Pillars of a Nation

Australia’s rich heritage of government architecture gives us an insight into the development of our nation. The buildings erected between 1800 and 1900 symbolise the growth and aspirations of the Australian colonies which federated as a nation in 1901. Growing communities took great pride in the buildings which provided the government services essential for their survival and prosperity. The meticulous designs of the government architects ranged in style from vernacular to classical, and , although many of the buildings no longer serve their original functions, they stand as important reminders of the vision of the communities they served. They were indeed the pillars of the nation.


Land of Promise

From the arrival of Governor Phillip in 1788, the British Colonial Office supervised settlement and drew arbitrary boundaries for each new colony. By the time the colonies federated in 1901, democratic processes were in place and government services established.

Architecture the Profession

Each new colony had an urgent need for makeshift buildings constructed by local labourers. However, the colonies attracted architects who found employment in the government architects’ offices. Initially European architects attended lectures at academies and took tours of Europe, but, by the time the Australian colonies federated, architects were required to qualify with university degrees or recognized training within architects’ offices.

Office of Government Architect

The government architect was a prestigious position within the Department of Works in each colony. He was assisted by clerks of works and design draftsmen. The size of the office reflected the prosperity of the colony at the time. The office was responsible for the design and construction of public buildings required for the delivery of government services.

Business of Government

Parliamentary Government

On settlement, each colony was governed by the official representative of the British Government and all laws were made in consultation with the Colonial Office in Britain. During the 19th century males won the right to representation and finally the vote. South Australian women were the first to be granted the vote in 1894.

Lands Administration

Productive use of the land was critical for the survival of the early settlers and government surveyor was one of the earliest officers employed by the British Colonial Office. Land was initially allocated by the governor of each colony to settlers and emancipated convicts. As settlements grew, laws were required to regulate the cost and conditions for land use.

Customs Service

Customs revenue was a major source of income for the colonies, and a custom house was a very prestigious building. In addition to collecting duties on goods entering ports and crossing boundaries between one colony and another, customs officers enforced quarantine and immigration regulations. On federation the entire customs service of each colony passed to the Commonwealth.



The Australian colonies did not lag far behind in the great railway revolution of the 19th century. Public and private lines were constructed, enabling passengers and goods to travel faster than steamboats and Cobb and Co coaches. The lack of co-ordination of the railway gauge caused problems well into the next century.

Post and Telegraph Services

Mail was initially delivered by foot, horseback, or boat. The development of coach services provided more reliable deliveries until superseded by faster rail services. Post offices were initially situated in private houses or shops until the importance of the service was recognized in splendid buildings. The telegraph service also operated in conjunction with post offices with transmission stations required for long distances.

Voice of the people

Justice System

The civil and criminal courts established by Governor Phillip were presided over by a military officer in the role of Judge Advocate. There was no trial by jury. The success of the justice system depended on volunteer Justices of the Peace who acted as magistrates, Government residents who represented the Governor in outlying areas, and Police Magistrates. As the colonies grew, local communities vied for the prestige of a court house which often served multiple purposes. The justice system today revolves around a series of courts at local, state, and federal levels, and their importance is reflected in their imposing architecture.

Local Government

Town hall buildings remain prominent icons in Australian cities and towns. They reflect the pride of local communities who campaigned for local services. Many were designed by private architects. Government regulations prescribed the number of residents required for the status of town, city, borough, or shire, and today local councils continue to service the basic needs of communities, while answerable to state governments if corruption is exposed.


In January 1901, Australia became a nation. The commonwealth parliament met in Melbourne until the official building opened in Canberra in 1927. Immigration, post and telegraph services, defence, and customs affairs all became the responsibility of the new government. The High Court was established in 1903 to be the highest court for appeals and arbiter of constitutional matters.

Government Architects

The first commonwealth government architect was John Smith Murdoch who followed in the footsteps of the colonial government architects who so successfully designed the impressive government buildings which still stand and serve the community in some form or another. The life and work of each architect is summarized in this section.