"A remarkable incident accompanies the period at which this gentleman came to settle in Brighton.
Through his abilities and taste, the order of the ancient architecture of buildings in Brighton
may be dated to have changed from its antiquated simplicity and rusticity; and its improvements
have since progressively increased. He was a man of extensive genius, and talent, and in his
reputation for uprightness of conduct could only meet its parallel."
Amon Wilds ( 1762 - 1833) and Amon Henry Wilds ( 1790 - 1857)
The Wilds, father and son, together with Charles A. Busby are the three men whose genius was responsible for the core of Brighton’s fine architecture in the Regency and early Victorian period. Indeed it defines what most observers would define as ‘Brighton'.
The grand schemes of Kemp Town in the east and Brunswick Town in the west, many houses on Marine Parade, Regency Square and much else besides, all are their work. shows a careful handling of a single, small-scale dwelling.
Fortunately for Amon Wilds, and for us, he was succeeded by a son who was capable of erecting a suitable monument to such a pivotal figure. Unfortunately for Amon Henry, he was not.
Amon Henry’s legacy was no less than his father’s: as well as producing grand architectural schemes,such as Oriental Place, Park Crescent, Western Terrace and Montpelier Crescent, he also designed the Victoria Fountain in the Steine as well as the western extension and tombs in St Nicholas churchyard; he also turned his hand to .
Yet when he died, the Brighton Herald recorded his skills as those that would suggest to posterity that he was little more than a minor landscape architect. Perhaps due to changing fashion, he drifted from the public consciousness, and even his final resting place was lost to common knowledge.
Due to the detective work by two people, John Cooper, in the first instance, and Lavender Jones who completed the researches into Amon Wilds’ descendants, we can now have a fuller picture of their lives ... and deaths.
My introduction to the work of Amon Wilds and his son Amon Henry was through my interest in Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), the Lewes-born geologist and discoverer of Sussex dinosaurs. As Keeper of Geology at the Booth Museum of Natural History on Dyke Road, I arrived in 1981 with an interest in fossils of all sorts, but I was particularly happy to find myself in a county steeped in the history of geology, particularly that of dinosaur discovery. The front of Mantell’s elegant house in Castle Place, Lewes is famous for the use of stylised ammonites in place of the usual ionic volutes on fluted pilasters – an ornament well known to members of the Regency Society from its logo. This so called ‘Ammonite Capital’ was invented by George Dance and first used in London in 1789, but was appropriated by the Wilds’ in 1816 when they remodelled the front of two cottages on the High Street for Mantell who at the time was setting himself up in medical practice. It was Antony Dale who first suggested their attraction to this ornament because of “...the punning allusion to their own Christian names…”, as well of course as its appropriateness to a fossil-collecting geologist. Michael Kerney, another geologist, published his review of Ammonites in Architecture in 1983 in Country Life but before that, two earlier articles in geological and conchological journals appeared. It was from these sources that I learnt much more about the use of the ‘Ammonite Order’ and set about documenting it for myself.
As Antony Dale observes in the introduction of his chapter on ‘Wilds and Busby’,
“Very little written information is available concerning the Wilds and Busby partnership which was responsible for so many of the best buildings in Brighton. As far as their architectural record is concerned it is consequently very difficult to disentangle the joint work of the partnership from that executed by its individual members….”
This as much, if not more, applies to disentangling the work of father from son, as it does to separating Busby from either Wilds. Wilds senior was first a carpenter and builder, and only latterly an architect and surveyor, whereas Amon Henry, with greater social pretensions and ultimately a more considerable architectural record than his father, was always an architect. It does seem clear that the son may well have been a subordinate to his father in a partnership in Lewes until 1822 when the first Wilds senior and Busby partnership struck up. If Henry was involved in that partnership it is difficult to tell with their names being so similarly abbreviated. But since their buildings in Richmond Terrace and Hanover Crescent, built before the Busby partnership flowered, both carry ammonite capitals, it seems reasonable to suppose that father and son had together adopted the device as a sort of trademark. Equally, it seems likely that many subsequent buildings in Oriental Place, Montpelier Terrace, Montpelier Road etc, built after the Busby partnership began, were actually the work of Amon Henry Wilds alone, and it is on some of those buildings that the ammonites thrived. Perhaps then, it was Amon Henry who drove the choice of the ammonite capital as a favoured ornament.
Amon Wilds senior died in 1833 and his tomb is well known in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Brighton. Indeed it was the Regency Society that organised the re-cutting of the florid inscriptions, which latterly had become unreadable. It seems likely that it was his son who designed the tomb, topped with another typical Wilds piece of ornamentation, a stylised clamshell. I recall thinking that as grand a tomb though this was, how fine it would be to see that of Amon Henry, and surely that would be topped by no other than an ammonite capital. But when I finally read Antony Dale’s account was surprised to see that he had been unable to locate any record of his burial and guessed that Amon Henry “… retired into the country or left the district altogether in 1850.”
It was in 1984 that I found the briefest of obituaries to Amon Henry in the Brighton Herald of 25 July, 1857, which recorded that he had died at Old Shoreham. The parish registers for Old Shoreham are kept at the West Sussex Record Office and the County Archivist was able to tell me that Amon Henry was buried on July 18 in the churchyard of St. Nicolas, Old Shoreham. Alas, despite careful searches, I was unable to locate his grave. It should be said that there are almost 1000 burials, many of which are quite indecipherable or overgrown.
And so it remained until this year, the 150th anniversary of Amon Henry’s death, when I was asked to speak to the Hove Rotary Club about ammonite capitals. This prompted me to delve once more into the life of Amon Henry, and I revisited St. Nicolas to search for his grave, again with no luck. But I did contact the vicar, Rev. Victor Standing, just in case any new records of burials had emerged. To my astonishment, he was able to tell me about the fine work of the Sussex Family History Group in documenting tombstones in the county, and that he had a printed version of their researches at St Nicolas. He not only confirmed the date of burial, but also had a map locating the Following a message to the SFHG, Christine Payne kindly emailed me both the inscription and map, and just two days later, I was able to remove sufficient undergrowth to confirm , together with his wife and daughter.
Sadly, there were no ammonites in attendance.
John Cooper BSc AMA FGS
1 Antony Dale, Fashionable Brighton 1820-1860, London:Country Life Ltd
2 Michael Kerney, Ammonites in Architecture, Country Life, Jan 27, 1983, pp 214-218
3 Michael Kerney, Ammonites in Architecture Conchologists Newsletter, 80, 1982, p.366.
REPRINTED in the Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group, Vol3-4, 1982, pp232-3.
Amon Henry Wilds’ (1785-1857) obituary in the Brighton Herald only briefly records the fact that he practised as an architect, and that he “displayed great taste and judgement in laying out grounds”, mentioning that the trees on the Level and the elms in Elm Grove were planted by him. There was no mention of his huge legacy of building - not only in Brighton, but also in other parts of the country. By 1852 he had moved from his extraordinary house, Western Pavilion (Image here, Panorama here) to a small cottage beside the railway line in Shoreham. Perhaps by then his family had made so many financial demands on him that his money had run out; by the time he retired he was quite out of favour - hence his seemingly low key obituary.
A need to find out why led me to discover a story of poverty, a possible poisoning and a suicide.
In Wilds’ grave in Shoreham, lay, as well as his wife, his daughter, Sarah Ann Sellon (1818-1866) - his only child, born in Lewes. In February 1840 she married Edward Sellon, a wine merchant, and son of a Secretary in the War Office, at St. Nicholas Church, Brighton. They were married from 8 Western Terrace, Brighton and for a while lived at Woodbine Cottage, Uckfield.
Their first child, Guillemina Constance Sellon was born September 1842, baptised at the Chapel Royal but died in December of that year. The Sellons rented several houses during this time, in West Hill Road, Western Road and Montpelier Terrace.
By 1851 Sarah Ann was back (without her husband) with her parents at 9 Western Terrace,(Panorama here) 7 & 8 now let as a private school. At this time her husband was lodging in Peter’s Hill, St Marylebone, his age given as 33, occupation, “gentleman”. There were now two small children living with their mother and grandparents - Edward aged 4 who was born 7 years after their marriage, and William Loftus Sellon aged 4 months. Despite apparent estrangement a third child, another son, Marmaduke St.John, was born in 1855.
Meanwhile by 1852 Amon Henry Wilds had moved to Shoreham, having built a small cottage beneath the embankment of the Horsham & Shoreham railway Line. The cottage was one storey and had four rooms and a canopy around, in the railway style. Built on the bend of the Old Shoreham Road it would have had fine views of the River Adur.
Amon H.Wilds died in 1857 - his wife then moved to Lewes, where she lived until her death in 1871.
At some point after her son Marmaduke was born, Sarah A. Sellon also moved to Shoreham.
She lived in New Road, New Shoreham. Her husband by this time was not in gainful employment, though had spent some time in the Indian army. Sarah Ann Sellon died on 15 April 1866 in New Shoreham, aged 48.The shocking details of her death certificate gave the cause of death as “vomiting a week, convulsions 3 days, coma 12 hours”. A local nurse, Charlotte Pullin made her X, being present at the death. By 1871 the older children had left home and Marmaduke, aged 16, was, after his parents’ death, lodging in John Street, New Shoreham, with a Surveyor for the Ordnance Survey, and his family.
Edward Sellon was elusive, moving about London without permanent occupation. The only person I could find who fitted his dates was a writer of some rather questionable literature, of what can only be described as Victorian pornography. Amongst the titles were “The Ups and Downs of Life”, “The New Ladies’ Tickler” and “Annotations on the Sacred Writings of the Hindus Illustrating their Priapic Rites & Phallic Principles”. Some of these are still for sale today.
His death was in the same year as his wife’s, two days after hers on the 17 April 1866. Also aged 48, he was described as having “no occupation, formerly in the Madras Army. Cause of death: Pistol shot in the side, suicide when insane, found dead”. The Coroner’s report said that Sellon booked himself into 220 Piccadilly, [London] a small hotel called Webb’s (now the Criterion). On the previous afternoon, it was said he appeared calm and quiet. Later the next day staff found him dead on the floor, a suicide note in his own hand beside him, based on the speech from Hamlet “to die to sleep”. His body was taken to the dead house at St James’ Workhouse, Poland Street. One of the witnesses at the Inquest was Marmaduke Hornidge, a first cousin of Sellons. Written in the clerks scrawl and shorthand, was this statement “ I saw much of him at times, I last saw him in February 28th - last day I saw him. He was a hot headed, uncontrollable man”.
But what of Sarah Ann? Could her death have been caused by poison? The symptoms seem to indicate this was a possibility. Was Sellon so distraught by her death or so consumed with guilt for his actions that he shot himself, whilst his mind was disturbed?
And now what of the children? William Loftus Sellon became a Landscape Artist and Teacher of Art. Ernest Littlehayes Sellon, (possibly wrongly named Edward in the 1851 census) was a Lecturer in Botany, in London. Marmaduke St.John Sellon became a Roman Catholic priest, and was first priest in charge of the parish of St Albans, Bedfordshire. Ernest Sellon was the only one to marry and have children. His son Reginald died at the age of 12 and their daughter, Evelyn Augusta Mabel Sellon married Arthur Samuel Hoskins in 1904. There are relations through the extended family in America, one in particular who has been most helpful with research.
Amon Henry Wilds died, possibly in reduced circumstances, and, apart from his brief obituary, in obscurity. Considering the considerable architectural legacy he left, his grave in Shoreham is neglected and unadorned, unlike his father’s in St Nicholas Churchyard, Brighton with its decorative mouldings. His daughter Sarah Ann is buried with him, and who, like him seems to have had a troubled life. This, coupled with the tragic circumstances of her death and subsequent suicide of her husband, leaves us with a number of questions. It was in seeking answers to these that I began this research.