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June 7, 2009

Thomas Martin Cappon (1863-1939)

Thomas Martin Cappon was born in Monifieth on 4 April 1863, the son of James Cappon, a Dundee shipmaster who had served under Lord Nelson and his wife Janet Martin Educated at Newport Public School and Dundee High School, he showed an aptitude for drawing and was apprenticed c.1880 to Charles and Leslie Ower, studying in parallel under Sir Alfred Ewing at University College, Dundee, where he gained first place for surveying and levelling in 1885. Cappon thereafter had the offer of a good appointment in America but preferred to set up practice on his own account in Dundee at the end of his apprenticeship. His early domestic work of the late 1880s and early 1890s shows the influence of John Murray Robertson as well as that of the Owers, notably at his St Andrews houses.Although Newport Episcopal Church which he designed entirely on his own indicates that he was not without ability, Cappon quickly became dependent on well-selected assistants and apprentices. The earliest of these were Patrick Hill Thoms who was articled to him from 1889 to 1894 and managed the Brechin branch office until his departure in 1898; Harry Edward East (born 1877), articled to him from 1894 to 1898 who left for Gibson & Russell’s; and Thoms’s future partner William Fleming Wilkie, who had been articled to him in 1892. Following their departure Cappon engaged the much older William Gillespie Lamond from C & L Ower’s office; Frank Thomson had become an apprentice rather earlier but did not enjoy his time with Cappon, much as he appreciated the company of Thoms, East and Lamond.Cappon had in fact led what proved to be an over-active life.

He was ‘a keen votary of all recreative sports’ with trophies in cricket, rowing, shooting and curling. He was an enthusiastic volunteer and by the later 1890s was a senior captain in the First Volunteer Battalion of the Black Watch. He represented the Battalion at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London, resuscitating the volunteer movement in Newport as an addition to his own company in the same year (1897) and co-founded the Newport Boys Brigade in 1899; and in 1898 he was elected president of the Dundee Institute of Architecture Science and Art which together with his record as a Royal Academy exhibitor resulted in him being admitted FRIBA on 7 November of that year. As president of the Dundee Institute he was instrumental in establishing a school of architecture at Dundee Technical College with Thomsas lecturer. All these activities, combined with a peak in business in his practice in 1897-1900 brought about a serious breakdown in health early in the latter year. On medical advice Cappon sailed for Durban at the beginning of March and made a comprehensive tour of the battlefields of the South African Wars making a particular study of military hospitals, hospital trains and their equipment. He returned to Dundee in June bringing with him a collection of militaria gathered from the battlefields which included such curiosities as ‘the hoof of the mule that took the Maxim Gun of the Highland Brigade into action’. Inevitably Cappon’s three month absence affected his practice. Lamond left about 1904 for the office of J H Langlands who was about to embark on a major school building programme. By that date Cappon required only his former apprentice John Morrison Mathers, nominally his head draughtsman, and a few apprentices to deal with his practice which now consisted only of a few large suburban houses. When commissions for these began to dry up, in 1908 Mathers left to take up the appointment of burgh surveyor of Tayport.

In 1912 Cappon secured – without competition – the commission for the large new Teacher Training College and Demonstration School in Park Place: for this he recruited Robert Norman Houghton McKellar, an assistant in the Glasgow practice of Miller & Black who had studied at the Glasgow School of Architecture under Eugene Bourdon. The executed building, carried out in 1913-23, has affinities with the work of the Edinburgh architects J M Dick Peddie and James Forbes Smith rather than with that of the Glasgow School, although there are some Burnetian touches in some of the details. During the First World War Cappon was Dundee’s recruiting officer with the rank of major, not a popular assignment with many people as the loss of life and casualties became ever more severe. Cappon had no significant practice after the Training College was completed in 1922. He retired in 1929 selling what business there was to Joseph Johnston, a former pupil of William Alexander, who destroyed all the older practice records.Cappon published his memoirs in 1935. These were concerned with his role in public life rather than in architecture and told little of the office. He died at his house, The Shieling, on 26 January 1939 and was buried at Balgay. He left moveable estate of £12,582 1s 8d.

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