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Francis Greenway: convict architect

Francis Greenway (1777- 1837) produced some of the finest colonial buildings in Australia.

 Francis Greenway (1777- 1837) produced some of the finest colonial buildings in Australia while under Governor Macquarie's patronage and protection. Some of the existing buildings are St. James Church and Supreme Court in Sydney City and St Matthew's Church, Windsor.

"The mock trial; [Scene inside Newgate Prison], 1812, painted by Francis Greenway, Oil painting

Greenway was born in Gloucestershire, England. He had a promising career as an architect in the Bristol area until the firm went bankrupt. In March 1812, Greenway was found guilty of the capital charge of forgery. His sentence was commuted to transportation for 14 years to the colony of New South Wales. Greenway spent some time in Bristol’s Newgate prison before finally being transported on board the General Hewitt, arriving in Sydney in February 1814. 

On arrival in Sydney, Greenway brought with him letters of recommendation and his portfolio which he sent to Governor Macquarie. He was granted a ticket-of-leave (parole) which enabled him to seek work to support his wife and children who arrived in July 1814. In December he advertised his architectural services in the Sydney Gazette

The Court House and St James Church, Hyde Park, Sidney [sic] by T.S. Hatfield [Hatfull]

Soon after his arrival, Macquarie requested that Greenway copy a design for a court house from an architectural pattern book. Greenway replied by lecturing the governor on his poor taste in design and suggested that he himself should be employed as the governor’s public works architect. Although Greenway was eventually compelled to copy the design as originally requested, by early 1816 Macquarie was impressed enough by the cocky architect to appoint him Acting Civil Architect.

Governor and Mrs Macquarie had grand plans for the design and layout of Sydney town and an ambitious program of public and private buildings was begun in 1816. Francis Greenway’s commissions varied widely, from lighthouses to obelisks; churches to stables; barracks and prisons to private dwellings. From his first employment by Macquarie in 1815 until his dismissal in 1822, Greenway designed, altered and oversaw many Sydney buildings and monuments, some of which have become iconic Sydney landmarks. This was a significant period in the development of the city, as Macquarie was a governor with a passion for town planning and a vision to create a notable colonial town. Greenway, as civil architect, was ideally placed to make a major and lasting contribution to the look and design of the up-and-coming city.

In 1819 Commissioner John Thomas Bigge was sent to Sydney to look into the affairs of the colony. Bigge was critical of the amount of time and money wasted on overly ambitious and unnecessary public works. He also commented on Greenway’s contribution to the architecture of the colony.

Francis Greenway’s talent and his knowledge of architecture and design at first complemented Macquarie’s grand vision for a Sydney full of imposing and gracious buildings. His personal style, however, was often arrogant and insolent which irked his superiors. 

Commissioner Bigge’s report questioned Macquarie’s and Greenway’s fondness for architecture ‘finished in a style of ornament and decoration little suited to the limited means of so young a colony as New South Wales’. Bigge freely acknowledged Greenway’s architectural talent, but also noted his ‘habits of negligence and indulgence’. During Bigge’s stay, the fragile relationship between the ambitious, poor and arrogant architect and Governor Macquarie began to disintegrate. 

While Bigge was in the colony, he interfered in many of Greenway's architectural projects, and cut Macquarie out of communications between himself and Greenway. The bickering between Macquarie and Bigge over Macquarie's methods of running the colony led to the breakdown of the previously good relationship between the architect and the governor. In November 1822 Greenway was dismissed from his post.

On his return to England, Bigge presented three reports to the House of Commons:
The State of the Colony of New South Wales (19 June 1822)
The Judicial Establishments of New South Wales and of Van Diemen's Land (21 February 1823); and
The State of Agriculture and Trade in the Colony of New South Wales (13 March 1823).

Greenway’s correspondence includes large bills for wages and expenses he felt were owed to him by the government. These were summarily dismissed by Macquarie and the subsequent Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane. Although he continued in private architectural practice Greenway never recovered his former prominence. He remained bitter about his treatment and wrote several articles and letters for the local press. Many of the buildings he designed remain in Sydney, a testament to a grand vision for colonial Sydney.

Francis Greenway died in 1837 on his farming grant and is buried in an unmarked grave near East Maitland. Despite this ignoble end, Greenway’s legacy lives on in some of Sydney’s finest colonial architecture.

Hyde Park Barracks from Drawings in Sydney, [ca. 1840-1850] Drawings - 27 watercolour drawings (originally comprising one album)


This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of the Macquarie Group Foundation.