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Evans, Sir Bernard (1905–1981)

by David Dunstan

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

Sir Bernard Evans (1905-1981), army officer, lord mayor and architect, was born on 13 May 1905 at Manchester, England, son of Isaac Evans, builder, and his wife Lucy, née Tunnicliffe. In 1913 the family migrated to Melbourne and settled at St Kilda, where Bernard attended primary school, later moving to Hampton. After completing secondary education at Prahran Technical School, he studied architectural drawing at the Working Men’s College at night while working for his father and then as a designer and builder for Albert Weston, a timber merchant at Box Hill. In 1928 he established Hampton Timber & Hardware Pty Ltd and the Premier Building Co. Pty Ltd. At Hampton Church of England on 21 September 1929 he married Dorothy May Ellis.

By the late 1920s Evans had begun building speculative villas at Brighton and Hampton; his `Arts and Crafts’ bungalow `Bunyip Lodge’ (c.1930) was commissioned by his father-in-law. He also designed and oversaw the construction of houses for the State Savings Bank of Victoria and hospitals for the Victorian Bush Nursing Association. The Depression saw Evans and his father head for Perth to establish a branch of their timber and hardware business. Claude Albo de Bernales engaged them to construct foundries and mining buildings at Kalgoorlie and Wiluna. In 1935 he contracted Bernard—now styling himself a `designer and master builder’—to replace decrepit mansions in St Kilda and Queens roads, Melbourne, with moderne or period revival-style flats, and, in 1936, to design the Tudor Revival London Court Arcade in Perth. His eclectic designs were made in response to his clients’ wishes. After working for other clients, Evans sold his interests for £20,000 and travelled with his family to London for the completion of Westralia House (1937-39), another de Bernales project. While in Britain he was accepted into the Incorporated Association of Architects and Surveyors (1937); on return to Australia, he registered (1940) as an architect in Victoria.

Having been commissioned in the cadets (1923) and the Militia (1924), Evans had become a major in the 46th Battalion by 1934. On 1 July 1940 he was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force as a temporary lieutenant colonel and ordered to form and command the 2/23rd Battalion, `Albury’s Own’. He was then the youngest battalion commander in the AIF. Sent to the Middle East, his unit was engaged in the defence of Tobruk, Libya (April-October 1941), where Evans’s `solid leadership and total disregard of personal danger’ were `an inspiration to all ranks’; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. On 1 November 1942, during the Battle of El Alamein, Egypt, he assumed command of the 24th Brigade as a temporary brigadier.

The brigade trained in Australia in 1943 and in September took part in the capture of Lae, New Guinea. During these operations Evans clashed with his divisional commander, (Sir) George Wootten , arguing that his troops lacked the support of sea transport. Next month Wootten criticised Evans’s tactics in a Japanese counter-attack at Finschhafen, considering that a retreat ordered by Evans had unnecessarily sacrificed vital ground. Sir Leslie Morshead and (Sir) Frank Berryman agreed. Evans was relieved of his command and posted as chief instructor (later commander) of the Land Headquarters Tactical School (School of Tactics and Military Intelligence), Beenleigh, Queensland. On 23 October 1945 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers as an honorary brigadier. He had been mentioned in despatches three times.

Returning to civilian life, Evans formed Bernard Evans & Associates, which became one of Victoria’s largest architectural firms, developing shared-ownership buildings and the `own-your-own’ concept in flats. In 1958 it won the State Housing Commission tender for Emerald Hill Court, South Melbourne: a mixed high-rise and low-level development, combining open space and economical slip-form construction. Major office buildings handled by the firm included AMPOL House, Carlton, the CRA and the Legal and General Assurance buildings in Collins Street; it also built the Sheridan apartments and office buildings in St Kilda Road. Evans’s private companies were responsible for large suburban subdivisions, such as Witchwood Close, South Yarra, and industrial estates at Moorabbin.

As a Melbourne city councillor for Gipps ward (1949-73), Evans gained further prominence. His service on council committees included terms as chairman of building and town planning (1956-58, 1964, 1966-70), town hall and properties (1957-58) and finance (1961); he was twice elected lord mayor (1959, 1960). He was a commissioner of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (1956-73). Citing European examples, Evans argued for taller buildings and more people living in the city. He advocated greater open space and new buildings set back from the street to save the city from becoming `a dull, dusty jungle’. For many years he campaigned for the creation of a city square. His other causes included a radial corridor plan to balance growth, an underground railway and an international airport. He was knighted in 1962 and appointed to the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity in 1971.

Evans’s reputation suffered in 1970 when his public role and private interests were alleged to have been in conflict. Companies he controlled had benefited through the purchase of properties near the West Gate bridge project and along the proposed underground rail loop, and through the sale of buildings to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (of which Evans had been a councillor in 1950-60 and president in 1959-60). In 1971 he resigned from his firm—by then Bernard Evans, Murphy, Berg & Hocking Pty Ltd—and in 1973 from the city council.

Of medium height, moustached, and silver haired in later life, Evans was always well-dressed, courteous, persuasive, laconic in speech and disciplined in manner. He was an associate (1947) and fellow (1960) of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and foundation national and State (1960-77) president of the Royal Commonwealth Society of Australia. In 1973 he provoked the resignation of David Wang from the latter by his racist remarks. Sir Bernard was a self-made, hard-working and innovative professional designer-builder, a courageous if controversial military leader, and an effective, influential, but again controversial architect-businessman, active in city planning and community affairs. His career was marred by his acquisitiveness and his neglect of principle. In retirement in his Walter Butler home, Warrawee, at Toorak, he indulged his enthusiasm for painting, and continued to manage his investments. Survived by his wife and their two daughters and son, Evans died on 19 February 1981 at Toorak and was cremated. A portrait by John Frawley is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (1961)
  • B. Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein (1966)
  • L. Sandercock, Cities for Sale (1975)
  • Building & Construction, 10 July 1936, p 5
  • Architecture Australia, vol 70, no 3, 1981, p 66
  • Victorian Historical Journal, vol 63, nos 2-3, 1992, p 50
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Sept 1966, p 5, 28 May 1969, p 21
  • Newsday (Melbourne), 6 Oct 1969, p 11
  • Sunday Observer (Melbourne), 1 Nov 1970, p 1
  • Sun (Melbourne), 9 Dec 1970, p 1
  • A. Willingham, Brookwood (typescript, 1989, State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Evans, Sir Bernard (1905–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/evans-sir-bernard-12465/text22419, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 October 2014.

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

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