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Architecture: nineteenth-century Sydney

Changing styles and tastes in architecture reflect the changes in society.

Convict architect Francis Greenway was convinced of the importance of architecture to the development of early Sydney. He wrote to Governor Macquarie on 27 July 1814, arguing that architecture was a 'most useful art to Society which adds to the Comforts of the Colony as well as to the dignity of the Mother Country'.

Changing styles and tastes in architecture reflect the changes in society. As Sydney was being more prosperous in the 1830s, the taste for classical villas came into vogue and Sydney's wealthy citizens hired architects such as John Verge to design large elaborate homes.

A decade later, Edmund Blacket arrived in the colony, and revolutionised Sydney's public buildings, leaving a legacy of impressive sandstone architecture including St Andrew's Cathedral and the Great Hall at Sydney University.

The architectural collections of the State Library of New South Wales contain more than 110 000 plans, dating from the early nineteenth century to the present day, providing us with a unique insight into the history of our built environment.

Sydney's fashionable villas of the 1830s - colonial regency

The increasing wealth of the colony in the 1830s was reflected in the construction of Regency style villas, built for well-to-do pastoralists, civil servants and merchants.

John Verge was Sydney's most prominent and fashionable architect of the 1830s. He gained a clientele of influential citizens including John Macarthur, William Charles Wentworth and Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay. Some of his finest designs survive for the enjoyment of Sydneysiders and visitors today - such as Elizabeth Bay House, Tusculum and Rockwall at Potts Point, and Camden Park on the Macarthur Estate.

Villas of Darlinghurst


The area extending from Potts Point to Kings Cross and up to Oxford Street in Sydney is today a diverse, colourful and densely populated hub. It's amazing to think that this area was once an exclusive enclave reserved for a small number of wealthy and influential citizens.

In 1828, Governor Ralph Darling ordered the subdivision of Woolloomooloo Hill (Darlinghurst) into suitable 'town allotments' for large residences and extensive gardens. The allotments were then granted to selected citizens, ensuring that the colony's growing professional middle class should live in an area not too distant from the town.

"The ... Allotments ... consisting of from 8 to 10 Acres each, were granted by me principally to Gentlemen in the Service of Government, for the purpose of enabling them to provide themselves with a residence and have the benefit of a Garden" 

- Governor Ralph Darling, 26 March 1828

Today only five of the original villas still stand, although the legacy of other early houses remains in streets around Potts Point, Darlinghurst and Kings Cross.

Creating Sydney's Public Buildings

Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817 - 1883), who arrived in Sydney in 1842, was regarded as the pre-eminent architect of mid 19th century New South Wales.

Blacket was best known for his impressive public buildings and his Gothic-inspired churches and residences. Some of his surviving architectural masterpieces include the impressive Great Hall at the University of Sydney, St Stephen's Church at Newtown, St Thomas' at North Sydney, All Saints' at Woollahra, and the famous St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney. Indeed, the Anglican Church was one of his most significant clients.

The State Library's collections of Blacket's important work includes over 3,000 architectural plans, drawings, specifications, correspondence, papers, sketchbooks and his own personal drawing box.

Sketchbook of Edmund Blacket's journey out to Australia

This is just a taste of what lies in Blacket's personal sketchbook, one of the treasures held by the State Library. In it you'll find original sketches of buildings drawn by Blacket on his journey out to Australia in 1842. Once in Sydney, he immediately begins recording what he sees around him - from public buildings and churches through to modern residences. 


'I went early this morning to take a sketch of a door of a church, for they excel in doors before all other parts of the building. Also, I finished one that I had begun of the Convent of Theresa.'
- Edmund Blacket, 12 August 1842


This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation. We would like to acknowledge the generosity of our donors.