John Whitehead was born in Ashton-under-Lyme, Lancashire in 1726. He lived in Porto between 1756 and 1802, serving as the British Consul. Highly respected, he is remembered through a large monumental urn (pictured) in the cemetery of St James Church, Porto, with the inscription noting that his passing was “regretted by all good people” and that the monument had been raised by the English Factory. It took 20 years for the monument to be installed and the fact that members of the Factory ensured that it was eventually erected suggests that the inscription was not just speaking well of the dead and that Whitehead was, indeed, greatly admired.
Whitehead was a man of many interests and talents. As an amateur architect he had a major input into the design of the English Factory building, which was completed around 1790, and was also responsible for obtaining the necessary land in 1767 and 1772. Credited with introducing the Neo-Palladian architectural style to Portugal, he worked closely with João de Almada e Melo, head of Porto’s Public Works department, to plan the layout of the city. He was involved in planning the construction of the Santo António Hospital, and with work carried out to improve Praça Ribeira, Largo São Domingos, and the Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Ó.
He had a well-stocked library that showed evidence of his eclectic tastes. It included not only the obligatory Bible but also the Koran, The Holy War by John Bunyan, and David Hume’s Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, together with the sermons of St. Augustine and Martin Luther. The library also reflected his interest in engineering, astronomy and mathematics. At home, he experimented with a camera obscura and with electricity and also had an observatory on the roof of his house. He installed a lightning conductor. Such activities led to allegations that he was a sorcerer, and he was even denounced to the Inquisition, although it was not followed up.
John Whitehead never married. He died on 15 December 1802.
Source: Elaine Sanceau, The British Factory Oporto. John Delaforce, Anglicans abroad: the history of the chaplaincy and Church of St. James at Oporto.
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER