Jenolan Caves

Walter Liberty Vernon - If You Would See His Monument, Look Around!

August 14, 2020

Walter Liberty VernonAt the funeral of the man who designed Jenolan Caves House, Joseph Cook said, "It is with most profound regret…. that I saw that Colonel Vernon had gone over to the great majority. His was a most useful and valuable life…. It was Christopher Wren of whom it was said 'if you would see his monument, look around'. So with Colonel Vernon. The public will see his monuments for a long time - perhaps for all time - in the city and in the country".[i]  The Prime Minister was not exaggerating.

Colonel Walter Liberty Vernon was a man of superhuman energy.  We know that he was a highly prolific architect, designing numerous landmark buildings, including our Jenolan Caves House.  However, he was also active in local government and in the military.In fact, Vernon’s military career was almost more important than that of Government Architect. His scrapbooks were filled with military plans for operations in the Hunter Valley and drawings of manoeuvres at Jamberoo.[ii]

Born in Buckinghamshire, England in 1846, “Walter Liberty Vernon could be considered an embodiment of the Victorian middle class, which, giving voice to urbanisation and industrialisation… emphasised competition, thrift, prudence, self-reliance and personal achievement as opposed to privilege and inheritance.[iii]

In 1862, Vernon started his career in the office of London architect W. G. Habershon. After furthering his artistic skills at the Royal Academy of Arts and South Kensington School of Art, his employers put Vernon in charge of their architectural office in Wales in 1869.  With his career going well, he married in 1870, and two years later set up own practice in Hastings.

When the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, Vernon volunteered to serve in the 4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry. Although he didn’t see action, heand one of his cousins set off for France in January 1871, with a shipload of provisions for the French capital. Just as they arrived, a truce was declared, but the evidence of the bloodshed was everywhere.[iv] Vernon’s biographers suggest that this experience was his motivation for continuing his military career throughout his life.

In 1880 Vernon moved his family to Westminster, where he practiced as a quantity surveyor and an architect, producingbuildings in the fashionable Queen Anne style.  Vernon was made a Fellow of the Surveyors’ Institute and a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Surveyors.[v]

The David Jones Building in SydneyBecause he suffered from asthma, in 1883 he moved his family to NSW. But his reputation was such that before he even left England, he received a commission to design new premises for Messrs David Jones and Company, in George Street, Sydney[vi]. In NSW, he settled with wife and 3 children, in Neutral Bay, and worked in partnership with architect, W.W. Wardell.  One of the quirkier aspects of his brilliant career was the staggering number of clubs, organisations, committees and boards that he belonged to, starting with the Royal Art Society of NSW and the Australian Club.

Penshurst, designed and built by Vernon, as his family home in Neutral Bay in Sydney.

Town planning was another of Vernon’s passions, so from 1885 to 1890, he served as an alderman on East St Leonards Municipal Council[vii]. In 1885, Vernon was elected a Fellow of the Royal institute of British Architects – a huge honour. In the same year, he designed and built his family home, Penshurst, in Neutral Bay – arguably the first house in Sydney expressing the English Revival style, with Tudor-like half-timbered upper level and gables, a style that he later used on Jenolan Caves House.

Keen to get back into the military , in 1886 he joined the Reserve Corps of Sydney Lancers, as a Second Lieutenant[viii]. He also joined the Sir John Summan’s Palladian Club, the Institute of Architects of NSW, and the United Service Institution of NSW.

In 1890, he was appointed Government Architect in the new branch of the Dept of Public Works,[ix] in charge of 73 staff.[x]  Part of his role was to maintain 938 government buildings.  To choose designs for new public buildings, the government used competitions. But Vernon argued that his office could accomplish all the designs themselves at half the cost of the competition system.[xi] So Vernon’s office became tasked with designing all government buildings in NSW.

Cobden Parkes, son of Sir Henry Parkes, was one of Vernon’s staff. Recalling his early days in the Branch, Cobden provides a little window into those times, saying, "The procedures were simple - drawings were prepared on Whatman handmade paper, with 3H pencils, then traced in ink onto linen, and prints made by some process - print proof copying machine (housed on roof). Small drawings and written matter were often duplicated by the gelatine roll process.  The dress was rather formal and many wore frock-coat striped trousers and hard black bowler hats. We signed letters and minutes after the words…. 'I have the honour to be your obedient servant….' " [xii]

Although Vernon continued to use the ‘Romanesque’ and ‘Classical’ styles, favoured by his predecessor, Vernon's office introduced a new approach to public buildings, favouring styles such as ‘Federation Arts and Crafts’ and‘Federation Free Style’.  The change in style was influenced by a number of British trained architects who joined Vernon’s office, such as George Oakeshott, Gorrie McLeish Blaire (who became Government Architect in 1923), John Barr, Richard McDonald Seymour Wells (who became Government Architect in 1927) and George McRae (who succeeded Vernon as Govt Architect), William Moyes, and talented draftsman, Robert Charles Given Coulter.[xiii]So, although Vernon designed numerous buildings, it is clear he did not do it alone.  The office of the Government Architect grew to be “an efficient public service machine”, with 152 staff.[xiv]

While Government Architect, up to 1911, Vernon designed innumerable fire stations, post offices, court houses, police stations, train stations, and much more, literally all over NSW.  Approximately 50 of his buildings are now on the Register of the National Estate. Landmark buildings that Vernon designed are the Mitchell Library, Central Station, Sydney, Long Bay Gaol, the Registrar General’s Building (Land Titles Office) and Newcastle Post Office.  Vernon also worked on parts of many well-known buildings such as Customs House Sydney, Admiralty House, Kirribilli, theArt Gallery of NSW, theAustralian Museum, theColonial Secretary’s Building, and theTreasury Building (now part of the InterContinental Hotel, Sydney),Newcastle Court House andNewcastle Customs House.

During the 1890s, Vernon joined the Sydney Architectural Association, moved his family to Normanhurst and increased his focus on his military career, working his way from captain to major. He even travelled to England for the diamond jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria, where he commanded the NSW Lancers contingent.

Outside the Vernon WingIn 1896, at Jenolan Caves, three accommodation buildings burned down.  At the time, Jenolan Caves was the premier tourist attraction in NSW. The Department of Mines and Agriculture set aside £6000[xv] for new accommodation. Vernon was given the task of designing and building a new hotel. His building is now known as the Vernon Wing, and was the first of 4 large wings that comprise the hotel of today. The 2-storey, 23-room building was built in the Federation Arts and Crafts style, of limestone blocks, with gable windows, and pretty salmon terracotta roof tiles. It included a modest foyer, offices, a large ground-floor dining room, with a kitchen at the rear. Stairs led up to more offices, a manager’s apartment and 10 guest rooms, now used as staff quarters. Every room had a fireplace.  A billiard room is believed to have been where the main foyer is today. The new building was not only bigger, but was of a much higher standard than the previous wooden buildings. In 1898, the Australian Town and Country Journal reported, “It is fitted with the newest appliances as regarding cooking and sanitary arrangements, having a never-failing supply of pure water running constantly through the services; and it is intended to use the electric light throughout the building…”[xvi]

inside the Vernon WingIn designing Jenolan Caves House, Vernon was influenced by the large country houses in England such as Standen in Sussex, St. Alban’s Court in Kent, Avon Tyrrell in Hampshire and Cragside in Northumberland. These styles stress homeliness and simplicity. Architects used local materials, and so Jenolan Caves House was built from limestone quarried on site.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Vernon rose to Lieutenant-Colonel the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment (NSW Lancers)[xvii] and then Colonel, in the 2nd Light Horse Brigade.[xviii]and was awarded the Volunteer Officers’ Decoration a medal awarded for long and meritorious military service.

Still not busy enough, he served on the Royal Commission on Sydney Water Supply, was commissioner for the Franco-British Exhibition in London, became a trustee of the Australian Museum, President of the Broughton Club, and a member of the Aerial League of Australia. And in 1909, he was appointed to the Federal Capital Advisory Board, so that he could advise on the design of our new nation’s capital, Canberra.

Following an outbreak of plague in The Rocks, many buildings were demolished. Vernon was asked to carry out urgent rebuilding. He established a small sub-branch under Alfred Brindley, who renovated 1,000 properties and a carried out the design and erection of many dwellings and commercial premises in the area, including 32 model houses.[xix]

Retirement in 1911 didn’t last long. He returned to private practice, establishing a partnership with Howard Joseland. He judged the competition entries for Parliament House in Wellington, NZ, after the original buildings were destroyed by fire.[xx] He became President of the architecture and engineering section of the Australasian Assoc for the Advancement of Science, Vice-President of the Millions Club and Councillor of the Town Planning Association of NSW.Yet he still found time for gardening, as well as for collecting furniture, pictures, armour and weapons.[xxi]

While he was testing a fire escape as Government Architect, he injured his leg.  The leg gave him trouble, so in 1914 he entered hospital for treatment. Unfortunately, the leg had to be amputated, but as Vernon refused an anaesthetic, complications set in which led to his death 7 weeks later.[xxii] He is buried in Gore Hill cemetery.

At Jenolan Caves, we often think of Walter Liberty Vernon, whose work raised Jenolan Caves onto the next level as a tourist destination. His successor, George McRae, used Vernon’s’ designs to build the subsequent, much grander, wings on Caves House, in 1906, 1916 and 1926, evolving it into a rambling 4-storey grand hotel, enjoyed by celebrities and even royalty. 

Today heritage-listed Jenolan Caves House, historic guestrooms, restaurant and café, attracts romantic couples and holidaying families from all over Australia and the world. To Vernon, it may have been just another of the multitude of public buildings in his impressive portfolio. But among all his creations, Caves House is certainly the building that has provided the most joy, romance and cherished memories for the last 123 years.

Main sources:

The Sydney Morning Herald, on Jan 19, 1914 printed a long article of Vernon’s achievements



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