John Cathles Hill from Dundee, Scotland to Hornsey, London, England

John Cathles Hill (1857–1915), builder and brickmaker, was born in Anderson’s Entry, Hawkhill, Dundee, on 12 December 1857, the eldest son of Robert Hill and his wife Eliza, née Cathles. There were six children, three boys (including John) and three girls, one of whom died in infancy. The elder Hill was a wheelwright and joiner, and in 1860 succeeded his father and grandfather as tollhouse keeper at Auchterhouse, living in a toll cottage there. The family was staunchly Presbyterian. An ancestor, John Hill, had been an elder of the kirk in the seventeenth century, and Robert Hill was an elder of the village church.

Hill went to the village school and, after serving an apprenticeship to his father as a joiner, attended classes at the mechanics’ institute in Glasgow. At the age of twenty-one, he left for London, where a relative, George Cathles Porter, was working as a speculative builder in Hornsey. This subsequently became the base of Hill’s own building operations. He was initially employed as a wage-earning craftsman, but soon began to take on contracts for joinery, and from there graduated to building whole houses. On 22 June 1882, he married Matilda (b. 1858/9), the daughter of William Henry Mose, a grocer. She was of considerable assistance in his business career.

Over the space of some thirty years, Hill built more than two thousand houses and other buildings, mainly in the district of Crouch End. In Crouch End Broadway and Tottenham Lane, he built parades of shops with several storeys above crowned by elaborate gables in the Dutch style which was fashionable at the end of the nineteenth century, and he was instrumental in transforming the village of Crouch End into a fashionable shopping centre. He also built two large and spectacular public houses, the Salisbury, Green Lanes, and the Queen’s Hotel, Crouch End, both outstanding examples of late-nineteenth-century gin palaces, with elaborate etched and coloured glass, rich decorative plasterwork, and very high-quality mahogany bar fittings and joinery from Hill’s own workshops.

In 1888, when his buildings operations were at their height and he was experiencing difficulty in obtaining a regular supply of bricks, he visited the brick-producing area of Fletton near Peterborough. In the following year, he purchased an ailing brickfield there and founded the London Brick Company. He rapidly expanded production in the area and built the famous ‘Napoleon’ kiln, the largest in the world for several years. He eventually owned some 1300 acres of brickfields, capable of producing up to 2 million bricks a week. He built 350 houses for the employees of his yards and in his obituary was described as ‘a just and even generous employer‘ (Peterborough and Hunts Standard, 10 April 1915). Every year he would take his workers and their wives and families by special trains to Yarmouth for a day’s outing, paying for their meals and entertainment. He was primarily responsible for the dominant position which Fletton bricks came to occupy in the construction industry. He served on several committees and organizations concerned with brick-making, including the Institute of Clayworkers, of which he was twice president.

Hill, who was described as ‘the maker of modern Fletton‘ (Peterborough and Hunts Standard, 10 April 1915), took an active part in local affairs. His parents moved to Fletton in their later years, but Hill himself continued to live in London. He was elected to the Huntingdonshire county council in 1905 and the London county council in 1910.

In common with most builders, Hill financed his operations principally through mortgages, and in the 1890s, at the height of a building boom, he increased his financial commitments to purchase land in Fletton, partly to extend his brick-making business and partly for speculative building there. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the building cycle took a pronounced downturn and Hill’s financial position deteriorated. A number of manoeuvres designed to rescue him failed, and he went bankrupt in 1912 with liabilities of over £1.2 million and assets of less than a fifth of that amount. In February 1915 an application for Hill to be discharged from bankruptcy was granted but suspended for two years. For the last four years of his life, he suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. He died on 5 April 1915 at 20 Ventnor Villas, Hove, while on a visit to the resort, and was buried on 9 April in Highgate cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two sons, and a daughter. His elder son, Robert William (1884–1917), was killed in Flanders. The younger, John Edgar (1887–1937), played a prominent part in the development of the brick-making industry.

Source – Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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