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William Archer (1820–1874)

by G. T. Stilwell

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William Archer (1820-1874), architect, naturalist, landowner and politician, was born at Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, the third but second surviving son of Thomas Archer and his wife Susannah, née Hortle. He grew up in a family which admitted few outsiders to its closed circle. This combined with deep piety to produce in him a strong sense of obligation to his relations. Though probably unaware of it himself, it stopped him from realizing the destiny to which his talents entitled him. He was educated at Rev. John Mackersey's school at Gaddesden, Campbell Town, and probably at Longford Hall Academy. In 1836-40 he studied architecture and surveying under William Rogers (1794-1859) in London and then spent two years with the engineer, Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) at Newcastle upon Tyne. He returned to Tasmania on 18 October 1842. His elder brother's death in January 1844 and the collapse of Archers, Gilles & Co.'s bank proved too much for his ill and ageing father, so William had to take over the management of the family's extensive landed properties. He lived first at Woolmers, near Longford, and in 1852 moved to Cheshunt, near Deloraine.

In 1856-58 Archer was in England devoting himself to botanical studies. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society and noted in his diary that although a colonial he was accepted on terms of equality by upper-class Englishmen. On his return to Tasmania he lived in Hobart. In 1860-61 he was secretary of the Royal Society of Tasmania and contributed a number of articles, mostly on botany, to its Papers and Proceedings. The importance of his work can be gauged from the dedication, jointly to him and Ronald Gunn, in (Sir) Joseph Hooker, Flora Tasmaniae (London, 1859). In his preface Hooker also acknowledged Archer's contribution of 'a beautiful series of drawings of Tasmanian Orchids, together with £100' and 'still more valuable aid by his observations and collections'. He also sent many native plants, some of them named after him, to Kew Gardens.

Archer had been the member for Westbury in the old Legislative Council in 1851-55. After his return from England he was elected to the House of Assembly for Devon on 28 April 1860 and again on 11 June 1861. He was a member of the Executive Council from November 1860 to August 1861 under Thomas Chapman's ministry and sat on several select committees. He was absent from the assembly in 1861 because of ill health and in 1864 refused office as coroner at Deloraine. In February 1856 he accepted appointment as justice of the peace and in October 1866 was elected for Deloraine to the House of Assembly; he resigned late in 1867.

In contrast to his quiet political career, Archer's successes as an architect were very notable. Despite their conflicting theological opinions Bishop Francis Nixon appointed him architect to the diocese of Tasmania; he also accepted many other commissions from friends, relations and groups that interested him, although he appears never to have received payment for his services. Among his major architectural works are the old Hutchins School (1848-49) and Mona Vale, Ross (for his brother-in-law, Robert Kermode, 1865-68). His minor works include the east window of Christ Church, Longford (1842), the Wesleyan Chapel, St Leonards (1846), the Anglican Church of St Peter, St Leonards (1846-47, demolished), the stables at Woolmers (1847), the iron portico of Brickendon (for his uncle, William Archer, 1857), Fairfield, Cressy (for his brother Joseph, 1852-53), his own house, Cheshunt (1851-52) and the tombstone of his daughter Jessie in the Ross cemetery (1860). Attributed works are the front of Woolmers, Saundridge at Cressy and Horton College at Ross. With the exception of the Hutchins School, Archer's work is Victorian in manner and mostly in the Italianate style.

Tied by habit and family obligation Archer lived at Cheshunt, each year with greater financial difficulty, until he left it a broken and poor man. He died at Fairfield, Cressy, on 15 October 1874 and was buried in the family vault at Christ Church, Longford. On 7 April 1846 he had married Ann (1825-1899), only daughter of his uncle James Hortle (1799-1855), chief district constable at Longford. Of their thirteen children, twelve survived him but none inherited his talents. According to an obituarist, he was 'a useful man in Tasmania'; but he could have been much more.

Select Bibliography

  • Univ Tas, Report on the Historical Manuscripts of Tasmania (Hob, 1964)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Tasmanian Botanists’, Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1909, pp 9-29
  • Hobart Town Courier, 5 May 1849
  • Mercury (Hobart), 19 Oct 1874
  • Examiner (Launceston), 20 Oct 1874
  • Tasmanian Historical Research Association, notes on an excursion to Mona Vale, Oct 1965 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

G. T. Stilwell, 'Archer, William (1820–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Archer, n.d.

William Archer, n.d.

Archives Office of Tasmania, NS407

Life Summary [details]


Launceston, Tasmania, Australia


15 October, 1874 (aged ~ 54)
Cressy, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death


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