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Woolacott, Francis Prosser (Frank) (1903–1968)

by Ross Curnow

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

Francis Prosser (Frank) Woolacott (1903-1968), structural engineer and architect, was born on 11 June 1903 at Annandale, Sydney, eldest of three children of Henry Lovel Woolacott, a native-born general agent, and his second wife Jane Kate, née Wilmott, from Melbourne. Esmé Fenston was his sister. At Drummoyne Public School, Frank was frustrated by the absence of science teaching and left with the Intermediate certificate. Articled to an elderly architect, he was released to study part time at Sydney Technical College. He was employed as a draughtsman in various architectural offices, cycling to and from work each day and studying at night. While still a student he undertook much of the structural engineering design at Henry Budden's office. Mastery of the aesthetic components of his profession did not come easily to him, but he understood 'bending moments, deflections, reinforced concrete and trusses'.

Registered to practise on 5 November 1928, Woolacott was admitted as an associate of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1932. At Henry White's practice, he designed the first theatre dress circles unsupported by thick columns in the stalls. His engineering and architectural practice began in 1933 with a loan of £100 from his future wife. Next year he opened an office in King Street. At St Peter's Church, Neutral Bay, on 15 January 1935 he married with Anglican rites Beatrice Joan Holland, a nurse. Terence Hale, who joined him in 1937, worked on local defence projects during World War II when Woolacott was attached (1943-46) to the United States Army as an engineer.

After the war Woolacott & Hale prospered and acted as structural consultants to many of Sydney's architects, all levels of government, and public companies. In some instances, such as the commissions for Nestlé factories in New South Wales and interstate, Woolacott acted as both architect and engineer. In the 1960s the practice extended its activities from multi-storeyed city buildings, schools, churches and industrial constructions to hydraulic services, waste and water treatment, roads, bridges and aircraft hangars. With the admission of new partners the firm underwent various name changes, but eventually reverted to its origins with the name Woolacotts.

From 1936 Woolacott was a member (vice-president 1938-39, president 1941-42) of the Association of Consulting Structural Engineers of New South Wales, founded in 1933 to establish structural engineering as a profession distinct from architecture. He served on several of its committees and, in 1960-68, on the Cumberland, Newcastle and Wollongong Board of Appeal Panel of the Department of Local Government. A member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, from 1961, he spent much time transmitting the importance of professional standards and integrity to younger colleagues. He stressed the obligations of architects to design buildings that met the functional needs of clients, to supervise meticulously the construction, and to check and re-check their calculations.

Music was Woolacott's other main interest; when young he had won medals for piano playing. One of his earliest purchases was a phonograph. An unassuming and modest man, short in stature, with a ready smile, he took little interest in entertaining clients. His motorcar—a baby Fiat—contrasted sharply with the Mercedes of one of his partners. Troubled with misdiagnosed illnesses during the last fifteen years of his life, he died of hypertensive heart disease on 30 March 1968 at his Mosman home, and was cremated. His wife and their daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • The History of the Association of Consulting Structural Engineers of New South Wales (Syd, 1983)
  • J. E. Corlett, speech at 50th anniversary celebration of Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, 13 Dec 1982 (copy held on ADB file)
  • Association of Consulting Structural Engineers of New South Wales Archives, Sydney
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Ross Curnow, 'Woolacott, Francis Prosser (Frank) (1903–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/woolacott-francis-prosser-frank-12070/text21653, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 April 2014.

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

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