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William Elsden was a British architect and engineer, who worked in Portugal from around 1756, when he was 36, until his death in October 1778. He has been practically ignored by historians until recently and it is only because of the detailed research of Matilde Sousa Franco, who contributed to our last Annual Report on a different topic, that details of his life in Portugal are now becoming widely known.


Elsden came from a family of prosperous landowners from Banningham (between Norwich and Cromer). Although he called himself an architect he does not appear on lists of British architects of the time and the exact nature of his skills remains uncertain. There are some indications that he was a carpenter. Following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Britain was keen to help Portugal recover and Elsden was one of those recruited to go to Portugal to collaborate in the reconstruction of the capital.


This reconstruction work, inspired by the Marquis of Pombal, was led by three leading military architects and engineers: Manuel da Maia, Eugénio dos Santos and Carlos Mardel. Elsden worked initially with Santos and then with Mardel, who was Hungarian. Elsden joined the Portuguese army as a military engineer in 1760. Continuing Mardel’s work after his death in 1763, by 1767 Elsden had reached the position of Lieutenant Colonel. He was also Quartermaster-General to the Forces and a Mathematics teacher at the Military Academy. Giving people positions in the armed forces even though they had non-military functions seems to have been quite common in Portugal of the time: BHSP’s Newsletter 20 noted that John Norton was made both Inspector-General of Machinery and a Captain in the Navy.


In Lisbon Elsden, his wife Teresa, who seems to have been Portuguese, their son William and their daughter Francisca, who was born in Lisbon, lived at first on 1 Rua de Buenos Aires (which still exists) in Lapa, apparently a popular street with the British, before moving to a farm at Campo de Ourique. They would later return to Rua de Buenos Aires. He worked not only in Lisbon but also in Alcobaça, Aveiro, where he tried to address siltation problems, and Leiria, among others. His greatest achievement was the Pombaline restoration of the University of Coimbra, which he directed between 1772 and 1778. However, he had a turbulent personal life while in Portugal. His wife became the “muse” of the poet, Pedro Correia Garção, and was unintentionally implicated in the poet’s arrest.


D. Pedro (later King Pedro III) was godfather to his son who was baptised as a Catholic in 1778 at the age of 24. Elsden’s friendship with D. Pedro probably arose out of his work for the Casa do Infantado, created in 1654 to look after the lands and buildings of the second sons of the monarchs. Pedro, who was nicknamed “the builder”, was the younger brother of King José I.


Elsden carried out numerous engineering tasks, and prepared many maps and building plans, including the first urban plan for Alcobaça. He is said to have worked on the Santa Clara Convent at Vila do Conde and on the Ajuda Palace library. However, buildings known to have been designed by him are limited mainly to those in Coimbra. Most of his designs were in the neoclassical style and he is credited with introducing that style in Portugal. Neoclassical buildings had already been introduced in Britain, often influenced by the Palladian style, named after the Venetian architect, Andrea Palladio. The style aimed to renounce the decorative excesses of the Baroque era and return to a purer classical architecture that was adapted to the needs of the time.


Elsden was also responsible for the neo-Gothic Royal Pantheon in the Alcobaça Monastery, which was still under construction at the time of his death. He also contributed to the remodelling of that monastery’s apse.


Pombal made radical reforms to Coimbra university, especially regarding the teaching of sciences. In 1770 José I, on the advice of Pombal, appointed a commission in charge of reorganizing the university. This advised the creation of two new faculties, Mathematics and Natural philosophy, which would require new buildings. Elsden went to Coimbra in 1772, accompanied by his son, who had joined the army at the age of 14 and also became an architect, although one who was inferior to his father. It seems unlikely that Elsden would have been given the responsibility of redesigning the university without having proved himself on several other buildings, so perhaps buildings he designed elsewhere have yet to be identified.


In Coimbra, in an environment of some hostility to the reforms, he was responsible for buildings for Mathematics, Philosophy and Medicine. This included redesigning the former colleges of the Society of Jesus, taken over by the Government with the expulsion of Jesuits in 1759, including a hospital, anatomical theatre, and a dispensary. Other building on which he worked included a chemical laboratory (now the Science Museum), experimental physics and natural history buildings, and a printing press for the university. In addition to faculty buildings, Elsden was responsible for laying out the Botanical Gardens. He also designed an observatory, but this was not completed. The works are detailed in a two-volume handbound manuscript titled Drawings of the Works of the University of Coimbra, which sets out the work undertaken in Volume 1 and the expenditures incurred in Volume 2. The 30 drawings in Volume 1 are all signed by Elsden.


Elsden then became involved with a scandal related to the apparent affair of the poet Pedro Correia Garção with Elsden’s wife, Teresa. Garção was a linguist and interacted with many foreigners. He lived in Campo de Ourique, to where the Elsdens moved as his tenant. Campo de Ourique, like their first residence in Lapa, was popular with the British. It seems that Garção was in love with an “English lady” and would write passionate verses about her using pseudonyms for both himself and Teresa, referring to her as Belisa. His poem Cantata de Dido, apparently inspired by Teresa, is considered one of the most beautiful works of Portuguese lyricism. At the same time, one Francisco António Lobo de Ávila had been declaring his love for the Elsden’s daughter and encouraging her to elope, although some historians believed that Lobo de Ávila also loved Teresa.


It appears that Elsden returned home unexpectedly from his travels in 1771, found incriminating correspondence, and took it to Pombal. As a result, Garçao, his servant and Lobo de Ávila were arrested on Pombal’s orders. Perhaps the discovery by Elsden was more an excuse for Pombal to detain Garçao than an arrestable offence, as he was one of the many people Pombal held a grudge against. Whether the relationship went beyond poetry and letters is unclear, but Teresa Elsden was for a time held at the King’s pleasure in the Recolhimento de São Cristovão in Lisbon, a place where people were sent for religious meditation. Garçao was eventually given his freedom by the king, but died on the day this was signed. Elsden was perhaps lucky not to suffer a similar fate, as documents found in Brazil suggest that Pombal did not look on him kindly as he was friendly with priests and others the Marquis disliked.


Elsden died in 1778 but exactly where is not clear. Although his health was not good, he was still travelling extensively. He does not appear to have been buried in the British Cemetery in Lisbon. Queen D. Maria I awarded a pension to his wife and daughter, but Sousa Franco states that Elsden had also invested in several properties.


Main source: Matilde Sousa Franco, Elsden: Revela-Se Notável Arquitecto Inglês que Veio Ajudar a Reedificação de Lisboa.  See also: Maria de Lurdes Craveiro, Guilherme Elsden e a introdução do neoclassicismo em Portugal