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Sir James Campbell Irwin (1906–1990)

by Bridget Jolly

This article was published:

Sir James Campbell Irwin (1906-1990), architect and lord mayor, was born on 23 June 1906 in North Adelaide, eldest of four sons of Australian-born parents Francis James Irwin, sharebroker, and his wife Annabella Margaret Campbell, née Mann. James was educated first at private North Adelaide schools and then at the Collegiate School of St Peter (1918-23). Articled to the architect George Soward in 1924, he entered the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. He joined the firm of Woods, Bagot Jory & Laybourne Smith as a draughtsman in 1927 and next year was admitted as an associate of the South Australian Institute of Architects. In 1930 he was made a partner and the firm became Woods, Bagot, Laybourne Smith & Irwin. After co-winning the competition to design a new wing of Adelaide Children’s Hospital, he married Kathleen Agnes Orr on 23 November 1933 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney.

With an open face and erect stance, Irwin was regarded as `a gentle gentleman’; later, to building contractors his insistence on stan­dards made him a `tough nut’. His first independent designs included Callendale, near Lucindale (1933), the Elder, Smith & Co. Ltd sheep-sales building (1933) and the merchandise pavilion (1937) at Wayville Show-grounds, Adelaide, and city and suburban houses.

Having been commissioned as a lieutenant in the Militia in 1933, Irwin was promoted to captain in 1939. On 6 May 1940 he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force as a major and was posted to the 2/7th Field Regiment. He arrived in the Middle East in December and was appointed brigade major, Royal Australian Artillery, 9th Division, in June 1941. Five months later he became general staff officer, 2nd grade (operations), at 9th Division headquarters. He returned to Australia in February 1943. Made GSO1 of the 11th Division and promoted to lieutenant colonel in July, he flew to Papua, where the division trained before operating in the Ramu Valley, New Guinea. He was appointed OBE in 1945. From May 1944 he instructed at the Staff School (Australia). In March 1945 he was appointed GSO1 (combined operations), Advanced Land Headquarters, Morotai, Netherlands East Indies. He served in Manila in May-September. His AIF appointment terminated in Adelaide on 7 January 1946.

Irwin succeeded Walter Bagot as the architect for St Peter’s Cathedral (1945-74) and filled the same role for St Peter’s College. In 1957 his firm became co-ordinating architects to the University of Adelaide, with Irwin in charge. The second architect for the Cottage Homes Inc., he served on its committee from 1935 to 1975. He was his firm’s main architect and supervisor for the Anglican St Laurence’s Home for the Aged (1951-63). A member of the board of management of the Home for Incurables from 1935, he was chairman of its building and grounds committee and the home’s president in 1967-81. He designed the Advertiser Newspapers Ltd building (1959) and was the architect for General Motors- Holden’s Pty Ltd at Woodville and at Elizabeth.

From 1965 until his retirement in 1974, Irwin was senior partner of his firm. The `biggest influence’ on his architectural thinking was his cousin Leighton Irwin, but Bagot, Le Corbusier, Charles A. Platt, Walter Gropius, Sir Edwin Lutyens and John Nash contributed to his neo-Georgianism and his practical and stylistic reticence. He also practised Dutch modernism, touched neo-Bauhaus principles obliquely, and embraced steel-frame functionalism, although he believed that in Adelaide to enclose buildings with glass was `the ultimate in stupidity’.

President (1956-58) of the South Australian Institute of Architects, Irwin was a fellow (1940), federal president (1962-63) and life fellow (1970) of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. He became a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1956), the (Royal) Australian Planning Institute (1957), the Royal Society of Arts, London (1960), and the Institute of Directors in Australia (1965). In 1964-70 he served on the National Capital Planning Committee. After his retirement he was made an honorary member of the Master Builders’ Association of South Australia.

Irwin was an Adelaide city councillor (1935-40, 1949-53), alderman (1953-63, 1966-72) and lord mayor (1963-66). He formed (1963) the Lord Mayor’s Cultural Committee, from which the Festival Theatre evolved, and served the Adelaide Festival of Arts as president (1964-66), chairman of the board of governors (1969-73) and board member (1967-68, 1974-78). He was president of the South Australian branch of Toc H (1952-55, 1985-88), the council of the South Australian School of Art (1966-72), the Adelaide International Film Festival (1968-71) and the Pioneers’ Association of South Australia (1968-73), and founding chairman (1981-86) of the Co-op Foundation. His precision and integrity brought commendation in both his architectural and civic activities. He was knighted in 1971.

Sir James died on 22 June 1990 in Adelaide and was cremated with Anglican rites. Pre-deceased by his wife (1989) and daughter (1990), he was survived by his son, Jamie (1937-2005), who became president (1997-2002) of the Legislative Council. Sir Ivor Hele’s portrait of Irwin is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Page, Sculptors in Space (1986)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 Nov 1984, p 2, 23 June 1990, p 19
  • series B883, item SX3200 (National Archives of Australia)
  • series S177, S202 and S255 (Architecture Museum, University of South Australia)
  • taped reminiscences by J. C. Irwin (typescript, 1978, Adelaide City Council Archives)
  • J. Gasper, interview with J. C. Irwin (typescript, 1980, State Library of South Australia)
  • Irwin papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • Royal Institute of Architects (South Australia) records (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bridget Jolly, 'Irwin, Sir James Campbell (1906–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 June, 1906
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


22 June, 1990 (aged 83)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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.