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Pitt, William (1855–1918)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

William Pitt (1855-1918), architect and politician, was born on 4 June 1855 in Melbourne, son of William Pitt, artist, and his wife Jane, née Dixon, both born at Sunderland, England. William Pitt senior had arrived in Victoria with his wife in 1853 and from 1859 until his death in 1879 he ran various hotels and cafés including the Café de Paris at the Theatre Royal, which he also decorated with his paintings. Business manager for G. S. Coppin and G. Brooke, he painted a Neapolitan panorama in their Cremorne Gardens. He was treasurer of the Victorian Academy of the Arts in 1870.

William junior was educated at Hofwyl School, St Kilda, and at G. H. Neighbour's Carlton College, and from 1875 served articles as an architect with George Browne. Commencing practice in 1879, Pitt that year won first prize for his design for the Melbourne Coffee Palace, the city's first temperance hotel which, built in Bourke Street, became one of the tallest buildings on the skyline. Next year he won first prize for Falls' (Queen's) Bridge over the River Yarra and for the Premier Permanent Building Society's offices. In 1883 his award-winning design was used for Coppin's improved lodging-houses and dwellings (Gordon House), a graceful courtyard building of basalt, brickwork and timber with 'a light touch of Gothic'.

The most prolific years of Pitt's architectural practice coincided with the boom period in Melbourne and his work, more than anyone else's, reflected the confident exuberance of boom-style architecture. His greatest achievement was probably his redesigning of the Princess Theatre in Spring Street. Commissioned by Williamson, Garner & Musgrove, it was 'a French Baroque extravaganza' with a marble staircase, a handsome foyer, open balconies and the world's first sliding roof and ceiling which allowed the auditorium to be opened to the night air. The theatre opened on 18 December 1886 with Nellie Stewart playing in The Mikado.

In 1887 Pitt won second prize in the design competition for the Federal Coffee Palace, Collins Street, and collaborated with the winners, Ellerker & Kilburn, to produce a building which was a composite of both plans. According to a bemused contemporary it comprised 'a little of everything—Corinthian, Ionic, Doric, early English, late English, Queen Anne, Elizabethan, Australian …' A 500-room temperance hotel with five Waygood lifts, an ice-plant, electric bells and cash-registers, it was converted in 1897 into the licensed Federal Palace Hotel. Pitt also worked with Ellerker & Kilburn on the Oxford Chambers (1888-89).

At the end of the boom decade Pitt designed a series of office buildings which were to give the west end of Collins Street much of its distinction. In 1888-89 the new Melbourne Stock Exchange was built to Pitt's design in an ornate Gothic style consistent with Wardell's neighbouring English, Scottish & Australian Chartered Bank. Pitt also used what he called 'free Italian Gothic' in his designs for the Rialto (1890), the Olderfleet (1890) and Pitt's Buildings (1888). Venetian Gothic features included narrow arched windows, marble pillars, stone staircases and a 'riot of coloured brick' mosaics around the windows and entrances.

On 23 October 1889 at St Peter's Church, Melbourne, Pitt married Elizabeth Mary Liddy (d.1943) with Anglican rites. A Collingwood city councillor in 1888-94 and mayor in 1890-91, he represented the council on the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1891-92. He was a member of the Legislative Council for North Yarra in 1891-1904 and for East Melbourne in 1904-10. A staunch protectionist and Federationist, he was an honorary minister in the Irvine and Bent ministries from June 1902 to September 1908, and chairman of committees for the Legislative Council in 1908-10. In 1891 he had unsuccessfully introduced a private member's bill seeking registration for the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, of which he had been vice-president in 1887-88. He was also a member of the Melbourne Harbor Trust in 1894-1913 (chairman, 1901-05).

Having amassed sufficient wealth to fit out an expedition to the Kimberley after the gold discoveries of 1885 and to have reputedly purchased two million acres (809,380 ha) near Cambridge Gulf, Pitt crashed in the financial crisis of the 1890s. Determined to discharge his debts, he continued throughout his parliamentary career to turn out architectural plans at great speed, in his later years in partnership with Albion Walkley who had joined him as assistant in 1900. He was in great demand as a theatre architect: as well as Rickards' Opera House (later the Tivoli Theatre), the Victoria Hall, Her Majesty's, the New Gaiety (Comedy), the Bijou, the Royal and King's theatres in Melbourne, he designed the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, Her Majesty's and the Opera House in Sydney, Her Majesty's, Ballarat, and in New Zealand the Grand Opera House and other theatres in Wellington and Auckland.

Among Pitt's other works in Melbourne were St Peter's parsonage, Eastern Hill (1886), the St Kilda (1887) and Brunswick (c.1889) town halls, the Leitrim Hotel (1888) in Little Lonsdale Street, Markillie's Hotel (1890) and the Lord Clyde (Waterside) Hotel (1915) in Flinders Street, Foy & Gibson's warehouses (1883-87), shops, showrooms (1890) and factories (1895), the Victoria Brewery in East Melbourne (1896), two docks on the Yarra, grandstands for the Victoria Racing Club at Flemington (from 1913) and the Victoria Amateur Turf Club at Caulfield (from 1912) and for the Melbourne Cricket Club (1905), as well as a host of mansions and villas. An architectural historian has described him as 'a sensitive draftsman and a competent gothicist, who might well have been more at home in a less successful practice with more time to devote to his detail, and in an earlier period when the Gothic retained a little more credibility'.

Known affectionately to his parliamentary colleagues as Billie, Pitt was a stout, warm-hearted, genial man with generous mutton-chop whiskers. A keen sportsman, he was for some time the leading coursing judge in Victoria and a prize-winning marksman. Patron of Collingwood Football Club, in 1892 he built the first grandstand at Victoria Park free of charge. He was eminent in Victorian Freemasonry and an active member of the Australian Natives' Association. Survived by his wife, three daughters and son, he died of cancer at his Abbotsford home, Mikado, on 25 May 1918 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at about £43,000. The Collingwood City Council holds a portrait of him by Charles Gordon Frazer.

Select Bibliography

  • Our Local Men of the Times (Melb, 1889)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • I. Selby, The Old Pioneers' Memorial History of Melbourne (Melb, 1924)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • J. M. Freeland, Architecture in Australia (Melb, 1968)
  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of a Profession (Syd, 1971)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • M. T. Shaw, Builders of Melbourne (Melb, 1972)
  • G. Wilson and P. Sands, Building a City (Melb, 1981)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Victoria), 9 July 1918, v.149
  • Scientific Australian, 20 Dec 1901
  • Australian Industrial and Mining Standard, May 1918
  • Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, Journal, May 1918
  • La Trobe Library Journal, 5, no 20, 1977
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Dec 1886, 27 May 1918
  • Punch (Melbourne), 19 May 1904
  • Herald (Melbourne), 8 July 1908
  • K. A. Bennett, William Pitt: An Account of his Life (part 1) and Survey of the Work of William Pitt (part 2) (Investigation Project, 1986, Department of Architecture, University of Melbourne)
  • biography file, W. Pitt (senior) (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Pitt, William (1855–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pitt-william-8058/text14061, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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