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Image credit: Portrait of James Barnet, National Library of Australia.

James Barnet: The Colonial Architect

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7 min read
During his nearly three-decade tenure as the Colonial Architect of NSW (1862 to 1890), James Barnet dominated pre-federation architecture. Volunteer researcher Michele Harper canvasses the career of the tireless public servant including his design work on Macquarie Lighthouse and the other buildings that speak to his enduring legacy.

James Johnstone Barnet was born in Scotland in 1827. He moved to London in 1843, where he was apprenticed to a builder and studied drawing, design and architecture. Upon completing his studies, he became the clerk of works – i.e. the person responsible for checking standards of workmanship and materials on worksites – to the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers in London. 

In July 1854, he married Amy Gosling of Hockey, East London and in December that same year, he migrated to Sydney under the auspices of the Family Colonisation Loan Society. The society was a ship chartering and small loan service established by Caroline Chisolm to help families emigrate to Australia.   

Prolific architect

Barnet was easily able to find work as an architect in Sydney as many building works were in progress. One of his first projects was design work for a Presbyterian church (of which he was a deacon) in Cleveland Paddocks (today known as Prince Alfred Park). He was also employed by Edmund Blacket as a clerk of works for the University of Sydney’s Great Hall and Randwick Asylum.   

In 1860, Barnet joined the Colonial Architect’s Office and, by 1862, had risen to the role of Colonial Architect – a position he held until his retirement in 1890. The duties of the NSW Colonial Architect’s Department were wide ranging. In addition to major building works and repairs, the Department was responsible for tasks such as lighting Sydney’s streets, providing coffins for paupers and cleaning the chimneys at Victoria Barracks. 

With very few staff at his disposal, Barnet completed a multitude of public building projects in NSW, including courthouses, gaols, post offices, police stations, and defence works such as the Middle Head Battery in Mosman. By 1881, the total number of building projects completed – or in progress – under Barnet’s direction numbered a jaw-dropping 1490.

Iconic works

A notable influence of Barnet’s architectural style was the Italian Renaissance. In turn, he had a significant influence on pre-Federation architecture in NSW.

In 1879, Barnet oversaw the design and construction of the Sydney International Exhibition building, aka the Garden Palace, at the Royal Botanic Garden. The project was completed in only nine months due to the use of electric lights, which enabled work to be carried out at night – a first in Sydney. Tragically, the magnificent building was destroyed in a fire during the early hours of 22 September 1882.

Another of Barnet’s notable projects was the overhaul of Macquarie Lighthouse at Vaucluse – a task he was assigned in 1878. Designed by convict architect Francis Greenway and completed in 1818, the original lighthouse was also the nation’s first. By the 1870s, however, the sandstone tower had to be held together by iron bands due to crumbling foundations and the lantern room was incapable of housing the latest in navigational light technology: the Fresnel lens. In designing a replacement lighthouse, Barnet paid homage to Greenway’s original tower.

Completed in 1883, Barnet’s replacement tower – also named Macquarie Lighthouse – was constructed less than four metres from the original. The two lighthouses stood side by side until 1887 when the original was finally demolished. Standing at 26 metres tall and featuring a gas-generated electric light, the new lighthouse was, for a time, the most powerful navigational beacon in the world. Barnet’s iteration of Macquarie Lighthouse still stands today and is protected by the Harbour Trust.

Personal life

From 1867, Barnet lived with his large family in the inner-city suburb of Forest Lodge at ‘Braeside’, a house he designed. He is known to have kept many pets including a magpie, an Italian greyhound, a Skye terrier and a kangaroo.

After 24 years’ continuous public service, the assiduous architect was granted 12 month’s leave from his duties to embark on a trip to Europe. During his sabbatical, Barnet toured Venice with his wife and visited the continent’s major art centres.  He also performed some duties in relation to his work. This included inspecting the Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Broadmoor, England. Barnet returned to Sydney just before Christmas 1885 and was back at work a few days later.

Sadly, Barnet’s wife Amy passed away in 1889, aged just 58. Barnet lived for a further 15 years, passing away at the age of 78 at Braeside on 16 December 1904. He is interred with his wife at Rookwood Cemetery in Lidcombe. Although he has been dead for more than a century, Barnet’s influence on architecture endures and many of his buildings still grace not just Sydney but wider NSW. These include the GPO in Martin Place, Customs House at Circular Quay, Callan Park Mental Hospital, Bathurst Courthouse, the State Library of New South Wales, Darlinghurst Courthouse and the Mortuary Station near Central railway.


Article was originally published on 1 October 2020.


Although he has been dead for more than a century, Barnet’s influence on architecture endures and many of his buildings still grace not just Sydney but wider NSW.

– Michele Harper

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