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William Porden Kay (1809–1897)

by Harley Preston

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William Porden Kay (1809-1897), architect, surveyor, engineer and public servant, was born in England, the son of Joseph Kay (1775-1847) and grandson of the eminent architect William Porden (1755?-1822). He was trained under his father who had been a pupil of S. P. Cockerell, sometime architect to Greenwich Hospital and vice-president of the Institute of British Architects. William then went to New Brunswick to work for the New Brunswick Land Co. and for the government. As the nephew of Sir John Franklin through his first wife Eleanor Porden, Kay was invited to Van Diemen's Land because the Franklins objected that the two most highly qualified architects in Hobart Town, James Blackburn and James Thomson, were emancipated convicts.

Kay sailed from London as a cabin passenger in the convict transport Isabella and arrived at Hobart on 20 May 1842. Five days later he applied for the position of director of public works, lately vacated by the architecturally inept Alexander Cheyne. Amidst implications of nepotism largely unjustified, Franklin appointed Kay provisionally on 16 June, but in 1843 this was disallowed by the secretary of state, who directed that Major James Victor should have the position. In November Kay was appointed colonial architect, but both Victor and Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot were dissatisfied, and in January 1844 Kay was restored to his position as director of public works. In September the Colonial Office again overruled the appointment and Kay resumed duty as colonial architect and surveyor of buildings under Victor. Early in 1847 the Legislative Council deleted Kay's position from the estimates and the acting administrator, Charles La Trobe, appointed him superintendent of the King's Wharf. However, Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison reappointed Kay director of public works and in January 1848 gave him additional duties as director of waterworks. From 1846 to 1859 Kay served on the Bridgewater Bridge Commission, in 1850 he became a commissioner under the Market Act, and from 1855 he was director ex officio of the New Norfolk Bridge Co. He was given leave to return to England on half-pay from 1 March 1853 until 29 November 1854, owing to the failure of his eyesight, but otherwise remained in office until 31 December 1858. He was pensioned from 1 January 1859, and on 3 February 1860 he sailed for England in the Isles of the South. He died on 29 April 1897 at Tunbridge Wells.

On 3 April 1845 at St John's, New Town, Kay had married Clara Ann Elwall; a daughter, Clara Virginia Porden, was born on 19 December 1849. His wife is said to have returned to Tasmania in the 1870s to her profession as governess.

Kay's lively interest in the fine arts is indicated by his musical soirées and by his position of secretary to the second Hobart Art Exhibition in June 1846. He lived always in New Town, for some time at Barrington Lodge, now belonging to the Salvation Army, the classicist house he built about 1850 to his own designs. Over the period of Kay's employment, a varied range of activity occupied the Department of Public Works. Particularly important were the new systems of roads, and necessarily, bridges, extending further into the interior. In addition, harbour repairs and enlargements, the reconstruction of Hobart and Launceston wharves, new transport systems, coastal lighthouses, water supply extensions, river improvements and swamp reclamation are recorded.

Architecturally, this post-depression period is a sparse one, and the practice of supplying church designs was practically abandoned; the simple round-arched Gala Kirk, Cranbrook (1844-45), may be an exception. Innumerable small official dwellings and offices, and particularly watch-houses were designed and built, sometimes masquerading as tiny Italian villas, ornamental cottages in Tudor or other picturesque styles; a rare surviving example is the diminutive gabled Rokeby watch-house of 1850. Generally, however, the period is noted for considerable extensions, alterations and repairs to earlier buildings, the Italianate additions projected variously between 1849 and 1855 for Government Cottage, Launceston, or the ballroom for old Government House, Hobart (1849-50), being examples. Larger commissions reveal the main styles used by Kay: the symmetrical Tudor St Mary's Hospital (1847-48, now the Department of Lands), a fine example of the Italian villa style; the harbourmaster's house and the former post office (1851, demolished); the round-arched, and monumentally classicist Hobart markets (1851-53, destroyed by fire); and, representing purely utilitarian design, the stone-quoined brick Hobart slaughter houses (1844-59). Of similar style are the addition to the Hobart Criminal Court of 1858-60 (extending John Lee Archer's Penitentiary Chapel, 1831-34) but the contemporary extensions along the Macquarie Street frontage of the Supreme Court buildings, based on Kay's conception and, in part, on his drawings, are more decoratively mid-Victorian. Indeed, Kay's work marks the end of the early phase of Colonial architecture and the full arrival of the more grandiose and ornamental Victorian manner. One of his smallest works, the Gothic Revival Eardley-Wilmot memorial of 1850, reveals his ideals as clearly as his undoubted masterpiece and largest work, Government House, Hobart (1853-58), with its elaborately picturesque massing and romantic Elizabethan-Jacobean style.

Select Bibliography

  • correspondence file under W. P. Kay (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harley Preston, 'Kay, William Porden (1809–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




29 April, 1897 (aged ~ 88)

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