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Vernon, Walter Liberty (1846–1914)

by Peter Reynolds

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Walter Liberty Vernon (1846-1914), by unknown photographer, 1895

Walter Liberty Vernon (1846-1914), by unknown photographer, 1895

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Walter Liberty Vernon (1846-1914), architect and soldier, was born on 11 August 1846 at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England, eldest son of Robert Vernon, banker's clerk, and his wife Margaret, née Liberty. Educated at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, and at Windsor, Walter was articled in 1862 to the London architect W. G. Habershon; he attended Sir Robert Smirke's lectures at the Royal Academy of Arts and went at night to the South Kensington School of Art.

On completing his articles, Vernon worked for Habershon & Pite and from 1869 took charge of their branch office in Wales. On 11 August 1870 in the Dock Street Chapel at Newport, Monmouthshire, he married Margaret Anne Jones (d.1919). He then ran an office for the London architect Charles Moreing at Hastings where he set up his own practice in 1872. Vernon went on sketching trips through Holland, Belgium and Germany, and carried provisions across the Prussian lines during the siege of Paris. Suffering from bronchial asthma, he spent a year recuperating at Malta. A member (fellow, 1883) of the Surveyors' Institution from March 1880, he opened an office in Great George Street, London, while retaining his practice at Hastings. When his asthma recurred in 1883, he was advised to leave England: the family sailed in the Ballaarat, reaching Sydney on 3 November.

Commissioned to build a department store for David Jones Ltd (George and Barrack streets, 1885), Vernon designed his own home, Penshurst, at Neutral Bay in 1884. He bought adjoining land where he designed and built several villas. From 1 October that year until February 1889 he was in partnership with W. W. Wardell. Vernon assisted with works already in progress, designed buildings and supervised Wardell's Melbourne projects in 1884-85. Vernon was an alderman on East St Leonards Municipal Council in 1885-90. Elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1885, he joined the (Royal) Art Society of New South Wales in 1884, (Sir) John Sulman's Palladian Club and the Institute of Architects of New South Wales in 1887, and the Sydney Architectural Association in 1891.

On 1 August 1890 Vernon had been appointed government architect in the new branch of the Department of Public Works which had been created to allow private architects to compete for the design of all public buildings estimated to cost over £5000. The government architect was to supervise the construction, with a commission paid to the selected architect. For new work below £5000 and for all alterations and maintenance, Vernon was required to make do with the remnants of James Barnet's staff (73 in 1890, reduced to 44 by 1893). Of three competitions held, only one resulted in a completed building (Grafton gaol, 1891). By the end of 1894 Vernon showed that the new system cost twice as much as designs from his own office: competitions were never reinstated during his tenure.

When building revived in the mid-1890s, he was permitted more staff. Unlike his predecessor, Vernon saw major city public buildings as 'monuments to Art', large in scale and finely wrought in stone (the main facade of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1904-06); suburban buildings took on the scale and character of their surroundings (Darlinghurst fire station, Federation Free Style, 1910); and country buildings were designed with cross-ventilation, shady verandahs and sheltered courtyards (Bourke Court House, Federation Free Style, 1900).

In running the branch, Vernon insisted on the highest quality of design, the use of improved materials and construction methods, and the application of business-like procedures. Reserving the right to approve designs, he delegated project responsibility to capable officers. This sound basis allowed flexibility for such tasks as providing illuminations and decorations for the Commonwealth celebrations and supervising statutory by-laws like the Theatres and Public Halls Act, 1908.

From 1901 Vernon had executed many site studies for the future Federal capital and later maintained that his most important duty had been his part in contributing to the eventual choice of Canberra. He was appointed in 1909 to the Federal Capital Advisory Board which negotiated with the New South Wales government for the transfer of land and formulated the conditions for a competition to design the city. Believing that Australians possessed insufficient knowledge of town planning to be able to do justice to the great possibilities, he advocated a world-wide competition. He supported Walter Burley Griffin in Building on 12 June 1913 when a departmental scheme, largely drawn up by C. R. Scrivener, was substituted for Griffin's winning plan.

As well as serving on many government boards and inquiries, including the royal commission on the Sydney water supply (1902), Vernon belonged to the Australian Club (from 1884), United Service Institution of New South Wales (1889) and Aerial League of Australia (1909); he was president of the Broughton Club (1910-12) and of the architecture and engineering section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (1913); he was also a commissioner for the Franco-British Exhibition, London (1908), a trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney (1909), vice-president of the Millions Club (1913) and a councillor of the Town Planning Association of New South Wales (1913).

A man of military stamp, Vernon was consumed by his interests in architecture and soldiering. In England he had served in the 4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry. He joined the New South Wales Lancers in January 1885 and was commissioned in March next year. Promoted captain (1893), he commanded the New South Wales Lancers contingent at Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee (1897) and was promoted major (1899). As lieutenant-colonel, Vernon commanded the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment (New South Wales Lancers) in 1903-07 and, as colonel, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade in 1907-10; he was awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration in 1905.

By August 1911, when he retired, his staff numbered 152 and the government architectural office for New South Wales was an efficient public service machine. Vernon resumed private practice and found time for gardening, as well as for collecting furniture, pictures, armour and weapons. Since 1895 he had lived at Wendover, Normanhurst. Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, he died at Darlinghurst on 17 January 1914 of septicaemia and gangrene after the amputation of his leg, and was buried in the Anglican section of Gore Hill cemetery. The Vernon lectures in town planning, instituted at the University of Sydney in 1916, were endowed in his honour.

His elder son Hugh Venables (1877-1935) was born on 20 February 1877 at St Mary-in-the-Castle, Hastings, Sussex, England. Known as Venables (often Ven), he was educated at the Grammar School, Scone. On 1 November 1897 he joined the New South Wales Lancers as a trooper. He went to South Africa in November 1899 and took part in operations in Cape Colony, in the relief of Kimberley and in the Orange Free State. Awarded the Queen's South Africa Medal with three clasps, he contracted enteric fever in March 1900; he was commissioned in 1903. Vernon trained as an architect, probably under Howard Joseland with whom he was in partnership in 1903-14. On 31 January 1907 at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Vernon married Mary Stephens (d.1966).

A major in the 1st Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Force, he embarked in October 1914, commanded the regiment when it was dispatched to Gallipoli on 8 May 1915 and was mentioned in dispatches. Transferred to the 4th Division Ammunition Column in April 1916 at the invitation of (Major General Sir) Charles Rosenthal, he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and took the unit to France in June 1916. After the battle of Fromelles he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and was again mentioned in dispatches. He came home in December 1918.

Returning to civilian life and to architectural practice, Vernon resumed militia service (1921-26) and was awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration in 1924. Active in several South African War veterans' associations, he was State president and a trustee of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, a member of the Soldiers' Children Education Board, a director of the United Service Insurance Co. Ltd, a foundation member of the Legacy Club of Sydney, and a councillor and fellow of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales. Vernon's practice was mainly in domestic architecture in Sydney and Canberra. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died of chronic nephritis on 3 July 1935 at Warrawee and was buried beside his father.

Walter's younger son Geoffrey Hampden (1882-1946) was born on 16 December 1882 at Hastings, Sussex. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), he studied medicine at the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1905). He was appointed captain in the 4th Light Horse Field Ambulance, Australian Imperial Force, on 4 March 1915, and served in the Middle East as regimental medical officer of the 11th Light Horse; he was awarded the Military Cross for 'gallantry and devotion to duty' under heavy fire on 8 August 1916 near the Hod el Beheir oasis, Sinai; promoted major in January 1917, he was wounded in action in November at Tel el Sheria and returned to Australia in August 1918. He lowered his age by eight years and enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps in 1942. As a captain, he served in Papua-New Guinea as medical officer with the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion on the Kokoda Track, becoming a legend among Australian troops and a hero to the Papuans. 'Doc' Vernon died on 16 May 1946 and was buried on Logea Island, Papua.

Select Bibliography

  • P. V. Vernon (ed), The Royal New South Wales Lancers, 1885-1985 (Parramatta, NSW, 1986)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1906, 2 (29), p 389, 1909, 2 (47), p 16
  • Australasian Builder and Contractor's News, 19 Nov 1887, 8 June 1889
  • Building (Sydney), 11 Sept 1909, p 38, 12 June 1913, p 46, 12 Feb 1914, p 101, 12 May 1914, p 99
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Nov 1883, 17 Jan, 2 Sept, 2 Oct 1884, 26 Feb 1889, 20 Feb 1890, 17 Mar 1914, 5 July 1935
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 12 Feb 1914
  • P. L. Reynolds, The Evolution of the Government Architect's Branch of the New South Wales Department of Public Works: 1788-1911 (Ph.D. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972)
  • D. Jones, Walter Liberty Vernon (architect): 1846-1914 (B.Arch thesis, University of New South Wales, 1977)
  • Executive Council (New South Wales) minute book, vol 12, 1890 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Department of Public Works (New South Wales), Annual Report, 1909, (State Records New South Wales)
  • Federal Capital Site Commmission, 1899-1902 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Neutral Bay Land Co records (State Library of New South Wales)
  • W. W. Wardell letter books, vol 2 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Dept of Home Affairs papers (National Archives of Australia)
  • Vernon family papers (privately held).

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Citation details

Peter Reynolds, 'Vernon, Walter Liberty (1846–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/vernon-walter-liberty-8916/text15667, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 5 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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