The Evolution of the Clerk of Works

The Clerk of Works was an important position on most construction sites in Regency England, just as it had begun to be in the Middle Ages. But like so many things in this transitional decade at the beginning of the late modern period, that position and the responsibilities which appertained to it were gradually changing, to eventually become standard as the nineteenth century came to a close. But during the Regency, there was a wide latitude in the circumstances of those who held the position, their duties and even their clients, which could vary from project to project. Regency Authors may find the position of Clerk of Works just the thing to suit a character in an upcoming story.

Clerks of Works in Regency England . . .

The first known record of a Clerk of Works was in 1241, during the reign of Henry III, when a Clerk of Works was appointed to oversee construction work being done at Windsor Castle. A century and a half later, the poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, also held the position of Clerk of the King’s Works. The title may well have its origins in the fact that in most cases, those who held these positions were clerics of religious orders. These men were literate and able to read and interpret building plans and instructions for the workers on a construction site, as well as ensure the availability of the necessary materials as construction progressed. They were often also responsible for paying the workers. Initially, this position was given the title of "The Cleric of the Church Works." The title was gradually shortened to Clerk of Works, and these men, from the clerical class, initially oversaw work on churches and other religious buildings, as well as providing similar services for a wide range of royal construction projects.

As the centuries marched on, it became obvious to the nobility and others who were having buildings constructed, that the work proceeded more efficiently and at a more reasonable cost, if a Clerk of Works was employed. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, begun by Henry VIII in 1536, Clerks of Works were no longer drawn from the religious houses of England. Instead, they might come from a number of different backgrounds. Some aristocrats chose to have their estate agent, steward or bailiff oversee their building projects. In other cases, a literate senior member of the construction crew might be appointed Clerk of Works for a project on which they were already working. By the second half of the seventeenth century, as the profession of architect was beginning to emerge, some architects appointed their trusted assistants or best students to the positions of Clerks of Works on their building projects.

During the eighteenth century, particularly after the Grand Tour became fashionable among the aristocracy and the gentry, many among those classes took up the study of architecture. Those who could afford it often built, re-built or significantly expanded their country homes, and to a lesser degree, their London townhouses. In most cases, the intent of these construction projects was to demonstrate the traveler’s good taste in architecture and to house the art which they had collected on their tours of Europe. This expansion in building across the country increased the need for Clerks of Works. In a few cases, landowners assigned the position of Clerk of Works to one of their most trusted and experienced employees who were already working on their estates. Typically, this responsibility fell to the estate steward, who knew the area and was considered particularly trustworthy. However, in most cases, Clerks of Works were chosen and paid by the architect, to manage the construction project in the best interests of the client. And, since many of these building projects could take several years, the position of Clerk of Works was one of the more secure positions within the building professions of the period.

From the late eighteenth century, right through the Regency, most building projects, whether private, or public, were managed by a Clerk of Works. Though the majority of landowners had great faith in their estate stewards or bailiffs, most of those men already had more than enough responsibility to keep them fully occupied. They simply did not have the time to take on such demanding, detailed work. Therefore, even before the turn of the nineteenth century, Clerks of Works were hired specifically to manage most large building projects. These men came from a wide range of backgrounds, including independent professional craftsmen, especially stone masons or master carpenters, or they might be an apprentice architect or builder with construction experience. However, there were some instances when a landowner preferred to have a trusted and knowledgeable estate tenant manage the work for him. And, in those cases where the construction work was being done on church property, a few men of the cloth acted as their own Clerk of Works. In many cities and towns which had a surveyor on staff, that surveyor very often took on the responsibilities of a Clerk of Works in managing civic building projects. For smaller, shorter jobs, such as the construction of a new outbuilding, or the remodeling of an existing building, a landowner, his estate steward, or in some cases, an adult son, might serve as the Clerk of Works for those smaller projects.

Even before the turn of the nineteenth century, the Clerk of Works was expected to be on the construction site at all times during which any building work was in progress. Clerks of Works were typically the keepers of the plans and drawings for the building, and in most cases, they had extensive experience in reading and interpreting such documents for the workmen. Thus, they also had the responsibility for day-to-day direction and supervision of all of the work done by the craftsmen on the job. Part of their responsibility was what today would be considered quality assurance, since they had the obligation to inspect all of the work as it was completed. Since some of that work would be covered or obscured by subsequent work, the Clerk of Works must be on hand to immediately approve important parts of the work as it was completed, in order to keep the project on schedule. In addition, Clerks of Works were usually responsible for hiring most of the workmen and maintaining discipline among the men, as well as the scheduling all of those workers to ensure their time on the job site was as economical as possible. A lazy or inattentive Clerk of Works, who had specialized workmen on the building site before or after they were actually needed, would be responsible for higher construction costs for the landowner. Typically, Clerks of Works paid the craftsmen for their work, based on agreements made when they were hired. Plus, Clerks of Works were usualy expected to locate and secure all of the building materials which would be required, as well as arranging for their transport to the building site to ensure they were available when they were needed. Furthermore, Clerks of Works were also responsible for providing regular reports on the progress of the construction work to the architect and/or the property owner, and of keeping detailed financial accounts of the work done and the materials purchased.

Though Clerks of Works were crucial for the efficient and cost-effective completion of a construction project, and they had a great deal of responsibility, they were not paid much more than any master craftsman working on a building site. Most earned between one and two guineas per week, depending upon their level of experience. However, if they had garnered a reputation as a competent and efficient Clerk of Works, their services were usually in demand. Thus, they could typically move from one job to another with only short breaks between each, thereby ensuring they had fairly steady employment over the course of their careers. It must be noted that Clerk of Works was a fairly isolated position. These men managed and directed the workmen on the site, so they were not really one of the crew. In most cases, they reported to the architect, but their responsibility was to protect the interests of the client, so there could be some friction there, and they were not the peer of either person. In addition, those men who regularly worked as Clerks of Works did have to move from place to place, based on the location of their next building site. Such a lifestyle may have made a stable family life somewhat challenging. For the wife of a Clerk of Works, it would have been very much like being married to a sailor or a soldier, since her husband would be away from home for long periods.

Some Clerks of Works were students or apprentices of professional architects who took on these jobs in order to advance their careers. In many cases, though they were paid little more than a master craftsman at a job site, they were also gaining invaluable on-site experience which would enable them to become a much more practical and efficient architect. Therefore, it would be worth their while to spend some time working as a Clerk of Works, even at a lower rate of pay, in order to acquire real-life building experience and understand how materials were used and how craftsmen actually worked, in practice. Thus, they would almost certainly become a better architect. Experience as a successful Clerk of Works would enable a professional architect to develop more efficient plans and drawings, which could help make his buildings easier and faster to build, thereby keeping costs down. That ability would help him to get more commissions and enjoy a more successful and lucrative career.

During the Regency, and in the decades before, a capable and enterprising young man could become a Clerk of Works, if he knew an architect or builder and/or had even some passing knowledge of architecture and construction. Such was not the case by the end of the nineteenth century. By then, an enterprising young man would find it rather difficult to become a Clerk of Works unless he had trained for the position. In 1882, the Clerk of Works Association was founded, and in 1903, it became the Incorporate Clerk of Works Association of Great Britain. The association was founded to provide a central organization for Clerks of Works, who typically worked in isolation on the job site, to exchange information. It also grew to provided specific education for those men who wished to follow that career. Today, the position of Clerk of Works still exists in Great Britain and is practiced by many professional men and women who have been highly trained to become the lead in both management and quality assurance on most construction sites.

Dear Regency Authors, might it help you build the plot of a Regency romance to make one of your characters a Clerk of Works on a construction project? Perhaps the hero is an amateur architect, can read building plans and manage workmen, but more importantly, he needs to spend some time in a certain area where a building is under construction, in order to keep tabs on a suspected spy? Then again, could it be that the heroine’s brother has gotten a job as Clerk of Works on an important construction site in the country, but he has been injured and cannot do the work? Since the job site is in a remote area where neither the heroine or her brother have ever been, and she has the skills to run a job site, might she masquerade as her brother so that they will have the income and the young man can retain his place as an architect’s apprentice? On the other hand, could it be that the heroine, the daughter of the village vicar, thinks the hero, the Clerk of Works on a construction project on the estate of the local squire, is too harsh with the workmen. Will there be a confrontation between the two, and how might that play out? Are there other ways in which a Clerk of Works might play a part in a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to The Evolution of the Clerk of Works

  1. My initial thought was that a landowner might appoint the son of the vicar whose living he has as his gift, knowing the young man to be clever and knowledgeable, and moreover loyal to the Family at the Hall which is being expanded. Lord Muckamuck doesn’t trust the architect to stick to his brief. This leads to resentment from the architect’s daughter, a capable girl who produces sketches for her father, and soothes the workmen. there are a number of battles royal before they realise all that UST. then the question is, will the vicar’s son bring the architect’s daughter to the village or will he go along as an assistant to his father in law?
    Of course I have to also suggest that when the clerk of works [in this or any other] finds a body, apparently killed by masonry piled up waiting to be built which has fallen, he might wonder why the body has bruises where there isn’t fallen masonry.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      OMG!!!! You can even weave mayhem and death into the tale of construction! 😉

      Actually, I do like both plot bunnies, especially the first one. It offers a lot of potential for drama as well as romance. The second one offers a lot of potential for drama, but I must admit I prefer my romance sans bloodshed.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • If the construction involved is a bridge, the dead guy could even have been killed by the construction workers; it was superstition that a bridge would not hold unless it had a human sacrifice, and when the first worker was killed building it, everyone relaxed. This held well into the 20th century! so construction work and death go together.
        I do usually keep the drama with bloodshed separate from the romance, though there may be incidental romance. Though you know how it is when characters take over the writing; sometimes perfectly romantic characters can trip over bodies, and sensible investigating characters can turn round and fall in love without a by-your-leave. They never consult me before they throw a spanner in the works of my careful planning, anyway.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I think that superstition about human sacrifice to a new bridge still holds today. I worked for a construction management company years ago, and there were some workers, who, as you noted, felt they were safer working a bridge after a fatality. In fact, most of the construction workers I knew were a very superstitious lot.

          Glad to know not only my characters are so headstrong! I do know what you mean, there are times when they do have ideas of their own. But I have learned that, in many cases, their versions make a better story.

          =^..^=

          • I did wonder! and it doesn’t surprise me.

            And yes, their version usually does make a better story. I have learned to sit back and type to the sound of their bullying. Sometimes I hardly have to do any work, when they really get on a roll and write for me.

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