Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rowland Rees (1840–1904)

by Alan Feeney

This article was published:

Rowland Rees (1840-1904), architect and politician, was born on 25 September 1840 at Gibraltar, eldest son of Rowland Rees, officer, Royal Engineers, and later mayor of Dover, England. Educated in Hong Kong and at Wesley College, Sheffield, he trained in civil engineering and architecture with H. E. Kendall, a founder of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Rees arrived in Adelaide in December 1869 and was in partnership with Thomas English for three years. On 23 November 1870 he married Ada Caroline, eldest daughter of William Sandford, an Adelaide solicitor. The Moonta Methodist Church (1873) and Essenside, Glenelg (1873), established his architectural reputation, while Kither's Buildings in Rundle Street (1879), a three storey shop and office complex in King William Street (1884) and the St Peters Town Hall (1885), now altered, showed his skill in designing ebullient Italianate façades, apparent also in several of his large houses and in his interior decoration. He designed the Lobethal Woollen Mills (1883) and Fulton's Foundry, Kilkenny (1885-86) and was the engineer for the railway from Adelaide to Glenelg (1879-80). His best surviving work is in hotel design: the unadorned British (1883) contrasting with the elaborate Huntsman (1882), Oxford, Cumberland Arms, and Newmarket (1884). His work was identified by careful attention to detail, the bold structure of his chimneys, pronounced hood-moulds, decorative pilasters and capitals, use of parapets with baroque pediments and expert siting of buildings.

From 1878 Rees was on the South Australian Institute Board. In 1880 he helped to select paintings at the Melbourne Exhibition as the nucleus of South Australia's state collection. He served on the Fine Arts Committee of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery Board in 1884-96 and was commissioned to select the first addition to the collection in 1888.

As member for Burra in 1873-81 and Onkaparinga in 1882-90 in the House of Assembly Rees advanced liberal ideas and supported payment for members in 1874-75. For six days in 1878 he was minister of education in William Morgan's ministry. He was always eloquent on education, notably in his advocacy of free education, abolition of payment by results, and curriculum reform. In 1879-88 he wanted gambling regulated rather than banned, and in debating the divorce law extension bill in 1883 he argued strongly that women should have equal rights to sue for divorce. In 1889 his long-promoted outer harbour bill was passed, though never put into practice. The public gallery was full in 1889 when he advocated in vain an architects' registration bill. His oratory was both praised and ridiculed and he was once satirized as 'The Ornate': 'There are only two orators in Australasia', he reputedly said, 'myself and my cousin in New Zealand'.

Reported in 1886 to be £6100 in debt, Rees was generously treated by his creditors. His practice declined and he sought work in Western Australia in 1896-99, but returned to Adelaide in 1903. Survived by his wife, he died in Parkside Mental Hospital on 13 October 1904, and was buried in St Jude's Anglican cemetery, Brighton.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Loyau, Notable South Australians (Adel, 1885)
  • W. H. Bagot, Some Nineteenth Century Adelaide Architects (Adel, 1958)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 15 June 1886
  • Australasian, 19 June 1886
  • Government record group 19 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Alan Feeney, 'Rees, Rowland (1840–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 September, 1840
Gibraltar, England


13 October, 1904 (aged 64)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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