©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 13, 2019
Webpage updated: January 04, 2020



JOHN PETHICK (1827-1904)

John Pethick was born on Thursday July 19th 1827 at Crabtree, in the Parish of Eggbuckland, on the Plym estuary to the east of Plymouth. 

His father, Richard, was manager of the Dartmoor Granite Works, an operation inextricably linked to the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway, which had been opened just a few years before John was born and ran past the house they occupied.  It is interesting that, later, John Pethick was to own the company that his father had managed and Pethick Brothers still owned Swell Tor Quarry in 1910.

John left school at 12 years of age and the following year went into employment as a trainee carpenter in Mr Pope’s shipbuilding yard at Turnchapel, on the other side of the Cattewater.  His father was listed as a joiner in census returns so this may have determined his choice of trade.

On December 27th 1846, at the early age of 19, John Pethick married Miss Maria Oram at Stoke Damerel Parish Church.  They went onto have 9 children, the first of which, Richard Oram Pethick,  died in infancy in 1847.  By the age of 21 he was working for a Mr Phillips on building the Esplanade, a splendid row of houses along the crest of Plymouth’s Hoe.

In 1852, at 25, he went into partnership with Mr Benjamin Call, as builders and contractors, an arrangement that lasted until 1871.  Call was the son of a Devonport innkeeper and some 12 years older than Pethick.  Messrs Call & Pethick engaged in a variety of building projects locally, amongst which were the Duke of Cornwall Hotel and houses on the Hoe and at Mutley.  Further afield, the station buildings on the Moretonhampstead branch were constructed and those at Newton Abbot and Exeter Saint Thomas rebuilt.  In partnership they held shares in at least two steam driven sloops, registered in Plymouth, the "Lord Yarborough" (1858) and the "Secret" (1866-1874).

After the partnership was dissolved in 1871 (though some works are recorded in joint names until the end of 1872, no doubt finishing off work already in progress), Pethick’s career blossomed.  The works he engaged in were many and diverse.  Notable projects included the Vale of Rheidol Railway at Aberystwyth; the foundations and piers for London’s Vauxhall Bridge; the widening of London Bridge; and the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery.  It is very interesting that many of his Plymouth works survive today.  In 1876 Pethick’s address was Norley Buildings, Plymouth and for many years his depot was at Laira Bridge, on the same site as the granite works that his father had managed.   The depot was rail connected to the L&SWR Cattewater branch, and in the Great War, after the demise of Pethick Brothers, was requisitioned by the Ministry of Munitions.  The 1881 census records him as employing 576 men.

In August 1886, he and Robert Relf jointly won the contract to construct the railway from Lydford to Devonport for the Plymouth, Devonport and South Western Junction Railway Company.  The reasons for them coming together are not known.  No doubt they came to know each other by working in the same area and possibly from bidding against each other for contracts.  They both still undertook contracts separately under their own names.  Pethick's philanthropy not only extended to supporting the poor of Plymouth but also in to supporting his workforce on the railway.   He formed a welfare club and also entertained some 8-900 navvies to dinner in Tavistock Market.  By contrast, Messrs Relf and Pethick had a hard time with the Tavistock Highways Board, with many disputes over damage to the roads of the area.  Their joint working arrangement lasted until the completion of the railway from Plymouth to Turnchapel in 1896.

John Pethick seems  to have retired, or semi-retired, in 1887 as in that year he handed Norley House and Norley Yard over to his sons, Messrs Pethick Brothers Limited.

Outside his construction activities, John Pethick, who was a member of the Conservative Party, was also a director of the Plymouth Tramways Company, which was formed in 1889 to take over the former Plymouth, Devonport and District steam tramway network, and, by 1874, a member of the Plymouth Borough Council.  He served as Mayor between 1898 and 1900, as well as being appointed a Justice of the Peace.  Alderman Pethick was often referred to as “Honest John”, though sometimes his “honesty” landed him in trouble for its forthrightness!

Mr John Pethick died at the age of 76, following an accident on Tuesday March 29th 1904, when his horse-drawn carriage ran out of control in Lockyer Street with him at the reins.

List of contracts undertaken by John Pethick solely

New Guildhall and Municipal buildings, Plymouth, opened 1874;     

Admiralty, No 3 Dock reconstruction, Royal Dockyard, Devonport, 1876-1882;

Royal Naval Engineering College, Keyham, Devon, 1879-1881;

Grand Hotel, the Hoe, Plymouth, 1880; 

Mutley housing scheme between Ford Park and Mutley Station, Plymouth  (became known as Pethick Town), by 1881;

Supply of granite for the base & pedestal for the statue of Sir Francis Drake in Tavistock, Devon, 1883;

New Docks, Exmouth, Devon, 1885;

Stoodleigh Court, Twerton, Somerset, for Ernest George Peto, “nearly complete” Jan 1885;

The Admiralty terminated the contract with Mr John Pethick for repairs at Royal William Victualling Yard, Royal Marine Barracks, Royal Naval Hospital, and Devonport Dockyard “after a considerable number of years”, April 1885;

Western Idiot Asylum, Starcross, Devon, May 1885;

Kelly College, Tavistock, Devon;

Plymouth Borough Asylum, Blackadon, 1888;

Mansion for Mr Rashleigh at Menabilly, Cornwall; 

Mansion for the Reverend Hermon at Doublebois, Cornwall;

Bickleigh and Riverford viaducts on the Launceston Branch of the Great Western Railway, from circa 1889 (into use 12.3.93);

List of contracts undertaken by Messrs Call & Pethick

Soap works, Sutton Road, Plymouth, Devon, after 1852;

South Devon Railway;

Rebuilding of Exeter Saint Thomas Station, 1859-1862;

Rebuilding of Newton Abbot station, 1859-1861;

Duke of Cornwall Hotel, Plymouth, Devon 1862;

Chubb’s Hotel, Old Town Street, Plymouth, by 1864; 

South Devon Railway, Kingswear station, opened 16/8/1864; 

Station on the Moretonhampstead and South Devon Railway (line opened 4/7/1866); 

Housing at Hoe Park Place, Elliott Terrace, Headland Park, and part of Clifton Place, Plymouth.

List of contracts undertaken jointly by John Pethick and R T Relf

Plymouth Friary to Plymstock Station for the London & South Western Railway Company, 1886-1892; Laira Railway Bridge completed 1887;

Lydford Station to Devonport Station for the Plymouth, Devonport and South Western Junction Railway Company, 4/1887-6/1890.


  With grateful thanks to Mr Paul Burkhaklter, of Plymouth, for supplying much of the story of the Pethick family.