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Wright, Edmund William (1824–1888)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Edmund William Wright (1824-1888), architect, engineer and businessman, was born on 4 April 1824 at Fulham, London, son of Stephen Amand Wright, master of ordnance at the Tower of London, and his wife Lucy Elizabeth, née Tomkins. Articled to the borough surveyor of Bermondsey, Edmund trained as an architect, surveyor and engineer, then found public employment as a clerk of works at Yarmouth dockyard and subsequently in Bermuda. While working in Montreal, Canada, he suffered exposure to the weather, which left him lame for life. In 1849 he became the third of six siblings who migrated to South Australia, where he worked with his brother Edward as a land agent and broker but also advertised his services as an architect and engineer.

When the architect Henry Stuckey died in June 1851, Wright took over his business, avowedly to assist the widow Agnes Jane, née Rippingville, and her newborn daughter. He persuaded the trustees of the Collegiate School of St Peter to roof the school's main building in galvanized iron, rather than slate, and supervised some work on the first stage of Bishop's Court, North Adelaide. In March 1852 he joined the exodus to the Victorian goldfields. Returning six months later, Wright was appointed Adelaide's city surveyor and, on 23 October that year, married Mrs Stuckey at Christ Church, North Adelaide, with Anglican rites. They had four children. Wright resumed private practice in February 1853, designing houses, business premises and churches, including an imposing but sombre one for the Anglicans at Kapunda. In 1856 he won a competition to design a building for the North Adelaide Masonic and Public Hall Association. Work stopped when the front part of this structure, let to the North Adelaide Institute, was opened in 1858. In 1863 it was sold and became a private residence, Belmont, to which another architect added extra rooms. Wright's 'Roman Doric' facade still enhanced Brougham Place in 2005.

In a paper in 1859 to the short-lived South Australian Society of Architects, Engineers and Surveyors, Wright argued that the province's climate lent itself to the use of Italian-style architecture rather than forms from northern Europe. He advocated flat roofs, large rooms with lofty ceilings and narrow windows, all aimed at coolness. His Adelaide office for the Union Bank of Australia (1858, demolished 1925) and the large houses Athelney (1858), College Park, and The Olives (1864), Glenelg, reflected these theories. Wright was elected an alderman on Adelaide City Council in 1857. He became mayor in 1859 but resigned eleven months later, for which he was fined £10. The previous year he had won a competition to design a new town hall but the council could not raise the money to build it.

From the early 1860s Wright was busy with non-architectural work, becoming South Australian manager of the Imperial Fire Assurance Co., chairman of the Mt Craig Mining Co. and a director of other companies. He planted a vineyard near Penfold's at Magill, purchased an adjoining cellar and winery and was a founding member and major shareholder in the South Australian United Vineyards Association. In the 1870s he became engineer for, and a shareholder in, the Adelaide & Suburban Tramways Co., which eventually built and operated the city's first horse-drawn tram services.

To keep his architectural practice going, Wright had entered a series of partnerships with men better-trained and, in some cases more experienced, than himself. The first (from 1861) was another Londoner Edward John Woods, the architect of the splendid Kent Town Wesleyan Methodist (Uniting) Church. In 1863 they gained first prize (£50) in a fresh competition for a more modest Adelaide town hall. This time the councillors found the money, but demanded such substantial modifications to the ground-plan and elevations that they made it 'for all purposes' a different design. Wright accepted the changes and was paid to superintend the work. Opened in 1866, the Town Hall has served Adelaide well. More controversy greeted Wright & Woods's prize-winning design (1865) for the General Post Office. The postmaster general (Sir) Charles Todd and the colonial architect R. G. Thomas secured major alterations before its first stage was opened in 1872.

Wright and Woods designed the most beautiful of Adelaide's early commercial buildings—the National Bank and adjoining premises for Wright's insurance company (both 1867, demolished 1968). He also designed many banks in country towns, houses—notably Princess Royal (1864), near Burra, and Kingsmead (1865) next door to Belmont—and, with the brothers Edward and George Hamilton, the grand, baroque Congregational Church in North Adelaide. Woods left the partnership in 1869, to work full time on the Anglicans' St Peter's Cathedral, and was replaced by J. H. Reed. J. G. Beavor joined at the end of the 1870s. The reconstituted firm produced the Bank of Adelaide (1880), the palatial Paringa Hall (1882) for J. F. Cudmore at Somerton, Cabra Dominican Convent (1886), which provided an extreme example of Wright's preference for narrow windows, and major structures later demolished, including the Adelaide office of the Bank of New South Wales (1888).

Wright and the Melbourne architect Lloyd Tayler had won competitions to design new houses of parliament for Adelaide and a new head office for the Bank of South Australia. Tayler did the creative work. Wright oversaw construction. Work on the foundations of Parliament House commenced in 1877 but stopped a few months later as the project became embroiled in disputes. The first third of the building, providing new accommodation for the House of Assembly, was erected on new footings in 1883-89, under the supervision of Woods, who had made extensive alterations to the plans. Tayler and Wright had better success with their Renaissance-style Bank of South Australia. Costing £63,000 to erect in 1875-78, it was the noblest commercial building erected in colonial Adelaide.

In his last years Wright was the colony's senior practising architect but he lost heavily on mining investments that he had been making since 1860. He died of obstruction of the bowel on 5 August 1888 in North Adelaide and was buried in the North Road cemetery, Nailsworth. His wife, their son and daughter, and a stepdaughter survived him.

Since 1971 Wright's reputation has become larger than it was in life. That year the owners of the Bank of South Australia's last head office sold it to a company that planned to replace it with a nineteen-storeyed office block. Some 67,000 people petitioned against the building's demolition and a public appeal raised $250,000. The bank's champions found that a local resident had shared in the design and, when the Dunstan government agreed to buy and restore the building, it was renamed Edmund Wright House—an injustice to the principal architect Tayler. Enthusiasts began tracing all work attributed to Wright, sometimes giving him sole credit where little or none was his due. The sculptor John Dowie dubbed him 'the Christopher Wren of Adelaide', but most of Wright's partners were gifted professionals who merited a large share of the honour accorded him.

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. Bagot, Some Nineteenth Century Adelaide Architects (Adel, 1958)
  • E. J. R. Morgan and S. H. Gilbert, Early Adelaide Architecture 1836 to 1886 (Melb, 1969)
  • M. Burden, Lost Adelaide (Melb, 1983)
  • M. Page, Sculptors in Space (Adel, 1986)
  • P. Stretton, The Life and Times of Old Parliament House (Adel, 1988)
  • S. Marsden et al (eds), Heritage of the City of Adelaide (Adel, 1990)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 Mar 1971, p 3, 25 Mar 1971, pp 2 & 3.

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Wright, Edmund William (1824–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wright-edmund-william-13257/text4569, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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