The Architectural Legacy of Charles H. Wheeler

By Bugailiskis, Giles | Manitoba History, February 2007 | Go to article overview

The Architectural Legacy of Charles H. Wheeler

Bugailiskis, Giles, Manitoba History

Charles Henry Wheeler was born on 23 April 1838 in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, in the west Midlands of England that includes the cities of Coventry and Birmingham. Lutterworth, with a population of about 2,400, was the Thursday market town and parish serving the surrounding villages and hamlets with the locals providing services as tailors, millers, bakers and the like. Wheeler was born into a humble family. When his parents married, his father Charles was twenty-one years old, a manservant, coachman and groom; his mother Mary Elson was twenty from a neighbouring village. She most likely met her husband helping her family, who were bakers, during market day. Charles H. was the middle child; he had an older half- sister Elizabeth, and a brother John. Charles Jr. attended grammar school in Lutterworth and received additional training from the vicar of the parish church of St. Mary's. The church had been built in the thirteenth century and is renowned for its former rector John Wycliffe who translated the bible into English in the fourteenth century. Middle class children had private tutors at this time while whatever education working class children received was aimed at giving them moral instruction rather than academic training.

Wheeler's parents encouraged his attraction to architecture from his early years. We know that the Wheeler's immediate neighbours on Wood Market Street were both carpenters and so young Charles would have taken an early interest from them. He apprenticed in carpentry, bricklaying, painting and stone masonry, acquiring fundamental skills in construction. By 1858, when Charles H. was 20, he was living in Coventry, working as a carpenter. It is here that he learned pattern making at the Coventry Engine and Art Metal Works. He was living on Ford Street when he met a young woman carpenter named Annie Wakefield living on the same street (born in Fairford, Gloucestershire) and on 9 May 1859 at Holy Trinity Church in Coventry he married her. Their marriage certificate shows that both she and her father were carpenters.

By 1861, the Wheelers had moved into 9 Stanton Street with two infants Alfred and Emily. They lived in Coventry several more years and had another son, Charles. In about 1866 Wheeler took a two-year commission to serve as a clerk of works for the British government in the construction of a gaol in Shanghai China. Afterwards, he returned to England and took a position in Brighton Sussex where his son George Victor was born in 1869. Very little is known about Charles' life for the next 13 years. We do know that by 1873 he and his family were living in the Birmingham area and there were two more children, Arthur and Lily. In 1881 he had 45 workmen in his employ and was now living at 148 Conybere Street. For 20 years, his career in Great Britain included assignments as construction foreman, project supervisor (clerk of works) and architect on endeavours such as churches, mansions, bridges, and sea works. Clerk of works were usually young men from humble families who apprenticed in the building trades and worked their way through low level jobs for a larger contractor. They would ensure that work was being done based on the specifications provided by an engineer or architect. Among the influential and prestigious men with whom Wheeler worked during his career in England were George E. Street (1824-1881), Thomas Hawksley (1807-1893), and John Henry Chamberlain (1831-1883).

After reading a glowing Montreal newspaper account of the opportunities available in the Canadian prairies, Wheeler decided to emigrate. He left England and arrived in Winnipeg with his wife and six children in late February 1882, just near the close of a frenzied land speculation boom. A decision to route the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) through Winnipeg had meant millions of dollars would be spent in the city to supply the huge rail construction project. It also promised a unique opportunity to architects to design any number of commercial, industrial, civic, and residential buildings.

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