The churches of Thomas Lennox Watson

Dr DJ Johnston-Smith

Director, Scotland’s Churches Trust

After we shared the news yesterday that the owner-developer of the neo-classical Hillhead Baptist Church is consulting on their plans to demolish the entire building after removing its roof last year, I wanted to learn a bit more about its architect Thomas Lennox Watson and about his churches.

Watson was born in Glasgow on 21 August 1850, the son of Charles and Eliza Watson. His father worked for the famous shipping firm G&J Burns and the naval architect George Lennox Watson was his cousin. Educated at Glasgow High School, he was apprenticed, aged 16, to the architectural practice of James Boucher and James Cousland and studied at Glasgow School of Art under Charles Heath Wilson. On completion of apprenticeship and studies he joined the London office of Alfred Waterhouse in 1871 before returning to Glasgow to go into professional practice in 1874.

Over his career, in sole practice or in partnership, he designed several private and public buildings, working in a neo-classical or neo-renaissance style, and worked on a number smaller interventions and renovations on existing buildings in his native city and beyond. He also dabbled in interior design, creating the interiors of at least two luxury yachts designed by his cousin, including one owned by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

He also experimented with innovative building techniques involving concrete and hollow walls, even patenting some of his techniques, and he decorated many of his buildings with now iconic cast iron decorative fixtures and fittings designed and produced by Walter Macfarlane’s famous Saracen Foundry.

Watson was admitted to FRIBA in 1884 and went into a short-lived partnership in 1907 with Henry Mitchell. In 1901, he authored a book on the architecture of Glasgow Cathedral that was so popular he published a revised second edition during World War One and he also wrote several architectural papers and pamphlets on a variety of subjects. He was a governor of the Royal Technical College (now Strathclyde University) in his later years, where their war memorial in 1920 would be his final commission. He died at home, 11 Loudon Terrace, aged 70 on 12 October 1920 and was buried in the Glasgow Necropolis under a stone monument, as you might have expected, of his own design.

So what about his known church commissions? As his biographical stub on the normally reliable Dictionary of Scottish Architects is currently blank, I could identify four buildings from our own records and other online sources (listed at the bottom of this page) and, following an appeal on Twitter, SCT Friend Nancy Johnston identified one more.

These are:

This polished blonde sandstone Category B church building is a beloved landmark in the Charing Cross area of the city. It was named after “Adelaide Place”, the former name of this section of Bath Street and it has two entrances – one at street level on Bath Street, the other on Pitt Street, where a stone staircase leads up to three double doors.

Built in neo-classical style, its Pitt Street frontage presents as an Italianate temple to passers-by below. It has pedimented blocks on either side, with arcaded windows on both its Bath Street and Bath Lane elevations. Its auditorium has a balcony along both sides

and the rear of the space, with all seating directed towards a large stage flanked by two pairs of columns and a rounded pediment. It contains three very fine stained glass windows by W. & J.J. Kerr.

The building underwent extensive refurbishment in the mid-90s, which saw the creation of a multi-functional centre including sanctuary, guest house and nursery. Further development works followed more recently in 2017-2023, which saw the closure of the guest house, installation of new office and meeting spaces and a new café area. 

Find out more about the activities inside the church today on the congregation’s website here.

The congregation of this church can date their formation to 1747, following the “burgher” and “anti-burgher” controversy that split the Secession Churches in the 18th century. Their first purpose-built building, known as the North Secession Church, was built in 1791. In 1847 the congregation became United Presbyterian and in 1880 the present building, in Italian Romanesque style, was completed as a replacement for the earlier one. Following further union, the North Church became Church of Scotland in 1929 in whose care it remains today.


Watson designed the building with a diaper-decorated pedimented basilica entrance bay with polygonal apses to either side. A set of steps leads up from the Mill Street pavement beneath to a flat-roofed porch with a bold round-arched doorway and Corinthian colonnettes above. More intricate decorative features, repeating the Corinthian and diaper motifs, can be found elsewhere on the front face of the building. The interior of the building’s sanctuary is adorned with a horseshoe gallery along the sides and rear, held aloft by slender columns with foliate capitals beneath a barrel vaulted ceiling. The magnificent pipe organ is installed directly behind the communion table, with decorative panelling beneath in full view of the congregation.

Find out more about the activities inside the church today on the congregation’s website here

Built on the corner of Cresswell Street and Cranworth Street in Glasgow’s West End, the B-listed Hillhead Baptist Church is sadly in a sorry state today.

Watson decorated the exterior in the signature neo-classical stylings of his other church buildings, giving the rectangular building a prominent classical portico, with Ionic capitalled columns beneath a triangular pediment. Its triple-fronted entrance doors, beneath these columns at ground-level, have by tradition always been painted sky blue. 


Its beautiful sanctuary, containing a columned gallery, pilastered upper walls, coffered ceiling and two levels of seating, was apparently abandoned by the Baptist congregation in 2004 due to safety concerns, as they initially relocated into the adjacent church hall next door for service and worship before moving across the road into a different building altogether. Various partners were sought and courted by the congregation to develop and convert parts of the building to domestic and other uses over the last two decades, with the most recent proposal submitted to Glasgow Council in 2019.

Permission was eventually given by the Council in 2020 to gut and stuff the interior of the once proud building with 29 flats, with the caveat that the impressive exterior façade would be retained. COVID delayed any work and in 2021 the developer informed the Council that the “the roof needed to be removed as an emergency measure” and began demolition works in January 2022. The developer purchased the property outright from the congregation in April 2022.

A year and more later, now roofless, its magnificent Victorian interior open to elements and in complete ruins, looking utterly forlorn behind graffiti daubed hoardings, local news sources report the property developer has stated “the building is deteriorating quickly, more so than anticipated”. So their preferred option is now complete demolition of the shell and they are consulting on proposals along these lines to the Council in due course.

You can read more about their proposal and view images of the church today on their consultation webpage here (consultation closes 11 July 2023)

Sitting in its prominent location on Gilmorehill, the imposing neo-classical portico of Wellington Church faces off against the sprawling Gothic revival buildings of the University of Glasgow just across the road. Its polished ashlar exterior is renowned for its magnificent portico of Corinthian columns, reminiscent of an ancient Roman or Greek temple.

Originally designed for the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, it became a United Free Church of Scotland building in 1900 following a merger with the United Free Church. The congregation had its roots in the late 18th century in the “Anti-Burgher” movement and built a church in the centre of Glasgow, in Wellington Street, in 1828.

Outgrowing their building in the early 1880s they commissioned Watson to build a church in the west end of the city, next to the University which had recently also relocated there the previous decade, taking their name with them.

Its Renaissance-styled interior has fine plaster ceilings, timbered pews, a gallery on three sides and a pipe organ made by Forster & Andrews. The Category A-listed church opened a popular lunch-time café underneath the sanctuary decades ago, appropriately called “The Crypt” which remains a beloved haunt of university students and staff.

More recently, the sanctuary of this Church of Scotland owned building has been occasionally used as an overflow lecture theatre during term-time, particularly to help with the social distancing demands of the post-pandemic era. According to architectural historian Prof John Hume, it was one of the final churches to be built in Scotland in this bold neo-classical style.

Find out more about the activities inside the church today on the congregation’s website here.

Built in 1884, as a United Presbyterian Church, this B-listed building has been known variously as the North Church, St Andrew’s Church and is now St Andrew’s Hall, a function space for the Church of Scotland kirk sits just across the road. According to local lore, its spire was redesigned during the building process so that it would be taller than the nearby St Michael’s Church, with some saying that, in certain lights, you can see the altered brick course.

Whatever the truth on spire choice and height may be, its striking five-stage tower with clasping buttresses and attenuated spire above made a bold statement of permanence, longevity and dominance by the United Presbyterians that commissioned it.

Its gothic revival design was a radical departure for Watson from his first four churches and much more in vogue with the usual church building tastes of the era. It has been suggested by Historic Environment Scotland that Watson drew inspiration from what was then the Kelvinside Parish Church building (now the Òran Mór theatre, bar and restaurant venue) designed by J.J. Stevenson. The similarities between the two buildings are clear, and the Byre’s Road location of Stevenson’s church was a short walk away from Hillhead Baptist and Wellington Churches. 

The United Presbyterian Church merged with the Free Church of Scotland in 1900 to form the United Free Church of Scotland. This denomination returned to the Church of Scotland in 1929, contributing to an unnecessary excess of church buildings for worship in communities all over the country. In 1955 the congregation merged with the town’s West Church (St Ninian’s), before the latter eventually closed. In 1964, it merged with former congregational rivals St Michael’s with both churches operating side by side until conversion into a function space.

Recently, the congregation has moved worship services back into Watson’s neo-gothic building while the future of the nearby Parish Church building is considered.

Find out more about accessing the building from the congregation’s website here

Watson designed four fine neo-classical church buildings that bucked the contemporary fashion for the neo-gothic and one that wholeheartedly embraced that Victorian vogue. Clearly beloved by their congregations and their local communities over several generations they are each thoroughly deserving of being cherished for future generations to enjoy.

But, despite their outward appearance of solidity and steadfastness, as this sad news from Glasgow unfortunately shows, these precious and all-too fragile landmarks are in constant and continual danger from neglect and the pressures of urban development.

Let’s hope that the likely closure of around four hundred churches across Scotland by 2025 does not lead to many more calls for demolition five or ten years from now, that each of these historic buildings quickly finds a new and sustainable purpose for the next chapters in their stories.

I am indebted to SCT Friend Nancy Johnston for alerting me to Watson’s involvement in St Andrew’s Hall and for providing further background information from A Short History of St Andrew’s Church, Crieff by John Williamson.

If you know of more churches designed by Thomas Lennox Watson please do let drop us a line. 

Some online sources that also provided material for this blog:
Glasgow City of Sculpture Database
Watson’s Wikipedia Page
1909 Index of Glasgow men
History of Perth Churches
Dictionary of Scottish Architects – Watson and Mitchell Practice