William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899)

Formative Years

William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899) was the eldest son of a baker in Poplar, East London. His parents subsequently became Master and Matron of the Poplar Union Workhouse, in which he and his siblings grew up — albeit in the staff quarters. Understandably, perhaps, Wardell and his descendants were reluctant to speak of these years, and his early career is known only in outline. Very briefly, after an episode at sea he was indentured to a civil engineer and surveyor, and then entered the office of an architect and surveyor in Clerkenwell, working his way up to becoming a respected architect in his own right. As a young man, he fell under the spell of A. W. N. Pugin, whose views encouraged him in his love of medieval buildings. Along perhaps with those of John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, Pugin's views probably also inspired him to convert to Roman Catholicism. He took this momentous step in 1844, when he was still only twenty years old (see Evans 35, Egan 57). Pugin would serve as a lifelong mentor: a copy of his portrait, painted by their mutual friend John Rogers Herbert, hangs in the Wardell Room of the Goold Catholic Museum in Melbourne, the city which was Wardell's home from 1858-78 (see photograph, Evans 186)

Early Career in England

Wardell's output in his home country was by no means negligible, and he deserves to be much better remembered here. Between 1846 and 1858, when he left for Australia for health reasons, he designed about thirty Roman Catholic churches and associated buildings, mainly in and around London, "within the self-imposed restraints of his rather extensive fourteenth-century architectural vocabulary" (Andrews, The Australian Gothic, 78). Such was his professional reputation that he received various honours. For example, he was elected a Fellow of RIBA in 1850, and, in 1852, a liveryman of the Fishmongers' Company, one of the great City institutions, much involved with the management of property and educational and charitable establishments. On payment of a fee (see Evans 79), in the intervening year (1851) he also became a freeman of the City of London. In 1858 he became an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers. By this stage he was married with a young family, living in Hampstead and moving among the cultural élite, largely through his close friendship with another Catholic convert, the scenery designer, marine artist and book illustrator Clarkson Stanfield. He numbered Dickens, Thackeray and Landseer among his friends and acquaintances.

The Australian Years

But it was in Australia that Wardell really made his mark. Having arrived there in the autumn of 1858 as the first FRIBA to practice there (Egan 60), he was soon engaged on the major commission of designing St Patrick's R. C. Cathedral in Melbourne. It would finally be consecrated in 1897, making it "the largest Church to have been commenced and brought to substantial completion anywhere in the world in the 19th century" (Hazell). He also became Inspector-General of Public Works in Victoria, serving as one of the "key purveyors of the Gothic Revival" there (Collingridge 54), and, as his obituarist at the Institution of Civil Engineers put it, embracing "an extensive and varied range of engineering and architectural practice" (369). Most notably, he designed the imposing Government House (1871-76); but he was responsible for "the Royal Mint, the Treasury, the General Post Office and the Custom House, as well as large banking premises" as well (Egan 60). In short, he well deserved the sobriquet that Michael Egan quotes: "The Man who designed Melbourne" (60).

After a constitutional crisis of 1877/8, when he and many other leading civil servants were removed from office, Wardell moved to Sydney, where he had long been engaged on St Mary's Cathedral. This had been begun in 1868, and was consecrated after his death, in 1905. Here too he designed some important buildings, notably St John's College, University of Sydney, for which he was commissioned soon after his arrival in Australia — though it was completed, to his plans, by another British architect who settled in Australia, Edmund Blackett (1817-1883).

By all accounts, Wardell contributed in many other ways to his adopted country, his activities being "not just restricted to the world of architecture which he served so well but also devoted to other aspects of community life" (Collingridge 58). A widower for over ten years, survived by seven of his eleven children, he died peacefully in Sydney in 1899 at the age of 76. According to the Irish Catholic Freeman's Journal, his had been a "life of noble labours, a life crowded with artistic triumphs in a manner in keeping with the modest gentleness which marked his whole career"; he had been "a truly remarkable figure among architects not of Australia alone but of the world" (qtd. in Evans 251). It is unfortunate that his achievements are so little recognised in the country that bore him, and where his career began.

Note: Wardell's Relationship with Pugin

An intriguing aspect of Wardell's architectural career is his connection with Pugin. Several critics have now discussed it: "Wardell's relationship with the flamboyant and moody Augustus Pugin ... was complex and interesting, and is almost a stand-alone subject" (Martyr). Some describe Wardell as having been Pugin's pupil (e.g. Cherry et al. 519; Cherry and Pevsner 382). But he was never a pupil in any formal sense: Pugin himself wrote in late 1844 that John Hardman Powell was "the only person I have ever consented to take as a pupil" (qtd. in Hill 323). Others see the two as collaborating (e.g., Haskell 24, MacMohan 39). They were certainly involved in some of the same projects; but there were problems. For instance, Father North at Wardell's Our Ladye Star of the Sea in Greenwich complained to John Hardman that Wardell had "cast [him] adrift" for accepting an altar designed by Pugin, and "has now nothing to do with our church" (qtd in Shepherd 249; their own relationship apparently recovered). Similarly, when Wardell was commissioned to build the school next to Pugin's St Wilfrid's in Hulme, Pugin ranted: "I finished all the altars of that church & this is the way one is treated" (qtd in Shepherd 86). Wardell was, like others of his generation, a disciple and follower of Pugin. They moved in the same circles, and had mutual friends. But there is no evidence that they themselves were friends. Indeed, in some instances Wardell became "a direct rival for commissions" (de Jong, "The Prince and the Pauper," 38).

Nevertheless, from both the biographical and the architectural point of view, the similarities between these two passionate, hard-working and committed architects are striking. Like Pugin as well as Clarkson Stanfield, who was close to both, Wardell was a deeply religious man. Building Gothic churches was, for him as for Pugin, very much part of his spiritual journey as a Catholic convert, and he built his two great cathedrals, in particular, as a heartfelt expression of his beliefs, and as a form of worship. Less driven and fanatical than Pugin, however, and more adaptable even in the matter of style, Wardell preserved his sanity, lived into old age, and died a relatively wealthy man. — Jacqueline Banerjee


Related Material

Sources and Select Bibliography

Andrews, Brian. The Australian Gothic: The Gothic Revival in Australian Architecture from the 1840s to the 1950s. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press (Melbourne University publishing), 2001. See especially pp. 76-83. Print.

_____. "The Right Thing in the Antipodes" (on the Puginian Gothic in Australia). True Principles: The Voice of the Pugin Society. Vol. 2, No. 4 (Summer 2002). 35-36. Print.

Cherry, Bridget, and Nikolaus Pevsner. London 2: South. Buildings of England series. London: Penguin, 1983. Print.

_____, Charles O'Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner. London 5: East. Buildings of England series. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

Collingridge, Susan. "William Wardell 1823-1899." Architects of Australia. Ed. Howard Tanner. Melbourne; New York: Macmillan, 1981. 51-58. Print.

Egan, Michael. "Ran Away." True Principles: The Voice of the Pugin Society. Vol.33, No. 5 (Autumn 2008): 56-62 (includes much material from primary sources). Print.

Evans, A. G. William Wardell: Building with Conviction. Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2011 (see review. Print.

Evinson, Denis. "Wardell, William Willkinson (1823-1899)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 19 June 2012.

de Jong, Ursula. "The Prince and the Pauper: St Patrick's Cathedral and Patronage in the Roman Catholic Church in Mid-nineteenth Century Victoria." Vol. 9 (May 1999).: 34-52. (This can be read on "Quick View." Web.19 June 2012)

____. William Wilkinson Wardell, 1823-1899, His Life and Work. Melbourne: Monash University Press, 1983 (available at the RIBA Library). Print.

Haskell, John. Sydney Architecture. Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1977. Print.

Hazell, T. A. "A Quest for Perfection: William Wilkinson Wardell and St Patrick's Cathedral." Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne: St Patrick's Cathedral. Web. 19 June 2012.

Hill, Rosemary. God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Kelleher, Terri. "William Wardell: Australia's Greatest Church Architect" (Review of Evans). Reprinted from AD2000, Vol. 24, No. 2 (March 2011): 17. Web. 19 June 2012.

McDonald, D. I. "Wardell, William Willkinson (1823-1899)." Australian Dictionary of Biography. Web. 19 June 2012.

MacMohan, Bill, ed. The Architecture of East Australia. Stuttgart/London: Edition Axel Menges, 2001. Print.

Martyr, Philippa. "Builder of Beauty" (Review). Quadrant. Vol. 54, 11 (Nov. 2010). Online version. Web. 19 June 2012.

"Obituary. William Wilkinson Wardell,1823-1899." Minutes of the Proceedings, Vol. 139, issue 1900 (1 Jan. 1900). ICE (Institution of Civil Engineers). Web. 19 June 2012.

"St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, Australia." St Mary's Cathedral. Web. 19 June 2012.

Shepherd, Stanley A. The Stained Glass of A. W. N. Pugin. Reading: Spire Books, 2009 (see especially the Gazetteer, pp. 248-49). Print.

Last modified 19 June 2012