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James Blackburn

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, although the life of English born civil engineer, surveyor and architect James Blackburn (1803-1854) ”was predominantly one of unrealized potentialities, he has claims to be considered one of the greatest engineers of his period in Australia, and his architectural achievements established him as Tasmania’s most advanced and original architect. He was key to the formation of the Department of Public Works in 1839, serving as one of its core members under Alexander Cheyne and designed some of Tasmania’s finest early colonial sandstone buildings.

Like Francis Greenway, Sydney’s most highly respected architect of the early colonial era, Blackburn not only arrived in Australia as a convict, but also for commiting the same crime in England that Greenway committed – forgery.

Born on the 10th August 1803 in Upton, West Ham, Essex, England. Blackburn was the third son born in a family of five children, four boys and one girl. His father and all of his brothers were scalemakers. Blackburn married Rachel Hems (1805-1880) in 1826. At the age of 23, James was employed by the Commissioners of Sewers for Holborn and Finsbury and later on became an inspector of sewers.

Owing to the failure of a private building speculation he fell into debt and ‘in a moment of desperation’ forged a cheque for 600 pounds on the Bank of England in the names of his employers. The forgery was discovered and although the commissioners whom he sought to defraud submitted commendatory testimonials at his trial, he was sentenced to transportation for life on 20th May 1833. His wife Rachel, their daughter and son followed, arriving in 1835 on the Augustus Caesar.

In November 1833 the Isabella landed him in Hobart Town. Blackburn was listed as a civil engineer and surveyor on the journey to Tasmania and was assigned to the Roads Department under Roderic O’Connor, a wealthy Irishman who was the Inspector of Roads and Bridges at the time.

His first task was to report to the Government about the water crisis which was going on in the town of Launceston, Tasmania for at least 10 years. In August 1834 He handed in a report to the Government dealing and within two months had completed plans and sections which were proposed solutions to solve the crisis. Half a half a year passed before agreement was reached to follow Blackburn’s proposal and in March 1836, constructions were finally put to work.

In 1839 the Department of Public Works was created to combine the functions of the Department of Roads and Bridges, the civil engineer and the colonial architect. Alexander Cheyne, the new Inspector of Roads and Bridges, and Blackburn formed the nucleus of the new department and indeed Blackburn’s many and varied projects, appearing over Cheyne’s signature, occasioned its formation, for Cheyne was untrained in most of its duties. From 1833 to 1839 a very large part of the island’s road-making, surveying and engineering work, excluding certain items in the convict and military establishments, was performed by Blackburn.

The year 1837 saw designs of greater stylistic interest than before. From 1839 onwards the bulk of the architectural requirements and bridges, in addition to vastly increased surveying and engineering schemes are attributable to Blackburn. He was involved with the completion of Bridgewater Causeway. After initial delays and changes, the project was completed in March 1847 and the swing bridge were opened in April 1849.

Meanwhile, Blackburn had petitioned the Secretary of State, requesting emancipation. Cheyne expressed his confidence towards James Blackburn. “He is the only person I can depend upon to do many of the duties, and without his assistance I must necessarily have done them myself… He is the only person in the Department beside myself who can survey and level… I place more confidence in him than I could in the greater proportion of those who call themselves free … If Blackburn from being a convict is incapacitated from making enquiries, no time must be lost in supplying his place with a free person qualified to do the duties, if such can be found, which I doubt, in the colony.”

Lieutenant-Govenor Arthur also supported the plea, stating that since his arrival he had distinguished himself by his conduct and ‘by readiness with which he has on all occasions applied his knowledge of his former profession to the advantage of the public service’. In spite of these recommendations, his plea of 1836 was unsuccessful. In 1839 he renewed his appeal and the Lieutenant-Govenor wrote of his ‘exemplary’ conduct and intention of not returning to England.

On 3rd May 1841 he was finally pardoned, whereupon he entered private practice with James Thomson, who was also a former convict. They were the successful contractor for numerous works ranging from the tiny picturesque Tudor lodges (actually a watch-house) at St John’s, New Town (1841-42) to the mammoth and grandiose classicist Government House designed for the Franklins (1840, abandoned 1843 and demolished). A pontoon bridge at Risdon designed in 1841 was unrealized, but the Bridgewater Bridge planned in 1840-41 was, after protracted negotiations, built by the firm in 1846-49.

Many other important post-depression engineering projects remained unfulfilled. Among them were a scrupulously organized water supply for Hobart (1841-43); a ferry or punt for the Derwent (1845-46); irrigation schemes for the Midlands; and various road improvements.

Blackburn had moved north to Campbell Town in 1846, which from 1843 became increasingly the main centre of his activities. He aquired land there, living as tenant at Camelford. He later engaged in flour-milling on the Elizabeth River when private commissions became scarce and his funds were low.

In April 1849, Blackburn and his family relocated to Melbourne to set up practice as an engineer and architect at Port Phillip. He formed a company to sell filtered and purified water to the public, attempted to form another to mine coal at Western Port, and carried out some minor architectural commissions.

On 24th October of the same year, he was appointed city surveyor, and in 1850-51 produced his greatest non-architectural work, the basic design and fundamental conception of the Melbourne water supply from the Yan Yean reservoir via the Plenty River. Despite his original vision, the plans were carried out, somewhat modified, with Blackburn in a subordinate position.

In January 1852, after falling from a horse, Blackburn fell ill with typhoid. This eventually led to his death on 3rd March 1854, age 51. He is buried in Melbourne General Cemetery, Carlton, Vic.

Blackburn left behind his wife and five of his ten children, eight of which had been born in Australia. Typhoid had already taken the lives of four sons and a daughter.

Notable works

St Marks Anglican Church, Pontville: designed in a distinctive neo-Norman style and built between 1839 and 1841 by Joseph Moir at a cost of approximately £2,600. It is constructed from local Brighton stone. The main façade incorporates a central Norman doorway flanked by raking arcades and low towers. The interior includes elaborately carved furniture by Hobart woodcarver Ernest Osborne.

Between the front two towers, effectively recessed by their juxtaposition is the entrance porch which comprises two central Tuscan columns supporting a segmented arch with zigzag decoration and inversely castellated cornice, reminiscent of a sun temple, with miniature raked colonnades either side.

It is unique, though architecturally it has affinities with at least two other Tasmanian churches designed by Blackburn, one of which is the Presbyterian Church at Glenorchy and the other, the New Town Congregational Church. The designs of those building mark the earliest colonial appearances of the Romanesque style in the history of Australian architecture.

Holy Trinity Church, Hobart: recognised as one of the finest Australian examples of ecclesiastical construction in sandstone. The sandstone church is in the Academic Gothic Revival style with cathedral-like proportions along a north-south axis and is regarded as perhaps Blackburn’s greatest work.

The Holy Trinity Church is convict built on a fine hilltop (Potter’s Hill) with excellent townscape values. The foundation stone was laid by John Franklin (Tasmanian Lieut-Governor) in 1841. Construction was completed in 1848. One of the most memorable aspects in the church is the war memorial window at the east end of the building design by Mr L. Dechaineux. It has one of the oldest sets of bell in Australia. The church is now in a high risk of deconstruction and attempts are being made to finance a full restoration. Location: 50 Warwick Street, Hobart.

Scot’s Church, Sorell: on of three churches in Sorell listed in the National Estate. Built in 1842 in Romanesque Revival-styled sandstone, it features a central tall square tower, gabled roof, buttresses, and a semi-circular arch-topped foyer. The windows are multi-paned with arched tops and there are also engaged columns found at the sides. Visitors would also marvel at its northern façade that includes an exceptional, central recessed window with flanking pillars in relief.

Blackburn’s originality is most apparent in his Romanesque, or more precisely, Norman designs. Features like the heavy roll moulding over the openings and the blind arcading on the side of the tower are explicitly Norman, and one wonders how and why Blackburn would have developed an interest in the style. It is true that there was a brief period of interest in Norman revival work in England, but most of it was just after rather than before Blackburn’s work in Tasmania.

Trinity House, Glebe: one of Blackburn’s finest non-ecclesistical works, its design is vaguely Tudor, with a remarkable oriel window beneath a condensed Dutch gable. The stone is disposed in recessed textured panels. The design of this former rectory derives from a parsonage design published in Loudon’s Encyclopædia. It was by Sir Charles Barry, and the window was apparently intended to catch sideways views. The form came ultimately from historical precedents – Henry VII’s Chapel, Westminster, and Thornbury Castle, Gloucestershire, England. Trinity House (1840) and its neighbour, Christ College (1929) have been beautifully restored and converted into contemporary townhouse style apartments.
Location: Brooker Highway, Glebe, Tas.

Other works

Examples range from St Matthew’s, Rokeby (1839-41), the naves of St Andrew’s, Westbury (1840-42) and old Holy Trinity, Launceston (1841-42, demolished) to those attributed by the writer such as the unfinished St Mary’s, Kempton (1838-44) and the minuscule Congregational Chapels at Bagdad (1842, now mutilated) and Cambridge (1842-43). The Port Arthur church (1836-41) has no connexion with him. Of outstanding importance in the history of Australian architecture are three Romanesque or Neo-Norman works which mark one of the earliest colonial appearances of the style, being all designed in 1839 and built within four years: St Mark’s, Pontville; St Matthew’s, Glenorchy, Sorell Presbyterian Church and its near repetition, the former St Andrew’s, Evandale. This unique style was modified into an Italian villa variant as early as the Glenorchy watch-house (1837-38, demolished), Spring Hill watch-house (1839-40), Longford gaol (1839-42, mostly demolished), the important and picturesque New Town Congregational Church (1842-45) and imposing additions to Rosedale, Campbell Town (1848-50). Blackburn was the foremost, although not the earliest, exponent of Greek Revival forms in Tasmania in the Lady Franklin Museum (1842-43) and the Public Offices portico, Hobart (1841-42). St George’s, Battery Point, an aggregate from four architectural hands, is dominated by Blackburn’s tower and vestries (1841-47) where its Regency Greek manner is under slight Egyptianizing influence in conformity with John Lee Archer’s nave (1836-38). Further picturesque Tudor works are old Trinity rectory, Hobart (1840-42), designs (unbuilt) for a public school in Hobart (1839) and the proposed New Norfolk College (1841), and for Dr William Valentine at Campbell Town, The Grange (c.1848-49).

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