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Mortimer William Lewis (1796–1879)

by Morton Herman

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Mortimer William Lewis (1796-1879), surveyor and architect, was born in London, the son of Thomas Arundel Lewis and his wife Caroline, née Derby. At 19 he was appointed surveyor and draftsman in the London office of the inspector-general of fortifications, and later as a private practitioner he spent eight years in surveying and building. He then received an appointment as assistant surveyor in the office of the surveyor-general of New South Wales.

Lewis left London in the Dunvegan Castle in September 1829 and arrived in Sydney next March with his wife Elizabeth, née Clements, whom he had married in 1819, three sons and one daughter. Another son was born in Sydney. Under the surveyor-general, (Sir) Thomas Mitchell, Lewis mapped the Dividing Range west of Sydney. Mitchell later appointed him town surveyor and in 1835 colonial architect in succession to Ambrose Hallen. Lewis held this post for fifteen years. His first design for the government was a lunatic asylum, which a century later was still part of the Gladesville hospital. More major works followed in 1837: the court-houses of Darlinghurst, Hartley, Berrima and Parramatta. The Darlinghurst court-house is an important example of the Greek revival style which Lewis favoured and used in many buildings. He was a prolific architect. After Government House, Sydney, was designed in London, he supervised its erection in 1838, and designed five gaols, three watchhouses, two police stations, three court-houses, a school, a customs house at Port Phillip and twelve churches, most of them in the Hunter River valley. As well as his buildings, many of Lewis's design drawings remain. They reveal him as a most competent and tasteful draftsman, meticulous in both the structural and pictorial aspects of his work.

The colonial architect's office was in a building, since vanished, attached to the eastern side of the Hyde Park barracks which now serve as the district courts, Queen's Square, Sydney. Lewis lived on the premises. Later he bought an estate at Bronte, where he began building a house which he sold half-finished to Robert Lowe. Soon afterwards Lewis lived at Adelaide Place, Darling Point.

He altered and added to the north wing of the hospital in Macquarie Street, Sydney, when it was converted into the Legislative Council chambers, but his work has since been vastly altered. His customs house at Circular Quay, Sydney, finished in 1844, is now so surrounded and embedded in the modern building that only vestiges can be discerned. Although Lewis was the leading designer in the Greek revival style in Australia, he was quite adept at Gothic revival, in which his most important building was the church of St John the Evangelist, Camden, consecrated on 7 June 1849. Its success is partly accidental, for its loveliest feature is the colourful brickwork of the walls which Lewis intended to plaster but was prevented by lack of funds. The spire is unusual in that it is brickwork, but its plastering over was essential. In the late 1840s he designed Sydney's first museum. Although estimated to cost £3000, some £5800 was spent before the roof was put on. Lewis came under attack from press and government and some legislative councillors wanted to abandon the whole project. Although enough money was granted to complete the museum, an official inquiry fixed the blame on Lewis and he resigned as colonial architect, an unfortunate end to a fruitful career. He was by no means ruined, for in 1850 he built himself a large house facing the Domain and called it Richmond Villa. It still exists as a part of the Parliament House installations, but the decadence of its Gothic revival design contrasts with the excellence of his previous work. He was fortunate that his activities coincided with the best period of Australia's colonial architecture, for by 1850 architectural taste was beginning to decay. It was also fortunate for his reputation that so many of his designs were of public buildings, which made their preservation more likely.

After twenty-nine years in retirement, Lewis contracted a kidney complaint and after an illness of two weeks died on 9 March 1879. He was buried in South Head cemetery, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 15, 17, 19
  • J. Fowles, Sydney in 1848 (Syd, 1848)
  • C. H. Bertie, Old Colonial Byways (Syd, 1928)
  • M. Herman, The Early Australian Architects and Their Work (Syd, 1954)
  • 'The Architect', Heads of the People, vol 2, no 14, 15 Jan 1848, pp 99-100
  • manuscript catalogue under M. Lewis (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Lewis family papers (privately held).

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Citation details

Morton Herman, 'Lewis, Mortimer William (1796–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 July 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]


London, Middlesex, England


9 March, 1879 (aged ~ 83)
New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

bladder disease

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