Thomas Stedman Whitwell

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Thomas Stedman Whitwell (1784–1840) was an English architect and civil engineer, best known for his collaboration with Robert Owen on an unrealised design for a secular communal utopia at New Harmony, Indiana, USA.

Robert Owen Welsh social reformer

Robert Owen was a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer, and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. Owen is best known for his efforts to improve the working conditions of his factory workers and his promotion of experimental socialistic communities. In the early 1800s Owen became wealthy as an investor and eventual manager of a large textile mill at New Lanark, Scotland. He initially trained as a draper in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and worked in London before relocating at the age of 18 to Manchester and going into business as a textile manufacturer. In 1824, Owen travelled to America, where he invested the bulk of his fortune in an experimental socialistic community at New Harmony, Indiana, the preliminary model for Owen's utopian society. The experiment was short-lived, lasting about two years. Other Owenite utopian communities met a similar fate. In 1828, Owen returned to the United Kingdom and settled in London, where he continued to be an advocate for the working class. In addition to his leadership in the development of cooperatives and the trade union movement, he also supported passage of child labour laws and free, co-educational schools.



Early life

Thomas Stedman Whitwell was born in 1784 in Coventry, England. He moved to London in his early twenties, as evidenced in records of his having exhibited at the Royal Academy. In 1811 he was employed in the Architect's Office at the London Docks. [1]

Coventry City and Metropolitan borough in England

Coventry is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands, England.

England Country in north-west Europe, part of the United Kingdom

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Wales to the west and Scotland to the north-northwest. The Irish Sea lies west of England and the Celtic Sea lies to the southwest. England is separated from continental Europe by the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south. The country covers five-eighths of the island of Great Britain, which lies in the North Atlantic, and includes over 100 smaller islands, such as the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight.

Architectural Work in Coventry and Birmingham (1813-1825)

After gaining some experience at the London Docks, Whitwell returned to Coventry where he designed a modest number of built works both there and in Birmingham, few of which survive. [2] His last completed commission in England was for the Brunswick Theatre in Whitechapel, London. Mortalities were suffered after the roof trusses, overloaded with theatre equipment, collapsed days after its opening. [3]

Birmingham City in the English Midlands, 2nd highest population of UK cities

Birmingham is the second-most populous city in the United Kingdom, after London, and the most populous city in the English Midlands. With an estimated population of 1,137,100 as of 2017, Birmingham is the cultural, social, financial and commercial centre of the Midlands. It is the main centre of the West Midlands conurbation, which is the third most populated urban area in the United Kingdom, with a population in 2011 of 2,440,986. The wider Birmingham metropolitan area is the second largest in the United Kingdom with a population of over 3.7 million. Birmingham is frequently referred to as the United Kingdom's "second city".

Whitechapel district within East London, England

Whitechapel is a district in London, England. It is within Central and East London and in the East End. It is located in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and is 3.4 miles (5.5 km) east of Charing Cross and roughly bounded by Mansell Street to the west, the East London Line and Buxton Street to the north, Cambridge Heath Road and Sidney Street to the east and The Highway to the south. Because the area is close to the London Docklands and east of the City of London, it has been a popular place for immigrants and the working class. The area was the centre of the London Jewish community in the 19th and early 20th century, and the location of the infamous Whitechapel Murders of Jack the Ripper in the late 1880s. In the latter half of the 20th century, Whitechapel became a significant settlement for the British Bangladeshi community and today Brick Lane is an ethnic enclave known as Banglatown. It is famous for its many curry houses.

Involvement in New Harmony, Indiana USA

Perhaps due to interest in his exhibition at Leamington Spa of an unbuilt plan for an ideal community named Southville, [4] Whitwell became involved in the designing of a utopian community at a site then named Harmonie (or New Harmony, Indiana) in Indiana, United States, collaborating with the mill owner and social reformer Robert Owen. Owen had previously provided workers at his cotton mills with a pioneering model company town, New Lanark, Scotland, intended to raise the standard of living and education of his employees. [5] Inspired by stories of utopian self-sufficient communities, such as those of the Shakers, springing up in the United States, Owen proposed to create a town unconstrained by the economic conditions and religious influence that he believed had undermined his social experiment in the United Kingdom. [6]

Leamington Spa spa town in central Warwickshire, England

Royal Leamington Spa, commonly known as Leamington Spa or Leamington, is a spa town in Warwickshire, England. Originally a small village called Leamington Priors, it grew into a spa town in the 18th century following the popularisation of its water which was reputed to have medicinal qualities, in the 19th century the town experienced one of the most rapid expansions in England. It is named after the River Leam, which flows through the town.

Harmony aspect of music

In music, harmony considers the process by which the composition of individual sounds, or superpositions of sounds, is analysed by hearing. Usually, this means simultaneously occurring frequencies, pitches, or chords.

Indiana State of the United States of America

Indiana is a U.S. state located in the Midwestern and Great Lakes regions of North America. Indiana is the 38th largest by area and the 17th most populous of the 50 United States. Its capital and largest city is Indianapolis. Indiana was admitted to the United States as the 19th U.S. state on December 11, 1816. Indiana borders Lake Michigan to the northwest, Michigan to the north, Ohio to the east, Kentucky to the south and southeast, and Illinois to the west.

Owen purchased the land and town of Harmonie in Indiana from George Rapp and the Rappites, a separatist religious community. The Rappites had built a substantial and successful town on the site, but sold it to Owen so that they could relocate to an area with more opportunities for trade. [7]

George Rapp German mystic

John George Rapp was the founder of the religious sect called Harmonists, Harmonites, Rappites, or the Harmony Society.

Owen intended to redesign the town as a self-sufficient secular community, complete with factories, pleasure gardens, a gymnasium and educational facilities. Whitwell devised an ordered quadrangular layout for the proposed town, "thirty-three acres; that of the enclosed quadrangle twenty-two acres, nearly three times as large as Russell Square, London". [8] Communal residences were located on the periphery, acting as a boundary wall, and all facilities were to be placed symmetrically within. Whitwell wrote about his careful consideration of the positioning of the building massing to provide ample light and air to all residents. [9] The engraving of Whitwell’s famous perspective of the proposed town was entitled "DESIGN for a Community of 2,000 Persons Founded upon a Principle Commended by Plato, Lord Bacon and Sir Thomas More". [10]

Russell Square large garden square in London, United Kingdom

Russell Square is a large garden square in Bloomsbury, in the London Borough of Camden, built predominantly by James Burton. It is near the University of London's main buildings and the British Museum. To the north is Woburn Place, and to the south-east is Southampton Row. Russell Square tube station is nearby to the north-east.

Plato Classical Greek philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece and the founder of the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. He is widely considered the pivotal figure in the history of Ancient Greek and Western philosophy, along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle. Alfred North Whitehead once noted: "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."

The direct influence of Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia (1516) on Whitwell’s design is obvious. The layout of long communal dwellings of the New Harmony design recalls More’s portrayal of the fictional capital of Utopia, Aircastle, where houses built as long terraces contain back doors opening onto shared gardens, features employed in New Harmony. [11]

While New Harmony was intended to be a secular community, Rapp’s religious doctrine appears to have influenced Whitwell’s design too. Rapp’s emphasis on the spiritual experience of nature had led to the inclusion of a labyrinth with a temple in the middle within Harmonie, and other Rappite towns such as Economy, Pennsylvania. All included this vital feature. [12] Whitwell’s design for New Harmony also features multiple paths along which residents could meander, but the temple was replaced by a secular "Conservatory, of about one hundred feet in diameter, for the reception and cultivation of exotics". [13]

Whitwell spent some time in New Harmony around 1825-26. However, he returned to England, disillusioned, when the construction of the new town proved financially unviable. [14]

Later life

Whitwell’s short stay at New Harmony allowed him to publish in the New Harmony Gazette a proposal for a new system of town naming according to latitude and longitude, allowing travellers to immediately understand their location from such place names. [15]

Whitwell spent the last part of his life composing theoretical works. One, entitled On Warming and Ventilating Houses and Buildings By Means of Large Volumes of Attempered Air, was published in 1834, but another, intriguingly titled Architectural Absurdities, is now lost. [16]


Whitwell’s reputation as an architect has not withstood the test of time, and his texts have either been lost or had little or no influence, but his design for New Harmony has been revisited as one of the culminations of early 19th-century Utopian experimentation in the United States. The proliferation of new communities with emphasis on either religious or secular collective living reached its high point as Whitwell was producing his design for New Harmony. However, none displayed such a graphic interpretation of their own philosophy as Whitwell’s famous perspective did.

One of the key features of Whitwell’s design, the botanical garden in the centre with equal views and access from every dwelling, was echoed in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City values and has been carried out in various permutations around the world. One example is Milleara Estate in Avondale Heights, Victoria, Australia, designed by Walter Burley Griffin.

Much of the influence of Whitwell’s New Harmony design can be credited to Owen, who toured both the United States and the United Kingdom promoting the plan, even persuading President John Quincy Adams to keep a model of it in his office for a period of time. [17] Owen continued to exhibit and publish it after Whitwell’s death in a brochure, Plan for a Model Community.

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New Harmony is a historic town on the Wabash River in Harmony Township, Posey County, Indiana. It lies 15 miles (24 km) north of Mount Vernon, the county seat, and is part of the Evansville metropolitan area. The town's population was 789 at the 2010 census.

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  1. John W. Reps, "Whitwell: Description of a Model City",, Accessed 27/04/2011
  2. James Stevens Curl, "Whitwell, Thomas Stedman" in A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. 2000., Accessed 27/04/2011
  3. A. W. Skempton, A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, Thomas Telford Publishing, London, 2002. p. 768
  4. Curl, Accessed 27/04/2011
  5. Robert P. Sutton, Communal Utopias and the American Experience, Praeger, Westport, CT, 2004, p. 3
  6. Sutton, p. 1
  7. Sutton, p. 5
  8. Thomas Stedman Whitwell, Description of an Architectural Model, reproduced in Kenneth E. Carpenter, ed., Cooperative Communities: Plans and Descriptions, Arno Press, New York, 1972, p. 5
  9. Whitwell, p. 5
  10. Whitwell, frontispiece
  11. Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, Bloomsbury, London, 1999, p. 674
  12. Yotsna Sreenivasan, Utopias in American History, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California, 2008. p. 158.
  13. Whitwell, p. 17
  14. Reps, Accessed 27/04/2011
  15. Reps, Accessed 27/04/2011
  16. Curl, Accessed 27/04/2011
  17. Reps, Accessed 27/04/2011