Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Ginn (1818–1892)

by Allan F. Willingham

This article was published:

Henry Ginn (1818-1892), architect, company secretary and pastoralist, was born late in 1818 at Bexhill, Sussex, England, and christened at St Peter's Church, Hamsey, on 31 January 1819, third of five children of Benjamin Ginn, a clerk of works with the Royal Engineers, and his wife Mary, née Guy (d.1822). Henry worked for a London-based builder, gaining experience on the architect William Cubitt's housing estates and residential squares, before visiting Europe. Reaching Sydney in the Meanwell on 26 January 1840, under the patronage of George Barney, a family friend, Ginn was engaged as architect for the Holy Trinity (Garrison) Church, Millers Point. Subsequently appointed clerk of works with the Royal Engineers, in 1841 he was sent back to London to organize labour and materials for several local projects.

Returning to Sydney in June 1842, Ginn overlayed his original modern Gothick design for Holy Trinity with fashionable mediaeval details, in an attempt to erect the first 'correct Early Victorian parish church in Australia'. In private practice from 1843, he won commissions to design the Australian Subscription Library and the Royal Exchange, Sydney, St Andrew's Church, Stockton, and a bridge at Bathurst. On 12 November 1844 at Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney, he married with Anglican rites Jane, daughter of William Grant Balmain. They had seven children. Encouraged by Mortimer Lewis, the colonial architect, Ginn applied for the position of clerk of works at Port Phillip. When his appointment was approved at a salary of £200, he cancelled plans to return to England and with his young family moved to Melbourne on 4 May 1846.

Soon acquiring a 26-acre (10.5 ha) lot at Richmond, Ginn designed and erected a Colonial Regency style residence, and subdivided the block into residential allotments, which he later sold at great profit. He encountered increasing conflict with his subordinates, difficulties with a distant administration and intransigent local contractors. Nevertheless, he oversaw the erection of major public works such as the Lunatic Asylum at Yarra Bend. He also designed buildings for Williamstown, Geelong and Portland, including the lighthouse at Williamstown (1848) and the equally rugged Colonial Georgian style Custom House at Portland (1849-50)—both rare surviving examples of his work. In 1847 his brother-in-law James Balmain came to Port Phillip to join Ginn's office.

As secretary to the (Royal) Botanic Gardens committee, Ginn prepared designs for the layout of the gardens in the Domain, Melbourne. He was appointed auditor of the Victorian Horticultural Society on its formation in November 1848 and next year succeeded John Pascoe Fawkner as secretary, establishing a reputation as an exhibitor then judge. In November he became a building referee under the Melbourne Building Act (1849) and in 1851 was elected first president of the short-lived Victorian Association of Architects.

With effect from the separation of Victoria on 1 July 1851, Ginn was promoted to colonial architect. His department was soon paralysed by the gold rushes—key staff deserted and calls for tenders went unanswered. Ginn opposed the day labour system and advocated his return to London to seek both labour and prefabricated buildings and materials for urgent public works. However, a bitter dispute arose over the merits of his depleted department preparing plans for both the new Legislative Council chambers and Government House. The decision of the Legislative Council to conduct a public architectural competition riled Ginn. He then lost his influence on the Tender Board and fell into open dispute with the administration over the funding of public works in the goldfields districts. On 11 April 1853 he resigned; responsibility for the Colonial Architect's Office was handed to Balmain.

Ginn then became a director and secretary of the Melbourne, Mount Alexander & Murray River Railway Co. He declined a requisition to stand for election to the Legislative Council. After overseeing the commencement of building of the general central terminus in Spencer Street, Ginn, then managing director, was sent to Britain to raise £1,000,000 in share capital, leaving with Jane and their children on 4 December 1853.

In London Ginn received news that the Victorian government had bought out the railway company. He became secretary of the Commercial Union Assurance Co. at Cornhill. Jane died in 1858. On 23 November 1859, having changed the spelling of his surname, Henry Ghinn married Sophia Hyslop at All Souls, Langham Place, Marylebone. Their only child, a son, was born in 1861; Sophia died early next year.

Ghinn, long held to be a man of plain, manly and straightforward disposition, became general manager of the London and Australian Agency Corporation in the late 1860s and was subsequently posted to Melbourne to investigate the company's affairs, arriving with his children in December 1869. He recommended winding up the company and became the sole liquidator. Later he acquired Ballandry station, in the Riverina, New South Wales. He continued to support charities, including the Indian Famine Relief and the Prince Consort Memorial funds. Predeceased by his eldest and youngest sons, Ghinn died on 23 January 1892 at Risca, Regent Street, Elsternwick, Melbourne. He was buried in St Kilda cemetery. Four daughters and two sons of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of a Profession (Syd, 1971)
  • J. Kerr and J. Broadbent, Gothick Taste in the Colony of New South Wales (Syd, 1980)
  • G. Tibbits and A. Roennfeldt, Port Phillip Colonial 1801-1851 (Melb, 1989)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 Apr, 1853, p 5, 5 Dec 1853, p 4, 25 Jan 1892, p 5
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Jan 1892, p 1
  • D. Kennedy, Henry Ginn 1817-1892: His Work and Life (B.Arch. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1986)
  • A. Roennfeldt, Public Buildings in the Port Phillip District 1836-1851 (research report, Dept Architecture and Building, University of Melbourne, 1987).

Citation details

Allan F. Willingham, 'Ginn, Henry (1818–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ghinn, Henry

Bexhill, Sussex, England


23 January, 1892 (aged ~ 74)
Elsternwick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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