Blackburn, William

, an eminent surveyor and architect, was born in the borough of Southwark, on the 20th of December, 1750. His father was a respectable tradesman in St. John’s parish, and his mother was a native of Spain. The whole of his grammatical education was derived from a common seminary in the neighbourhood; and at a proper age he was placed under a surveyor of no eminence, but from whom he derived very few advantages in the knowledge of his profession. However, from the natural bent of an ardent mind, he sought the acquaintance of men of genius, several of whom belonged to the Jioyal Academy. Into that academy he was admitted as a | student; and in 1773 he was presented with the medal for the best drawing of the inside of St. Stephen’s church in Walbrook. This prize he bore away from many competitors and, at the delivery of it, received a high compliment to his abilities from the late sir Joshua Reynolds, the president. About the same time he entered into business for himself in Southwark, and carried it on for some years with increasing success among his private connections, when an event occurred which brought him into public notice and reputation. An act of parliament had passed in 1779, declaring, that “if any offenders convicted of crimes for which transportation had been usually inflicted, were ordered to solitary imprisonment, accompanied by well regulated labour and religious instruction, it might be the means, under providence, not only of deterring others from the commission of the like crimes, but also of reforming the individuals, and enuring them to the habits of industry.” By this act his majesty was authorised to appoint three persons to be supervisors of the buildings to be erected; and the supervisors were to fix upon any common, heath, or waste, or any other piece of ground, in Middlesex, Essex, Kent, or Surrey, on which should be erected two plain strong edifices, to be called “Penitentiary Houses” one for the confinement and employment of six hundred males, the other of three hundred females. In the same year in which the act was passed, three supervisors were appointed to carry it into execution. These were John Howard, esq George Whatley, esq. and Dr. John Fothergill. This commission however was dissolved, first by the death of Dr. Fothergill, and soon after that event by the resignation of Mr. Howard, who found it not in his power to coalesce with his remaining colleague. Another set of supervisors was therefore appointed in 1781, being sir Gilbert Elliot, bart. sir Charles Bunbury, bart. and Thomas Bowdler, esq. One of the principal objects with these gentlemen was to provide that they should be constructed in the manner most conducive to the ends of solitary confinement, useful labour, and moral reformation. Accordingly, the supervisors proposed premiums for the best plans that should be produced of the penitentiary houses intended to be erected. The highest premium was a hundred guineas, which xvas unanimously assigned to Mr. Blackburn, in the month of March 1782. This preference, as a pecuniary consideration, was a matter of little | consequence. The grand advantage that was to be expected from it, with regard to Mr. Blackburn, was, that he should be employed as the architect and surveyor of the buildings proposed. And in fact he was appointed by the supervisors to that office and the plan of a penitentiary house for male offenders was accordingly arranged by him, and proper draughts were made for the use of the workmen; and a great part of the work was actually contracted for by different persons. Yet the designs of government were not carried into execution the circumstances of the times having diverted the attention of public men from this important object nor has it ever since been resumed. Nevertheless, though Mr. Blackburn might in this respect be disappointed of his just expectations, he did not lose his reward, nor was the nation deprived of the benefit arising from his ingenuity. A spirit of erecting prisons in conformity to his plans was immediately excited and many county gaols, and other structures of the same nature, were built under his inspection. Besides the completion of several prisons, Mr. Blackburn was engaged in other designs of a similar nature, when he was arrested by the hand of death, in the fortieth year of his age. He departed this life on the 28th day of October, 1790, at Preston in Lancashire, being on a journey to Scotland, whither he was going at the instance of his grace the duke of Buccleugh, and the lord provost of Glasgow, with a view to the erection of a new gaol in that city. From Preston his remains were removed to London, and interred in the burying-ground of Bunhill-fields.

A few weeks before his decease, he had been applied to respecting a penitentiary house for Ireland. At a former period, in 1787, he went over to that country upon an application from Limerick in consequence of which he drew the plan of a new gaol for that city. He also suggested many improvements which might be made in the gaol of Newgate in the city of Dublin, and which were accordingly adopted.

It was not to the erection of prisons only that Mr. Blackburn’s talents were confined. Three elegant designs were drawn by him for a new church at Hackney, one of which was intended to have been carried into execution but after his decease the scheme was laid aside, on account of the expence which the completion of it would occasion. He was employed, likewise, in preparing various designs | for houses, villas, &c. In many of his drawings great taste is displayed, as well as a thorough knowledge of his favourite science of architecture. It was in contemplation, some time after his death, to engrave and publish his principal drawings; but the intention of doing it is dropped, at least for the present.

Being a dissenter of the presbyterian denomination, he was in the habits of intimacy with the principal persons of that persuasion both in town and country without however confining his regard and affection to any particular sect. But what confers peculiar honour on Mr. Blackburn’s memory is, that he enjoyed the intimate friendship and entire esteem of the excellent Mr. Howard; that he concurred with him in his ideas, and eminently promoted his benevolent designs. Mr. Blackburn frequently corresponded with Mr. Howard, when that gentleman was engaged, either at home or abroad, in his journeys and voyages of humanity. Of Mr. Blackburn Mr. Howard used to say, that he was the only man he ever met with, who was capable of delineating to his mind, upon paper, his ideas of what a prison ought to be.

The person of Mr. Blackburn was of the middle stature; and from his early youth he was so very corpulent, that his friends were filled with apprehensions, too unhappily verified, that his life would not be a long one. Till he became twenty-five years of age, he drank nothing but water. But at that time, in consequence of a severe fit of sickness, he was advised by the late Dr. John Fothergill to change his beverage for malt liquor, and occasionally to take a glass of wine. The affliction of another severe illness, later in life, was sustained by him with eminent and exemplary resignation and fortitude. Previously to his last journey he was considerably better, and entertained hopes that travelling might contribute to the restoration of his former health: but it was ordered otherwise by the supreme Disposer of events. By a sudden stroke he was for ever taken from his beloved wife and children; who, with a number of select friends, were left to lament a loss, which they must feel so long as they remain in this world. The character of Mr. Blackburn was, in every view of it, amiable and respectable. In discharging the duties and relations of life, he was uniform and consistent. He was very cheerful in his- temper, and affable and engaging in his behaviour. Being endued with a great flow of spirits, | and much vivacity of mind, his conversation was at once agreeable and instructive. In February, 1783, Mr. Blackburn married Lydia, the daughter of Mr. Joshua Hobson, an eminent builder in his neighbourhood an amiable woman, with whom he lived in the most perfect harmony, and by whom he left four children. 1

1 Communicated for the last edition of this Dictionary —Gent. Mag, vol. LV. 525, XLIX. 567. Aikiu’s Life of Howard, p. I Os, 109.