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Solly, Robert Henry (1883–1968)

by F. J. Kendall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Robert Henry Solly (1883-1968), architect, businessman and lord mayor, was born on 14 December 1883 in Adelaide, eldest of seven children of Robert Henry Solly, an English-born bootmaker who became a Labor politician, and his wife Mary, née Graham. The family moved to Melbourne in 1885. Young Robert was educated at St Ignatius' School, Richmond, and (on a scholarship) at St Patrick's College, East Melbourne, where he proved a brilliant scholar and a champion athlete.

In 1901 Solly began work as a junior draughtsman in the office of I. G. Beaver, architect. He served as Beaver's principal draughtsman for four and a half years before joining Wunderlich Ltd in 1908 and taking charge of its architectural department. At St Ignatius' Catholic Church, Richmond, on 15 November 1909 he married Victoria O'Brien, a machinist. Solly exemplified Wunderlich's policy of retaining staff who grew with the concern and assimilated its methods, aims and ideals: he became sales manager in 1923, Victorian manager in 1933 and a director in 1948, and he remained on the board until 1963. He was respected in the building industry for the way in which he integrated his knowledge of architectural principles with his grasp of technology. In 1958 he was elected an honorary member of the Master Builders' Association of Victoria.

Eschewing the partisan politics of his father, Solly had been elected to the Melbourne City Council in 1934 as an Independent candidate for Victoria Ward. By 1968 he was the council's longest-serving member. He chaired the finance committee in 1943-53, keeping a 'housewife's eye on the civic purse'. In addition, he represented the council as a commissioner of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works and a trustee (chairman 1965-67) of the Exhibition Building. Although he remained unaligned with any political party, he was a foundation member of the (non-Labor) Civic Group in 1940. He became something 'of a father figure', 'always ahead of his papers for a meeting' and 'evenly balanced in his judgements'.

On 31 August 1953 Solly was elected lord mayor, for the customary one-year term. He had accepted nomination on the understanding that he would not solicit votes. Of middle height and solid build, he exuded dignity with his erect carriage, silver hair, grave demeanour and measured tread. He was a fluent speaker whose mastery of language was unequalled by his fellow councillors. His reputation for poise and polish made him an appropriate choice to host the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954. Under the chairmanship of Maurice Nathan, he established the Olympic Civic Committee to prepare the city for the 1956 games.

Solly was a warm and generous man, deeply devoted to his family and always anxious to help the young. A smoker and moderate drinker, he had been a leader of his parish's 4-T Club ('teetotal till twenty-two') in his youth. He was a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club, the Fitzroy and Carlton football clubs, the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria and the Melbourne Swimming Club. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died on 2 November 1968 in East Melbourne and was buried in Fawkner cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Wunderlich, Forty Years of Wunderlich Industry, 1887-1927 (Syd, 1927)
  • J. C. Elden, The Exhibition Trustees, Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne (Melb, 1984)
  • Patrician, 3, no 3, Dec 1934, 4, no 5, Dec 1941
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 31 Aug 1953
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 3 Sept 1953, 14 Nov 1968
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Nov 1968
  • Stock Exchange papers, Wunderlich Ltd (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Architects Registration Board, series 8838, unit 14 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

F. J. Kendall, 'Solly, Robert Henry (1883–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/solly-robert-henry-11735/text20981, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 30 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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