conway Road, which was originally a big red house which was refaced in Portland Stone
- W.S. Woods in Station Road where the dowager ladies of Manchester used to come in their chauffeur-driven cars to shop. Now Peacocks, the front has changed completely and the building is now suffering from neglect.
- Longmans Bookshop, 7, Abergele Road – an elegant little building that latterly became a eyesore as a cash and carry bazaar. Thankfully the building is to be refurbished for retail and community use
At around this time, Professor Reilly retired from the School of Architecture at Liverpool and decided to go on a grand tour of his old students throughout the country and, at the end of it, was surprised to find that the only Architect who had in fact gone back into his local community and done a considerable amount of good work was Sidney Colwyn Foulkes. Shortly after that visit in 1931, Sidney received an Honorary Degree of Master of Architecture from Liverpool University.
Beginning with the Plaza in Rhyl Sidney went on to design a number of cinemas, mainly in North Wales and on the Wirral, the designs being influenced by a trip made with Colwyn Bay Rotary Club to America. In Colwyn Bay he designed the Arcadia for Mr Catlin and converted the old coaching mews on Abergele Road for Mr Francis into what became the Cosy cinema. He also designed two cinema in Rhos on Sea and one in Old Colwyn. Examples elsewhere include the Regal in Birkenhead (since demolished) and Bebington (now a Tesco store). Just before the Second World War there was great activity in the cinema world and there was each year a Cinema of the Year Award. Although the Harry Weedon’s Odeons usually won. However on one occasion the Palace in Conwy High Street was the recipient. When the job had been completed, the owner, a Mr Christmas Jones, having been a joiner himself, chose to question the Final Account and ultimately the matter was referred to the Courts. It was not settled until after the War, when Mr Jones lost and had to pay all the costs. However, within few weeks Mr Jones asked Sidney to design some houses for him in Conwy, which, perhaps surprisingly, he did.
The widening of the A55 at Penmaenhead necessitated the demolition of a small chapel and Sidney was taken on to design the replacement. The wife of an Architect who was working for him was commissioned to paint a mural on the far gable wall of the chapel. It was a very elaborate affair and was kept well-screened until the official opening. As the curtain was drawn back, there was a gasp from the congregation, who were confronted with naked cherubs. It was immediately covered up and the Elders had it modified to make it more respectable!
In the late 1930s Sidney undertook important work on the Victoria Terrace, Beaumaris (now Listed). Following a full structural survey, the owners, the local Corporation, were advised that the cost of repairing the houses was prohibitive. However Sidney bought the block on behalf of a client and great friend, Mr Tattersall. In order to create more units to make the project viable he built an elevated walkway along the back of the building to gain access to the middle floor, and, by doing this, he was able to double the number of units. Whilst the work cost double the original estimate nearly all the units were taken before the job was completed. He then started work on the adjacent Bulkeley Arms Hotel, which was in an equally deplorable condition. Again, to make this an economic proposition additional accommodation had to be provided at the side. It subsequently developed into a very good and comfortable hotel.
During the War everything came to a stop apart from work connected with the War effort, such as a factory for the Ministry of Aircraft Production in Llandudno Junction for Radcliffe Engineering.
Immediately after the War the urgent need was to provide new housing. However Sidney’s experience had been limited to one-off dwellings and a few speculative estates for small builders.
The Ministry of Health and Housing laid down stringent yardsticks on accommodation and costs influenced by the shortage of skilled labour and raw materials. Whilst innovation was encouraged most Architects realised that innovation would cost them time and money which were not recoverable. They therefore didn’t question the Ministry’s recommendations – except of course, Sidney Colwyn Foulkes.
Probably because of the success of Victoria Terrace, Sidney was asked to design a new housing estate on a sloping site at Beaumaris. As semi-detached houses have three external walls, have gaps between them, thus using more land, and were also difficult to compose on a hillside Sidney favoured the terrace. This had only two external walls, was easier to heat and cheaper to construct. However extra costs came from the need for tunnel access to the rear or expensive rear service road. To eliminate these he brought the dustbin and fuel to the front of the house and introduced a small covered porch with a door to a through utility with a downstairs toilet and in the same porch was the front door. With his cost savings and within the cost yardstick he provided a solid-fuel Rayburn cooker, which also heated the water, stainless steel sinks, and built-in, purpose-made kitchen cupboards. Sidney’s designs were submitted and approved. Work was well under way when the site was visited by Mr Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health and Housing. During his inspection of the development Mr Bevan spotted that the ceiling height was 6 inches below the minimum regulation height. When questioned about this Sidney admitted that it was a deliberate contravention introduced to improve the visual proportions of the small rooms. He also drew attention to the associated cost and labour time savings. Mr Bevan agreed and within a few months the national byelaws were changed and, at a stroke, saved four courses of brickwork on every house built in the UK.
At around this time Sidney was awarded an OBE for his services to architecture, He was a founder member of the Historic Buildings Council for Wales and a very active member of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales. A Civic Trust Award was won for the Elwy Estate in Rhos on Sea. A feature of this estate of 148 houses and 80 flats is the decoration of the porch canopies with precast concrete images of characters from Alice in Wonderland. The unified appearance of the estate has been endangered by the sale of individual properties to tenants. The estate attracted several distinguished visitors, most notably, Sir Clough Williams Ellis, the creator of Port Merion and probably the greatest American Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. It still retains much of its charm.
In 1934 Sidney had been elected as a Member of the newly formed Colwyn Bay Borough Council. He only sat on the Council for three years until he lost his seat before he lost his seat to Pat Collins, fairground proprietor whose slogan was “Bring more show business to Colwyn Bay”. However in 1966 he received the town’s personal and special honour of Freedom of the Borough in recognition of the very distinguished service he had rendered. He was only the second native of Colwyn Bay to be so honoured.
Some other post War jobs included:
- The Memorial Hall at Rydal School added on to the pre-war Science Building
- The replacement for the burnt down Town Hall in Aberystwyth
- The Brecon Beacons Mountain Centre
A complete change in direction for Sidney came in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The conservationists of the day, CPRW and CPRE in particular were very concerned to protect the fledgling National Parks from the ravages of, in particular, the public utilities, such as electricity, gas and water when operating in the National Parks. They could bypass Local Authority permissions by putting a Private Bill through Parliament. When the Central Electricity Authority prepared a Bill to extend the catchment area of the Dolgarrog HEP scheme Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the world renowned town planner – creator of the London Plan and the founder of Campaign for the Protection of England (CPRE) and a founder member of Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales (CPRW) – managed to get an amenity clause inserted in the Bill obliging the developer to employ an independent Landscape Consultant (to be approved by the National Parks and other organisations).When the consultant engineers, the world-renowned Freeman, Fox and Partners, asked Sir Patrick to put some names forward he, in turn, asked Sidney to undertake the work. Although he remonstrated that he was not a Landscape Architect he was persuaded to take it on. After examining the plans he asked for the work to be stopped so he could take a further inspection of the plans, a power available to him under the contract. In the end a revised scheme was agreed which had a much less deleterious effect on the landscape and the job subsequently won the CEA its first Civic Trust Award!
This relatively small scheme led to many other major landscaping commissions. The first was the pump storage hydro-electric scheme at Blaenau Ffestiniog, which at the time may have been the largest in Europe. However it was subsequently dwarfed by the Dinorwig pump storage scheme. As Landscape Architect, Sidney was heavily involved in ensuring that the above ground features were appropriate and in sympathy with their surroundings. This included the power house position, design and materials, culverts, manhole covers and railings. Some time after the completion of this scheme Sidney was made a Fellow of the Institute of Landscape Architects.
The next HEP scheme was at Rheidol Falls above Aberystwyth which also won a Civic Trust Award.
Sidney was also involved in the development of the Milford Haven oil refinery where he was determined to ensure that the facilities were kept off the skyline as much as possible. Despite opposition from Esso’s American owners, the tanks did creep down into the valley. Regrettably the desire to impose a restoration bond was not pursued, and whilst Esso has removed the plant and equipment the concrete roads, concrete foundations and the jetty have been left, supposedly for future usage.
Outside Wales Sidney was also involved in the Ullswater pumping station in the Lake District. Also in Cumbria there was the weir to Lake Windermere at Pooley Bridge and the pumping station at Windermere, the latter being positioned partly in and below a natural hillock.
Whilst Sidney’s practice still continues today it is now run from an office that had been set up in London, from where it has continued to produce award winning work.
Acknowledgement: The above narrative was based on material from the Colwyn Foulkes family, notably Sidney’s son, Ralph Colwyn Foulkes.
Read more about Sidney Colwyn Foulkes and his work here.