James Owen of Penrhos

and his descendants
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The RIBA Certificate of Merit

Latterly, I discovered that in 1906 Reginald had entered at least some of his architectural drawings of Magdalen College, under the title "Waynflete", for RIBA's 'Institute Silver Medal for Measured Drawings of Ancient Buildings'. The Building News & Engineering Journal, 1907, reported that no prize was awarded but Reginald and another entrant were awarded Certificates of Hon. Mention. Unfortunately this led to an incident which must have been mortifying for Reginald but which was not entirely of his making. Reports describing events were long but, in the interests of fairness and completeness, I feel the circumstances should be fully explained. The incident reveals something of Reginald's character.

In summary, the award of the Certificate of Merit was announced in the Building News & Engineering Journal before Reginald was informed by letter. He then decided to withdraw his entry, writing letters to this effect and subsequently doing all that was asked of him by R.I.B.A. to this end. Despite this, when he attended the presentation evening as a spectator he was amazed to hear his name announced as the winner of the certificate, an award he immediately had to decline since he knew his entry had been withdrawn. There followed a series of increasingly vitriolic comments and reports criticising his action but instigated by people who were unaware of the full facts.

The Building News & Engineering Journal reported that the assessors praised Reginald for "the excellence of the large size drawings made on the spot". However, its report of the presentation revealed that:

Mr. Wynn Owen, in response to the call, stepped forward, and in a quiet, almost inaudible monotone, informed the President that when he reflected upon the large amount of hard work and time which he had bestowed on his measured drawings of Magdalen College, Oxford, he deeply regretted to say that in justice to himself he was quite unable to accept the certificate which had been awarded to him. He had the highest regard for the President personally, and for the members of the Council, and he trusted that the President would accept, as the justification of the speaker's attitude, the fact that there were occasions when a man felt morally bound to say clearly what he thought. The President replied that it would have been more gracious on Mr. Owen's part had he communicated his decision in writing to the Council instead of making this public protest, and Mr. Owen silently bowed and withdrew.

The journal went on to comment:
we should like to compliment the President upon the rebuke which he delivered to one who took upon himself to refuse a certificate of honour— a "mere piece of paper," as he called it. The trouble arose over the Measured Drawings prize, which, as our readers remember, has not been awarded this year. In commenting upon the matter last week, we made the remark that "it seems somewhat hard lines for the prize to be withheld". It is one thing, however, for us in our editorial capacity to make a remark like this, and quite another for one of the gentlemen to whom Hon. Mention is awarded to take the matter into his own hands and refuse his certificate. If he has ever played football or cricket he will know that it is necessary in all cases to accept the umpire's decision, and if it is necessary in games, all the more so is it when competing for the great prizes of a great profession, and when the umpires are men of the highest standing. It will be long, we fear, before the perpetrator of this indiscretion will live down its effects.

The incident thus reported showed Reginald in a very poor light and might have damaged his burgeoning career. As a sportsman he would have found the comparison with accepting the umpire's decision particularly galling. He was prompted to write a measured response which the journal published in full (The Building News, Feb. 15, 1907). It was followed by a minimal apology from the editor of the journal:


To the Editor of the Building News,

Sir, — After reading the account of the "Students' Night at the Institute" in the Building News of Feb. 5, I feel that I should now make a clear statement of the circumstances which led up to my verbal refusal on that occasion of a "Certificate of Honourable Mention" in connection with the measured drawings competition, and I would therefore be very much obliged if you would insert the following account of same in your next issue.

Jan. 23. An announcement appeared in the Builders' Journal that the Institute measured drawings medal had been withheld, and certificates of honourable mention awarded to another gentleman and myself.

Jan. 23. I wrote to Secretary R.I.B.A., stating that as I felt that the merit of the work submitted was quite equal to the usual standard, I thought that there must be some error in the above-mentioned announcement, and asking for confirmation or correction of the same. As this letter and the official award crossed in the post no reply was necessary, so I received no reply.

Jan. 24. Received from Secretary R.I.B.A. official announcement of the said award, dated Jan. 23, which confirmed what had appeared in the Builders' Journal.

Jan. 31. After due consideration concerning the award, I wrote to the Secretary R.I.B.A. as follows : —

Dear Sir,— I wish to withdraw my drawings of Magdalen College, Oxford, entirely from the measured drawings competition, as I feel that, on this occasion, the award can scarcely have been influenced solely by the merit of the work submitted. I shall be in London on Saturday or Monday, when I shall call for the drawings. — Yours faithfully, R. Wynn Owen.
Please note that this letter was written prior to the issue of the Building News of Feb. 1, in which it was stated that it seemed somewhat hard lines for the prize to be withheld.

Feb. 2. I had an interview with the Secretary, R.I.B.A., at No. 9, Conduit-street, and was asked to send in another letter addressed to the "R.I.B.A. Council", stating some reason other than that expressed in the above letter, for the withdrawal of the drawings.

Feb. 4. In deference to the above request, I wrote the following letter to the R.I.B.A. Council, and went and waited for a reply at No. 9, Conduit-street.


Gentlemen, — I wish to withdraw the measured drawings of Magdalen College, Oxford, which I submitted recently in competition for the " silver medal" and should be pleased if you would instruct your secretary to hand same over to me.

During the three weeks which I spent at Magdalen College measuring the buildings, considerable interest in the work was evinced by the Estates Bursar of the college, as prior to my survey there were no plans of the place on record. I therefore made my survey comprise all the older portion of the premises - ... [illegible] ... - and plotted the work accurately on the spot, so that my sketches are practically a complete set of drawings in themselves.

Since the drawings have been in London I have received a request that they should be sent to Oxford for the inspection of the College authorities. I am anxious to comply with this request and have come up from Liverpool for the purpose of taking the drawings to Oxford.

I shall await your reply at No. 9, Conduit-Street, while your meeting is in progress, so that, should you wish to see me with regard to this matter, I shall be at your service.- -I am, Gentlemen, yours faithfully, R. Wynn Owen

Please note that this letter is not merely a request that my drawings should be led over to me as a favour, but a definite "withdrawal" of same with some information concerning the survey added merely by way of information.

I received a verbal response to the effect that my drawings would be at my disposal on the following (Tuesday) morning, and that the secretary would communicate with me. The drawings were handed to my representative as promised but I have not yet received the secretary's communication.

Feb. 5. In the evening I attended the distribution of prizes at the Institute as a spectator, when I was called up to receive the before-mentioned certificate, which, from lack of any alternative line of action, I then declined, addressing to the President the following words: —

I can scarcely express, sir, what I wish to say; but when I reflect upon the large amount of hard work and time, which I bestowed upon my measured drawings of Oxford, I regret to say, sir, that, in justice to myself, I am quite unable to accept this certificate which has been so kindly awarded to me. I deeply regret that circumstances have so ordered themselves that it is to you, sir, that I have to address these remarks, as I have the greatest repect, sir, for you personally, and also for the Council of the Institute, and I trust that you will accept in the justification of my present attitude the fact that there are occasions when a man feels morally bound to say clearly what he thinks.

The fact that I attended this meeting in morning dress should be sufficient to indicate that I did not contemplate that any presentation would be made to me.

Here allow me to point out that in the report of "The Students' Night at the Institute" in the Building News for Feb. 8, I am reported as having referred to the certificate as a "mere piece of paper". I gave utterance to no such expression. I am by no means an exponent of vulgarity.

This report further seems to infer that my refusal to receive the certificate was perhaps to some extent influenced by the remark in the Building News of Feb. 1 to the effect that "it seemed somewhat hard lines for the prize to be withheld". By way of correcting this idea, may I refer you back to my letter of Jan. 31 to the Secretary, R.I.B.A., a letter written prior to the issue of the paper containing the above quoted remark, from which it will be seen that I was not influenced towards the line of action which I adopted by any external source.

With reference to your somewhat sporting simile, I may say that I have participated keenly in the two games referred to, but fail to see that there is any analogy between the simile and the incident in question.

Your final remark — "It will be long, we fear, before the perpetrator of this indiscretion will live down its effects" — is, I think, rather strongly expressed and somewhat vindictive in tone, even when I take into consideration the fact that the writer was not cognisant of all the circumstances of the case upon which he was commenting, and I now trust that you will, by the aid of your paper, enable me to show clearly that there is nothing which it is necessary that I should, to quote the phrase you used, "live down".

First an award which concerns me is communicated to the Press before it is communicated to me; then I withdraw my drawings entirely from the competition by letter to the Secretary R.I.B.A.; then, at the request of the Secretary R.I.B. A., I write a second letter direct to the Council, again withdrawing my drawings; then I am publicly asked to accept a certificate, and, from lack of any alternative line of action, I have to decline same verbally.

After the perusal of this account, I trust that it will be clear to all members of the profession that I was justified in acting finally as I did — i.e. in declining the certificate verbally.

The question of whether I was right in declining the award at all does not in any way affect the case, for every man has a perfect right to refuse anything, and, provided he does so politely, I take it that no one should have any cause to find fault with him for doing so.

To withdraw my drawings was, I think, the most polite way in which I could have declined the award.

In conclusion, I deeply regret to say that a letter, dated Feb. 6, and directed to Sir. T. E. Collcutt, the President, at his business address, explaining the above circumstances and expressing regret that he had been involved in such an incident, has not up to the present called forth any acknowledgment.

By giving publicity to these remarks in the pages of the Building News you will greatly assist in the removal of an unjust stigma which, I am sorry to say, your remarks in the Building News of Feb. 8 have certainly tended to foster. — I am, &c, R. Wynn Owen. 60, Castle-street, Liverpool.

[We are glad to note Mr. Owen's disclaimer of the words which we attributed to him. He spoke in a low voice, and with his back to the room. We may have mistaken what he said. — ED.]