Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nangle, James (1868–1941)

by Joan E. Cobb

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

James Nangle (1868-1941), architect and educationist, was born on 28 December 1868, at Newtown, Sydney, eldest of five children of Irish Catholic parents Thomas Nangle, coachman, and his wife Maria, née Carney. He began working part time at 9, and on leaving school at 11 obtained unskilled work in an engineering firm. At 15 he was apprenticed as a carpenter and joiner to a Newtown builder, then worked as a journeyman, clerk of works and draughtsman. He attended classes at Sydney Technical College and at the University of Sydney in the 1880s.

Nangle was a quietly ambitious man with wide interests and contacts. Small, neat, fair and compact in appearance, he was always to enjoy an enviable reputation for courtesy, tact and integrity, while his cheerfulness, good manners and adaptability attracted the goodwill of professional colleagues.

In 1891 Nangle began practice as an architect and on 7 December next year married Helen Van Heythuysen at Newtown Registry Office. Active in the Sydney Architectural Association from the early 1890s, he became an associate of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales in 1896 and as honorary treasurer from 1897 helped to stave off the institute's financial collapse. He later became its secretary.

Most of Nangle's architectural work was residential, institutional and commercial. Two of his best-known buildings were the stores erected for Marcus Clark at Newtown and on the Pitt and George Street corner. He also carried out commissions for the Roman Catholic Church, including the Sacred Heart Church, Darlinghurst, St Columba's Seminary, Springwood, and St Mary's Cathedral Girls' School. Later he designed the portable classrooms used for many years by the Department of Public Instruction, the Turner hall extension and the new architectural and building block at Sydney Technical College, Ultimo, and the Balmain Trades School.

In 1890 Nangle had begun teaching mechanical drawing part time for the technical education branch of the Department of Public Instruction. He offered to publicize new classes and to canvass for students. By 1894 he was conducting two weekly classes and delivering public lectures. In 1897 he was responsible for all drawing instruction at Newtown. Next year he was transferred to Sydney Technical College where in 1905, at the urging of (Sir) George Knibbs, Nangle became lecturer-in-charge of the department of architecture. He restructured the existing courses, improving relationships between the architectural and building trades classes. The Institute of Architects later recognized his redefined courses as part of the qualifications necessary for membership. In 1911 conflict of interests led him to quit practice although he maintained a small consultancy until 1913.

As a student in the university's engineering laboratories Nangle had developed a lifelong interest in materials testing. His Australian Building Practice (1900) was widely used as a text-book. He delivered papers and published articles in journals such as the Australian Technical Journal and the Technical Gazette of New South Wales on the properties of materials and the strength of structures, especially Australian timber and stone. He was an early supporter of the use of concrete and steel in buildings, and for many years the official testing architect for the Institute of Architects.

Nangle was appointed superintendent of technical education in 1913. His predecessor J. W. Turner had recommended him as 'most suitable … very capable, efficient and held in great respect by the entire staff of the college'. Nangle immediately became involved in the reforms instituted by the director of education Peter Board. Reform in technical education was directed mainly at upgrading the status and content of training and redefining it more strictly within vocational limits. New trade courses were designed and the diploma courses, which eventually set the high standards required for award of associate of Sydney Technical College, introduced. To achieve the necessary co-operation of educators, employers and employee organizations, Nangle suggested the establishment of course advisory committees containing union and industry representatives as well as college staff, which formed the basis of the committee system of course review still operating in New South Wales.

The 1913 reforms were not an unqualified success. The relationship between preliminary trade work in school and trade courses was unsatisfactory, and insufficient funding led to persistent accommodation crises despite the extra land acquired at Ultimo in 1910 and the development of East Sydney Technical College in the 1920s. In addition, the limited meaning given the term 'vocation' reduced the scope of technical education, forcing Nangle into stratagems to defend some courses and to enable others to be extended. By 1920 he had managed to so redefine and extend the applied art courses that their number and prestige increased. Their relocation in the early 1920s at East Sydney marked the establishment of the college's 'National Art School' with its subsequently highly regarded courses.

Nangle also increased the range of the branch's activities when he persuaded the department to take over the aircraft mechanics' section of the pilots' training scheme set up by the Holman government at Richmond in 1916. Transferred to East Sydney in the 1920s, the section formed the basis of the department's present aircraft engineering courses.

The worst effects of the reorganization were those caused by the continuing problems of increased numbers of students and insufficient space, funds and equipment. Nangle was denied direct access to his minister and forced to work through the director of education whose interests were mainly school based. Nangle found this unfair, frustrating and a brake on the development of technical education. Nevertheless his ability to operate within restrictive limits highlighted his exceptional ability to assess needs and make very inadequate ends meet. These qualities, rather than educational innovation, contributed to Nangle's long-standing success as superintendent between 1913 and 1933.

In 1919 he accepted the position of director of vocational training under the Commonwealth Department of Repatriation. His administrative talents and skill with course advisory committees were considered indispensable to the acceptance of large numbers of partly trained men into the workforce. He oversaw the training of some 20,000 ex-servicemen in trade and other courses operated by State Education departments and a smaller number in universities and other institutions. Nangle was appointed O.B.E. in 1920. As the training agreements signed by each State allowed them to keep considerable quantities of equipment and sometimes buildings at reduced costs, he was able to influence the choice of the facilities retained for New South Wales technical colleges. He also persuaded the department to retain courses such as automotive engineering and commerce provided under the scheme and some staff as well.

This post-war windfall became all the more important in the 1920s when Nangle struggled against a constantly increasing student backlog, lack of space and staff unrest. As late as 1927 technical education was allocated less than 4 per cent of the total education vote.

In 1927 Nangle advised on the establishment of a technical education system for Western Australia, as he had for Tasmania in 1916; and in 1930 he chaired an unemployment research committee set up by the Bavin government. Courses he had already introduced at Sydney Technical College for unemployed boys and girls formed the basis of the committee's emergency day training scheme. Some 4500 students attended these courses between 1932 and 1937. This experience, and his war-time experiences, confirmed Nangle's view of the inadequacy of statistical data on employment and of the need for juvenile employment bureaux. In 1933 he served as consultant to the technical education commission set up by D. H. Drummond, minister for education, submitting a lengthy report. He retired the same year.

An amateur astronomer of merit, Nangle had designed a small observatory at his Marrickville home, built and operated telescopes, written several papers on his observations and joined official expeditions to view eclipses of the sun in 1910 and 1923. A member from 1905 and many times president of the local branch of the British Astronomical Association, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1908. He was also a member of the 1912 committee advising on the reorganization of the work of Sydney Observatory, and in the 1920s helped to replan the observatory building and residence, where he moved his family when he was appointed honorary government astronomer in 1926. Nangle strongly supported the educational role of observatories and published Stars of the Southern Heavens (1929) and The Sydney Observatory: Its History and Work (1930). Under his direction the six-pip time-signal was introduced.

Nangle was also an office-bearer of the Engineering and Town Planning associations of New South Wales and of the State committee of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. A member of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1893 and president in 1920-21, he published several articles in its Journal and Proceedings on timbers and building stone. He was also an additional member of the first Board of Architects of New South Wales appointed in 1921, and president of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1936-37. In 1937 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. A fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1913-34 Nangle supported the establishment of chairs of architecture and mechanical engineering and the introduction of courses in domestic science.

His last years as superintendent of technical education were marred by ill health. After his retirement he continued to work as government astronomer while running a small private correspondence school, the Nangle Institute of Technology, which was operated by his family until the 1960s. Survived by three sons and a daughter, Nangle died of heart disease on 22 February 1941 at the observatory and was buried with Congregational forms in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Quarter Century of Technical Education in New South Wales (Syd, 1909)
  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of a Profession (Syd, 1917)
  • Repatriation Department, Interim Report Upon the Organisation and Activities of the Repatriation Commission, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1917-19, 162, p 117
  • Repatriation Commission, Annual Report, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1921-26
  • Royal Astronomical Society, Monthly Notices, 69, pt 1, 1908
  • Royal Society, New South Wales, Journal, 75, pt 4, 1941, p xxxi
  • Building (Sydney), 24 Mar 1941
  • L. J. Dockrill, James Nangle: Architect, Astronomer, Educator (B. Arch thesis, University of New South Wales, 1975)
  • Department of Technical Education files including box 10/14346, 10/12/1912 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Repatriation Dept files (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Joan E. Cobb, 'Nangle, James (1868–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nangle-james-7722/text13527, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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