Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


James Pears (1739–1803)

Mayor of Oxford 1793/4

James Pears (or Peers) was born in 1739, possibly in London. He became a carpenter and joiner and moved to Oxford, where he rose to prominence as a builder for various colleges.

He was already living in St Peter-le-Bailey parish in Oxford at the age of 28 when on 18 October 1768 he married Elizabeth Beale of Hurstbourne Priors, Hampshire at her home parish.

65 St Giles

James Pears was at this time the protégé of the London architect Henry Keene, who in June 1869 was living in Oxford at 65 St Giles (left), which was in the parish of St Mary Magdalen.

By the time of the 1772 Survey of Oxford, Pears himself was listed as the occupant of this house.

Pears placed this advertisement about building materials he had for sale in Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 12 June 1773, (Pears's premises were described as being opposite St John’s College, but this could equally well have referred to this house at No. 65, or his next one at No. 60.)

Pears building materials

In 1773 Pears and his wife moved five doors north to 60 St Giles (which was on the site of the present Pusey House and was also in St Mary Magdalen parish). This house was then only nine years old, having been built by the timber merchant George Poulton in 1764. It was advertised thus for sale in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 13 March 1773:

A Freehold, Modern, New, and well-built HOUSE, with a brick and sashed Front, and stone Coins, nearly facing St John’s College in Oxford, the Property and in the Occupation of Mr. George Poulton, Timber Merchant, who is moving into Surry: Containing three upper Lodging Rooms, with two Closets; five good bed Chambers, two neat Parlours, and a Study, fitted out with Wainscot, Paper Hangings, Marble and other Chimney-Pieces, and Fixtures; also a Kitchen, Pantry, three good Cellars, Brewhouse, a tiled Shed and other Conveniences; with a large Yard and Garden, fit for a genteel private Family, or may easily be rendered convenient for carrying on branches of Business.

Pears's wife Elizabeth (who appears to have been married for ten years before she had any children) also ran an embroidery business of her own here, employing staff from London. She placed the following advertisement in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 1 July 1775:

Elizabeth Pears advertisement

Pears purchased his freedom of the City of Oxford on 26 July 1776, when he was described as a “carpenter, joiner, builder, surveyor & admeasurer”. He was now working for the architect James Wyatt as well as for Henry Keene, and In the 1770s he designed and buillt the interior behind Wyatt’s façade for the Library at Oriel College.

The Radcliffe Observatory

The foundation stone of the Grade I listed Radcliffe Observatory (right) was laid in 1772 (list entry 1047070), but the building was delayed and although the building was roofed in 1778 it was not completed until 1794. It was built by James Pears.

The original architect was Henry Keene, but in 1773 he was told not to proceed any further, and when he died in 1776 his son Theodosius Keene was told to finish the building under the direction of the architect James Wyatt,

Pears worked with both architects but under Wyatt he had a free rein, and was left to work out many of the details of his designs for himself. Penry Williams writes, “The arrangement was one which suited Wyatt's natural indolence well, and which was repeated many time in his career, making it difficult to decide how much credit should be given to architect or builder”.

The base of the globe on the top of the building includes in the inscription: “James Pears, Esq., Mayor of Oxford, builder; John Hudson, clerk of the works”. John Hudson, a younger builder, became Pears's business partner around this time.


In September 1777 Pears was elected as one of the 24 members of the Common Council.

In 1777 New College asked Wyatt for advice as to how they could make more book space in their library, and he did a rough sketch showing how windows could be blocked. Williams writes that “the surviving set of crude preliminary designs for the room showing rectangular rather than apsed ends, and particularly comic busts on brackets over the two doors, must be by James Pears”. In June 1780 the lower library was ordered “to be fitted up according to a plan delivered in by Mr Pears”. Pears also removed partitions in the Warden's Lodgings to make one rectangular room stretching from the Warden's staircase to the corner of the quad.

In June 1778 Pears took on Thomas Smallbones as an apprentice carpenter.

James Pears and his wife Elizabeth had two sons, the first born ten years after their marriage:

  • James Pears junior (baptised on 23 June 1778 at St Mary Magdalen Church)
  • William Beale Pears (baptised on 8 August 1780 at St Mary Magdalen Church:
    died on 10 April 1793 aged 13 years and buried at Iffley Church on 17 April).

Just two days before his elder son was baptised, Pears was (according to Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 20 June 1778) drawn by lot to serve on the militia.

In 1780 Pears was selected as Chamberlain by the Mayor (and fellow carpenter) Vincent Shortland, and was also appointed one of the three Viewers of Nuisances.

In November 1780 Pears took on as his apprentice Francis Godfrey (who had originally been apprenticed to Richard Rouse).

By 1783, Pears was described in Bailey’s Western & Midland Directory as a “surveyor and builder” rather than a carpenter.

In September 1785 Pears was chosen as Junior Bailiff.

In 1786 Pears removed the medieval the roof of New College Hall, and replaced it using pitch pine timbers and Westmorland slate, for which he charged £578 7s. 9d.

In October 1786 the council decided to enclose the butter bench at Carfax, and Pears was asked to provide an estimate for enclosing it with a dwarf wall and iron “pallisadoes”.

On 12 May 1787 Jackson's Oxford Journal announced that the west side of Turl Street had been sold to Mr Pears, builder.

In May 1788 he took on Thomas Edwards as his apprentice, and in January 1789 Richard Swallow.

On 20 May 1788 James Wyatt's plan to “new roof” the chapel at New College was accepted, and Pears was appointed to supervise the execution of his plans. Pears's accounts whow that the roof was reconstructed between 1 August 1788 and 29 January 1789, and then work started on the “new Groin ceiling”, for which the last payment was made on 27 June 1790. All this work was removed by nineteenth-century restorers.

In 1789 Pears rebuilt the roof of New College hall using pitch pine timbers and Westmorland slate, and also designed its plaster ceiling, charging the college £578. In the same year he submitted an estimate to St John’s College for a new Presidential pew with a curved front for its chapel, access to which was to be gained by “a new Wainscott Stair Case with Moulded Noseings and Cutt Bracketts, Mahogany handrail with Ramps and Twists and 2 Curtail Steps”. This was either not erected, or removed in 1843. He also carried out extensive repairs to St John’s chapel in 1790/1.

Around this time Pears had individual portraits of his wife and each of his sons done by John Russell (1745–1806), Britain’s leading pastellist.

In 1791–4 Pears undertook extensive repairs and alterations to St John's College under Wyatt.

On 16 November 1792 his mother-in-law Elizabeth Beale was buried at Iffley Church.

In 1792 when Pears was elected one of the Mayor’s eight Assistants he was described as “an eminent Builder of this Place”, and henceforth was often described as James Pears, Esq. In that year he carried out the plans of James Wyatt on the chapel and hall at Magdalen College, and a memorandum dated 10 November 1792 survives expressing the architect's satisfaction with his work.

On 13 April 1793 his younger son died. Jackson's Oxford Journal of 13 April 1793 reported:

On Wednesday in the Afternoon died, at the Age of twelve Years, Master William Beale Pears, younger son of Mr. James Pears, of this City, Builder, after a lingering Illness of several Years, which might be said to have eluded the Power of Medicine.

In 1793 Pears was unanimously elected Mayor of Oxford (for 1793/4), choosing Joseph Walker as his Child.

In 1794 Pears began to build the Grade I listed Holmes Buildings for St John’s College to accommodate four fellows. It is possible he designed them himself, as no architect is mentioned. He took on two more apprentices in the mid-1790s: Thomas Edwards on 5 June 1795 and Richard Swallow on 4 April 1796.

Pears was still described as being of St Mary Magdalen parish (i.e. 60 St Giles's Street) when on 28 July 1795 his elder son James, aged 17 was matriculated at the University of Oxford by New College.

By 1801 the Pears family had moved to Woodperry House (below) in the parish of Stanton St John, and in September that year Pears’s son James was listed as living there when he paid game duty. This Georgian villa was built by William Townsend the elder between 1728 and 1731, in part Palladian, part Baroque style. When Pears lived there it was smaller than it is today, as the large north and south wings on each side were added later.

Woodperry House

James Pears continued to serve on the council as Mayor’s Assistant into the nineteenth century. He died at Woodperry House at the age of 63 on 3 December 1803, and five days later was buried inside Iffley Church in the vault of his mother-in-law and infant grandson. In the register he is described as being “late of Oxford”. Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 10 December 1803 published the following death announcement:

On Saturday last died, after a lingering illness, at Woodperry House, in this county, James Pears, Esq. aged 63, one of the Assistants of the Corporation of this city, and who served the office of Mayor in 1793.

The inscription below from Iffley Church gives the wrong date for Pears’s death: possibly it was confused with that of his grandson.

Pears inscription

The plaque reads:







James’s widow Elizabeth Pears and his business partner John Hudson put a notice in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 21 April 1804 announcing that the partnership between James Pears and John Hudson had been dissolved on the former's death, and that in future Hudson would run the business on his own.

Pears’s widow Elizabeth Pears appears to have gone to live in Surrey with her son James Pears junior, who was serving as a curate there, as she died in Guildford at the age of 74 on 15 January 1816. She was buried at Iffley a week after her death.

Pears’s son and grandsons

Pears’s surviving son James Pears junior (1777/8–1853) was appointed Curate of Holton in 1801, and was admitted free on 2 July 1802. He obtained his BCL from St Mary Hall in 1810 and was appointed curate of Pirbright in Surrey 1814. After a period as classical master at Marlow (Sandhurst), in 1823 he was jointly appointed Master of Bath Grammar School and Rector of Charlecombe in Somerset, a post he held until his death on 21 January 1853. He too was buried at Iffley.

James Pears junior married Mary Radcliffe, and they had seven sons including:

  • James George Pears (born in Oxford in 1800, died in infancy)
  • James Robert Pears, eldest surviving son (1801–1865), born at Woodperry House: Fellow of Magdalen College
  • Sir Thomas Townsend Pears (1809–1892): Army officer in the East India Company (see ODNB)
  • Arnold Christian Pears (1811–1891): A Lieutenant-Colonel in the Artillery
  • Edmund Ward Pears (c.1814–1878) (fifth son): Rector of St Peter, Dorchester
  • Steuart Adolphus Pears (1815–1875) (sixth son): Headmaster of Repton School (see ODNB)

See also:

George Williamson, John Russell, R.A. (London: G. Bell, 1894), which is available in Sackler Library, Oxford (928.9 Rus.W.) has the following information about pastel portraits by John Russell of the Pears family:

  • Mrs James Pears, née Elisabeth Beale (oval, then in the possession of Archdeacon Wilson of Rochdale), p. 172 (not reproduced);
  • James Pears Jr as a child (61 x 46cm, then in the possession of Archdeacon Wilson of Rochdale), p. 158 (not reproduced);
  • James Pears Jr as a child (61 x 46cm oval, then in the possession of Major T. C. Pears), p. 158 (reproduced opposite p. 38)
  • William Beale Pears as a child in a red coat (61 x 46cm, oval, then in the possession of Major T. C. Pears), p. 158 (not reproduced).

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 30 August, 2021

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