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John Plaw (1745-1820)

"The efforts of the mind are ever progressive, and it is only by a steady perseverance in the pursuit of knowledge, we can hope to attain to any degree of perfection."

- John Plaw, 1800

John Plaw was born circa. 1745 to John and Mary Plaw of London, England. His personal and professional life would be linked to the growth and expansion of what historians call the "First British Empire" and would eventually take him to St. John's Island / Prince Edward Island. His interest in architecture, for instance, grew when he began apprenticing while merely a teenager with a London bricklaying company in September 1759. Ironically, this was the same month when General Wolfe successfully captured Quebec (September 13) at the Plains of Abraham during the imperial war between France and Britain over control of North America. Plaw would likely not have predicted that he would end his days in Prince Edward Island - a very small part of this newly acquired territory.

During the years of the American Revolution, Plaw was refining his skill as a promising architect. Beginning in 1775, he was exhibiting his architectural drawings at the Royal Academy of Arts. A year earlier, he had completed the plans for a circular villa on Lake Windermere for a wealthy coffee merchant. This spectacular location on Belle Isle, the largest island among the eighteen in England's largest lake, was in the classical or Georgian style. Its three storeys were made of brick and Plaw included a four columned portico. These classical details, harkening back to the architecture of the Roman Empire, were favourites of Plaw's, and were at the height of fashion in the later 18th Century. This property still stands today, although it was damaged by a fire in 1996. Plaw's use of the circular form was not limited to villas for the wealthy. One of his three architectural books provided plans for "a circular Cottage, calculated for a Fisherman or Herdsman."

Another surviving example of Plaw's penchant for classical architecture is St. Mary's Church on Paddington Green in London which he designed in 1788. It, too, features a porticoed entrance.

In the 1790s, Plaw found work in Southampton and the Isle of Wight where he designed military barracks. However, despite having written three successful pattern books, his prospects in Britain began to wane at the turn of the century. Perhaps this was due to the ongoing Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) which had disrupted British trade and likely restricted the number of commissions for large country houses. The cost of imported goods rose in Britain when Napoleon issued his Berlin Decrees in November 1806. These restricted Britain's continental trade with the rest of Europe. Unemployment also was rising during this period. All these factors likely combined to cause Plaw and his immediate family to immigrate to Prince Edward Island in 1807.

The fledgling colony had ample work for Plaw. Public buildings were in high demand. He submitted proposals for a jail (1809), a courthouse (1810), a circular style commercial building (1814), and a circular market building (1819). Among these, it is known that the courthouse and market building were completed. The courthouse soon doubled as the seat of the Island's legislature. Surviving drawings show that it was influenced by his favourite Georgian style and had corner pilasters, a columned portico, and a gable roof topped with a cupola. It would remain a fixture on Queen Square until the current Province House was built by Isaac Smith in 1847. The round market was not completed until 1823. It was located where the Confederation Centre of the Arts now stands and would, itself, be replaced by several market buildings over the years.

John Plaw passed away at the age of 75 years in 1820 and rests in Charlottetown's Old Protestant Burying Ground on University Avenue. The inscription on his tombstone is a selection of text from the famous English pastor and hymnwriter, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and is based on Psalm 90:

"Death like an overflowing stream, Sweeps us away; our life's a dream, An empty tale, a morning flower, Cut down and withered in an hour.

Lord, what a feeble piece Is this our mortal frame Our life how poor a trifle 'tis, That scarce deserves the name."

Link to the entry for John Plaw in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Link to a digital copy of the third of John Plaw's books: Sketches for Country Houses, Villas and Rural Dwellings, London, 1800.

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