Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Verge, John (1782–1861)

by Harley Preston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Verge (1782-1861), attributed to James Wilson

John Verge (1782-1861), attributed to James Wilson

State Library of New South Wales, Original : ML 1065

John Verge (1782-1861), architect, builder and pioneer settler, was born in Hampshire, England, the son of Nicholas Verge, a Christchurch builder who later worked at Bloomsbury in London, and his first wife Mary, née Best. On 5 December 1804 at the Priory Church, Christchurch, John Verge married Catherine Bowles; of their three children, only Philip George survived. In 1826 Verge had retired through ill health from his successful practice as a London builder to farm his recently acquired country estate, when he was lured by the opportunities of the new colony of New South Wales. He sailed from London in the Clarkstone and arrived at Port Jackson on 27 December 1828 with his son, a shepherd, a flock of Hampshire sheep, various supplies and agricultural equipment; with his capital these assets amounted in value to £2738. Upon settling at 70 Pitt Street, Sydney, Verge applied on 12 January 1829 for a land grant, and was allowed the maximum of 2560 acres (1036 ha). After some confusion he finally located his land near Dungog, which he called Lyndhurst Vale. A secondary grant in 1838 added a further 2560 acres (1036 ha) on the Macleay River, named Austral Eden, while a further 140 acres (57 ha), now part of Kempsey, were purchased. Catherine Verge did not emigrate, and after her death, Verge married Mary, aged 50, daughter of John Alford, at Austral Eden on 8 March 1858.

Verge's activities as a farmer seem not to have been spectacularly successful at first, though he had built up a considerable practice as architect and builder; on 24 July 1831 because of the paucity of skilled architects, he was invited by Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling, unavailingly, to tender for government contracts. Verge had bought land on the site of 346 Sussex Street in February 1831 and he built his house there immediately afterwards. Most of his architectural work in Sydney appears to have been done between 1830 and 1837, when he retired to Lyndhurst Vale and later to Austral Eden.

His architectural work after 1837 was more restricted and is difficult to attribute, but in his time of maximum activity, 1830-34, as indeed throughout his whole professional life, Verge was patronized by many prominent colonists, officials and businessmen. Most of his practice was in domestic and professional architecture, in which he was the most prolific figure of his period in Australia. A far from comprehensive list contains more than eighty commissions, some trifling but many of considerable magnitude and local importance, suggesting that Verge was clearly the man the times required. His achievements, which indicate a considerable rise in sophistication when compared with the general run of previous designs, are distinguished by exceptional sureness and competence allied with painstaking craftsmanship. His domestic buildings were the colony's high-water mark of the Regency style, in its austere stucco vernacular, and in this context he was one of the earliest and most important practitioners of the Greek Revival in Australia. Although on superficial examination his design may seem to be conceived within a certain copy-book correctness of taste, this predictability is sometimes varied with personal mannerisms such as the free use of classical members in the groined Doric dining-room of Camden Park. Verge brought a more comprehensive range of Regency 'styles' to Australia than any contemporary architect. Gothic (Tudor) designs were made in 1832 as alternatives to Greek and plain classicist plans for The King's School, Parramatta, and while Verge's ecclesiastical output was small, he is credited with part-authorship of the country churches at Bungonia (Christ Church, 1834-36, abandoned and rebuilt) and Cobbitty (St Paul's, 1840-41, in plain Gothic); the latter is attributed to a partnership with John Bibb, with whom Verge was occasionally associated. His simple pre-Gothic Revival gothicism is seen most clearly in the chapel of St Mary the Virgin, at Denham Court, Ingleburn, designed in 1833-35 and built between 1836 and 1838. Other Sydney churches such as the Independent Chapel, 1830-31, and the Baptist Chapel, 1835-36, revealed more felicitous symmetrical classicist elevations. For Frederick Hely, superintendent of convicts, and his wife, Verge designed not only the major house Engehurst (1834-35, part remains) but also between 1832 and 1837 a sequence of plans of office and garden buildings: Regency cottages ornées with trellising, and picturesque pavilions in playful 'Gothick' and in the Chinese taste (the latter the only known example of this period in Australia) all of high quality; a design also exists for what Verge termed a house in 'the Russian style'. Another curiosity was the wooden Treaty House at Waitangi, New Zealand, designed for James Busby in 1832, on his appointment as British Resident, and shipped over after modification by Ambrose Hallen, the next year.

The pre-eminent early nineteenth century country house in Australia, and Verge's masterpiece, is Camden Park, Camden, designed for John Macarthur in 1831-32 and built in 1832-35 under Verge's supervision for his son William (there are some discreet, harmonious additions). A house of paramount importance with exquisite details and in the Greek Revival manner was The Vineyard, Rydalmere (later the Subiaco convent) designed for Hannibal Macarthur in 1833, built about 1835-36 and demolished in 1961. Another outstanding Regency stucco and stone house is formed by the two-storey additions to Denham Court, 1832-34, built for Richard Brooks, in which a finely composed elevation is allied to an impressive stone-flagged central hall. One of the richest and most spatially dramatic interiors in early Australian colonial architecture is seen in the hall at the massive Elizabeth Bay House (exterior somewhat altered) designed in 1833, and built in 1835-37 for Alexander McLeay, the colonial secretary, a notable house which, with its former spacious ornamental grounds, was much praised. Other distinguished houses remaining, of the many erected, are Rockwall, Pott's Point, for John Busby and H. C. Semphill, 1830-35 (drastically altered) and near-by Tusculum, 1831-36, surrounded by Ionic colonnades commenced for the merchant Alexander Brodie Spark and completed for Bishop William Grant Broughton, again considerably altered. Also for Spark was designed in 1834 the small Regency villa, practically a ferme ornée, Tempe House, Tempe, built in 1835-36 (now St Magdalene's Retreat, with accretions). Other houses were Toxteth Park, Glebe, for the solicitor George Allen, about 1830-31 (now the Convent of the Good Samaritan, much enlarged and modified), Barham, for Edward Deas Thomson, 1833 (later part of Sydney C. of E. Girls' Grammar School, built in and mutilated) and Lyndhurst, for James Bowman in 1833-35 (now part-demolished). The important terraces, shops and bazaars designed for such businessmen of Sydney as Samuel Lyons and John Edye Manning, father and son, have all disappeared. The only surviving Verge terrace house is the pair designed and built for the Sydney tradesman Frederick Peterson in 1834-36, 39 and 41 Lower Fort Street, which remains as an example of Verge's many routine commissions for city frontages. Finally several of Verge's skilful and apposite additions to earlier buildings exist, such as the additions of 1833 to Elizabeth Farm, commenced about 1793, and the vestries added in 1832-33 to Francis Greenway's St James's Church, Sydney. A number of works from the late 1830s and early 1840s may be attributed to Verge when he also worked as a surveyor, but they lack the quality of carefully supervised execution, suggesting that designs were perhaps furnished after his retirement from an active architectural career.

Verge died on 9 July 1861, aged 79 at Austral Eden and was buried, as an Anglican, in the burial ground of St Thomas's, Port Macquarie.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Herman, The Early Australian Architects and Their Work (Syd, 1954)
  • W. G. Verge, John Verge, Early Australian Architect
  • His Ledger & His Clients (Syd, 1962)
  • W. G. Verge, ‘John Verge’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 40 (1954).

Citation details

Harley Preston, 'Verge, John (1782–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/verge-john-2757/text3907, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 28 July 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

John Verge (1782-1861), attributed to James Wilson

John Verge (1782-1861), attributed to James Wilson

State Library of New South Wales, Original : ML 1065