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James Blackburn (c. 1803–1854)

by Harley Preston

This article was published:

James Blackburn (1803-1854), civil engineer, surveyor and architect, was born in Upton, West Ham, Essex, England, the son of John Blackburn, a liveryman of the Haberdashers' Company and partner in a firm of scalemakers at Shoreditch, and Anne, née Hems. One brother, Isaac, succeeded his father in the profession, while another, John, ordained in the Independent Church, became its pioneer statistician.

Blackburn married Rachel Hems in 1826. In 1833, when employed as an inspector for the commissioners of sewers for the London districts of Holborn and Finsbury, extreme financial distress caused by the failure of a private building speculation, and the threatened resumption of his possessions, led to the forgery of a cheque for £600 on the Bank of England in the names of his employers. Despite highly commendatory testimonials to character, including those of the commissioners, Blackburn was sentenced at the Old Bailey on 20 May 1833 to transportation for life. He arrived at Hobart Town in the Isabella on 14 November, and his wife and daughter arrived in the Augustus Caesar on 31 October 1835. He was immediately employed in the Department of Roads and Bridges, under Roderic O'Connor in 1833-36 and Alexander Cheyne in 1836-39.

He had brought with him laudatory testimonials and in 1836 and 1839 was able to support petitions for a free pardon with a remarkable collection of encomiums from leading citizens of Hobart, who praised his character and diligence. In 1839 the Department of Public Works was created to combine the functions of the Department of Roads and Bridges, the civil engineer and the colonial architect. Cheyne and Blackburn formed the nucleus of the new department and indeed Blackburn's many and varied projects, appearing over Cheyne's signature, occasioned its formation, for Cheyne was untrained in most of its duties. From 1833 to 1839 a very large part of the island's road-making, surveying and engineering work, excluding certain items in the convict and military establishments, was performed by Blackburn.

The year 1837 saw designs of greater stylistic interest than before. From 1839 onwards the bulk of the architectural requirements and bridges, in addition to vastly increased surveying and engineering schemes are attributable to Blackburn. His free pardon on 3 May 1841 was followed by the dismissal of Cheyne.

Blackburn, who had received unusual authority and responsibility for a convict, entered into partnership in private practice with another former convict James Thomson and was the successful contractor for works designed in servitude ranging from the tiny picturesque Tudor lodges (actually a watch-house) at St John's, New Town (1841-42) to the mammoth and grandiose classicist Government House designed for the Franklins (1840, abandoned 1843 and demolished). A pontoon bridge at Risdon designed in 1841 was unrealized, but the Bridgewater Bridge planned in 1840-41 was, after protracted negotiations, built by the firm in 1846-49. Many other important post-depression engineering projects remained unfulfilled. Among them were a scrupulously organized water supply for Hobart (1841-43), for which Blackburn was employed by Charles Swanston; a ferry or punt for the Derwent (1845-46); irrigation schemes for the Midlands; and various road improvements. Blackburn acquired land at Campbell Town, which from 1843 became increasingly the main centre of his activities. From 1844 he was tenant at Camelford, and later engaged in flour-milling on the Elizabeth River when private commissions were scarce and his funds were low.

On 16 April 1849 he and his family sailed in the Shamrock for Melbourne, where he immediately set up practice as engineer and architect. That year he formed a company to sell filtered and purified water to the public, attempted to form another to mine coal at Western Port, and carried out some minor architectural commissions. On 24 October he was appointed city surveyor, and in 1850-51 produced his greatest non-architectural work, the basic design and fundamental conception of the Melbourne water supply from the Yan Yean reservoir via the Plenty River. Despite his original vision, the plans were carried out, somewhat modified, with Blackburn in a subordinate position. He was injured in a fall from a horse in January 1852, died on 3 March 1854 at Brunswick Street, Collingwood, of typhoid and was buried as a member of the Fitzroy Church of England. Of his ten children all except two were born in Australia; only five children survived him. His eldest son, James, followed his profession.

Although Blackburn's life was predominantly one of unrealized potentialities, he has claims to be considered one of the greatest engineers of his period in Australia, and his architectural achievements established him as Tasmania's most advanced and original architect.

Stylistically the masterpiece of Blackburn's Gothic work, which looks forward to the Gothic Revival of the next decade, is Holy Trinity, Hobart (1840-47). Smaller examples range from St Matthew's, Rokeby (1839-41), the naves of St Andrew's, Westbury (1840-42) and old Holy Trinity, Launceston (1841-42, demolished) to those attributed by the writer such as the unfinished St Mary's, Kempton (1838-44) and the minuscule Congregational Chapels at Bagdad (1842, now mutilated) and Cambridge (1842-43). The Port Arthur church (1836-41) has no connexion with him. Of outstanding importance in the history of Australian architecture are three Romanesque or Neo-Norman works which mark one of the earliest colonial appearances of the style, being all designed in 1839 and built within four years: St Mark's, Pontville; St Matthew's, Glenorchy, Sorell Presbyterian Church and its near repetition, the former St Andrew's, Evandale. This unique style was modified into an Italian villa variant as early as the Glenorchy watch-house (1837-38, demolished), Spring Hill watch-house (1839-40), Longford gaol (1839-42, mostly demolished), the important and picturesque New Town Congregational Church (1842-45) and imposing additions to Rosedale, Campbell Town (1848-50). Blackburn was the foremost, although not the earliest, exponent of Greek Revival forms in Tasmania in the Lady Franklin Museum (1842-43) and the Public Offices portico, Hobart (1841-42). St George's, Battery Point, an aggregate from four architectural hands, is dominated by Blackburn's tower and vestries (1841-47) where its Regency Greek manner is under slight Egyptianizing influence in conformity with John Lee Archer's nave (1836-38). Further picturesque Tudor works are old Trinity rectory, Hobart (1840-42), designs (unbuilt) for a public school in Hobart (1839) and the proposed New Norfolk College (1841), and for Dr William Valentine at Campbell Town, The Grange (c.1848-49). Besides many ambitious alternative plans in a variety of styles for Lady Franklin's Government House, there are many attributions by the present writer and innumerable routine and minor public buildings, for example the 'gothic' watch-house, now the Bellerive Library (1841-42, much altered), all of which indicate, even when they were not supervised by Blackburn, his technical proficiency, resourcefulness and fecundity of imagination as a designer.

Select Bibliography

  • R. C. Seeger, ‘The History of Melbourne's Water Supply-Part 1’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 19, no 3, June 1942, pp 107-119 and vol 19, no 4, Dec 1942, pp 133-38
  • R. C. Seeger, ‘The History of Melbourne's Water Supply-Part 2’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 22, no 1, June 1947, pp 23-47
  • H. Preston, The Life and Work of James Blackburn (manuscript, privately held).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Harley Preston, 'Blackburn, James (c. 1803–1854)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


c. 1803
Upton, Essex, England


3 March, 1854 (aged ~ 51)
Collingwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

typhoid fever

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: forgery
Sentence: life
Court: Old Bailey, London
Trial Date: 20 May 1833


Married: Yes
Children: Yes (1)