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Shaw, George (1810-1876)

Shaw, George

St Chad’s, Uppermill, Yorkshire; furniture maker and architect (b.1810-d.1876)

George Shaw was born on 5 October 1810 in his parent’s house in Uppermill and lived there all his life. He was the eldest son of Giles Shaw and Elizabeth Radcliffe. His father owned several farms in the vicinity and also one or more mills for finishing woollen cloth. Shaw began work for his father when he left school and by 1830 was acting as a traveller for the mills, visiting buyers in the Midlands, northwest England and Scotland. From the age of nineteen he began to collect old weapons, armour, documents and furniture, and established connections with prominent antiquaries both locally and nationally. Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick was among his correspondents, and the Rev. Francis Raines, founder member of the Chethams Society, was a close friend. From 1830 he began to alter his parents’ house, which was a 17th century stone-built farmhouse with Georgian facings, into a ‘medieval’ dwelling more in keeping with his romantic imagination, using a combination of medieval and later salvaged woodwork, together with his own embellishments. In this he was assisted by Charles Lawton, a dyer and wool sorter at his father’s mill and an amateur wood carver. The house, which Shaw renamed ‘St Chad’s’, is now Uppermill Public library and some of Shaw’s woodwork survives in situ. Shaw later created similar pastiches for his friends. Between 1843 and 1848 he remodelled the Trinity Chapel in St Chad’s Church, Rochdale, for his friend and patron, James Dearden, and also supplied pulpit, lectern and other furnishings for St Leonard’s Middleton.

In the early 1840s, if not before, Shaw began to create fake furniture. The motivation for this was probably financial, since the market for traditional woollens of the sort produced in Uppermill was in steep decline. He targeted noble families, offering them furniture variously described as ‘Henry VIII’, ‘Elizabeth I’ or ‘James I’, claiming to have found it locally in cottages or at remote sales. The furniture, in the form of court cupboards, buffets, dressers, benches, tables &c., was mostly highly carved and adorned with armorials, badges and crests relevant to the noble family. His first known victim was Edward Smith-Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby, who was then engaged in campaign to buy back Stanley relics from Lathom House – and other Stanley houses – and install them in Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool. Between 1842 and 1849 Shaw sent various articles of furniture and iron work to the Earl, claiming provenance from Lathom House, which had been largely destroyed during the Civil War. The Earl’s ill health brought this lucrative connection to a close (he died in June 1850) and none of Shaw’s Stanley fakes are known to survive. Several other noble families were targeted at this time, including the Earl of Bradford, although it is not known whether Shaw’s approaches were successful. His best documented campaign was directed at the Duke of Northumberland, who at that time was renovating both Alnwick and Warkworth Castles under the direction of Anthony Salvin. Shaw claimed to have come across a collection of furniture from Wressle Castle, a former Percy stronghold, partly demolished during the Civil War, all of it embellished with ancient Percy insignia. Between July 1847 and February 1848 Shaw sent the Duke furniture valued at £606. It included beds, court cupboards or dressers, buffets, chests, a table and two forms. Some of these remain in situ at Warkworth Castle. Other items have been sold or remain at Alnwick and Syon House. However, the Duke had meanwhile become suspicious and told Shaw to stop sending, suspecting that ‘the supply was expedited from a store of unlimited supply’.

Shaw’s fakery seems to have ended about 1850, as his career as a Gothic revival architect began to gather momentum. Initially he was in partnership with the Scot, James Henderson (1804-1862), and later with James Lawton (1819-1906), the son of Charles Lawton, whom the Shaw family had sponsored through architectural training. Shaw’s first independent commission was St John, Birtle (1845-6), followed by St Mark, Scarisbrick (1848), St Peter, Walsden (1848) and Christ Church, Friezeland (begun 1848). Shaw eventually built more than a score of churches, mainly in the greater Manchester area, as well as a number of houses or additions to houses. His success lay partly in the strength of his local contacts, and partly because almost all the work was done in-house, from design through masonry, brickwork, glazing, brass and all interior woodwork, thereby keeping costs down. At its peak Shaw’s Uppermill workshop employed more than one hundred hands. All his churches survive, and many retain their original furnishings which evince a distinctive, if repetitive, house style.

Shaw died in 1876. He was unmarried and his closest relatives had moved away, so St Chad’s and its content were left in trust in the custody of James Lawton. Eventually the house was bought by the local council for use as offices and its contents were dispersed in a four-day sale, 27-30 July 1920. Some of the items sold have since been identified, including two oval gate-leg tables, now in Saddleworth Museum, a press cupboard, in private ownership locally, and Shaw’s tester bed, now at Ordsall Hall, Salford. Shaw’s most spectacular documented product, the carved tester bed sold to the Duke of Northumberland in 1847, which Shaw called the ‘Paradise Bed’, was sold from Syon House by Sotheby’s 14-16 May 1997, lot 197, and again at Christie’s, London, 25 November 2004, lot 142. Two other beds of this form are known; one was sold at Sotheby’s, London, 14 September 2005, lot 132, and another was sold in Chester in 2010. Since 2013, this last has been widely promoted in newspapers and online as a genuine Tudor artefact, the marriage bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. This is an entirely spurious claim. AB.

Sources: G. B. Howcroft, George Shaw of Saddleworth 1810-1876, (Greenfield, 1972); Matthew Hyde and Alan Petford, ‘George Shaw of St Chad’s: The Making of a Provincial Architect’, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 102 (2006), pp. 36-52; Alan Petford and Mike Buckley, ‘George Shaw and the Duke of Northumberland’, Saddleworth Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. 47, No. 1 (2017), pp. 6-18;Bowett, ‘Antiquarianism in Early Victorian Rochdale: The Trinity Chapel at St Chad’s’, Regional Furniture (2020), pp. 143-62.