Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Blythe, Sydney Wallace Thomas (1905–1985)

by Barry McNeill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sydney Wallace Thomas Blythe (1905-1985), architect and town planner, was born on 13 November 1905 at Lewisham, London, and was registered as Sidney, second of four children of Sidney George Blythe, bank messenger, and his wife Annie Barnici, née Howalls. In 1918 he began architectural studies at the School of Building, Brixton; after his family moved to Tasmania in 1921 he was articled to Rudolph Koch and attended evening classes (1922-25) at the Hobart Technical College. He worked for three months in 1925 as an assistant-draftsman with Tasmania’s Department of Public Works before taking a position with Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australasia, Risdon. In 1927 he returned to the department. Retrenched in 1930, he travelled to London, where he worked for several architectural firms. It was a time of intense architectural debate in England, further stimulated by the arrival of leading European modernists fleeing Nazism. In 1933 he won second place in a Building Centre cottage competition. This enabled him to establish a private practice.

In September 1934 Blythe was invited to return to the Tasmanian Department of Public Works. He brought his wife Kathleen May, née Tarrant, whom he had married on 23 October at the Congregational Church, New Barnet, Hertfordshire. During the following fifteen years he was the department’s chief designer of some sixty government buildings (not all were realised), including schools, technical colleges, hospitals, railway stations and law courts in most centres throughout Tasmania. He was responsible for major alterations and extensions to Tasmania’s Parliament House, completing a new chamber for the Legislative Assembly in 1940. The quality of Blythe’s modern architecture from this period was outstanding; the A. G. Ogilvie High School (1936) at New Town was regarded as his masterpiece. He served as acting chief architect for several periods and in 1945 was named senior architect.

In 1949 Blythe became the first full-time head of the architectural department at the Hobart Technical College, gaining national and international accreditation for his program, which included diploma courses in quantity surveying and building and a post-graduate diploma in town and country planning. He also practised privately, but his later work did not reach the high design qualities of the earlier period and his most significant contribution was as joint master planner of the new University of Tasmania site, at Sandy Bay, in 1956. Taking a leading role in popularising planning, he promoted the cause of civic design in the community.

Active in professional affairs, Blythe had been admitted as an associate of the Tasmanian Institute of Architects in 1928 and of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1930, the year in which he was registered. He served (1952-54) as president of the Tasmanian chapter of the RAIA and was elected (1970) a life fellow of the institute. Made an associate (1945) and fellow (1960) of the Royal Institute of British Architects, he was also a member (1952) and fellow of the (Royal) Australian Planning Institute from 1965. A dapper figure with his square-cut moustache, soft hats, tweedy suits and plain woollen waistcoats, he could have been mistaken for a country gentleman. His polite and courteous manner and traces of a refined English accent reinforced the image.

After retiring from teaching in December 1969, Sydney Blythe continued to practise privately, with his son, until 1979. He had an interest in liberal theology, and was disappointed that he could not find a publisher for his manuscript `The Absolute and the Obsolete’. Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, he died on New Year’s Day 1985 in Hobart and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. McNeill and L. Woolley, Architecture from the Edge (2002)
  • Architecture Australia, Jan-Mar 1953, p 18, May 1985, p 37
  • B. McNeill, `SWT Blythe: The Early Works’, Tasmanian Architect, May 1966, p 37
  • Fabrications, Aug 1996, p 99
  • R. J. Blythe, Sydney Wallace Thomas Blythe (M.Arch. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1998).

Citation details

Barry McNeill, 'Blythe, Sydney Wallace Thomas (1905–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blythe-sydney-wallace-thomas-12225/text21925, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018