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Whitley, Cuthbert Claude Mortier (1886–1942)

by Roger Pegrum

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

Cuthbert Claude Mortier Whitley (1886-1942), architect and public servant, was born on 30 July 1886 at Rutherglen, Victoria, second surviving child of Charles Herbert Whitley, a schoolteacher from England, and his Victorian-born wife Elizabeth, née Horrocks. Cuthbert trained in design and building with the Victorian Public Works Department. In 1912 he joined the Commonwealth Public Service as a draughtsman in the public works branch of the Department of Home Affairs. At St John's Church of England, Camberwell, on 25 January 1913 he married Mabel Violet Tudor, a hair-frame maker.

In 1920 Whitley was appointed architect in the Department of Works and Railways. Soon after, he was admitted as an associate of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects. A protégé of the chief architect J. S. Murdoch, he prepared preliminary drawings for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia building in Brisbane and later contributed to the design of the adjacent Commonwealth offices.

Whitley was transferred in 1929 to Canberra, where he worked under the principal designing architect (later chief architect) E. H. Henderson. In 1935 Whitley was promoted to senior architect in the Department of the Interior. His first major project was a new building for the Patent Office on Kings Avenue, for which he chose a formal axial composition with sandstone facings and restrained Art Deco embellishment.

In 1936 Whitley designed Ainslie Public School (1938). His plans were both functional and elegant, with carefully articulated facades and creative treatment of conventional materials internally and externally. Art Deco motifs such as chevrons and vertical flutes suggested a fresh and forward-looking view of education. He followed this building with a dramatic design for Canberra High School (1939) at Acton, with a lofty clock tower marking the high ground overlooking the city centre and long symmetrical wings of classrooms terminating in bold semicircular ends. He enlivened the formality of the composition with decorative elements integrated into the overall design. Featuring many technological innovations, it was described at the time as 'the most modern school in Australia'.

Following Henderson's death in 1939, Whitley was acting chief architect for some six months. His ambitions for a truly modern Canberra were also realized in smaller projects, including houses, and the city's first fire station, at Forrest. The flat roofs, crisp steel-framed windows and unrelieved brick walls of these buildings were early expressions in Canberra of the Inter-War Functionalist style.

Whitley lived with his family at Reid and walked each day to work in the city centre. A quiet, unassuming man and a Freemason, he had played Australian Rules football with the Hawthorn Football Club in Melbourne and won several trophies for golf in Canberra. He travelled only for work and, despite his appreciation of contemporary architectural movements, never went overseas. After suffering the first of several strokes in 1941, he retired on 19 September 1942. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 23 October that year in Canberra Community Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery. His wife, and their daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Charlton, Federal Capital Architecture (Canb, 1984)
  • Pegrum and Associates, The Old Patent Office, Canberra (Canb, 1998)
  • Daryl Jackson Alastair Swayn Pty Ltd, Canberra School of Art: Conservation Management Plan (Canb, 2000)
  • Canberra Times, 18 Sept 1939, 28 Oct 1942
  • K. Charlton, The Career of C. C. M. Whitley A.R.V.I.A., A.R.I.B.A. (typescript, 2000, copy held on ADB file)
  • private information.

Citation details

Roger Pegrum, 'Whitley, Cuthbert Claude Mortier (1886–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whitley-cuthbert-claude-mortier-12021/text21561, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 October 2018.

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

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