James Blackburn,
an outstanding architect


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James Blackburn was born in England in 1803, the son of John and Anne Blackburn.

He married Rachel Hems in 1826.

In 1833, he was sentenced to transportation for forging a cheque.

He arrived in Hobart on 14th November. His wife and daughter arrived about 2 years later.

It did not take long for him to find employment.  He started working for the Department of Roads and Bridges.  He became an important figure in the Department, taking charge of much of the road-making and engineering work on Tasmania (then Van Diemen's Land).

From 1836, Blackburn began petitioning for his pardon. Many of Hobart's leading citizens vouched for his good character. He was finally granted free pardon in 1841.

He became partners with James Thomson (another ex-convict) and successfully contracted for buildings such as:

  • the Tudor lodges at St John's, New Town (1841-42)
  • Bridgewater Bridge (1846-49)

In 1849 he and his family moved to Melbourne. He began work again, as an engineer and architect. Soon he was appointed city surveyor.

In 1850-1, he produced what is believed to be his best non-architectural work - the basic design of the Melbourne water supply. The design showed how to get water from the Yan Yean reservoir by way of the Plenty River.

In January 1852, after falling from a horse, Blackburn fell ill with typhoid. This eventually led to his death in March 1854. He left behind 5 children.

Many view Blackburn's architectural masterpiece to be Hobart's Holy Trinity Church (1840-47), which was designed in the Gothic style.

A few of Blackburn's designs mark the earliest colonial appearances of the Romanesque style in the history of Australian architecture. These buildings are:

  • St Mark's, Pontville
  • St Matthew's, Glenorchy
  • Sorell Presbyterian Church

Not that I'm happy that Blackburn (or anyone) should be sentenced to transportation. But because Blackburn came to Van Diemen's Land, he was able to make so many valuable contributions to Tasmanian and Australian architecture. What a tremendous legacy.

More information on James Blackburn can be found at
The Australian Dictionary of Biography Online website, which is operated by the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.


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