Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charles Edward Owen Smyth (1851–1925)

by Peter Dungey

This article was published:

Charles Edward Owen Smyth (1851-1925), public servant, was born on 1 January 1851 at Ferrybank, County Kilkenny, Ireland, son of Stephen Smyth, naval architect, and his wife Emma Gaynor, née Owen. Educated at the Erasmus Smith High School, Dublin, he travelled the world as a sailor and house-painter before arriving in Victoria in 1873 where he spent two years as foreman and manager for a builder. He settled in Adelaide in 1876 and on 19 June 1879, in St Peter's Anglican Cathedral, married Bessie Sanderson Davidson. Smyth (who pronounced his name Smith) had joined the civil service in May 1876. As clerk to Edward J. Woods, architect, he copied specifications and attended to correspondence; when Woods became architect-in-chief two years later, Smyth stayed with him as a virtual chief of staff.

In 1886 Smyth was appointed to head the new Works and Buildings Department. He managed to circumvent a policy which required that contracts for all new public buildings costing over £5000 should be awarded to private architects. Despite architects' criticism of his methods, and the 1891 civil service commission report which recommended amalgamation of his department with the engineer-in-chief's, Smyth controlled the design, construction, maintenance, letting and rent of public buildings until he retired in 1920. He supervised such major projects as the Exhibition Building, a wing of the General Post Office, the Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia buildings, Magill Home, Bedford Park Sanatorium, Thebarton Police Barracks, the South Australian School of Mines and Industries, and additions to the Adelaide Hospital (Flinders wing) and Parkside Lunatic Asylum. Although not professionally qualified, Smyth influenced the design of many of the structures which his department built, notably the School of Mines and the hospital additions. He was justifiably proud of his programme which transformed North Terrace and created the Torrens Parade Ground and gardens from a former rubbish tip.

He worked hard in the public interest, even against political pressure; in demanding excellence, he sought value for money. Thickset, with round, passive features, Smyth appeared self-absorbed. While he was admired by some for his rugged outspokenness, the 1888 civil service commission found him vindictive, 'hasty in his temper, impulsive and overbearing'. His conduct was later criticized in parliament and publicity was given to an incident at the Adelaide Hospital in 1900 when he was accused of bullying and insulting the medical superintendent. Following Federation, in 1906 Smyth was South Australian delegate to a Melbourne conference which arranged the transfer of land, buildings and property to the Commonwealth. He was appointed to the Imperial Service Order in 1903 and C.M.G. in 1920. The Royal Agricultural Society of South Australia also awarded him a medal.

An ardent Imperialist and patriot, Smyth was a founder (secretary from 1908) of the Adelaide branch of the Royal Society of St George, and active in the South Australian branches of the League of the Empire and the Navy League; he hung portraits of British monarchs wherever they would be 'educative in loyalty' and insisted on using Australian and British-made materials in public buildings. In World War I he spoke publicly on 'The enemy within our doors'. A Freemason, an Anglican and a collector of walking-sticks, paintings and Aboriginal weapons, Smyth enjoyed field-shooting expeditions throughout the State. He published his reminiscences in the Register in 1923-25. Survived by his wife, daughter and younger son (the elder lad was killed at Gallipoli), Smyth died on 1 October 1925 and was buried in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Observer (Adelaide), 21 July 1900, 3 Mar 1923, 26 Mar 1921, 10 Oct 1925
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 2 Oct 1925
  • Register (Adelaide), 2 Oct 1925
  • papers of the Superintendent of Public Buildings relating to an inquiry by the Civil Service Commission into complaints against him, 1880-1890 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Peter Dungey, 'Smyth, Charles Edward Owen (1851–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 January, 1851
Ferrybank, Kilkenny, Ireland


1 October, 1925 (aged 74)
South Australia, Australia

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