William Hartley Wilson (1782-1856) Colonial architect

Architectural Works

Being one of the earliers architects in the colony (and not an architect by trade), not a lot of what William Wilson created has survived. Wilson is credited with the original Treasury Building in Macquarie Street, Hobart, elements of which are the original Supreme Court building, incorporated in a major reconstruction about 1880.

Original Scots Church building

William is credited with designing the original Scots Church building (1834); it is now a Church Hall/Meeting Room behind its more substantial successor on Bathurst Street.

William is associated with at least one of several brewery buildings in early Hobart, something his wife may have struggled with, since she was an ardent teetotler. There is some uncertainty about which ones, but one built in 1824 for William Petchley in Davey Street which has served as the Royal Tennis Court since 1875 is a prime contender, and another known as the Sorell Brewery, built in 1822 on the Hobart Rivulet near the corner of Barrack and Collins Streets is the other.

Coal River Bridge, Richmond

(Bonnie) William Wilson, Van Diemen's Land's Superintendent of Stonemasons 1820-1824 and Hobart's first Government Architect, is best known as the stonemason responsible for the construction of the bridge over the Coal River at Richmond, Tasmania, which is Australia's oldest bridge.

Wilson arrived in Hobart Town on November 27th 1820, having been married in Monikie Kirk, Angus, near Dundee, Scotland, to Margaret Williamson on 4th June of that year. They sailed two weeks later for on board the Skelton. They were free immigrants, in fact they were among the first direct sailing of free settlers from Scotland, and they travelled cabin class on the Skelton at a cost of 70 guineas each on their one-way honeymoon cruise to the Antipodes.

Family records indicate they had left Scotland under a cloud, that a major ‘falling out’ had occurred with his family, perhaps to do with him having married ‘below station’ (she was a lowly governess) and/or her being from a non-conformist church congregation. A series of schisms took place in the Church of Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries, which led to the establishment of several breakaway church groups - nonconformists or secessionists as they were called.

Either way, William's stonemason skills were known to Governor Sorell, and had become the Colonial Architect and Superintendent of Stonemasons prior to receiving a good land grant on Sorell Rivulet near Mt Orielton where he and his wife settled down to farming life and raising a family. They later farmed at Prossers Plains (Buckland) and finally they lived at Mt Nassau near Granton where they both farmed and operated a limestone kilning business. Like his father before him, William was a successful farmer, both were stonemasons and both owned valuable estates on their death.

Some confusion exists as to who was the first Colonial Architect of Tasmania or Van Diemens Land - William Wilson or David Lambe? The short answer is that David Lambe was indeed the first Colonial Architect who was an architect, whilst William Wilson was the first Colonial Architect who wasn’t an architect, but a very skilled mason. But like his father before him, he had the ability to do considerably more than just source and prepare the masonry.

David Lambe was in fact the first Colonial Architect of the Colony of Van Diemens Land, which came into being as an independent Sovereign Colony in 1825 a year or so after David’s appointment. Wilson was Hobart's Colonial Architect prior to that. This is confirmed in a dispatch from Lieutenant-Governor Arthur to Earl Bathurst: "Re Mr David Lambe Appointment - Appointed Colonial Architect 3rd June, 1824; pay 100pounds per annum, succeeded to Mr William Wilson, who also received 100pounds per annum."

Wilson became a noted architect and to his credit are a number of structures in Tasmania and on the mainland, including the original Wrest Point Hotel. He was also a competent watercolourist and violinist. His violin, Margaret’s cosmetics box, a small bible he gave her in Scotland as a wedding gift, and his embroidered and initialed wedding shirt said to have been made by Margaret, and Margaret’s white kid gloves are held in perpetuity by Narryna Museum at Battery Point. These garments are of very high quality and style, and were typical of the garments of people of refinement and means of that time.

A large man, Wilson was apparently a very popular figure around early Hobart and was known as ‘Bonnie William from Dundee’. Margaret was quite tiny, but with an iron will, indeed in the legendary words, after William’s death she is said to have ruled the family with tight rein. Wilson died in 1856, age 74, and Margaret in 1875, age 79; both are buried at Hestercombe cemetery near Austins Ferry.

Notable works

Richmond Bridge

Richmond Bridge was constructed between 1823 and 1825 under the general direction of Major Thomas Bell and a military contingent in control of an assigned gang of convict labour. William was responsible for its design, the selection and preparation of masonry materials from a nearby quarry and its construction at the bridge site. Richmond Bridge is the oldest bridge still in use in Australia, whilst accompanying it just beyond on the hill is the oldest Catholic Church in Australia, St. John's. William & Margaret's second son, Frederick Langloh, was born in Richmond in 1823 whilst William was engaged on this assignment.

The Supreme Court and Police Office buildings in Murray Street, Hobart, sketched in 1838. Tasmania's Supreme Court, established on 10 May 1824, was the first in the Australian colonies. Archives Office of Tasmania

William built the original Supreme Court House on the corner of Macquarie and Murray Streets. It was used by the court even before it was completed, and later used not only for civil and criminal cases, but for public meetings and church services. Within its walls 302 people were sentenced to hang between 1826 and 1842. From 1858 the building served as the post office, with the original portico replaced by a colonnade and an arcaded loggia built along Macquarie Street. In 1905 the post office was moved and the open arches filled in to provide for the Tourist Bureau which then occupied the building.