John Roberts was born in Waterford on 26 January 1714 and baptised the same day in St Olaf’s Church. His father, Thomas Roberts, was a builder, and John was sent to London to study architecture. On his return he married Mary Susanna Sautelle, the daughter of a Huguenot veteran.
His big break came when he was invited to complete the building of the Bishop’s Palace on the Mall, which had been begun by the renowned architect Richard Castle but left unfinished on the death of Bishop Este in 1745. The new bishop was of Huguenot stock, like Roberts’s wife, and he offered Roberts the job.
From then on, Roberts never looked back. He designed and built the new Christ Church Cathedral, the Assembly Rooms (now City Hall) and Theatre Royal, the magnificent courtyard at Curraghmore House (seat of the Marquess of Waterford), Newtown House (now Newtown School), Mount Congreve, and a number of other country houses. The town house of William Morris (later the Chamber of Commerce), with its fine cantilever staircase, and the Leper Hospital (later the Infirmary) are also attributed to him.
Towards the end of his life he was invited to build Holy Trinity Cathedral for Waterford’s Roman Catholic community. Founded in 1793, it was the first post-Reformation Catholic cathedral to be built in these islands. Roberts was still working on it when he died on 23 May 1796 at the age of 82.
“Honest John” Roberts was greatly respected by his workmen, whom he always paid promptly every Saturday, giving half the money to the wives for housekeeping! He had little regard for luxury, even clothes, and his wife used to remove his old clothes while he was asleep and buy him new ones – he never seemed to notice the difference!
Roberts and his wife had eight children who survived to adulthood. They had many illustrious descendants, including Field Marshal Lord Roberts, veteran of campaigns in India and South Africa, who died while reviewing troops on the Western Front in November 1914, also at the age of 82.
Waterford has a number of exceptionally fine eighteenth-century buildings, and is unique in that its two cathedrals, intended for different religious congregations, were designed and built by the same person – John Roberts.
Julian Walton was born in 1941 of mixed English and Irish parentage, and spent the first five years of his life in the beautiful countryside of north Cork. Thereafter, his home base has been in County Waterford. He was educated locally, then at private schools in England and at Oxford University. For most of his working life he was a secondary schoolteacher (French, German, English and History), but in 1990 he left school teaching for work at Waterford Heritage Genealogical Centre. There he was involved in family history research, in tourism, and in the conservation of the cathedral library.