Sir Walter John Tapper FRIBA., R.A., FRSA., K.C.V.O. 1861-1935

Frances Billinge 2020

At a recent talk which I gave to Parke Women’s Institute I learnt that Walter John Tapper who had been born in Bovey Tracey in 1861, was a famous architect who received a knighthood and had the honour of being buried at Westminster Abbey.

Tappers in Bovey Tracey from 1596

Tapper is a family name which has been in Bovey Tracey since at least 1596 when Edmond and John Tapper both had holdings at Little Bovey. The rate they each paid for their holding was 3s 6d (Devon Heritage Centre 312M/0/ZPH/1-Bovey Tracey Church Rate, 1596). This was a considerable sum and the holding was similar in value to Pullabrook, Soldridge and Ullacombe farms.

Various Tapper family members had small land holdings in Bovey Tracey on the Land Tax Assessments and the Tithe Apportionments in the 1700-1841(records held at Devon Heritage Centre). This shows that they were more than just agricultural labourers

It is in researching Victorian times that the Tapper name has featured in my local history studies as George Tapper II built Heathfield House and also Heathfield Cottages. One of the cottages became the site of the first Cottage Hospital (see under Topics)

George Tapper I 1778 – 1843 Grandfather of Walter John Tapper

Because the Tapper name is a common one in Bovey Tracey’s history I have so far only been able to trace Walter Tapper’s family back with firm references to his grandfather George Tapper I who was born in Bovey Tracey in 1778, the son of Thomas Tapper. George I was a potter who lived on Fore Street. In 1811 George I married Mary Payne. They were both of Bovey Tracey and although George I only made his mark on the marriage certificate Mary was educated enough to be able to write her name.

Children soon followed, John Tapper in 1811, and Mary Ann in 1814. In 1816 George II was born.

George Tapper II 1816 – 1877 Father of Walter John Tapper

In 1841 a mason of about the right age called George Tapper was living in Paignton. No other 1841 Census entry has yet been found for George II so this was likely to be him.

In 1842 George Tapper II married Elizabeth Medland, he was a mason with both of them being of Bovey Tracey parish. George signed the marriage certificate but Elizabeth made her mark. Elizabeth was living on Fore Street at the time of the 1841 Census and was then a mantua maker.

George II and Elizabeth had several children and were living on Fore Street at the time of the 1851 and 1861 Census. By 1861 they had George III, Frederick, Elizabeth, Edwin and William. Because of the way the census enumerator worked we as yet cannot be sure of the site of their house but it was somewhere on Fore Street near John Divett’s house at the Riverside, now the Co-op.

Their famous son Walter John was born in 1862 and he appears on the 1871 Census. By then his father George II had become a builder employing eight men. George II was clearly a successful man and he was living at Heathfield House which he had built (Fig.1). This was one of the larger residences in Bovey Tracey at that time.

Figure 1, Heathfield House childhood home of Walter John Tapper. By kind permission of Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust.

Walter John Tapper 1862 – 1935

Walter aged thirteen served his articles at Rowell and Son, Newton Abbot. He moved to London and after first working for Basil Champneys joined the firm of Bodley and Gardner. In 1886 Walter married Catherine Lydia Jotcham. By 1891 Walter was an architect living at  Raymonds Buildings, Grays Inn London with his wife Catherine and their children Michael John aged four and Kathleen Mary aged eleven.Full information on Walter’s architectural career can be found on www.oxfordreference.com.   and in, Reilly, Sir Charles Herbert, 1931. “XII: Walter Tapper”. Representative British Architects of the Present Day (Ayer Publishing) p. 172. His major buildings are listed on  www. oxfordreference.org which quotes from A. S. Gray, 1985.Tapper, Sir Walter John  in  A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture:-

‘He worked with Basil Champneys and then Bodley & Garner. Although he opened an office in London in 1893 he did not leave Bodley until 1901, specializing in ecclesiastical work. His churches include the Ascension, Malvern Link, Worcs. (1903, Fig.2), St Mary’s, Harrogate, Yorks. (1904), St Erkenwald, Southend-on-Sea, Essex (1905–10), and a large extension to St Michael’s, Little Coates, Grimsby, Lincs. (1913). Much of his work was in brick, handled with great integrity, and his style was generally Arts-and-Crafts Gothic. He designed some exquisite church furnishings, including the beautiful additions to Sir Arthur Blomfield’s 1883 reredos in St Wulfram’s, Grantham, Lincs. (1901), but in later life he became more of a Classicist, as with the screen at Christchurch Priory, Hants. (1920s), and the Memorial Carillon Tower, Loughborough, Leics. (1921, Fig 3).’

Figure 2. Church of the Ascension Malvern

Figure 3. Carillon Tower, Loughborough

From 1927-1928 Walter was President of the Royal Institution of British Architects. From 1928-1935 he was surveyor of the fabric of Westminster Abbey and his work there was summarised by Tatton-Brown, edited by Tim, Mortimer, Richard, 2004. Westminster Abbey : the Lady Chapel of Henry VII (Rochester New York, Boydell Press) p. 339 :-

‘Tapper was appointed Surveyor of the Fabric of Westminster Abbey. His work there included much restoration work and designing additions to the building, including a new gallery above the roof of the east cloister to connect the Abbey Library with the Muniment Room. Tapper was greatly occupied with the conservation of deteriorating stonework which had been damaged by pollution; the Henry VII Lady Chapel became a particular problem in 1932 when falling masonry forced its closure on grounds of safety. Tapper repaired and restored the chapel, and as part of the project designed a new altar for the chapel, based on the original altar which had been designed in 1517 by the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano but was destroyed during the Restoration. (Lindley, ed. by Phillip (2003). Making medieval art. Donington:Shaun Tyas. p.208). Tapper’s reconstruction included parts of Torrigiano’s original which had been preserved in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the original baldachino, framing a painting of the Madonna and Child by Bartolommeo Vivarini (c.1480).

In 1935, one month before he died Walter was made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King George V. Tapper’s grave is in the west cloister of the Abbeyand bears the inscription:



Walter was known for his work in the Gothic Revival style. He would have first seen this in Bovey Tracey where the vicar Rev. The Hon. Sir Charles Lesley Courtenay had built St John’s Church and also the Devon House of Mercy in this style.

Sir Walter was not the only famous architect from our area. Thomas Henry Lyon, who was born in neighbouring Ilsington, became famous as Director of Design for Cambridge School of Architecture by 1940 (see article on his father Alfred Lyon under Topics). Many prestigious Ilsington residences were designed by Lyon but his most famous work can still be seen in Cambridge. I am not aware of any Bovey Tracey buildings being designed by Walter Tapper, if you find one please let me know.