Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.
A brief introduction to Architecture Listed places

Women Architects Who Helped Shape England

Women have always influenced domestic design but it wasn't until 1898 that the first female architect was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Women have always influenced domestic design through their involvement with homes, schools, hospitals and gardens.

But it wasn’t until 1898 that the first professional female architect, Ethel Charles, was recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Take a closer look at the significant contribution made by women to the field of English architecture over the past 400 years.

Who was the first woman architect?

Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632–1705) is usually hailed as the first known woman architect. She designed her home, the 1670s Weston Park in Staffordshire.

She also produced the earliest architectural drawings known to be by a woman, for the rebuilding of St Andrew’s church in Weston-under-Lizard.

Exterior of Weston Park
Weston Park, Staffordshire. © Mr Clive Shenton Source Historic England Archive.

Previously, Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676) is the first woman recorded to have had hands-on involvement in re-shaping buildings.

Her earliest known work includes restoring the Church of St Michael in Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria. She also designed changes to one of her family seats, Brougham Castle.

Castle ruins with well-kept lawns and some ground-level wall remains in the foreground.
Brougham Castle dates from the 13th century and is sited in the north-west corner of the Roman Fort of Brocavum, which was in use from the 2nd to the 4th centuries. © Historic England Archive K981484.

Pioneering women in architecture

Jane and Mary Parminter

Jane (1750–1811) and Mary Parminter (1767–1849) were cousins who built their rural retreat A la Ronde near Exmouth in Devon in 1798. The pair had travelled extensively across Europe, and their passion for eclectic design is reflected in the building.

Octagonal three-storey cottage built of stone with red-tiled roof.
A la Ronde in Devon. © Lee Morgan via Flickr.

The cottage’s central octagon shape is thought to have been modelled on the 6th-century basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The site features rustic details like intricate shell and feather wall patterns and hidden grottoes.

Mary Townley

Mary Townley (1753–1839) was a cousin and pupil of artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Three-storey mansion house with projecting central block and two-storey wings.
Townley House, Ramsgate, Kent. © Historic England Archive DP247263.

She designed several houses, including her own in 1792, Townley House Mansion in Ramsgate, where the Townley family subsequently lived and received many distinguished visitors.

Sarah Losh

Sarah Losh (1785–1853) was an expert linguist, member of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society and friend to poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1839 she funded and designed the rebuilding of the Church of St Mary in Wreay, Cumbria.

Arcade of 14 columns with carved capitals. Ceiling of pine panels and trusses of oak, floor of sandstone slabs. In the foreground is carved altar table.
The Church of St Mary was constructed in 1840-2 to designs by Sarah Losh, who also created the alabaster font together with WS Losh. © Historic England Archive DP066710.

Having travelled extensively, Losh based the church’s design on a Roman basilica. This simple building form contrasted with the popular English Gothic style. The inside of the church is embellished with ornate symbolic carvings, making for a unique and imaginative space.

The first women architects to be recognised

Ethel and Bessie Charles

In 1898, Ethel Charles became the first woman to enter the Royal Institute of British Architects, followed by her sister Bessie Charles in 1900.

However, like many women designers of the period, the sisters could not obtain commissions for large-scale projects that continued to be reserved for men.

As a result, they focused on domestic architecture, often commissioned by female clients and modest housing projects such as labourers’ cottages.

Design for proposed semi-detached houses at Gyllyng Road, Falmouth, Cornwall, for Mr Vinson: plans, sections and elevations
Design drawing by Ethel Charles for semi-detached houses, Falmouth, Cornwall, England, 1906. Image from RIBApix (number RIBA31416) RIBA Collections.

Elizabeth Scott

The Architectural Association in London began to admit women in 1917. One of the first women to study there was Elizabeth Scott (1898–1972), who paved the way for many aspiring women architects.

Scott was the great-niece of architect George Gilbert Scott (who designed St Pancras Station). She was also the second cousin of Giles Gilbert Scott (designer of Battersea Power Station).

Red brick building with stone brick dressings, coated steel and glass sections with lead, zinc and membrane roofing.
The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was built in 1877-9 but was largely destroyed by fire in 1926. Elizabeth Scott won an open architectural competition and a new theatre was built in 1928-32, with the scheme incorporating elements from the earlier building. © Historic England Archive DP154485.

In 1928, just four years after getting her diploma, Scott won a high-profile competition to rebuild the burnt-out Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon. This was a huge step forward for women in architecture.

Scott hired women on her projects and worked with the Fawcett Society to promote wider acceptance of women in professions they were not typically associated with. She disliked being labelled a ‘female architect’ rather than simply an ‘architect’.

Women architects with listed buildings

The 1930s saw a body of pioneering independent single women who were at least equal to their male counterparts. These included Elisabeth Benjamin, Mary Crowley, (Margaret) Justin Blanco White, Norah Aiton and Betty Scott.

Other women architects have been jointly credited for major projects alongside men.

Norah Aiton and Betty Scott

After meeting as students at the Architectural Association in the mid-1920s, Norah Aiton (1904–1989) and Betty Scott (1904–1983) practised together, firstly gaining commissions from their families.

In 1931 they designed the steel-framed Aiton Works in Derby, home to Aiton and Co, owned by Norah’s father. It was the first industrial building of the Modern Movement in Britain and one of the first designed by a female partnership.

Aerial view of industrial building complex.
The office block at Aiton and Co Ltd was built in 1931 to designs by Norah Aiton and Betty Scott. It is one of the earliest industrial buildings designed by a partnership of women architects. Aiton and Co specialised in pipework, including for use on ships. © Historic England Archive EPW038010.

Elisabeth Benjamin

Elisabeth Benjamin (1908–1999) began her training at the Architectural Association in 1927. She spent a year as a student assistant to architect Edwin Lutyens.

Private house made of reinforced concrete and built in the international modern style of the 1930s.
East Wall, Hedgerley Lane, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. RIBApix ref RIBA24400.

Benjamin designed East Wall in Buckinghamshire in 1936, an accomplished design in the modern international style of the 1930s. It’s one of only three houses she created and the best surviving example.

Alison Smithson

Alison Smithson (1928–1993) designed several buildings with her husband Peter, including the Economist Building in Piccadilly, the Garden Building at St Hilda’s College in Oxford, Smithdon High School in Norfolk, Sugden House in Watford, and buildings at the University of Bath.

Reinforced concrete office building and office tower (at the back) with Portland stone facings.
Economist Building, 25 St James’s Street, City of Westminster, London. © Historic England Archive DP158572.

Brenda Walker

Brenda Walker was the job architect for 22 Avenue Road in Leicester, a private house built in 1953–4 with Fello Atkinson as a partner in charge.

Flat-roofed private single-storey house photographed at dusk and lit up by internal lighting.
22 Avenue Road, Leicester, Leicestershire. © Historic England Archive DP148570.

Betty Cadbury-Brown

Betty Cadbury-Brown (1922–2002), with her husband H T Cadbury-Brown, designed their own home, 3 Church Walk in Aldeburgh, in 1963–4.

Single-storey, flat grassed roof private house built of pinkish brown bricks.
3 Church Walk, Aldeburgh, Suffolk. © Historic England Archive DP138981.

Mary Medd

Mary Medd (nee Crowley) (1907–2005) designed three houses at Orchard Road, Tewin, in 1936, and Burleigh School in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire in 1946–7.

Two-storey yello brick house in the international modern style.
Sewell’s Orchard, 102 Orchard Road, Tewin, Hertfordshire. © Historic England Archive DP138497.

With her husband, David Medd, she designed 5 Pennyfathers Lane in Harmer Green in 1952, St Crispin’s School in Wokingham in 1953 and Woodside School in Amersham in 1957.

Sadie Speight

Sadie Speight (1906–1992) designed the 1938 house Brackenfell in Brampton, Cumbria, with her husband, Leslie Martin.

Two-storey red brick house in the modern style.
Brackenfell, Capon Tree Road, Brampton, Cumbria. © Historic England Archive DP137899.

Zaha Hadid

Born in Iraq in 1950, Zaha Hadid (1950–2016) studied mathematics at the American University in Beirut before moving to London in 1972 to attend the Architectural Association School.

She founded Zaha Hadid Architects in 1979, and the firm’s first major project was the Vitra Fire Station in Germany. They also designed the distinctive London Aquatics Centre, a diving and swimming facility built for the 2012 London Olympics. It is now open to the public.

Modern building with long stretch of  glass topped with a sweeping roof structure.
The London Aquatics Centre was designed by architect Zaha Hadid. It was one of the major venues for the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. After modification, which included the removal of the side wings, it was opened to the public in 2014. © Historic England Archive PLA01_03_0001.

In 2004, Hadid was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize (considered the Nobel Prize of Architecture). She was made a Dame in 2012 for architecture services and, in 2015, became the first and only woman to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

We did not have space to feature all the buildings by women architects in England. If you’d like to share more of these gems with readers, let us know about them in the comments.

8 comments on “Women Architects Who Helped Shape England

  1. Bronwyn Hanna

    This is lovely to see. My PhD on women architects in NSW noted several Australian women architects who worked in the UK in the 1920s and 1930s, and may have some information for you relevant to this theme. It is online at:
    (Dr) Bronwyn Hanna

  2. Thanks for posting on this very interesting subject and raising awareness of the significant contribution women have made to the world of heritage architecture despite often not being able to attain recognition as ‘architect’.

  3. hanks for posting on this very interesting subject and raising awareness of the significant contribution women have made to the world of heritage architecture despite often not being able to attain recognition as ‘architect’.

  4. This is a great introduction into women’s involvement with architecture throughout the centuries. My current phd research is looking into female architectural patronage in 18th century Britain. As expected, I have discovered many examples of elite women who shaped their homes and gardens both architecturally and aesthetically. So glad to see that others are interested in this subject!

  5. David W. Landrum

    Very good article. In my home town of Grand Rapids, MI, there is a Frank Lloyd Wright house; but about a block from it is another house built by a woman who was his only female student. I’d like to know more about her.

  6. Ruth Colgan

    Most of Royal Shakespeare Theatre was rebuilt some 15 years ago. Your photograph shows that newer building looking onto the River Avon. Sorry, I don’t want to detract from Elizabeth Scott’s achievements in1928. How to update/ remodel her theatre design was a complex and difficult decision

  7. Moira Birks

    Going to A La Ronde was my birthday treat a few years ago! Love it.

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