William Richard Lethaby (1857-1931) may be the most significant individual Barnstaple has ever produced. He was a leading designer, educator, conservationist and historian and produced very significant works as an architect. He was the Keeper of Fabric for Westminster Abbey for many years, initiated the system of listing buildings that still exists today, and was the founder and first Principal of the Central School of Art and Design.
William Lethaby was born in Barnstaple, the son of a carver and gilder from Filleigh. The family were Bible Christians and the children had a strict upbringing. Lethaby went to the Plymouth Brethren school in Grosvenor Street, and then the Grammar School at St. Anne’s Chapel, sketched here, but he struggled at school, and played truant several times.
When he was 11 William joined the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institution – the forerunner of our museum – as a second class quarterly member, paying 3 shillings a quarter. He enrolled in the art classes under local architect and potter Alexander Lauder, who took the 14 year old Lethaby on as an apprentice in 1871. Shortly afterwards Lethaby left Barnstaple to work for architects in Derby, later joining Norman Scott’s practice in London.
Lethaby loved his home town. He researched its history, gave prizes to its Art School, helped care for its buildings, and bequeathed drawings and writings to the North Devon Athenaeum. This quiet, modest man turned down the highest honour offered by the Royal Institute of British Architects, but he accepted the Freedom of the Borough of Barnstaple.