James Bonnin’s birth record has not been found, but he was probably born between 1775 and 1782. His parents were James Bonnin and his wife Susanna (formerly Brown), who were married in 1770 in St Marylebone Church, London. In 1805 he married Elizabeth Moye (b 1784). A picture of James as a young man can be seen at the top of this page: a more mature portrait is on the right.
James Bonnin was a builder in Brompton, Kensington and Chelsea. He was responsible for building more than three hundred high-quality houses in the area, many of which still exist. In 1806, he was living in a house in Exeter Street, Hans Town, Chelsea and was soon involved in a number of developments in the Hans Town area. By 1810 he had moved to North Street, where his premises were described as formerly part of a timber yard. James was then calling himself a carpenter and undertaker. In 1815, The Times Newspaper reports a James Bonnin – builder, carpenter, dealer and chapman – of North Street being declared bankrupt. This doesn’t seem to have had much impact on his career, though. In a directory for 1816-17 he is listed as a timber merchant with an address in Sloane Place. In about 1819-20 he was involved in building in Knightsbridge (including Trevor Square), and in 1821 he undertook the initial development of Brompton Square, where he was briefly the first occupant of No. 1.
He also built Pelham Crescent, Pelham Place, parts of Pelham Street, and later Egerton Crescent and Egerton Terrace. Much of his work was for the Smith’s Charity, for which his first contract was in 1822. At the time he was engaged in building Brompton Square and it was presumably his work there which commended him to the trustees. He built a terrace of eight houses, (Onslow Terrace: later demolished to make way for the underground railway), on what is now the western end of Brompton Road. In return he would be entitled to leases of the new houses for 60 years at a ground rent of £42 per annum. This was the pattern of finance for new houses on the estate – the builder would construct houses at his own expense and would make his profit from letting the houses at a full market rent or by selling them outright.
James Bonnin worked with a surveyor appointed by the charity, whose job was to handle the details of contracts and approve designs for the buildings. The estate’s London surveyor at the time was John Booth, who was not up to the job. The trustees were particularly displeased that he allowed in the agreement the right for James Bonnin to build himself a cottage with an adjoining workshop and timber yard immediately behind the new terrace. James and his family lived there and he used it as his base of operations from from 1826 until 1838.
In 1828 Booth was replaced by George Basevi, a gifted architect who was a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli. James Bonnin was a meticulous builder who produced high quality buildings and from then on, Basevi designed the houses and James built them. Between 1833 and 1844 they built Pelham Crescent, Pelham Place, part of Pelham Street and a small area of Fulham Road on either side of the Pelham Street junction.
James Bonnin was also allowed to build two cottages side-by-side behind the west side of Pelham Place, one of which, Pelham Cottage, he occupied himself. He lived in several houses on the Smith’s Charity estate over the years. First there had been the cottage and workshops which Booth had allowed him to put up behind Onslow Terrace. His son, James junior, took that over in 1839 when James senior moved to No. 3 Pelham Place. Once Pelham Cottage had been completed, James senior moved in there. In 1842 he built a large house at the end of Sussex Terrace for his own occupation. He was also allowed to have a large yard at the side and a workshop at the rear. This was his last home on the estate.
Alongside the building, James had another venture. In 1802, James’ sister Susanna had married Samuel Cocks, a master Pewterer in the City of London. After Samuel’s death in 1820, James appears to have gone into partnership with Susanna, who kept the Cocks pewter touch mark producing until 1844. It was probably difficult (if not impossible) at the time for a widow to keep up a business and hold membership of a livery company on her own, so the support of a male relative was necessary. This, however, is surmise. There is certainly no evidence that James was at any point a competent pewterer. Whatever the reason, James was admitted to the Freedom of the City of London as a Master Pewterer of 66 Snow Hill, on April 21 1836. His partnership with Susanna was dissolved on 2 October 1838.
On Susanna’s death about 1844, James Bonnin was residuary legatee and was appointed as joint executor with his brother-in-law Joshua James Watts (also a pewterer), husband of James’ sister Caroline. Susanna names no children in her will, but several nephews and nieces and James’ wife Elizabeth also received bequests.
James’ wife Elizabeth had died in 1835, having borne a large family: Thomas Scott Bonnin (b1806), James (b1808), John (b1810), Elizabeth (b~1813), Joseph (b1815), Mary Ann (b1819), Samuel (b1821), William (b~1823) and Alfred (b1829). In 1838 he married the 21 year old Mary Ann Aldridge and she bore him a further five children, although the youngest lived for only a few months.
By 1843 it seems that the Bonnins (James senior and junior) had agreed to split further work on the estate between them. James Bonnin junior was appointed to construct 6-10 (even) Pelham Street and some houses on the north side of Pelham Street which were eventually demolished to make way for the South Kensington station. James Bonnin junior had probably been working with his father from the start of the development but this was his first independent venture.
James Bonnin senior was given a much bigger project on the site of Brompton Grange, which was to result in the construction of Egerton Crescent, Egerton Terrace, Yeoman’s Row and Crescent Place by 1849. James senior may only have been directly involved in the construction of Egerton Crescent and probably sub-contracted the rest of the work. Builders like James Bonnin often made a profit by underletting building plots to other builders at improved ground rents, if they were not in a position to do the building works themselves. To finance these various developments, the Bonnins entered into arrangements with lenders and with other speculators. It is known, for example, that James senior borrowed £2,000 from a wine merchant in Pelham Crescent, on the security of his underlease of Nos. 50-53 Egerton Crescent.
James Bonnin senior’s partnership with architect George Basevi ended in 1845 when Basevi was killed, falling from one of the towers of Ely Cathedral which he was inspecting. James Bonnin senior fell on hard times and in July 1846 he was declared bankrupt. He explained his financial difficulties as being due to ‘undertaking more than my means would justify, … the fluctuations in the funds in 1845 and 1846, and fall in House property with some heavy losses’. There was a depression in the Kensington housing market about this time which may have caught him over-exposed financially. Joseph, Samuel, William and Alfred Bonnin, some of his sons from his first marriage, had emigrated to South Australia in March 1849 on the “Ramillies” and he decided to join them.
He persuaded the Kensington Board of Guardians to give him £10 so that he and his young family could emigrate to South Australia and start a new life (they may not have taken that much persuading, as the alternative was that they would have to support a family of five in the workhouse for the foreseeable future).
James, his wife Mary Ann and their children Josiah (b 1839), Susannah (b1840), Paul Frederick (b1842), Julia Hephzibah (b1843) travelled steerage on board the “Asiatic”. They arrived in Adelaide on 26th December 1849, but James died only a few days later, on 8th January 1850. They had arrived at the height of summer and it is thought that the walk up from the port to the city in the heat may have triggered a heart attack. His death certificate quotes “natural decay” and he is buried in an unmarked plot in Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery.
Her stepson Alfred Bonnin had been training as a solicitor before he had left England and had joined the law firm of Atkinson & Andrews in Glenelg, a fashionable suburb of Adelaide. James’ widow Mary Ann subsequently married Alfred Atkinson of that practice. According to family legend, he had proposed marriage to her shortly after her husband’s death, but she had refused, saying that she would prefer to return to her family in England. She booked a return passage, though fortunately not on the Asiatic, which was wrecked (but without loss of life) on the coast of South Africa on its return trip. The ship she did take encountered a severe storm and sprang a leak. After three days of anxiety and seasickness she arrived back in Adelaide and Alfred Atkinson was on the quayside and proposed again. This time, she said yes! So the story goes, anyway.
Alfred Atkinson and Mary Ann had a second family, but he was himself declared bankrupt in 1859. Alfred Bonnin then took over the business and the firm became known as Bonnin & Andrews. Mary Ann’s son Paul Frederick Bonnin also joined the firm later.
Alfred Atkinson died in 1861 at the age of 36. Mary Ann died in 1892, at the age of 75.
James Bonnin’s son James Bonnin junior also went bankrupt, in 1848, but he was quickly back on his feet and was appointed Inspector of Nuisances for the Kensington Board of Guardians. He subsequently continued his business as a London builder.