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Backhouse, Benjamin (1829–1904)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

This is a shared entry with Alfred Paxton Backhouse

Benjamin Backhouse (1829-1904), architect, and Alfred Paxton Backhouse (1851-1939), judge, were father and son. Benjamin was born at Ipswich, Suffolk, England, son of Benjamin Backhouse, stonemason and builder, and his wife Elizabeth Prentice, née Fuller. He worked with his father and as a builder on his own account. On 20 August 1849 he married Lydia Warne Johnson, by whom he had seventeen children. Financial losses induced him to migrate to Victoria in 1852. He practised as a builder and then as an architect at Geelong and, with a partner, at Ballarat. After an unprofitable return to London in 1860, he went to Brisbane where he prospered as an architect and became an alderman. In 1868 he removed to Sydney.

Backhouse soon developed a large architectural practice with branches at Newcastle and Bathurst. He was secretary of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales in 1871-73 and, on a visit to England in 1886, was made an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Wider interests began to engage his attention. He joined the City of Sydney Improvement Board in 1879 and was its chairman in 1880-92. He helped found the Sanitary Reform League in 1880, investigated sanitation whenever he could and worked tirelessly for a better urban sewerage system; he joined the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage in 1895.

Backhouse was an earnest social reformer, strongly influenced by his reading of Carlyle, Ruskin and William Morris. In the depression he was chairman of the Pitt Town Co-operative Settlement and an exponent of slum clearance. Appointed to the Legislative Council in 1895, he was sympathetic to Labor's programme while taking an independent radical line. He died, aged 75, on 29 July 1904, survived by his second wife Emma Sanday, née Byrnes, a divorcee whom he had married on 16 December 1903, and by seven sons and four daughters. Although a Swedenborgian in early life, he was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £9638.

Backhouse's second son Alfred Paxton was born at Ipswich, Suffolk, England, on 25 May 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition; he received his second Christian name in honour of its architect. He lived with his family in England, Victoria and in Queensland where he attended Ipswich Grammar School. Entering the University of Sydney, he graduated with honours in 1872 (M.A., 1875). After teaching at Sydney Grammar School, he was admitted to the Bar on 16 December 1876.

Backhouse's legal career prospered. He became a crown prosecutor in 1878, an acting District Court judge in 1884 and a permanent member of the bench that year. He acted on occasions as a Supreme Court judge, notably when he presided at the trial of the Broken Hill strike leaders in 1892. Commercial and maritime matters were his principal interests. His over-leniency in criminal cases, notably in the Thomas Rofe conspiracy trial in 1895, led to strong criticism and may have cost him a permanent place on the Supreme Court. He retired in 1921, but remained active in public life.

Backhouse's interests were as varied and as vigorously pursued as those of his father. At different times, he was president of the New South Wales Rowing Association, the United Charities Fund, the Navy League and the Benevolent Society of New South Wales. A keen student of history, he was long-term councillor of the Royal Australian Historical Society; he was also a member of the Sydney Philharmonic Society.

Backhouse served on the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1887-1939. When the 1912 amending legislation created new conditions for the appointment of senators, his lifetime tenure was specifically confirmed. He was acting chancellor in 1892-94, 1896-99 and 1911-14, and a fellow of St Paul's College until 1928 when he resigned on a matter of domestic policy. An original member of the Sydney University Union, he helped to reconstitute it as a large-scale club in 1913 and was its lifelong supporter. Interested in music and drama, and in all kinds of organized sport, he fostered these outside and inside the university. For over half a century Backhouse and the University of Sydney were virtually synonymous.

On 4 February 1879 he had married Kate Marion, daughter of Robert Hills; they had no children. He died at his home at Elizabeth Bay on 1 August 1939 and his estate was sworn for probate at £31,397. Although Backhouse had been brought up as a Swedenborgian, he had become a member of the Church of England and, after a service at St John's Church, Darlinghurst, was buried in Rookwood cemetery. His portrait by John Longstaff is held by the university.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Sydney Union, The Union Book of 1902 (Syd, 1902)
  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of a Profession (Syd, 1971)
  • H. T. E. Holt, A Court Rises (Syd, 1976)
  • Union Recorder, 10 Aug 1939
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1904
  • Bulletin, 6 Oct 1904
  • B. Backhouse papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • A. P. Backhouse papers and University minutes, 1887-1939 (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Backhouse, Benjamin (1829–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/backhouse-benjamin-45/text8489, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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