Tag Archives: historic buildings Sydney

Judge Willis’ Sydney

Most of my attention has been directed toward Judge Willis’ time in Melbourne, where he was appointed as the first resident judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales for the Port Phillip district.  But he was in Sydney for much longer than he was in Melbourne- from November 1837 to March 1841- compared with his stay of two years and three months in Melbourne.

In Sydney, he was one of three judges who formed the Supreme Court bench, and so he was not as prominent as he was in Melbourne, where he was the only Supreme Court judge.  In fact, I’ve found it hard to form a clear view of him in Sydney: he doesn’t seem to have socialized much with any of the people whose writings I’ve been able to access from Sydney at the time.  From my point of view, he seems to become much more defined once he was given virtually free rein (and reign!) in Melbourne.

But he WAS there in Sydney and so, tramping the streets of Sydney this last week, I tried to see it through Willis’ eyes.

His Court

Supreme Court Sydney

Stairwell in the rotunda, Supreme Court Sydney

Stairwell in the rotunda, Supreme Court Sydney

By the time Willis arrived in Sydney in 1837, the court had abandoned its temporary premises and moved permanently into the Supreme Court buildings in King Street.  Although the appearance of the courts has been altered by later additions, inside under the rotunda it is largely unchanged.  The courts were designed by Francis Greenway, the “convict architect” who was responsible for the design of several buildings during Macquarie’s time.

His Church – maybe.

St James' Church, Sydney

St James’ Church, Sydney

Next to the court house is St James’ Church.  Actually, the building that houses the church today was originally intended to be the law courts with a larger cathedral built elsewhere, but after Commissioner Bigge criticized Macquarie’s extravagant expenditure, the planned law courts were turned into St James’ instead, and the law courts were built next door in what had been a schoolhouse (and they are still there- as you saw, further up the page!)

I don’t actually know that Willis attended this church- he may have attended St Philips instead- but I strongly suspect that he did as he aligned himself publicly with Bishop William Broughton who frequently officiated at St James.  (By the way, feeling rather downcast at some recent sad news, I attended the choral evensong there on Wednesday evening.  The choir was absolutely beautiful.) I know from his time in Upper Canada and Melbourne, and back home in England that Willis attended Anglican Churches regularly, often morning and evening on Sundays.

His library

Then there’s the Australian Subscription Library. Unfortunately it survives as only a plaque in the footpath.


ST JAMES’ PARSONAGE. The first residence on this street, built in stone by Surgeon D’Arcy Wentworth in 1820, housed the Australian Subscription Library 1840-3.  It then housed the parson from nearby St James’ Church until demolition in 1888.

I know that Willis belonged to this library because in early 1841 there was a brouhaha concerning a confidential cabinet document that had somehow found its way into the collection.  Heads needed to roll (figuratively) and they did: the Assistant Colonial Secretary Harrington lost his job over it.

The Parliament- maybe???

State Parliament, Sydney

State Parliament, Sydney

While Willis was in Sydney, there was only one body that gave advice to the Governor, the Legislative Council.  It was appointed by the governor, and by 1829 had been enlarged to between ten and fifteen members.  It met in the ground floor rooms of what were at that time the Chief Surgeon’s rooms in the Sydney hospital.  Like the church and the court buildings, the hospital was also designed by Francis Greenway, and funded by an early form of public/private partnership, based on the monopoly of spirits imports- hence the name ‘Rum Hospital’ that has been attached to the building ever since.  I have no evidence that he ever attended Parliament,  but it was open to the public from 1838 onwards.

Government House- certainly

Model of the original Government House, Museum of Sydney

Model of the original Government House, Museum of Sydney

As puisne Judge, Willis most certainly did attend levees and functions at Government House.  The building that is now Government House was commenced but not completed during his time in Sydney, so he would have attended  the old Government House. In 1809 it looked like this:

Government House Sydney 1809

Government House Sydney 1809

It fell into disrepair- in fact, it sounds a rather shoddy building from the outset, and was demolished in 1846.  There is a ghost of the original house in the stencilled outline in  the forecourt of the Museum of Sydney, where it originally stood.  If you go up to the corner, you can catch a glimpse of Circular Quay down below, and imagine the early Port Jackson shoreline.


Actually, despite the heavy building activity in Sydney over recent decades, and a cavalier attitude towards heritage buildings during the 1960s (thank you Jack Mundey!) there’s more to find of Willis in Sydney than there is in Melbourne.