Category Archives: Exploring Australia

Exploring Melbourne – William Wilkinson Wardell

St Mary's Roman Catholic Church, East St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, East St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia

The architect William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899) is a classic example of the British expatriates who made their career in the growing cities of mid-nineteenth-century Australia.

A Londoner, born in Poplar, a Catholic convert and a pupil of the Gothic Revival architect A W N Pugin, he had designed or restored at least thirty English churches when at the age of thirty-five he and his family emigrated to Melbourne and he was appointed Government Architect.

As such he was responsible for the design of Government House (1871-6) in an Italianate style that hinted at Prince Albert’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.  He also designed the noble Gothic St Patrick’s Cathedral (1857-1897) and, later in his career, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney (1868-1928).

In his private practice, which ran alongside his government work, he built the flamboyant ANZ Gothic Bank, Collins Street, Melbourne (1883-1887) and the Australasian Steam Navigation Co Building, The Rock, Sydney (1884).

Inevitably, his position in Melbourne’s government and Catholic circles meant that he built numerous parish churches, including St Mary’s Catholic Church, East St Kilda (1858), where Wardell and his family worshipped, and the magnificent St Ignatius’ Catholic Church, Richmond (begun 1867), both in the basalt bluestone characteristic of Victoria, quarried in north Melbourne.

William Wilkinson Wardell is an example of the pioneering English architects – others include the Southwark-born Edmund Blacket (1817-1883) and Ipswich-born Benjamin Backhouse (1829-1904) – who brought their expertise to Australia in the days before the new colonies could call on a generation of Australian-born architects.

Exploring Tasmania – Cascades Female Factory

Cascades Female Factory, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia:  Nursery

Cascades Female Factory, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia: Nursery

The history of European settlement in Australia is founded on the convict experience which began with the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney in 1788.

Three sites in Tasmania, which was founded as a penal colony in 1803, illustrate the rigours and the remoteness of the places to which offenders were transported from Britain until as late as 1853.

Richmond Gaol is sufficiently intact to show the actual cramped conditions of the prisoners’ physical environment.  Port Arthur, though ruined, is extensive and has sufficient remains to illustrate in  breadth and detail how convicts and their guards lived and died.

Only vestiges remain of the Cascades Female Factory in suburban Hobart, yet its imaginative restoration and interpretation, using sculpture and live actors, makes the memories it carries evocative and easy to comprehend.

In the upside-down world of convict settlements down under, segregation created odd distinctions.

Female convicts were customarily sent to “factories”, effectively workhouses, for three reasons:  either they were sheltered because of good behaviour on the voyage from Britain, or they were thought to be capable of reformation if removed from criminal influences, or they were so reprehensible that they needed containment away from the main prison system.

These categories were, at the insistence of the Lieutenant Governor, Sir George Arthur (1784-1854), “on no account to be suffered to communicate with each other”.

The factory at the Cascades was designed by the Colonial Engineer John Lee Archer (1791-1852), and was repeatedly extended.  The first prisoners arrived from the overcrowded Hobart Gaol in December 1828, and further courtyards were added in 1832, 1842, 1850 and 1852.

From 1856 the site was redesignated as a prison, and female prisoners left the site completely in 1877.

Nearly all the buildings were subsequently demolished, apart from some of the substantial boundary walls.  The only remaining historic building is the Matron’s Quarters of 1850.

This emptiness is put to remarkably good use.  The archaeology has been investigated and reburied to conserve it, and the outlines are indicated by gravel paths and paving, walls of stone chippings in metal net cages and structures and sculptures in rust-coloured iron.

This apparently unpromising minimalist approach is surprisingly effective, because it challenges the visitor’s imagination, and those who like their history brought to life can follow actors in character around the site telling the stories of those who lived and worked here nearly two centuries ago.

In a different way to the film-set completeness of Richmond Gaol and the mown and manicured ruins at Port Arthur, this site informs the imagination.  I liked it.

Exploring Tasmania – Port Arthur

Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia

I’ve wanted to visit Port Arthur ever since I read Matthew Kneale’s haunting novel English Passengers (2000): https://www.amazon.co.uk/English-Passengers-Matthew-Kneale/dp/0140285210/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489093076&sr=8-1&keywords=Matthew+Kneale+English+Passengers.

It’s a beautiful, miserable, fascinating place.

Set in a cove near the southern tip of Tasmania, the penal colony was founded in 1833 as a high-security jail for transported prisoners who were too recalcitrant for the main convict settlements of New South Wales.

Port Arthur was practically escape-proof:  the only direct land-access was by a narrow spit at Eaglehawk Neck.  By sea there was nothing to the south but Antarctica, to the east New Zealand, to the west the continent of Africa.

Islands in the cove were given over to the first reformatory for boys in the British Empire, Port Puer, and a cemetery, the Isle of the Dead, where convicts, guards and the guards’ families were buried in strict hierarchical order.

The modern tourist site also contains an area commemorating the thirty-five people who died in the Port Arthur Massacre, when a lone gunman on a killing spree fired on visitors in the café, gift shop and car-park areas on April 28th 1966.

When the penal colony was first founded there was much work to do, and the settlement was intended to be self-sufficient.  The Penitentiary itself was initially built as a water-powered mill.

Though Port Arthur was built by physical convict labour, its design reflected contemporary ideas about using psychological punishment to alter prisoners’ minds.

The dominant building on the whole site is the huge Convict Church, its central position symbolising the place of religion in the process of reforming wrong-doers.

The Separate Prison was built to the specification of Jeremy Bentham’s aborted Panopticon project, which allowed all inmates to be supervised from a central point, without individual prisoners having any personal contact with any other individual prisoner or guard.

The idea was that prisoners would have time to contemplate their predicament and the evil ways that brought them to it.

The outcome was that some of them simply went mad.

Exploring Tasmania – Richmond

Richmond Gaol, Tasmania, Australia

Richmond Gaol, Tasmania, Australia

The town of Richmond (population 880), fifteen miles north of Hobart, is a popular tourist spot with links back to the early history of European settlement in Australia.

In the early years of the nineteenth century settlers established themselves around Hobart and began to supply wheat to the rest of the colony of New South Wales, of which Tasmania formed part until it became a separate colony in 1825.

A ford across the Coal River provided a vital link between Hobart and the east coast of what was then called Van Diemen’s Land, and the British lawyer John Thomas Bigge (1780-1843), sent from London to report on the colony’s administration, recommended replacing the ford with a bridge.

Richmond Bridge, the first stone-arch bridge and the oldest bridge still in use in Australia, was built by convict labour in 1823-5, and the surrounding settlement was designated and named in 1824.

Richmond Gaol, opened in 1825 and enlarged in 1832-33, survives almost intact as a historic site, giving a vivid impression of the misery of convict life.  It remained in use until the mid-1850s.

Richmond grew to be the third biggest town in the colony.  Its Catholic church, St John’s (1836), is the oldest in Australia, designed from a plan provided by the Bath architect Henry Edmund Goodridge (1797-1864).  It was extended, making clumsy use of a plan by A W N Pugin, in 1858.

The Anglican parish church of St Luke, designed by the Colonial Engineer, John Lee Archer and built with convict labour, opened in the same year.

An alternative road, the Sorrell causeway, opened in 1872 and bypassed Richmond, leaving it as a reminder of the Georgian origins of Tasmania.

The Richmond Arms Hotel, formerly the Commercial Hotel of 1888, replaced a predecessor destroyed by fire.  It’s one of a number of attractive places to eat and drink in the village:  http://www.richmondarmshotel.com.au.

Richmond thrives on its tourist trade, an easy drive from Hobart and accessible by bus:  http://www.richmondvillage.com.au/home.html.

Exploring Tasmania – Lenna

Lenna, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Lenna, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

My excellent travel-agent Lisa Machin at Sheffield Travel Centre Ltd [http://www.sheffieldtravel.net] has a knack of finding comfortable hotels for me even in unlikely places, and sometimes she excels herself.

From the bottom of the hill the Lenna Hotel, Hobart [http://www.lenna.com.au] looks like a conventional block of modern hotel rooms built above a carpark.  It’s only when the taxi turns into the entrance that Lenna itself, a largely intact and well-restored Victorian villa, comes into view.  The rooms, therefore, are modern and fully up to specification;  the lobby, lounge and restaurant are splendidly Victorian.  I was very happy to spend my stay in Hobart there.

Lenna – the word apparently the Tasmanian indigenous word for ‘house’ or ‘hut’ – was built on what was then a bare hillside overlooking the harbour by a whaling captain and ship-owner, James Bayley (1823-1894), in the 1860s.

It was bought by Bayley’s brother-in-law, the ship-owner and merchant Alexander McGregor (1821-1896), whose brother John had built the Gothic Hillcrest next door.  James Bayley requested that the original hip-roofed house should not be destroyed, and so Alexander McGregor incorporated it into the taller Italianate structure that he built between 1874 and 1880.

Mr McGregor could observe maritime comings and goings in Hobart harbour from his lookout at the top of the house.  The current hotel-owners are rightly proud of this and make it accessible to guests.

In other parts of the world this feature is known as a “widow’s walk”, presumably because it allowed widows during heavy mourning to take exercise unobserved while etiquette prevented them appearing in public.

Eventually, in 1914, the house passed to Sir Alfred Ashbolt (1870-1930), a rich businessman described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as the “undisputed leader of the commercial community in southern Tasmania” in the final years of his life.

Lenna eventually became a hotel in 1973 and now belongs to Lloyd and Jan Clark, who treasure its original features.

Exploring New South Wales: Armidale Anglican Cathedral

St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Armidale, stands just round the corner from its Catholic neighbour.  Though both are Gothic in style, their differences are distinctive.

St Peter’s was designed by John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904), the Canadian-born original architect of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle (begun 1869) on the New South Wales coast and Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton (1881).

Hunt favoured brick, an unexpected material for a cathedral, because its relative cheapness ensured that as much as possible could be built with the limited amount of money available.

The first Bishop of Grafton & Armidale, James F Turner, commented, “Our architect has studied carefully to give the church a certain stateliness of character, and therein has succeeded admirably…it is real, honest, and true; and shows what may be done in a material often too little regarded, viz, common brick.”

Hunt used local blue brick sourced from clay on the Saumarez estate, with Uralla granite dressings and a scissor-truss roof.  Building began in 1873 and after two years the first phase was opened.  The vestries and chapter house were added in 1910, and the tower completed in 1938.

I visited Armidale to lecture to the local decorative and fine arts society on Chicago.  Illustrating skyscrapers in that city, I remarked the Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Tower ignores its surroundings while the earlier Wrigley Building is carefully shaped to fit into its geographical context on the bend of a river – very like, I said, the modern annexes to St Peter’s Cathedral, which blend in a neighbourly way with Hunt’s original design.

At the end the gentleman who gave the vote of thanks remarked how pleased he was that I’d mentioned the extensions to St Peter’s Cathedral because he was Tony Deakin, the architect who designed the Parish Hall:  http://focusmag.com.au/ne/interviews/tony-deakin.

When you address an audience, you never know who’s listening.

Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.  For details, please click here.

Exploring New South Wales: St Patrick’s Orphanage, Armidale

Former St Patrick's Orphanage, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

Former St Patrick’s Orphanage, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

When I lectured to the Armidale Decorative & Fine Arts Society, I was invited to dinner by Les and Libby in their spacious Gothic Revival apartment, part of the former St Patrick’s Orphanage.

This surprisingly late example of Gothic design was built between 1919 and 1921 for the Sisters of Mercy by George Nott, who had previously built Armidale’s Catholic Cathedral of St Mary & St Joseph.

By 1924 there were 120 children at the home, cared for and largely educated by the Sisters.  The regime at St Patrick’s Orphanage was not, it seems, a bed of roses:  http://www.clan.org.au/news_details.php?newsID=568.

The orphanage transferred to two cottages in 1976 and eventually closed in 1984.  The 1921 building stood derelict for some years, and has now found a happier fate as an opulent apartment-block.

There is an image of the building when it was new at http://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryofvictoria_collections/6819575484.

Exploring New South Wales: Armidale Catholic Cathedral

Catholic Cathedral of St Mary & St Joseph, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

Catholic Cathedral of St Mary & St Joseph, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

Sited in the midst of the Northern Tablelands above the Hunter Valley, Armidale is a strange city to British eyes:  it has two cathedrals, a university, and a population of less than twenty thousand.  Its oddity to most Australians is that because of its altitude, over 3,000 feet above sea-level, it has seasons, so they call the region “New England”.

Many of the early settlers were Irish, and Catholicism has remained a significant force in the community.

The fine Catholic Cathedral of St Mary & St Joseph was designed by Joseph Ignatius Sheerin (d 1915) & John Francis Hennessy (1853-1924) of Sydney, and built in polychrome brick and Pyrmont sandstone by the Armidale building contractor George Nott in 1911-12.

The Anglican George Nott (1865-1940) owned timber mills and brickworks in the area, and supplied the 1.1 million bricks for the cathedral, the largest project of his career.  Built in a little over twenty months, it cost A£32,000.  Its needle spire, 155 feet high, is a major landmark.

It was one of the last works of the Sheerin & Hennesssy partnership, designers of a series of prestigious Catholic buildings in and around Sydney – the Archbishop’s House (1885) and St Patrick’s Seminary, Manly (1885-1889), St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill (1884-94), St Vincent’s College, Potts Point (1886), Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, Randwick (1888)and the Sacred Heart Monastery, West Kensington, Sydney (1895).

When St Mary & St Joseph’s Cathedral celebrated its centenary, a member of the congregation was George Nott’s daughter, 91-year-old Peggy Becke, wearing the gold chain from the watch that the parishioners presented to her father when the building was completed:  http://www.armidaleexpress.com.au/story/410529/armidale-catholic-cathedral-turns-100.

Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.  For details, please click here.

Exploring New South Wales: by rail from Newcastle to Armidale

Armidale Railway Station, New South Wales, Australia:  looking towards Brisbane

Armidale Railway Station, New South Wales, Australia: looking towards Brisbane

I was intended to travel from my Newcastle DFAS lecture to the next booking at Scone by car, but my chauffeur was taken ill so I took the train to Muswellbrook (pronounced Mussel-brook), and after I’d lectured at Scone, another train from there up the length of the Hunter Valley.

I wasn’t aware at the time but later discovered that Sandgate station on the way out of Newcastle marks the location of the Sandgate Cemetery Branch, which operated from when the Cemetery opened in 1881 until at least 1933 – (the cemetery website [http://www.sandgatecemetery.org.au/index.php/our-cemetery/history-of-sandgate] – indicates services ran until 1985).

Stations with evocative Geordie names – Wallsend, Hexham – lead to Maitland, the junction where the North Coast Line, built on a shorter route closer to the coast between 1905 and 1932, leaves the older Main North Line.

Maitland is also the base for the elaborate Hunter Valley Steamfest [http://www.steamfest.com.au], which offers an astonishing range of steam-related entertainments, not all of them rail-based, every April.

Even from the road, especially on the New England Highway, the coal and the trains still dominate:  the inexorable coal-trains look a mile long, and at a level crossing you might as well switch off the car-engine and pour yourself a coffee.

Yet the countryside is open and pastoral:  here there is money to be made from horse-breeding and wine-growing.

The station-names become Scottish for a while – Lochinvar, Allandale – and then switch to Co Durham – Greta.  Eventually, after the vast Dartbrook Colliery, the landscape turns rural again and the towns more elegant, with Scots names – Aberdeen and Scone.

From Scone the route continues to climb and the ruling gradient of 1 in 80 becomes 1 in 40 at the approach to the single-track bottleneck Ardglen Tunnel, over a quarter of a mile long, at over 2,300 feet altitude.

The once-a-day CountryLink service to and from Sydney breaks at Werris Creek, still a significant railway junction with a fine station building by John Whitton (1820-1898), Engineer-in-Charge of New South Wales Railway and builder also of the border railway station at Albury.

One portion of the CountryLink train goes takes the Mungindi Line to Moree;  I followed the main route to the present-day end of the line at Armidale.  Past Tamworth the line tends to follow tight river-valleys, until at Uralla it emerges on to the open, empty tableland plain.

Passenger service ends where the line turns sharply north-west at Armidale, at the fine 1882-3 railway station designed by Edmund Lonsdale with cast-ironwork from the New England Foundry at Uralla. 

You can stand at the north end of Armidale Station gazing at the rusting tracks which stretch another 93 miles to the break-of-gauge at Wallangarra.

The line to the border with Queensland was abandoned beyond Tamworth in the late 1980s, though services were restored as far as Armidale in 1993.  The abandoned track and infrastructure remains in place, though it must be decrepit by now.

Queensland Railways’ 3ft-6in-gauge services to Wallangarra ceased in 1997, though heritage steam services occasional operate:  http://www.southerndownssteamrailway.com.au/news_events/040409.php.

Exploring New South Wales: Maitland & Morpeth churches 3

St James' Church, Morpeth, New South Wales, Australia

St James’ Church, Morpeth, New South Wales, Australia

The final church that Phil and Jane Pullin showed me when I stayed with them on my ADFAS tour is a contrast to Edmund Blacket’s other churches in the area.

Whereas St Mary’s, West Maitland and St Peter’s, East Maitland replaced earlier functional buildings, St James’ Church, Morpeth [http://www.stjamesanglicanchurchmorpeth.com.au/page/315332271] is Blacket’s 1860s adaptation of an existing building of 1837-40:  he added the sanctuary and sacristy and designed the font and pulpit.

It was rebuilt by John Horbury Hunt after a fire in 1874:  he raised the nave walls and devised the lightweight hammerbeam roof, but left the tower at its original height so that it now looks undersized.

The organ (1877) is a rarity, one of the few surviving instruments by the Sydney organ-builder William Davison.  St James’ has two fine statues, of St James and the Virgin Mary, by the sculptor Englebert Piccolrauz (b 1942).

All this I would have missed as a tourist.  It makes all the difference to spend time in a foreign country working and receiving the hospitality of people who’ve lived there all their lives.

And in the Hunter Valley coalfield of New South Wales, with its Tyneside place-names, there is a constant reminder to a Brit that Australia is, in many respects, remarkably like home.

Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.  For details, please click here.