WALTER LIBERTY VERNON

NSW Government Architect 1890 - 1911

My work in progress is on Walter Liberty Vernon, NSW Government Architect. My interest in Walter Vernon came about while I was writing the history of From Farm Boys to PhDs (history of the School of Agriculture, Wagga Wagga).

Vernon: Middle Class

Walter Liberty Vernon could be considered an embodiment of the Victorian middle class, which, giving voice to urbanisation and industrialisation… emphasised competition, thrift, prudence, self-reliance and personal achievement as opposed to privilege and inheritance.

Walter Vernon came from a Leicestershire family which could trace its roots back to the time of William the Conqueror. His grandfather had moved from there to become a tenant of Lord Carrington at Cressed Farm at Marlow Hill near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. It was a prosperous district, the houses and other buildings, mainly built of stone and locally made red brick, with thatched or tiled roofs. It was a centre of education and a chair-making industry.

Walter Liberty Vernon was born at High Wycombe, on the 11th of August 1846, into this family with very respectable middle class connections. His father Robert worked in a bank but later becoming a coal merchant, while his mother, a Liberty, came from a family of long and strong Puritan lineage.

His uncle, George Vernon was the land agent managing Hughenden Manor for Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, later to become Earl of Beaconsfield. Disraeli himself was the exemplar of middle class achievement, coming from what even then would have been seen as disadvantage. He was the Jewish son of a man of Italian descent. To provide a suitable residence for a rising public figure the young politician had bought Hughenden Manor in 1848 and he continued to live there until he died in 1881. His wife designed the gardens which up to the present have retained the plan she gave them, becoming one of the showpieces of Hughenden Manor.

The essential prerequisite for middle class achievement in the professions or business was to have connections among friends or family, and so it was for the Vernons. George’s son Arthur became an architect and with his father designed buildings for the Manor as well as a number of prominent buildings in and around High Wycombe, later becoming the Mayor of High Wycombe in 1892, and for another three terms into the new century. His son too, was an architect. Walter Vernon’s mother’s nephew, Arthur Lazenby Liberty was the founder of Liberty’s of London in 1874 which specialising in producing and importing specially designed and crafted goods as a forerunner of the Aesthetic Movement, exemplified by men like William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and Rossetti. Based on Oriental designs and fabrics, Liberty’s became the first retailer to deal in authentic oriental artifacts and carefully sourced oriental fabrics and when the quality of these imports declined he bought the woven fabric and commissioned English print designers to produce the Oriental design-inspired designs for him. Lazenby Liberty in later life became High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire. Walter Vernon’s brother Robert Davenport Vernon set up an ironmongery that, with the advance of motoring, became a motor engineering firm. Walter Vernon’s extended family provided him with an aesthetic and construction-based background which gave him an advantage in his professional life.

He began his education at the Grammar school at High Wycombe, then in Windsor and the Westminster School in London. Leaving school, he became articled to the architect, William Habershon in Bloomsbury Square. To augment his architecture studies he took art instruction at the South Kensington School of Art as well as at the Royal Academy under the tutelage of Sir Robert Smirke, himself an architect. In his holidays he would take part in sketching tours on the continent, allowing him to record the characteristic architecture of the countries he visited. The quality oft\ the training he received he had with his firm was exemplified in the work of William Emerson, who went to India in 1870 to design All Saints Cathedral in Allahabad, his connection with India continuing, when in 1902 he was commissioned by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy to design the grandiose Victoria memorial in Calcutta..

After completing his articles he became an assistant for three years with the firm of Habershon and Pite, which had an extensive clientele among the country gentry. In time, to gain wide experience, Habershon sent him to Cardiff in Wales to work from their office there, where they designed buildings less flamboyant then their English work. In that practice, work included a number of churches, mainly for the non-conformists and dissenters, many of which have remained around Wales. The work which he undertook in granite and basalt in Australia recall the work he would have done in Wales.

Somewhere in this time of his training he and a friend became ‘participants’ in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 which was bringing France to complete defeat and political dissension. The siege of Paris was intended by the Prussians to completely undo the French. Vernon and one of his cousins set off for France in January 1871 with a shipload of provisions for the French capital. Just as they arrived a truce was declared, but the evidence of the bloodshed of the attack was everywhere and in such a climate of overall suspicion they were distrusted by both Prussians and French. Later in Spain, he appears to have assumed the same auxiliary role. His later other life as a lancer in New South Wales was no doubt fore-shadowed by these events.

He married Margaret Jones of Newport in Wales and after a time they returned to London and he left Habershon and Pite to become assistant to Charles Moreing, of Spring Gardens, who had wide interests in Sussex, particularly in Hastings on the South Coast. Moreing sent Vernon to Hastings to open an office, but in 1872 he established his own practice in Hastings, counting among his clients Thomas Brassey, the son of Thomas Brassey who had become a millionaire and a knight as a builder of railways. Two of Vernon’s commissions in 1877 in Hastings, besides the houses and shops which he designed, were the office of the Hastings and St.Leonards Observer, and the Brassey Institute, combining a library and a school of art. His expertise and reputation in his profession in the years since Habershon and Pite, recognised with becoming a Fellow of the Institute of Surveyors in 1880.

Vernon’s practice expanded beyond Hastings and in 1880 he opened an office in London at 26 Great George Street, Westminster where he worked as a quantity surveyor and architect. In the following year he was diagnosed as having asthma and advised to leave England for a more equable climate. In about 1882 he and his family went to Malta but after twelve months he returned to England. Fortuitously, almost immediately, he received a commission from Edward Lloyd Jones of Sydney. Lloyd Jones was one of the leading merchants of Sydney and he had been in London on what today would have been a fact-finding tour to investigate the most modern ideas in merchandising. As a result of his investigations he wanted Vernon to design for him one of the new concepts, a department store, on the site the family owned, at the corner of George and Barrack Streets in Sydney. Vernon accepted and with his family sailed for Australia, bringing with him a number of letters of introduction to people in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

The letters commended him for his professional skills; his respectable well-to-do family background; his participation in the Town Corporation of Hastings and the fact that it was only his health that was the cause of his leaving England. The batch included two on behalf of Sir Thomas Brassey, no doubt giving an entree into the more affluent side of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide society by virtue of these connections.

The 80s of the 19th century in Australia was a time of greatly increased wealth and progress, when Melbourne was the richest city in the world. Flocking to the new wealth prospects were adventurers and investors, professionals and amateurs seeking their fortune. The prospects of wool and cattle and mining were creating the new ‘barons’. The banks were willing to lend. There seemed no end to progress. Into this climate came the architects, who were to be the arbiters of taste. Among was Walter Liberty Vernon who had left a well-connected professional practice, to cross the world. He arrived in Sydney with his wife and three children in 1883.