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John Young (1827–1907)

by Robert Johnson and Alan Roberts

This article was published:

John Young (1827-1907), building contractor, was born at Foot's Cray, Kent, England, son of John Young, builder. While articled to Garland and Christopher, architects and surveyors, he attended lectures at King's College, London. After engineering and architectural experience in London and Yorkshire, in 1851 he was superintendent and draftsman for the Crystal Palace under Sir Joseph Paxton. In London in 1853 he married Eleanor Southernwood.

In May 1855 Young migrated to Victoria and soon prospered; he constructed many metropolitan churches, the interior of the Bourke Street Synagogue, and the Ballarat gaol and powder magazine. His most important building was St Patrick's Cathedral, designed by W. W. Wardell. Over eleven years his contracts in Victoria totalled some £680,000. From the late 1850s he had simultaneous commitments in Victoria, Tasmania, New Zealand and Sydney, but was over-extended and was badly served by two of his clerks of works. The construction of St Mary's Cathedral, supervised by H. Hunter, in Hobart Town was unsound and required demolition after only twelve years. More immediately damaging was his faulty work on the Hospital for the Insane, Kew, Victoria, in 1865; he offered to replace the bad work but his contract was cancelled and he successfully sued the government.

In 1866 Young moved to Sydney, where he had already built St John's College within the University of Sydney. He undertook many of the largest jobs in Sydney until about 1890, some concurrently. His contracts included substantial sections of St Mary's Cathedral, the Department of Lands building and the General Post Office; the old Redfern railway terminus, the Exhibition Building in Prince Alfred Park, and the Garden Palace for the Sydney International Exhibition 1879; and commercial buildings such as Farmer & Co.'s store, Dalton's Building and the head office of the Australian Joint Stock Bank; engineering works, such as Fig Tree Bridge; and, in a lighter vein, 'The Abbey' and the 'Witches' Houses', Johnston Street, Annandale. Known for 'extraordinary energy' and sound work completed ahead of schedule, he deployed his men and resources 'like a general'. He adopted the latest overseas technological innovations such as the overhead travelling crane, the use of arc-lights for night shifts, and reinforced concrete; he invented an improved form of scaffolding.

An early advocate of the eight-hour day, Young respected his men; nevertheless there was constant agitation for higher pay and strikes played havoc with deadlines. In 1873 he was founding president of the Builders' and Contractors' Association of New South Wales. He invested in quarries in Melbourne and Sydney and exported Lane Cove sandstone to Melbourne and Adelaide. He mined marble at Marulan and granite at Moruya, cutting and polishing it at Woolloomooloo; but, lacking protection against imports, the enterprise failed and he lost £10,000.

In 1873-94 Young stood unsuccessfully for parliament several times, changing from a moderate free trader to a strong protectionist. He represented Bourke Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council in 1876-87. He was interested in public health and persuaded the council to wood-block some streets. Mayor in 1886, he held lavish entertainments, but the brilliance of his term was tarnished towards its close with bitter attacks by the opposing factions. He bought Annandale as a real estate speculation in 1877 and was prominent in its development. An alderman on the Leichhardt Borough Council from 1879, he was mayor that year and in 1884-85. Returning in 1891 from travels in Europe and Asia, Young led a secession movement resulting in the incorporation of the Annandale Borough Council in 1894; he was foundation mayor until 1896. A member of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1879, he was a commissioner for the exhibitions in Sydney (1879), Melbourne (1880), and Amsterdam (1883), the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London (1886), and the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago (1893). He was also a member of the Board of Technical Education in 1883-89 and sat on the royal commission into charges against Edward Eddy, chief commissioner of railways. He published Ye Ancient Games of Bowls (1899) and The Proposed Federal City for the Commonwealth of Australia … (n.d.).

Young lived at Kentville, Annandale, where he cultivated a fine garden, laid down a bowling green and provided facilities for archery, billiards and skittles. He imbued bowls with the spirit of gentlemanly conduct, and initiated regular intercolonial matches with Victoria; the first was played at Kentville in 1880. He was foundation president of the New South Wales Bowling Association in 1880-1907 and led an Australian team to Britain in 1901. In the 1880s he was also president of the Annandale Skittle Club. In 1887 he bought Burrawong, near Cumnock, where he settled three of his children; with his family he developed the property and installed a fruit cannery.

Large framed and with a goatee beard, Young was hospitable and courteous even under stress, but he could be blunt when the occasion warranted. His ability, practical experience, energy and lucidity made him a commanding figure. After the death of his first wife, he married a divorcee Elizabeth Susan Ovenden, née Russell, on 23 December 1886 with Congregational rites. Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters of his first marriage, he died, aged 80, of cancer at Kentville on 27 February 1907 and was buried in Waverley cemetery with Anglican and Masonic rites. A marble bust of Young is owned by the Royal New South Wales Bowling Association, and portraits by W. Reynolds Stephens and John Lamb Lyon by the Sydney City Council and the City Bowling Club, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Lincoln (ed), New South Wales Bowlers' Annual (Syd, 1906)
  • A. Roberts, Burrawong & John Young (Syd, 1972)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales, 1891-92, 5, 57
  • H. C. Kent, ‘Reminiscences of building methods in the seventies under John Young’, Architecture (Australia), 13 (1924)
  • A. Roberts, ‘Relics of John Young’, Leichhardt Historical Journal, July 1973
  • Illustrated Sydney News, June 1877 and supplement
  • Town and Country Journal, 6 Sept 1879
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1880, 6 Feb, 28 Oct 1882
  • Evening News (Sydney), 2 July 1880, 28 Jan 1902
  • Bulletin, 20 Nov 1880, G. A. Gerathy, The Role Played by the Sydney City Council in the Development of the Metropolitan Area, 1842-1912 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1970)
  • A. Roberts, The Development of the Suburb of Annandale, 1876-1899 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1970)
  • printed catalogue (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Robert Johnson and Alan Roberts, 'Young, John (1827–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 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]


Foot's Cray, Kent, England


27 February, 1907 (aged ~ 80)
Annandale, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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