Formakin House, which is also known as the Monkey House, lies between Langbank and Houston, and has been an object of curiosity to Renfrewshire residents for years. The monkey reference relates to the stone monkeys adorning the roofs of the gatehouse and other buildings, some of which appear to be frolicking along the ridge of the roof. Many have been lost or removed over the years, however those on the gatehouse have survived intact. Within the main house, door lintels and fireplaces are also decorated with relief carvings of more monkeys.
Formakin House was designed by the architect Sir Robert Stoddart Lorimer for John Augustus Holms (April 1,1866 - May 24, 1938) at the start of the 20th century. An accomplished horticulturist, Holms planned and laid out the formal gardens before the house was was built, including a fountain, oriental and walled gardens, all joined by paths set with heart shaped stones. Although he also maintained the garden at Bishopton station, and opened his gardens for charity, he did not suffer trespassers, or show any mercy to those who would pick his flowers, with tripwires set in the grounds, arranged to catch out unwary visitors and land them in a muddy puddle.
The building's style is that of the 17th century, and it has a carved date of 1694 on one of the walls, accompanied by the letters DL, standing for Damned Lie! The date really being some 200 years later. The building was rendered brick with reinforced concrete floors and had central heating radiators installed, both being unusual in a building of the period. Work came to a stop in 1912, when Holms' funds were exhausted, thanks to his extravagant demand for the highest of standards, even for the most utilitarian of items. For example, his specification for the electricity supply switch board called for "polished marble mounted in a polished teakwood frame having a teakwood door with lock and key". The house remained an empty shell, and was never actually lived in. No plumbing was ever installed in the house, nor was there a kitchen, but this did not stop Holms from holding dinner parties there. His collection of tapestries would be hung on the walls, which were never plastered, and the meal would be cooked in the gatehouse, and transported along the driveway to be served to his guests.
By 1940, the estate had been sold to AE Pickard (1874 - 1964), a Glasgow based millionaire, entrepreneur, cinema magnate, eccentric, and more. The only bidder, Pickard had acquired the estate for only £7,000 - Holms' spending on labour and materials alone was estimated at £60,000. Pickard had a well known penchant for American cars. However, when they broke down he simply abandoned them in his driveway, and bought another, a practice which did not go down well with his neighbours. Later attempts by Pickard to sell the estate for housing development met with little success, being thwarted by the proximity of the munitions factory at Bishopton, which was then still in operation. His sister is said to have lived at Formakin for several years, but there is no confirmation of this story.
In 1984, the estate was taken over by the Formakin Trust, assisted with a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and opened to the public. Unfortunately, the trust ran at a deficit, unable to attract sufficient visitors, and closed after a few years. At the start of the 21st century, the estate was successfully developed as private housing, providing some 17 exclusive domiciles and finally occupied almost 100 years after it was started.
Site visit 2007
The estate was always a secret and secretive place. If intruders were observed, a Land Rover with four estate workers carrying shotguns would drive about the lanes of the estate. I saw them twice, but fortunately they never caught me.
Estate buildings adjacent to the road are visible to the public, but the main house is not, and the estate is surrounded by 'Private' signs, having been developed as upmarket housing. While Miller's building has been saved, the style has been altered considerably, having been converted to both studio and accommodation by its first new occupant, who was an artist. Many of the monkey carvings on the roofs have been removed or lost over the years. One area of the gardens to the north of the new driveway was planted with rows of hedging which have grown to become tree lines, about 20 feet apart.
Visitors to the area should be aware that another house, approximately half a mile to the north, which is a modern reproduction, stands on the site of a similar building which formerly occupied the ground. This may be Linden Lee, but the name is unconfirmed.
Albert Ernest Pickard (1874 - 1964) was the last of Glasgow's great eccentrics, who liked to introduce himself as Albert Ernest Pickard Unlimited. Actually from Yorkshire, born in Bradford, he moved to Glasgow in 1904, and began his property empire by purchasing Fell's Waxwork in the city's Trongate. To this he added his own American Museum, featuring a number of freak shows and a small zoo. He then acquired the old Britannia Music Hall which occupied the the floors above his waxworks, and changed its name to The Panopticon, because there, one could see everything within its walls.
Many of those who performed at his theatre were amateurs, getting their first opportunity to be seen there, and he always claimed part responsibility for one of the most famous comic duos ever. An unknown comic, Stan Jefferson first performed at The Panopticon. Later, the rest of the world would come to know him as Stan Laurel.
Buying up property made Pickard a millionaire and he eventually owned more buildings than anyone except the council.
His eccentric ways are said to have made Glasgow a funnier place for 60 years, with stunts such as his habit of paying large bills with bags of pennies. At the age of 90, during Halloween in 1964, after an amazingly full life, he died in a fire in his own home in Belhaven Terrace in the city's West End. His ashes were scattered in the Garden of Remembrance of the Western Necropolis.
The house, or rather estate entrance, featured in an episode of Taggart, "Flesh And Blood", first aired on Scottish Television in 1989. This episode included possible IRA involvement, a group of Role Playing Game (RPG) enthusiasts, some amateur thieves, and an embittered, scheming, retired safecracker.
The story begins just before Christmas, as Jim Taggart attends the wedding of social worker Janie Ross (one of the game players) and prisoner Charlie Forbes. Ross is later to be found murdered.
With the help of a friend, an Irishman living in Glasgow hijacks a delivery van en route for the Stranraer ferry. Instead of the expected haul of video recorders, they find the van contains fairy lights, and a cache of explosive, later found to to be the property of some very unforgiving owners.
Ross is seen playing an RPG with a group of friends in the vaults beneath Glasgow University. Following the death of her long established game character, she is upset and leaves, only to be crushed to death by a car in a nearby lane.
The hijackers, who thought the explosives cache to be a lucky find, find their luck takes a doubly dangerous turn for the worse. Firstly, the real owners of the explosives, who consider the theft to be deliberate rather than chance, despatch a ruthless and heavily armed hitman to send a message to any other thieves. Second, they are unaware that the safecracker they have recruited to use the explosives, in the belief that he has a £2 million job planned, has been waiting for such an opportunity to arise in order to carry out a plan he already had in readiness, involving the murder of his family in an explosion at a holiday cottage they rent each Christmas. This is intended to cover his own disappearance by substituting one of their unrecognisable bodies for his own in the ruins of the destroyed building. His ultimate plan was to plant evidence that he and his wife had kidnapped the baby son of an heiress some twenty years earlier, and their double death would trigger the release of a letter confessing to the crime and naming their son as the victim, and heir to her fortune. However, the plan was to fail as they were not smart enough to take account of the development of DNA fingerprinting, which would prove the son was not related to the kidnap family.
A series of apparently unrelated events begins a chain of murders which appear to be linked, with Taggart and Jardine called in to investigate.
Part of the story revolves around a treasure hunt created by Janie Ross, intended to be run on Boxing Day. Jardine decides to follow the clues described in the hunt, which includes a visit to Formakin House, with scenes showing the the entrance to the house and a monkey statue. Another clue leads to Port Glasgow, where we see the distinctive black and white chequerboard pattern painted on the Steamboat Quay Lighthouse, located near Newark Castle. Also featured as locations on the treasure hunt are the tower on Tower Hill, Gourock, and the Comet Replica at Port Glasgow. The hunt is intended to end at the holiday cottage, said to be Hawk's Hill (visible on the treasure map), possibly inspired by Hawkhill, northeast of Girvan.
The episode closes with a notable scene on Greenock Dock. Arrested in an underground tunnel running beneath the dry dock to a derelict building where he has just executed the safecracker, the hitman maintains his composure and lies to Taggart, implying that his (the safecracker's) partner can still be apprehended in the building. In reality, we know that there is no partner, and that the hitman and safecracker had previously arranged to meet in the building. The safecracker had arrived early, sneaking in via the tunnel with the intention of setting up a decoy and booby trap for the hitman, but was discovered by him before completing his work, and machine gunned. Taggart and Jardine set off down the tunnel, but Jardine is sent back. Seconds later, an explosion rocks the area and we see the building burst into flames, with a brief shot of the hitman's smiling face.
While his colleagues attempt to enter and search the burning building, believing he was inside when the explosion detonated, we see a dust covered Taggart emerge from a smoking tunnel doorway on the opposite side of the dock. He had spotted the incomplete booby trap wiring to the door latch when he had to break a pane of glass to gain access to the room where the decoy was seated.
A further gem in the same episode is the scene showing Taggart and Jardine descending in a Paternoster, believed to have been located in the Pontecorvo Building, University of Glasgow, Dumbarton Road, where the Genetics Department was located. Unfortunately, this building by Basil Spence & Partners is understood to have been demolished some time after 2011.
- John Augustus Holms
- Formakin House article, The Scotsman, June 10, 2004
- Formakin development described, Times Online, March 4, 2005
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