Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

William Wilkinson Wardell (1823–1899)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published:

William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), architect and civil servant, was born at Poplar, London, and baptized on 3 March 1824 at All Saints Church of England, son of Thomas Wardell, baker, and his wife Mary. Educated as an engineer he served articles in London, then spent a short time at sea before practising in London. He worked for the commissioners of sewers for Westminster and part of Middlesex, and for W. F. East, an architect. His interest in Gothic Revival architecture was stimulated by his friends Augustus Pugin and (Cardinal) John Henry Newman, who encouraged him to become a Roman Catholic. While employed on railway surveys in the early 1840s he studied near-by churches. In 1846-57 he designed some thirty Catholic churches, including the Redemptorist Church of Our Immaculate Lady of Victories on Clapham Common, and the vast Church of Saints Mary and Michael, Commercial Road, Whitechapel. At St Mary's Chapel, Moorfields, in the City of London, he married Lucy Ann (d.1888), daughter of William Henry Butler, an Oxfordshire wine merchant.

Ill health led Wardell to migrate and he reached Melbourne in September 1858 in the Swiftsure. On 7 March 1859 he was appointed inspecting clerk of works and chief architect in the Department of Works and Buildings and on 7 January 1861 was promoted inspector-general of public works, with the right of private practice. He was responsible for the construction of all public buildings in Victoria; some, such as Government House, Melbourne (1872), are attributed to him. All drawings and plans were probably prepared to his specifications and submitted to him for approval.

Wardell directed works on the Gippsland lakes, harbour works at Warrnambool, and the completion of the reconstruction of the foreshores of the lower Yarra River. He was a member of the Central Board of Health from 1860, a trustee of the proposed zoological gardens, Royal Park, a member of the Board of Land and Works and of the Board of Examiners for the Civil Service from 1862, and was a commissioner for the 1865 Dublin and 1873 London international exhibitions. He was a member of some eleven boards of inquiry and royal commissions, including the 1863-65 royal commission on the fine arts, chaired by (Sir) Redmond Barry, and the board of inquiry into the state forests in 1867.

The 1873 royal commission on the Public Works Department upheld complaints by Joseph Reed that private architects' designs for public buildings had been accepted and then ignored, and that funds had been wasted by the unnecessary use of expensive materials. The Old Custom House buildings were described as 'monuments of utter waste and extravagance'. Reed also asserted that Wardell took the credit for work of his subordinates, but the commission found Wardell overworked because of his control of both administrative and professional departments. In 1874 a board inquired into charges published in a pamphlet by Thomas Eaton, a disaffected superintendent of works, who claimed to have been victimized as an Orangeman and refused promotion; Wardell countered that Eaton's work was unsatisfactory. The board dismissed Eaton's charges, but censured Wardell for poor administration and for allowing an inefficient officer 'to draw his salary without giving an adequate return to the state'; two years later a Legislative Assembly select committee recommended Eaton's reinstatement, or compensation. In 1875 Wardell examined plans for the Western Australian government, reported on Fremantle harbour and suggested King George Sound as the overseas terminal.

Before entering the civil service, Wardell had contracted to design and supervise the construction of St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, one of his greatest works; he prepared plans in 1858 for St John's College, within the University of Sydney; he also designed St Mary's Cathedral, Hobart Town, but was not responsible for faults in its construction involving Henry Hunter in 1876. Soon after his appointment, professional colleagues alleged that Wardell used his official position to boost his private practice and passed work to other architects willing to share the fee. Other critics, jealous of his monopoly of Catholic work, believed he also tried to cajole the Protestant clergy as he had prepared plans and specifications without fee for St John's Church of England, Toorak. His private practice flourished in the 1860s as he designed Gothic Revival churches in Melbourne and its suburbs and St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney.

Dismissed with other civil servants by the Victorian government on 8 January 1878, Wardell was influenced by Archbishop John Bede Polding to settle in Sydney; he took W. L. Vernon as a partner in 1884 and practised with his son Herbert in the 1890s. Eschewing ecclesiastical works, he indulged 'his newly discovered love for Italianate, Palladian and Venetian architecture' in such buildings as the Union Club, the New South Wales Club, and Cliveden, East Melbourne, completed in 1888 for Sir William Clarke. He acted as consulting architect to banks and other commercial firms, for which he designed offices, notably the English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank's head office in Melbourne, which has been acclaimed as 'the most distinguished building of the whole Australian Gothic-Revival era'. He also prepared plans for St Mary's School, North Sydney, and Gidleigh, Bungendore, New South Wales, for William Forster Rutledge. However the two cathedrals gave him most satisfaction and took up more and more of his time as he sketched altars and church furniture, including pews, which he thought should not be too comfortable; he sought skilled artisans to execute his designs.

In 1883 Wardell was a member of the board which vainly recommended the removal of Tomaso Sani's carvings on the General Post Office, Sydney; and, as consulting engineer, he reported on proposed dock improvements for the Auckland Harbour Board, New Zealand, but was strongly criticized by the board's engineer. In 1890 he was a member of the royal commission on defence works which found the colonial architect James Barnet guilty of negligence in his supervision of works on Bare Island, La Perouse; next year he was an assessor to examine entries submitted for the construction of a bridge across Darling Harbour. A fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1849) and a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London (1857), he was a member of the Australian Club; in 1883 he became a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales and was a founder of the New South Wales branch of the (Royal) Geographical Society of Australasia. He several times arbitrated in disputes over fees between John Horbury Hunt and his clients and was a member, off and on, of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales during Hunt's stormy presidency.

Wardell died of heart failure and pleurisy on 19 November 1899 in his home, Upton Grange, North Sydney, and was buried in the Catholic section of the Gore Hill cemetery. He was survived by three of his six sons and by four daughters; his daughter Mary was the mother of John Joseph Wardell Power (1881-1943) who left a large sum to the University of Sydney for the promotion of the fine arts. Wardell's estate was valued for probate at £12,919.

Critics have varied in their assessment of his ability: William Bede Dalley referred to him as 'the most thoroughly cultivated member of his profession' and Alfred George Stephens acclaimed him as 'by far the most eminent architect who has lived in Australia'. In achievement he ranks with Edmund Blacket, Barnet and Reed, and was unsurpassed as a sensitive and scholarly interpreter of Gothic Revival: his cathedrals and churches, notable for purity of expression and richness of symbolism, rank among the greatest buildings constructed anywhere in that style.

Select Bibliography

  • Testimonials to W. W. Wardell (Lond, 1858)
  • H. R. Hitchcock, Early Victorian Architecture in Britain (Lond, 1954)
  • M. Herman, The Architecture of Victorian Sydney (Syd, 1956)
  • J. M. Freeland, Melbourne Churches, 1836-1851 (Melb, 1963)
  • B. Little, Catholic Churches Since 1623 (Lond, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1894, 3, 693
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1891-92, part 1
  • D. I. McDonald, ‘William W. Wardell, architect and engineer’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 41 (1970), and ‘ “A Gross Want of Knowledge”, W. W. Wardell, inspector general of public works, 1861-78’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 43 (1972)
  • Public Works Dept (New South Wales), Proposed Bridge Across Darling Harbour to Pyrmont, 1892 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • V. A. Wardell, A Review of the Architectural and Engineering Works of W. W. Wardell (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • W. W. Wardell papers (State Library of New South Wales, and Roman Catholic Archives, Sydney, and Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission Archives, East Melbourne, and University of Melbourne Archives)
  • letters (St John's College Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Wardell, William Wilkinson (1823–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 May 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]


London, Middlesex, England


19 November, 1899 (aged ~ 76)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.