New South Wales

Early days

When New South Wales was first settled, building construction was undertaken by military personnel and convict labourers. A succession of officers filled the position of Engineer and Artillery Officer with responsibility for defence construction, survey work, and buildings in the colony. The governors also used the services of any other skilled people in the colony to assist; the first of these was Henry Brewer who had arrived with Governor Phillip as a midshipman and been delegated the duties of Provost-Marshal. A trained carpenter, he supervised the workers and advised the officers on projects such as the barracks. Initially wattle and daub or slab construction was used for walls and thatch or shingles for the roofs. Good clay deposits were discovered near the settlement, and brick presses brought from England were put into service. Brick kilns were built to fire tiles. By the turn of the century a convict gang of 22 men and two boys were producing 40,000 bricks and tiles a month. James Bloodsworth, a master bricklayer, was given responsibility for supervising the brickmakers and carpenters in 1791. He had arrived as a convict but was emancipated in 1790. On his death in 1804, he was receiving a salary of 50 pounds a year in the position of Superintendent of Buildings. A residence for the Governor had been built along with soldiers’ barracks, dry store, and brick houses for the clergyman, Judge Advocate, and Surveyor General. Timber, especially ironbark, stringybark and mahogony was being shipped to England.

Following Bloodsworth’s death, building responsibilities fell to John O’Hearne, a convict stonemason. O’Hearne was formally titled Assistant Engineer and Superintendent of Stonemasons in 1810; his major project was the Sydney Hospital. During this period Richard Rouse, a free man, was engaged in Parramatta to superintend the timberyard and take charge of public works there. In 1810 Governor Macquarie wrote to Lord Castlereigh pointing out that existing buildings were so decayed that it was futile to repair them and asked that an architect be appointed to superintend the necessary program of public works. The Governor’s prayers were answered with the arrival of two men, Lieutenant John Watts, and Francis Greenway.

JOHN WATTS (1814-1818, Aide-de-Camp to the Governor)

Watts initially worked as a bank officer in Dublin but in 1880 was apprenticed as an architect to a Mr. Griffith. Following the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, he joined the army and served in the West Indies. In 1814 he arrived in New South Wales with the 46th Regiment. His first building assignment was the Military Hospital and surgeons’ barracks located on Observatory Hill. He undertook the extensions to Government House, Parramatta, doubling the area by the addition of two single storey wings and a rear extension. Also in Parramatta, St. John’s Church is testimony to his design skills. In addition, he was responsible for the Military Barracks and officers’ quarters in Parramatta. Throughout his four years of service, Macquarie spoke very highly of him, praising his ‘architectural skill and superior taste’.

In 1818 Watts left for Britain but he returned in 1841, this time to South Australia, where he served as Post Master-General for twenty years. He did not undertake any architectural work during this time. He died in 1873 leaving descendants in Australia, one of whom, a great-grandson, Walter Bagot, maintained Watts’ library in his architectural practice in South Australia.

FRANCIS HOWARD GREENWAY (1816-1822, Civil Architect and Assistant to the Inspector of Public Works)

Greenway was born in 1777 into a family of builders and stonemasons. While in business as an ornamental stonemason with his brother, he advertised himself as an architect, and statuary and landscape architect. When the business failed, he forged a cheque in the name of a creditor, and was sentenced to 14 years in New South Wales. His services were welcomed by Governor Macquarie when he arrived in 1814 with a letter of recommendation from Admiral Arthur Phillip. Greeenway was given a ticket of leave and accommodation in the surgeon’s quarters of the old hospital, where he was joined by his wife and three children. By December 1814 he was advertising his services in the Sydney Gazette, and in March 1816 was formally appointed as Assistant to the Engineer and Acting Government Architect, a title which shortly became Civil Architect and Assistant to the Inspector of Public Works. He received a salary of three shillings a day, and a house complete with convict servant, coal, rations, and a horse.

In 1815 Greenway supervised the construction of Cadman’s Cottage, the oldest existing dwelling in Sydney, which stands in the Rocks area. It served as a boatsmen’s barracks with accommodation for the government boatswain in the upper storey. John Cadman became the Superintendent of Government Craft in 1827, and took up residence there until the position was abolished and he retired in 1845. One of Greenway’s first projects had been improvements to Government House, to which he added a portico, but it was the construction of the male convicts’ barracks at Hyde Park from 1817 to 1819 which won him recognition and a full pardon. This building, which housed the convicts who worked on government building projects, could sleep up to 1000 men in rows of hammocks.

By 1819 Greenway was busy on the government stables and plans were underway for a court house and adjoining school at Hyde Park. At the same time, the British government was so concerned at Macquarie’s expenditure that they sent Commissioner Bigge to investigate. He was shocked at the extravagance of the stables and suggested major economy measures for the colony. On his recommendation the court house was changed into a church, the school into the court house, and the site for the school was moved to the opposite side of the road.

In a letter to Earl Bathurst, the British Colonial Secretary, Bigge referred to Greenway as Colonial Architect. Greenway was engaged in private work as well, and this led to delays in the completion of the female prison. The Governor found that Greenway was becoming more and more irascible; he was complaining constantly about undue interference from builders, who, he believed, were not only failing to follow his requirements, but also purloining his designs. They in turn complained about his absences and lack of adequate directions. Conflict between Greenway and Major Druitt, the Civil Engineer, also added to the Governor’s problems. In 1822, the year of Bigge’s report to the British Government, Greenway was dismissed.

Nevertheless his significant contribution is recognised by many as the birth of Australia’s architectural heritage. Sydneysiders and visitors often take for granted the historic importance of Cadman’s Cottage (1815), Hyde Park Barracks (1819), and Governor Macquarie’s stables, now the Conservatorium of New South Wales (1819). The court house in Windsor, designed by Greenway in (1821), is the oldest in Australia. It is a fine example of simple but elegant Georgian architecture. Greenway also designed a domed market building, subsequently demolished, which was converted to police offices with a small court. His plans for the court house in Sydney were altered after his dismissal, and its construction was supervised by Standish Lawrence Harris who held the position of Civil Architect from 1822-25. Harris was followed by George Cookney until 1826, when the services of private architects were used as required. It was not until 1832 that a Colonial Architect was appointed.

AMBROSE HALLEN (1832-1835 Colonial Architect)

Hallen arrived in Australia from England in 1827 to take up the appointment of assistant to the Surveyor General. Instead, he was appointed as Town Surveyor, and in 1829 his title was changed to Architect and Town Surveyor. In 1832 he became Colonial Architect, working within the Surveyor General’s department. Hallen received a grant of land in the King’s Cross area, and continued his right to private practice. He pursued several business interests, one of which was flour milling, and he resigned in 1835 to concentrate on these. Unfortunately they were not successful, and he was insolvent when he died in 1845 on a voyage back to England. Most of his work was concerned with repairs and maintenance of existing buildings, so there are no public buildings attributable to him.

MORTIMER LEWIS (1835-1849 Colonial Architect)

Born in Wales in 1796, Lewis was commissioned in the Royal Military Corps of Surveyors and Draughtsmen in 1815, serving in Britain and Europe. Arriving in New South Wales in 1830, he assisted with the survey of the Great Dividing Range. His career followed that of Ambrose Hallen whom he succeeded as Town Surveyor in 1832 and as Colonial Architect in 1835. Lewis’s office was separated from that of the Surveyor General to become a separate department. He was dismissed in 1849 as insolvent, but remained in private practice in Sydney until his retirement in 1864. Lewis died in 1879. His principal legacy was an impressive array of court houses whose distinctive style was followed for the next 50 years. Their classical pillars and triangular pediments conveyed the air of authority needed in the colony at the time. Two of the best examples of his style surviving in good order are the Berrima Court House (1838), and the Court House in Darlinghurst, which was commenced in 1835, completed in 1844, and then extended on either side by James Barnet in 1886.

EDMUND THOMAS BLACKET (1849-1854 Colonial Architect)

Born in 1817 in Southwark, England, Blacket worked in his father’s business and his brother’s linen mill in Yorkshire before joining the Stockton-Darlington Railway Company in 1837. Here he worked as a surveyor and draftsman, gaining valuable training for building, and spent his spare time in measuring and drawing old buildings. Intending to travel to New Zealand, he decided to stay in Sydney instead. He was appointed as Inspector of teaching and building for the schools of the Anglican Church in 1843, and built several churches for them. In addition to private practice, he received commissions to design buildings for the northern areas of New South Wales (later to become Queensland). He became Colonial Architect of New South Wales in December 1849 with the right to private practice. Blacket resigned in 1854 to work on the University of Sydney building, and took his son into partnership. He died in 1883. The Water Police Court in Sydney, 1853, is a legacy of his term in office.

WILLIAM WEAVER ( 1854-1856 Colonial Architect)

Born in Somersetshire, England, in 1828, Weaver gained valuable experience in engineers’ and architects’ offices before migrating to New South Wales in 1850. He was immediately appointed as Senior Foreman of Works in the Colonial Architect’s office, and worked his way up to become Second Clerk of Works, succeeding Blacket as Colonial Architect in 1854. A critical report by a committee of enquiry prompted Weaver’s resignation, although it recognised that his department’s resources could not match its responsibilities. He went into partnership with Edmund Kemp from 1857 to 1863, with responsibility for supervising the Richmond to Windsor railway. Moving to New Zealand in 1864, he became Engineer for Auckland, and then Telegraph Engineer for Wellington in 1868, the year he died. No significant buildings remain as examples of his work.

ALEXANDER DAWSON (1856-1862 Colonial Architect)

Dawson migrated to Van Diemen’s Land in 1844 from a background in the Civil Branch of the Royal Engineers in Dover, England, and was again employed with the Royal Engineers as Clerk of Works. In 1849 he became Colonial Clerk of Works for Van Diemen’s Land, an office he held until 1856, when he was invited to accept the position of Colonial Architect of New South Wales. From 1856 until 1860 his office was under the control of the Secretary for Lands and Public Works; in 1860 Public Works became a separate department Despite a suspension in 1859, charges against him were dismissed, and he continued in office until he resigned in 1862 and left Australia. Buildings which exemplify his time in office are the court houses in Kiama, Albury (1861), and Gundagai (1859) (additions added later), and the post office in Mudgee (1862).

JAMES BARNET (1862-1865 Acting Colonial Architect, 1865-1890 Colonial Architect)

Born in Arbroath, Scotland, in 1827, he took up an apprenticeship with a London builder and rose to become Clerk of Works. He studied under Charles Richardson, a Fellow of the Institute of Architects, and William Dyce, Professor of Fine Arts at Kings College.

Barnet arrived in Sydney in 1854. After establishing his reputation while working with Edmund Blacket on the university building program, he joined the Colonial Architect’s office as Clerk of Works in 1860. He stepped into Dawson’s position in 1862, and was confirmed in it in 1865. During his term of office the number on his staff increased from nine to 64, and the number of buildings under his supervision from 324 to 1351. He was responsible for 12,000 projects which cost more than six million pounds.

Barnet’s major works in Sydney were the General Post Office (1874), the Public Offices, which housed the Colonial Secretariat and Public Works Department, the building for the Lands Department (1876-90), and Customs House (1885), which was later extended. Court houses designed by his office are to be found throughout New South Wales: Coonabarabran (1877), Bathurst (1880), Gunnedah (1879), Forbes (1880), Orange (1882), Inverell (1886), and Carcoar (1882). Similarly, post offices: Wilcannia (1880), Orange (1880), Forbes (1881), Goulburn (1881), and Carcoar. The impressive custom house at Newcastle (1876-7), was also the work of his office.

The post offices followed the principles of Italianate design, usually with a portico and tower. The larger court houses were distinguished by their porticoes, with pediments supported on large columns. Numerous smaller court houses were also built, often in red brick.

Barnet was subjected to criticism throughout his career, both from within government ranks and from private architects, and was retired at a fortnight’s notice in 1890. He continued in active public life until his death in 1894.

WALTER LIBERTY VERNON (1890-1911 Government Architect)

Born in Buckinghamshire England in 1846, Vernon was articled to a London architect in 1862, and managed architects’ offices in Wales and London, before setting up his own practice in 1872. He made sketching trips to Holland, Belgium and Germany, became a Member of the Surveyors’ institute in 1880, and in 1883 a Fellow.

Vernon ran successful practices in Hastings and London, but his health was affected by asthma and he decided to migrate to New South Wales in 1883. Here he went into practice with William Wardell and took an active interest in municipal government, serving as an alderman for East St. Leonards from 1885-1890. He was actively involved in the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, Sir John Sulman’s Palladio Club, the Institute of Architects of New South Wales, and the Sydney Architectural Association. He joined the reserve forces of the New South Wales Lancers in 1885 and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

In 1890 Vernon was appointed as Government Architect in the reorganized branch of the Public Works Department with a staff of 73. Private architects were to be given the opportunity to enter competitions to design government buildings, but by 1894 only one competition had been completed and the idea was abandoned. Economic stringencies affected staffing which fell to 44 by 1893, but this had risen again to 152 by the time he retired in 1911. Vernon was ably assisted by his staff, particularly George Oakshott, who subsequently transferred to the Commonwealth in 1903. Under Vernon’s leadership the office produced an impressive array of buildings distinguished by interesting brickwork, shady verandahs and court yards, and provision for cross ventilation. Examples are court houses in Parkes (1895-98), and Wellington (1912), lands offices in Dubbo (1897) and Orange (1904), and the post office in Wellington (1904). The building housing the Premier’s office was erected in 1896. Following his retirement he went into private practice and died in 1914


Australian Dictionary of Biography, vols. 1, 2, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 1966- Government (Colonial Architect) 1837-c.1970, Record Group NGA, Guide to the State Archives of NSW, No. 19, Archives Authority of New South Wales, Sydney, 1979.

Ellis, M.H., Francis Greenway, Angus and Robertson, 1973, first published 1949.

Haddon, Robert, J., Australian Architecture, George Robertson & Co., Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane, 1908 Herman, Morton, Early Australian Architects and Their Work, Angus and Robertson, 1970.

Reynolds, Peter, The Evolution of the Government Architect’s Branch of the NSW Department of Public Works, thesis, University of NSW, 1972. Tanner, Howard (ed.), Architects of Australia, Macmillan, 1981. Watson, Donald, McKay, Judith, Queensland Architects of the 19th Century, Queensland Museum, Brisbane, 1994.