Roberts, John (1712–96), architect, was born in Waterford city, son of Thomas Roberts (d. 1775), an architect and builder of Welsh extraction, and Sarah Roberts (née Bowles), both of Waterford. His mother died young, leaving him and his three sisters to the care of their father, with whom Roberts no doubt worked for a time; but it was in London that he received most of his formal training in carpentry and architecture. On returning to Waterford (c.1744), he fell in love with Mary Susannah Sautelle (1716–21 Jan. 1800), daughter of Maj. Francis Sautelle, a wealthy French officer who had served in William III's (qv) foot guards at the Boyne; Sautelle did not approve of their liaison. The couple was forced to elope, and on their return Mary's father disinherited her. The newlyweds’ first few years proved difficult, but although poor, Roberts was resourceful: he was able to send his sisters to Dublin, where they were educated and married well, and he established a humble dwelling for himself and his bride on Patrick St. The year 1746 proved to be the turning point in their lives, for at that time Bishop Richard Chenevix (qv), an acquaintance of Roberts, decided to complete the Waterford palace initiated by his predecessor, and he selected Roberts to carry out the work. When Bishop's Palace was finished (c. 1750), Chenevix was so pleased with his work that he commissioned him to design several more houses and granted him a long lease of the old palace on Cathedral Square; the Roberts family lived there for the next fifty years. Roberts's reputation was thus established, and he worked steadily for the remainder of his life, creating a considerable portion of Georgian Waterford.
He designed many houses in and around Waterford, including the forecourt of Curraghmore House (1750–60), Portlaw, for Marcus Beresford, earl of Tyrone, for which he used a style reminiscent of a French château. He built the Leper Hospital (1785), Newtown House (later Newtown School) (1786), City Hall (1788), and a private residence for William Morris (1795) which would later become the chamber of commerce. Although most of his work was local, he also designed the church of St Iberius, Wexford (c.1775) and Cashel's catholic church of St John the Baptist, Co. Tipperary (1790). A kind, decent, and fair man, he ran a very successful business and was recognised for both his skill and integrity. ‘Honest John,’ as he became known, showed an unusual amount of concern for the working classes by always paying wages on Saturday mornings so the best foodstuffs could be purchased at weekend markets, and by giving half of his workers' pay to their wives to ensure that it did not go directly into the publicans' coffers.
Perhaps his two greatest achievements were Waterford's protestant and catholic cathedrals. In 1774 he was selected to design a new Christ Church, the protestant cathedral, in place of its decrepit medieval predecessor; he supervised its construction (1775–80), and the result is possibly the finest classical church in Ireland. Many years later, when most of the penal laws were lifted (1793), Waterford's catholic community decided to build a grand Roman catholic cathedral, demonstrating the wealth and confidence of that society. It was to be the first catholic cathedral built in post-reformation Ireland, and that Roberts was asked to design it was a true testament to the esteem in which he was held, particularly given the religious tensions in Munster at the time. What was most remarkable was how he managed to make both cathedrals equally beautiful yet markedly different: Christ Church, with its 200-ft tower and spire, was of a cool and austere design with a northern influence, whereas the catholic cathedral, with its massive Corinthian columns, was warm and sumptuous with a Mediterranean feel. Work began on the latter in 1793, but Roberts did not live to see its completion. The story of his death is now legendary, but apparently one morning in May 1796 he mistakenly awoke at three o'clock instead of six, and when he arrived at the cathedral site and found no workmen there, he curled up on the cold ground and fell asleep. This, unfortunately, led to pneumonia, and he died 23 May 1796. He was buried in Waterford's French cemetery, and when his wife died four years later, she was buried next to him.
The Robertses lived in Waterford their whole lives but maintained a country residence, Mount Brown, on the outskirts of town. John was said to have had anywhere between twenty-one and twenty-four children, of whom only eight survived into adulthood, including Thomas Roberts (qv) and Thomas Sautelle Roberts (qv), landscape painters. His grandson was Sir Abraham Roberts (1784–1873), general in the Indian army and colonel of the Bengal (later Royal Munster) Fusiliers, and his great-grandsons were Samuel Ussher Roberts (1827–1900), an architect of some distinction and surveyor of Galway, and Field-marshal Lord Roberts (qv), commander-in-chief of the British army. Waterford's ‘John Roberts Square’ was named in his honour in 2000.