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Alfred Spain (1868–1954)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published:

Alfred Spain (1868-1954), architect and army officer, was born on 5 March 1868 at Neutral Bay, Sydney, son of Staunton Spain and his native-born wife Fanny Maria Elizabeth, née Coar. His father, an English-born son of William Spain, was a maritime solicitor. Educated at Robert Horniman's school, Darlinghurst, and the Queen's School, Potts Point, Alfred was articled to the architect Thomas Rowe in 1885, studied at Sydney Technical College and qualified in 1890; he entered into partnership with Rowe & Wright Campbell in 1893 which became Rowe & Spain (1895), then Spain & Cosh (1904); he was elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1917. The firm designed office blocks, flats, hotels, fire stations, houses and manufacturing establishments throughout New South Wales. As Spain, Cosh & Minnett (1910-12), it was responsible for the New Zealand Insurance Co.'s offices in Pitt Street and Culwulla Chambers, to then Australia's tallest building—178 ft (54 m)—fronting King and Castlereagh streets. Controversy resulted and led to the Height of Buildings Act, 1912, limiting subsequent structures to 150 ft (46 m). The partnership included Robin Dods in 1914-20. Its most lucrative clients were Tooth & Co. Ltd and the Board of Fire Commissioners.

On 31 March 1910 at St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, Spain married a widow, Jessie Johnston (d.1947), née Baikie. A foundation member (1913) of the Town Planning Association of New South Wales, he advocated the cleansing of Sydney Harbour, then polluted by septic tanks and oil from steamers. His mansion, Waione, at Neutral Bay commanded superb views of the harbour. Active in the foundation, design and location of Taronga Zoological Park, which moved to Mosman in 1915-16, he was chairman of trustees in 1928-41.

Spain had been commissioned second lieutenant, 1st Field Company, Engineers, New South Wales Military Forces, in July 1890. Promoted major (Commonwealth Military Forces) in 1903, he was awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration in 1910 and retired in 1913 with the honorary rank of lieutenant-colonel. The work of Spain's engineers was a 'recognised feature of every big camp' in the State before the outbreak of war. In August 1915 he returned to command the Sydney field companies and reinforcement camps. Replaced by A. J. Arnot, Spain enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1916 and served with the Sea Transport Service until May 1917. Retiring in 1919, he was president of the United Service Institution in 1927-29 and 1940-45.

A member of the Board of Fisheries (1903-10), Spain had represented Australia at the 1905 International Fishery Congress in Vienna. His outgoing personality and ability as a publicist brought him many directorships. By the late 1920s he was on the boards of Hetton Bellbird Collieries Ltd, Grenfell Gas Co. Ltd and Katoomba & Leura Gas Co. Ltd (sometime chairman); by the 1930s he had joined (William) Howard Smith Ltd, the North Coast Steam Navigation Co. Ltd and the Australian Metropolitan Life Assurance Co. He was also a director (1922-51) of Sydney Ferries Ltd which proved the most intractable of his interests as the opening of the harbour bridge halved its trade: Spain failed to persuade the State government to take over the service.

An able yachtsman and a keen fisherman, Spain belonged to the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. He was chairman of the Anniversary Day Regatta Committee, and in 1945 president of the State branch of the Royal Empire Society. A member of the board of Sydney Hospital, he won a silver medal from the Royal Shipwreck Relief & Humane Society of New South Wales for rescuing a lad from drowning in 1934. Survived by his stepdaughter, Spain died at Mosman on 9 August 1954 and was buried in South Head cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at some £137,000. Florence Taylor recalled him as 'Dapper, precise, optimistic', with a love of animals, birds and poetry. The architectural firm still (1989) bears his name.

His brother, Staunton William, was born on 9 February 1865 at Wallaringa, Neutral Bay, their father's home which Staunton eventually inherited. Educated at Fort Street Model School and Coreen College, he joined the volunteer naval brigade as a cadet in 1880, served with the naval contingent to China in 1900 and became lieutenant-commander, Royal Australian Naval Reserve, in 1908. He continued with the Royal Australian Naval Brigade, retiring in 1920 as commander. A notary public, he long served as marshal, Admiralty jurisdiction, Supreme Court. He was a member of the local League of Ancient Mariners and in 1925-37 an alderman for North Sydney. Survived by his wife Ella Jessie, née Sparke, whom he had married in Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Sydney, on 5 July 1905, he died on 8 September 1946 after being struck by a city tram. Spains Wharf Road and a look-out on the tip of Kurraba Point commemorate the family's connexion with Neutral Bay.

Select Bibliography

  • Notable Citizens of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • Building (Sydney), 12 Oct 1912, 24 May 1946, 24 Aug 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Aug 1916, 7 July 1921, 12 Aug 1929, 22 July 1932, 6 Jan 1933, 23 Jan 1935
  • Bulletin, 18 Aug 1954
  • E. Fayad, The Architectural Practice of Spain and Cosh (BSc (Arch) paper, University of New South Wales, 1986)
  • Spain, Stewart & Lind papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Spain, Alfred (1868–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 June 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]


5 March, 1868
Neutral Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


9 August, 1954 (aged 86)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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