The Defining Architect of Tasmania You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
by Lilian Koch
Who designed Parliament House? The Theatre Royal? Richmond Bridge? Campbell Street Gaol? How about the Ordnance Stores in Salamanca? The answer all comes down to the same man: John Lee Archer. A colonial architect and civil engineer, Archer was responsible for countless Tasmanian government buildings, penal buildings, military buildings, churches, bridges, and lighthouses.
Born in Ireland in 1791, Archer sailed to Hobart Town in 1827 to assume the position of Architect and Civil Engineer, to help accommodate the growing convict and free-settler population. He was responsible for all the Tasmanian government buildings, including Parliament House (originally the Customs House), the Treasury, the Court Houses in Hobart, Launceston and New Norfolk, and the Ordnance Stories in Salamanca Place. He designed bridges such as the Bridgewater Causeway, Jordan River Bridge, Richmond Bridge, and Ross Bridge. He even designed a number of churches such as Hobart’s St David’s Church, St George’s Church in Battery Point, and St John’s Church in New Town. He’s a man with many well-known Tassie landmarks under his belt.
Unsurprisingly, many of his designs were brought to life by convict hands. The biggest irony of this was that Archer also designed convict penitentiaries. By the 1830s, Tasmania’s convict population had risen to over 10,000, and Archer was commissioned to design a chapel for the Prisoner’s Barracks Penitentiary, to act as an extension to the already overflowing Barracks. He was also commissioned to design a cell block beneath the Prisoner’s Barracks Penitentiary to be used for solitary confinement in. Features of these cells included no sunlight and a lack of ventilation. Imagine being a convict and having to build your own cell! Hobart Gaol, a maximum-security prison for both men and women, never had toilets installed, right until the end of operations in the 1960s. Prisoners simply used slop buckets. The Hobart Gaol (now Campbell Street gaol), Cascades Female Factory, Richmond Gaol and Oatlands Gaol were just a few of the many penitentiaries Archer designed to hold convicts.
Archer’s most notable and visible work, was Parliament House, originally designed as Hobart’s Customs House in the 1830s. This too was built by convict labour, and sandstone was quarried from Salamanca Place and the Queen’s Domain, giving it its distinct Colonial Georgian style, a style which can also be seen in Salamanca Place and around Hobart. Significant renovations to the interior have been made since its construction, however the façade remains largely the same as when it was first constructed. In 1856 alterations were made to the building to accommodate Parliament, and it took until 1904 until Parliament became the sole occupant of the building.
In 1838, due to a temporary decline in convict numbers, Archer’s employment was ceased and he was never reinstated. At the age of 47 Archer became isolated from his profession and had little hope of re-employment. After nine prolific years designing buildings it’s no surprise he was probably spent and burnt out. He became a police magistrate in north-west Tasmania, and remained in this role for the remainder of his life, passing away in 1852 at age 61.