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Arthur William Bligh (1905–1998)

by Andrew Wilson

This article was published online in 2023

Arthur William Forster Bligh (1905–1998), architect and town planner, was born on 27 May 1905 at Mosman, Sydney, eldest child of Roger Nunn William Bligh, a New South Wales-born cattle station owner, and his Victorian-born wife Stella Adelaide Laura, née Forster. The family moved to Queensland in Arthur’s early childhood, and he attended Goondiwindi (1913–15), Toowoomba South Boys’ (1916), and (also in Toowoomba) Rangeville State schools. A Rangeville teacher, Robert Meibusch, encouraged him to develop his talent for drawing. From 1920 he studied part time at Toowoomba Technical College, and in 1922 he was articled to the architect William Hodgen junior. He worked for Hodgen until 1926 when he began practising on his own.

With the implementation of the Architects Act of 1928, Bligh was among the first cohort to be accepted, on 17 June 1929, for registration as architects in Queensland. His Toowoomba commissions included New Redeemer Lutheran Church (1929), an office building for Queensland Trustees Ltd (1930), additions to St Saviour’s Convent School (1931), and the completion of St Patrick’s Cathedral (1935); he also designed the butter factory at nearby Clifton (1933). On 23 December 1930 at the Presbyterian Church, Mosman, Sydney, he had married Millie Mavis Gaydon (1903–2001).

In 1933 Bligh secured a commission from Linray Constructions Pty Ltd to design houses for a speculative suburban estate at Newmarket, Brisbane, and moved to the capital; his family followed in 1934. When Linray collapsed that year, he established his Brisbane practice in the firm’s former office in the city. He introduced into Queensland—and used for his own residence at Clayfield (1935)—the brick-on-edge cavity brick construction method, in which those comprising a house’s inner walls were laid on edge. The requirement for fewer bricks and less mortar reduced costs, and the narrower walls provided a larger floor area. Among bigger projects, he designed the Rex Theatre, Fortitude Valley (1936), and the San Souci Hotel, Southport (1938).

From 1931 to 1933 Bligh had published in the Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette illustrated articles on house designs that ‘combine economy, aesthetics and utility’ (Bligh 1931, 9). In 1936 he began contributing to the Brisbane Telegraph’s ‘For Better Homes’ feature, with commentary, illustrations, and plans for a variety of house and flat (home unit) styles in timber and brick, ranging in cost from affordable workers’ cottages to more substantial dwellings. He also offered practical advice on having a house built; his topics included the roles of architects and the advantages of engaging them. Scores of articles containing his ideas were published before his involvement ceased in 1941.

In World War II, Bligh served part time in the 2nd Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps (1942–44), and worked for the United States Army Services of Supply in its drawing office at Somerville House, South Brisbane. With Colin Woodward Jessup (1914–1998), he established the partnership Bligh & Jessup in 1946. They obtained several large industrial commissions, including a textile factory at Whinstanes for Stirling Henry Pty Ltd (1946) and offices for James Hardie Trading Pty Ltd at Fortitude Valley (1948). In the 1950s their work encompassed homesteads and projects throughout the State, together with houses and leisure, civic, commercial, and ecclesiastical structures in Brisbane.

Bligh Jessup & Partners was established in 1953; the firm became Bligh Jessup Bretnall & Partners in 1957, with the addition of Athol William Bretnall (1909–2004); Ronald James Voller (1915–2006), a future partner, joined the firm the same year. Subsequent projects in Brisbane (the first two heritage listed) included the Sanitarium Health Food Co. factory and related infrastructure (1958) at Moorooka; Christ Church, St Lucia (1959), for the Church of England; and, at Hamilton, the Camden home units, stage one and two (1960–64). In the 1960s the firm expanded into a large practice, winning commissions from the Queensland Department of Public Works, such as the Physics Building (1963) and Mathematics Building (1964) at the University of Queensland, St Lucia, and dormitory and teaching blocks at the Queensland Agricultural College, Gatton (1964).

Following the closure of Brisbane’s Roma Street Markets in 1964, Bligh argued that the resulting ‘acres of redundancy presented [an] opportunity for major city improvements’ from Roma Street Railway Station to King George Square (Bligh 1996, 5). He had been inspired, while on an overseas tour, by the creativity with which the British and Europeans were rejuvenating the centres of their cities, Stockholm being a prime example. The State government paid £15,000 for a feasibility study but Bligh saw the initiative as a community service and the firm spent a further £45,000 on a detailed proposal. Assisted by his partners and external consultants, he produced the Plan for Redevelopment of Roma Street Area, City of Brisbane, or ‘Bligh Plan’ (1966). It called for the resumption of sixteen acres (6.5 ha) of land to give Brisbane a new ‘living heart’ comprising ‘transport facilities, parking, shopping, hotels, restaurants, commercial and Government offices, a bus terminal, pedestrian concourses, and residential blocks, with a cultural centre, including an art gallery’ (Bragg 1966, 2).

Although never realised, the plan reinvigorated the practice, Bligh noting that the financial cost had been a ‘burden to the partners but [the effort had] steeled their unity and sharpened [their] professionalism’ (Bligh 1996, 5). The undertaking had also been an expression of his collaborative ethos. In 1972 the firm was incorporated as a private company. Bligh was made a life fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1974. He retired the following year. A ‘lean, loose-limbed man who keeps fit with a game of bowls and talks easily on any subject except himself’ (Bragg 1966, 2), he was unassuming and well liked. From 1947 he was a member of the Brisbane Club, where he enjoyed entertaining and networking. He died on 8 August 1998 at Auchenflower and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did their two sons, Graham, an architect who joined his father’s firm, and Robin, an agricultural scientist.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Bligh, Arthur W. F. `Homes to Meet Times: Economical Buildings of Attractive Design.’ Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette, 16 July 1931, 9
  • Bligh, Arthur. Interview by Robyn Buchanan, 1996. Sound recording. BVN Architecture archive (Brisbane)
  • Bligh, Arthur. ‘The Origins of Bligh Voller Architects Pty Ltd: Incidents of Beginning, Passage and Shaping through the Passage of 50 of the Company’s 70 years.’ Unpublished manuscript, 1996. BVN Architecture archive (Brisbane)
  • Bligh Jessup Bretnall and Partners—Architects. Plan for Redevelopment of Roma Street Area, City of Brisbane: Feasibility Study. Brisbane: Department of the Co-ordinator General of Public Works, State of Queensland, 1966
  • Bragg, John. ‘He Wants to Put Life into Our City.’ Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 29 May 1966, 2
  • Macarthur, John, Deborah Van der Plaat, Janina Gosseye, and Andrew Wilson, eds. Hot Modernism: Queensland Architecture, 1945–1975. London: Artifice Books, 2015

Additional Resources

Citation details

Andrew Wilson, 'Bligh, Arthur William (1905–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bligh-arthur-william-28998/text36270, published online 2023, accessed online 22 May 2024.

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

27 May, 1905
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

8 August, 1998 (aged 93)
Auchenflower, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

pneumonia

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.

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