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James Barnett, 1888

James Barnet, 1888

This photograph is for study purposes only

 Story and Photographs by Warrigal Mirriyuula

In December 1854 James Barnet, a native Scot from Arbroath, landed in Sydney and set himself up as a builder in Glebe. The business prospered and within 11 years he had succeeded his mentor Edmund Blacket as Colonial Architect. He was 37 years old and in the next 25 years he achieved more than he might ever have imagined.

Some of his achievements made a lasting impression on me as I wondered, as boys will, about why it was that the Orange Courthouse looked so much a courthouse. I knew nothing of Barnet then, but this local, familiar building always caught my eye. It remains today my favourite Barnet Courthouse. The Classical design is so balanced, so well resolved. The masses and proportions in a near perfect harmony that even Pericles would admire.

Orange Court House (c) Central Western D aily - w1200_h678_fmax

 Orange Court House, 1883. Architect James Barnet

 As I grew up I began to recognise buildings through out the Central West of NSW that seemed to be related in some way. They were often public buildings like town halls, post and telegraph offices and court houses and they began to define something in my mind; the notion of Victorian Civic Pride; the idea that for a young nation to aspire to credibility amongst the great nations of the world it needed the underpinnings of the rule of law, democratic action and communications. It needed to display the high regard it held for these things, these institutions of state legitimacy, and so within a few decades of the first settlement of the lands west of the divide, these buildings began popping up everywhere. The curious thing is that many of them were built when there was little else surrounding them. Many of the towns and villages they served had yet to develop what we might now recognise as a civic centre. These buildings stood for a time alone, like the recently arrived aliens they were, surrounded by mud or dust, slab cut huts, corrugated iron and cheap bricks, representing the hope for a future that had yet to come into being.

Orange PO and Lands Office Orange Post & Lands Office, James Barnet 1885. This stuccoed brick PO still stands as handsome as ever, however more recent street plantings have almost completely obscured the entire building with foliage.

 It was many years later that I finally learned that the buildings that caught my eye, made me wonder, where all designed by the one architect, James Johnstone Barnet; and it was one of his earlier buildings that had started the whole thing off.


Molong Court House (Now the Molong Police Station). James Barnet 1862

The Molong Courthouse, designed by Barnet prior to his elevation to Colonial Architect, is a modest building lacking any complex embellishment save a simple Classical pediment and vent and cornices on the chimneys. It is built from local limestone rubble masonry with dressed or rendered quoins, door and window frames, yet when it first opened for business in 1862 it would have been the most imposing building in Molong. It was still imposing the morning Dad had to drop in there when I was a little tacker. I think I might have sat on that form on the verandah while Dad entered inside. Whatever was going on in there was a deep mystery to me but, given the building, it had to be important and sitting on that form was not dissimilar to waiting outside the Principal’s office at school. Originally it was surrounded by a white picket fence.

The Molong Court House wasn’t alone in staking claim to a future grandeur not yet in evidence. There was another set of these bijou masterpieces in Carcoar, just a few miles away; though Carcoar, like Molong, never did grow in the way it was thought it might. The railway eventually followed a different line and Carcoar fell from second biggest town west of the mountains after Bathurst, to a village of just over 200 people today. Well worth visiting still, if just for the colonial era architecture and a particularly fine Devonshire Tea at the café across the street from the courthouse.

The Carcoar courthouse with its clockless clock tower displays the balance that so characterises Barnet’s best work. Once again he employs the Italianate. The tower is so relaxed in the composition of masses that the absence of a clock seems almost appropriate, literally imbuing the building with a timeless quality. I suppose the clock was going to be installed later, but that later never came.

Carcoar_Court_House_001 corrected Carcoar Court House, James Barnet 1882

 It’s of interest to note that this Italianate Barnet courthouse replaced a smaller, much simpler Neo Gothic courthouse dating from1842. Carcoar is further architecturally interesting in that it has another building that, along with Barnet’s courthouse, illustrates a stylistic transition from the Neo Gothic to The Italianate, and the type examples are by succeeding Colonial Architects, Edmund Blacket and James Barnet.

AUS, NSW, Carcoar, St Paul the Apostle 4St Paul The Apostle, Carcoar, designed by Barnet’s mentor and predecessor Edmund Blacket, displays the neo gothic that so identified Blacket’s best work, including the main quadrangle at Sydney University. (I’d have probably moved the post modern wheelie bins before taking the shot.)

But getting back to Barnet, perhaps the finest example and most complete exposition of his Italianate design palette when it came to country courthouses is the magnificent Bathurst Court House complex, a tour de force opened a few years prior to the Orange Court House.


Bathurst Court House, 1880 by James Barnet

Bathurst also has a fine example of Barnet’s contribution to the other side of the law. The imposing portal to Bathurst Gaol is every inch the intimidating gateway to a world wherein all hope must be given up.

Bathurst Gaol

The Main Portal and Deputy Governor’s Residence, now the administration building, Bathurst Gaol, James Barnett 1888

Architects describe this portal as an excellent example of the Victorian Mannerist, though I particularly like its lack of manners. It’s an unashamedly intimidating bully, sure of its power to suppress and punish miscreants. The slits cut into the sandstone masonry façade suggest unseen armed guards might protect the portal and that even venturing up that short road without legitimate purpose might end very badly indeed. As ever the Imperial Lion snarls atop the gate, a key firmly between its fierce teeth: Subtext: The Victorians didn’t like crooks and punishment was meant to be just that, unrelentingly punishing.

These Barnet buildings are all over NSW and to the west of Orange, the early gold town of Forbes celebrated its prosperity with a very fine Barnet collection including both a handsome Post Office and a more modest Courthouse that successfully suggests that justice may after all be measured in the more democratic aspirations of the common people and not be the exclusive domain of the wealthy and connected.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAForbes Town Hall on the left, (George McKinnon 1890-1) and The Post and Telegraph Office on the right (James Barnet 1881). Note the acknowledgement between the buildings which both look out to a park surrounded by many fine buildings creating a substantial and attractive civic precinct, which includes another Barnet courthouse.

I first noticed these buildings back in the sixties when I attended a brass band competition in the Forbes Town Hall. I recall standing in the park and admiring them, though at that time they were all in a state of resigned dilapidation, peeling paint, cracked and missing stucco, and it seemed they might all disappear for lack of appreciation. Happily since then they have all been lavished with unstinting restorations, which as you can see from the image below continues to this day.


 Forbes Court House James Barnet 1880

The lack of ostentation and the simplicity of composition are the Forbes courthouse’s most attractive qualities and it is still used as a courthouse today.

Over the years I’ve travelled extensively throughout country NSW and found Barnet buildings in many villages, towns and cities but it’s the buildings shown here that I’ve come to see as part of me, a sense of having grown up watched over by these buildings, and they have contributed in no small part to my sense of belonging to the country, the bush.

For most of us the built environment is just the backdrop to our everyday lives, a stage on which we play out our hopes and frustrations, but these buildings have an almost metaphysical presence for me. They were the courthouses where injustices were, and are still, made right, the town halls where we decided as a community which of our aspirations we would follow, the post offices where we communicated with loved ones across the country or even across the seas. For me they are mixed metaphors; at once the anchors that held us in place and also the wings on which we flew, and thus they have become elements in my “Spirit of Place”, my sense of belonging and identity. There can be no greater accolade for an architect.

Dubbo_CourthouseDubbo Courthouse, James Barnet 1887 and still used as a courthouse today.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYoung Courthouse, James Barnet 1886 This High Victorian Classical building is now a school assembly hall, so no doubt Barnet still has the power to mould the young mind.

Cowra Court House

Cowra Court House

Cowra Courthouse, James Barnet 1880 with extensions and renovations by Barnet’s successor, Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon 1909.

Given Vernon’s overlaid renovations this does not look so much a Barnet courthouse but it still displays that simple balance of masses that Vernon’s additions and Federation/Anglo Dutch/Arts and Crafts decoration could not disguise. Indeed I suspect that Vernon knew a good thing when he saw it and his additions acknowledge the best of the earlier Barnet building.

Given Vernon’s overlaid renovations this does not look so much a Barnet courthouse but it still displays that simple balance of masses that Vernon’s additions and Federation/Anglo Dutch/Arts and Crafts decoration could not disguise. Indeed I suspect that Vernon knew a good thing when he saw it and his additions acknowledge the best of the earlier Barnet building.

While Barnet designed many more buildings, over 600 in fact, including 130 courthouses, and many of his buildings display an impressive magnificence, including my favourite pile of Pyrmont sandstone, the resplendent Renaissance revival Lands Office on Bridge Street in Sydney, it has always been his country buildings that have captured me and I’m particularly fond of his country courthouses. They may not be his most difficult or most impressive work but to my mind they are his most human, creating a levelling link between these rough hewn early settlements with their hope for a bigger future, and the great world beyond; in essence providing a solid and enduring symbol of the unity and common purpose shared by all of the people of the colony and it may not be too long a bow to suggest that the operation of these buildings, their success as social machines through time, contributed in no small way to Federation and the dawning of Australian nationhood.

Post Script

A little Googling will turn up all manner of Barnet results and it’s surprising how prolific he was. The above examples of his work are just a taste. His buildings are literally everywhere. Goulburn particularly has a number of very fine Barnet buildings, as well as others by Colonial and Government Architects Blacket, Vernon and Lewis, but I’ve not included them here because I didn’t become familiar with them until much later. They were not part of my boyhood scene. Indeed Goulburn deserves a piece all to itself , which I may get round to when time permits.