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William Bennett Hays (1814–1887)

by Mary M. Fencak

This article was published:

William Bennett Hays (1814-c.1887), civil engineer and architect, was christened on 15 December 1814 at St Mary's, Lewisham, London, son of Thomas Hays, wharfinger, and his wife Elizabeth. William, whose surname was sometimes recorded as Hayes, was an associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers and worked with Walker & Burgess on projects in England and Ireland. On 20 June 1839 at the parish church of St Mary Newington, Surrey, he married Elizabeth Hays.

Arriving in South Australia on 4 November 1849 in the Navarino, he was appointed surveyor of main roads in January 1850, later became clerk of works and architect, and in January 1852 was promoted to the new position of colonial architect and superintendent of works in the colonial engineer's department. A widower, on 3 October 1850 at Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide, he married Harriet Gilbert, from Essex. A daughter was born in 1853.

In 1851 Hays won a competition for a building for the enlarged Legislative Council in Victoria Square, but the exodus to Victoria's goldfields prevented commencement. The prospect of parliamentary government led in 1853 to abandonment of the earlier scheme. Instead, Hays drew plans for a limestone and redbrick House of Assembly building in North Terrace to adjoin the existing council chamber, and for enlargement of the latter. The outcome, completed in 1855, was his best-known surviving building, now the Constitutional Museum. Hays was criticized because its cost (£17,550) was double his estimate. Nevertheless, the legislature approved his design for a bridge over the Torrens, providing direct access from King William Street to North Adelaide. Widened in 1877, it withstood many floods before being replaced in 1920.

In 1853 Hays had been a founding member of the Adelaide Philosophical Society. That year he was nominated to the Board of Undertakers for the construction of the Adelaide to Port Adelaide railway line. W. Giles, manager of the South Australian Co., made a complaint against him for enticing workmen to the railway project. Hays also worked on plans for a harbour at Port Elliot for the export of wool brought down the River Murray to Goolwa. Abandoning his scheme for a canal, he supervised, instead, the building of a tramway from Goolwa to Port Elliot. On its completion Hays requested a bonus. This was denied and he was criticized for 'lack of intelligence and zeal' in carrying out government works.

His several disagreements with the government partly arose from his creative streak. Among his inventions was a system for making charcoal; he went to Poonindie on Eyre Peninsula to supervise the use of his apparatus. He also applied for a patent for the construction of iron jetties and prepared specifications for an electric telegraph from the city of Adelaide to Port Adelaide.

Late in 1853 Hays applied for a years leave of absence to return to England. While there he supervised the purchase of material for the Glenelg jetty, also offering his services to purchase material for the Adelaide to Gawler railway. Before leaving, he had prepared plans for the extension of the Port Willunga jetty using a special T head for the breakwater, which he had designed. He charged the contractor £76 extra for his design, without the knowledge of the government. An investigation was instituted when the contractor asked for reimbursement from the department. Hays, in Britain, maintained that the patent had been registered in London, and that he was legally entitled to charge for its use. The colonial secretary was scathing in reply, saying that Hays's behaviour was 'most inexcusable and highly unbecoming an officer in his position', and suggesting underhand conduct. It was decided that his behaviour merited dismissal and his services were terminated in January 1856.

Hays's book Engineering in South Australia was published in London that year and reprinted as a facsimile in 1965. He did not return to South Australia and in 1881 was living at Wimbledon, Surrey, with his wife and their three daughters. His date of death is unknown, although he had predeceased his wife by her death in October 1887. Hays's parliamentary buildings, Adelaide Armory and adjacent former police buildings have been preserved, as has the Glen Osmond house, Wooton Lea, now part of Seymour College. His depots for female immigrants, and extensions to the lunatic asylum have been demolished.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. R. Morgan and S. H. Gilbert, Early Adelaide Architecture 1836 to 1886 (Melb, 1969)
  • D. A. Cumming and G. C. Moxham, They Built South Australia (Adel, 1986)
  • M. Page, Sculptors in Space (Adel, 1986)
  • G. H. Manning, The Tragic Shore (Adel, 1988)
  • P. Stretton, The Life and Times of Old Parliament House (Adel, 1988)
  • S. Marsden et al, Heritage of the City of Adelaide (Adel, 1990)
  • Colonial Secretary’s Office, GRG 24/6 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Mary M. Fencak, 'Hays, William Bennett (1814–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 May 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
  • Hayes, William



1887 (aged ~ 73)

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