Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

Greenway, Francis (1777–1837)

by Morton Herman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Francis Greenway (1777-1837), by unknown artist

Francis Greenway (1777-1837), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 21951

Francis Greenway (1777-1837), architect, was born at Mangotsfield, near Bristol, England, son of Francis Greenway and Ann, née Webb. The Greenways had been stonemasons, builders and architects in the west country for generations. Francis was in private practice as an architect in Bristol when in March 1812 he was found guilty of forging a document. He was sentenced to death but the penalty was later changed to transportation for fourteen years. He arrived in Sydney in February 1814 in the transport General Hewitt, and was followed in July by his wife Mary, whom he had married about 1804, and three children in the Broxbornebury.

Greenway was apparently allowed much freedom after his arrival for he began private practice immediately, with an office at 84 George Street, Sydney, declaring that he was open to commissions of all kinds. He was self-confident, temperamental and quick to take offence, but his artistic abilities were great and he had a full command of the techniques of his profession. Next year Governor Lachlan Macquarie called upon Greenway to report on the Rum Hospital then being built for the government. His criticism was devastating. The builders had to make costly alterations to the building and Greenway made the first of a long list of enemies who were to make his life difficult thereafter.

Greenway had been given a ticket-of-leave and during 1815 he occasionally advised the government on its public works. In March 1816 he was appointed civil architect and assistant engineer at a salary of 3s. a day, quarters for himself and family, a horse and forage. His first work for the government was the design of the lighthouse, known as the Macquarie Tower, on the south head of Port Jackson. The stonework of the building was finished in December 1817 and Macquarie was so pleased with it that he presented Greenway with conditional emancipation. Next November the lighthouse was completed, though it was later pulled down and the present replica was built in 1880.

When Greenway was called upon for a design for a new government house Macquarie left it entirely in his hands. He promptly designed a castle and began a stable block so grand that it was often mistaken for Government House itself. However, Macquarie was already in trouble with the Colonial Office over his building programme, and when the new extravagance became known in London the secretary of state forbade the castle. In the meantime Greenway was busy with the design of many other buildings, several of which remain and, despite their mutilated condition, are considered valuable gems of Early Australian Colonial architecture. By 1819 he had designed a large female factory at Parramatta and a large barracks and compound for male convicts in what is now Queen's Square, Sydney. Macquarie opened the barracks on 20 May with great ceremony and a special feast for the prisoners, and used the occasion to make Greenway's pardon absolute. In the 1990s the building was restored and converted into a museum. The great compound has been destroyed and lost except for vestiges which show here and there, reminders of the wanton ruin of Greenway's one example of planning in the grand manner.

In 1817 Greenway began St Matthew's Church, Windsor, probably his masterpiece. Later it suffered depressing alterations, but its large bulk of beautiful brick-work still compels admiration with its commanding position on rising ground overlooking the wide valley of the Hawkesbury River. St Luke's Church, Liverpool, was begun in 1818. The first builder, Nathaniel Lucas, died soon after the foundations were finished and James Smith took over the work. Although Greenway tactlessly quarrelled with each builder, and the building was later grossly mutilated and fell into disrepair, the quality of his design is still apparent. His third church, St James's, in King Street, Sydney, has also suffered from alteration and repair, but it was his most classical design and ranks among the finer Georgian buildings of its date. The difference between St Luke's designed for a rural setting and the metropolitan St James's is most marked and demonstrates the sense of the appropriate that distinguishes all Greenway's work.

The last building which Macquarie and Greenway supervised in their old spirit of amicability was the court-house at Windsor. Though only a minor building, it is beautifully restored and preserved, and is the nearest approach to a complete Greenway design that has survived.

1819 marked the turning point of Greenway's career. He was an important citizen but unfortunately his arrogance made him misjudge his authority. He made many enemies, and he now fell out with Macquarie. Commissioner John Thomas Bigge cancelled many of Greenway's projects as being too extravagant, and he interfered with others. Later he began to issue building directives to Greenway as though Governor Macquarie did not exist. In the tense atmosphere thus engendered Greenway acted with his usual lack of tact, sometimes siding with the governor, sometimes with Bigge, in the long series of quarrels which mar this period. Macquarie now referred to Greenway's dilatory habits, indolence and neglect of duty. The temperamental architect, not politically astute, was concerned only with the spoiling of his designs by the political manoeuvres that marked the disputes between Macquarie and Bigge. In his report Bigge commented favourably on Greenway's abilities and sought to put the blame for extravagant buildings on the governor rather than on the architect. The reverse was perhaps nearer the truth. Greenway's position became impossible when he suddenly presented a bill for £11,000 for fees for buildings he had designed for the government, as an employee of the government. For a salaried architect to present a bill for fees calculated at the rate of 5 per cent of building costs reveals a monumental capacity for effrontery.

Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane, Macquarie's successor, confirmed Greenway in his office, but sought to curb him by imposing restrictions on his activities. Greenway, whilst agreeing to them, paid only lip-service to the new conditions and persisted in his curious claim for fees. He continued to design buildings: the Supreme Court in King Street, a version of Liverpool Hospital (now the Technical College), and stores at Parramatta and a police office in York Street, Sydney (both demolished). However, now that he lacked Macquarie's patronage, public servants and builders paid less and less attention to Greenway: they altered his designs without telling him, the ultimate insult to any architect. Obviously his position was becoming untenable and he could not have been surprised when he was summarily dismissed from government service on 15 November 1822. He displayed his usual obstinacy when he refused to give up the house which was a perquisite of his former office. The government tried every legal means to oust him from the premises but he finally produced a document, since thought to be a forgery, which purported to give him title to the house. The government did not recover the property until after his death and then only by action in London.

In office, Greenway produced some of the finest colonial buildings Australia ever had but, with his awkward temperament, he could not have produced them alone. Macquarie's patronage and protection provided the atmosphere in which the architect could give rein to his genius, but only with vice-regal backing. Alone, his status soon crumbled away under the attacks of less competent men.

Macquarie had granted Greenway 800 acres (324 ha) on the right bank of the Hunter River, and the government felt that this requited all his claims, real or imaginary. Greenway maintained that he had been promised town land, 'building ground' and not pastoral acres. He never relinquished his claim for £11,000 in fees. Although his fortune was in a sorry state, his claims received little attention, for he had made many enemies inside as well as outside the service. He continued his private practice but his only considerable commission was to design for Robert Campbell a large house in Bligh Street, Sydney. This was a mansion with stables, barracks and appurtenances which lasted until 1880 when most of the group was pulled down to make way for the Union Club, which has now also been pulled down. Other small commissions came to Greenway's office, such as the tomb for the government printer, George Howe, various cottages and alterations to existing buildings, but generally speaking his professional life seemed to have ended with the completion of Campbell's house in 1828.

During this period his wife, Mary, opened a small school for young ladies in an attempt to aid the family fortunes. Described by Macquarie as 'pleasant and genteel', she was manifestly as self-effacing as a wife of the arrogant Francis Greenway would need to be. She bore him five sons and two daughters; one son, Charles, became an archdeacon and canon at Grafton Cathedral.

Greenway spent some of his time writing articles for the press. His reminiscences in the Australian Almanac of 1835 provide much information about his colonial life. In the same year he advertised professionally in such a way it was clear he was desperate for work, little of which came his way. In 1836 he tried to form a company to build and operate quays in Sydney Cove but this met with no success. Meanwhile, in a desultory fashion, he was farming his grant on the Hunter River but his land was, and still is, marshy and poor. In 1837 he died in the Hunter River valley and was buried in a small cemetery in a lonely paddock outside East Maitland. There is no tombstone or marker over his grave.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 9-10
  • M. H. Ellis, Francis Greenway (Syd, 1953)
  • M. Herman, Early Australian Architects and Their Work (Syd, 1954)
  • J. T. Bigge, Report of the Commissioner of Inqury into the State of the Colony of New South Wales, Parliamentary Papers (House of commons, Great Britain), 1822 (448)
  • newspaper indexes under Greenway (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Francis Greenway papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Lachlan Macquarie diary (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/133.

Citation details

Morton Herman, 'Greenway, Francis (1777–1837)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/greenway-francis-2120/text2681, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014