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Thomas Rowe (1829–1899)

by J. M. Freeland

This article was published:

Thomas Rowe (1829-1899), by unknown photographer

Thomas Rowe (1829-1899), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Thomas Rowe (1829-1899), architect, was born on 20 July 1829 at Penzance, Cornwall, England, eldest son of Richard Rowe and his wife Ursula, née Mumford. Educated at Barnes Academy, Penzance, at 15 he entered his father's building business as a draftsman. The family sailed for Sydney late in 1848 and Thomas worked for local builders till 1851. After the discovery of gold he prospected at Sofala with much success till his partner decamped with their gold. About 1853 with his brother Richard (1831-1909), he set up a building business in Pitt Street mainly for speculative domestic work. Between 1857 and 1895 he practised as an architect in Sydney with W. B. Field, Sydney Green and Alfred Spain as successive partners.

Rowe's practice, mainly in Bathurst, Orange, Newcastle, Goulburn and Sydney, was one of the biggest in New South Wales. It was said in 1890 that one could walk Pitt Street and always be opposite one of his buildings. Often successful in competitions he built commercial premises, large houses and churches, mainly Methodist. Among his best known buildings are the Presbyterian Church, Bathurst (1871), the Jewish Synagogue in Elizabeth Street, Sydney (1874), Sydney Hospital in Macquarie Street (1879, completed by John Kirkpatrick after 1891), Newington College, Stanmore (1878), Sydney Arcade and Vickery's Building, Pitt Street, Sydney (1874) and warehouses for Hoffnung & Co. in Charlotte Street, Brisbane (1879) and Pitt Street, Sydney (1881).

The sheer quantity of Rowe's work had a significant effect on New South Wales cities and towns in the late nineteenth century. He progressed from a certain simplicity to an elaborate showiness in his larger and later works, and became excessively ornate after he visited Europe in 1884 and was strongly impressed by Venice. But his work was always marked by a heavy hand, a ponderous, unimaginative mind and a leaden, even dull, expression.

Rowe was superintendent of the Dowling Street Wesleyan Sunday school in 1860-90 and was active in the Paddington and Waverley Methodist churches. A justice of the peace from 1874, he was latterly a warden at St Mark's Church of England, Darling Point. He was a founder in 1871 of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales, and its president in 1876-89 and 1895-97. He was an alderman for Bourke Ward on the Sydney City Council in 1872-76. First mayor of Manly in 1877, he set up and became captain of the Manly Fire Brigade, the first municipal brigade in Australia, and initiated the planting of the Norfolk Island pines that became the distinctive feature of the Manly beach fronts. A founder of the United Services Institution of New South Wales, he served on other civic bodies and was a trustee of the Rushcutter Bay Park. A first lieutenant in the Engineer Corps in 1872, he became lieutenant-colonel in 1886, and was a member of the commission on defence from foreign aggression. In 1888 he became president of the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage.

At the peak of his career in 1890 Rowe was reputedly worth £70,000 with an income of £14,000. He lost nearly all in the 1893 depression with the collapse of a syndicate, formed to build a natatorium in Pitt Street. Virtually penniless, he died of cancer on 14 January 1899 at his lavishly furnished home Mona, Darling Point. Buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery, he was survived by two daughters of his first wife Charlotte Jane (d. March 1877), daughter of Captain Piper, whom he had married on 21 May 1857, and by his second wife Sarah Selina Cornish, whom he had married in July 1877, and by their seven sons and three daughters. To pay his debts and bring up her children his widow had to take in boarders and run art unions with Rowe's valuable pictures as prizes, including a Constable landscape. Rowe Street in Sydney is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Freeland, Architect Extraordinary (Melb, 1970) and The Making of a Profession (Syd, 1971)
  • M. Berry, A History of Col. Thomas Rowe … (B. Arch. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1969).

Citation details

J. M. Freeland, 'Rowe, Thomas (1829–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 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

Thomas Rowe (1829-1899), by unknown photographer

Thomas Rowe (1829-1899), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Life Summary [details]


20 July, 1829
Penzance, Cornwall, England


14 January, 1899 (aged 69)
Darling Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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