This site is dedicated to the life and work of Edwin Hubert Henderson, architect (1885-1939). Henderson was Chief Architect of the Commonwealth of Australia from 1929-1939.
The Commonwealth Bank building in East Street, Rockhampton, completed in 1933, is a dignified presence, representing solidity and permanence, with just a few flourishes of the (then) moderne style. This building has been used for a range of public purposes, most recently becoming the home of the new Federal Circuit Court which opened in April 2021.
A growing bank
The original building was erected in 1916 as the Queensland Government Savings Bank. The Bank was an initiative of the Ryan Labor government, elected in 1915, to compete with private banks. This branch was one only a few purpose built branches (the others being in Brisbane and Toowoomba). A.B.Brady, the Government Architect and Thomas Pye, Chief Draftsman, of the State Department of Works were the architects of the original building. Pye, a Scot who emigrated to Australia in 1882, had a long career in the service of the State. He worked with John Smith Murdoch before the latter went to work for the Commonwealth (designing old Parliament House as Henderson’s predecessor as Chief Architect). Pye also designed the Customs House in Rockhampton, perhaps the city’s most glorious piece of architecture.
In 1920, the Queensland Government Savings Bank merged with the Commonwealth Bank, which relocated out of rented premises a few blocks down East Street into the existing building. The Branch’s business grew substantially to the point where it had a staff of 35. According to the Central Queensland Herald, “There is not much room for the public and the staff are somewhat cramped. Hence the decision to extend the premises”. The Bank planned to renovate the building, with the State Manager, Mr T.C.Irving, telling the Herald:
‘It is proposed to extend the building on each side, 16ft. on the Supreme Court side and 8ft. on the Lands Office side. It will also be brought out to the street alignment, another 8ft. The front will be remodelled and will be a very handsome one. The building, instead of being T shaped as at present, will be an oblong. The additional room should meet any expansion of business for years to come. (25 February 1932).
The State Manager went on to say:
The job will be a fairly extensive one and should cost anything from £8ooo to £1o,ooo. This should provide a good deal of employment, and I think it shows the confidence the Commonwealth Bank authorities have in Rockhampton.
The mention of employment acknowledges that this project was being undertaken during the Great Depression.
The Renovated Branch
The key changes included a new façade, and additional wings on each side of the existing space, whilst retaining the existing hipped roof. The roof had a dome which was carefully retained. The materials used were of high quality and local where possible. The building was rendered in crisp white, standing out in the street.
The new façade featured two fluted pillars supporting the portico, with two pilasters on each side of the portico (with a circular raised relief between them). The top of the façade featured a matching narrow, fluted band and a small deco-style relief above the entrance. The floor of the portico was local Gracemere granite. The front swinging glass doors (sheeted in bronze), were framed in Queensland walnut, a timber used throughout the building. Bronze was used in a range of places in the building, including in ornamental grills above the front door and windows, on the tops of the custom made writing desks for the public, and the calendar stands and waste paper bins attached to these desks.
The public space within the branch, measuring 43 ft. by 20 ft, was paved with marble tiles made from local marble (more on this later), with the rest of the floors in parquetry, made from spotted gum. On three sides, the public space was bound by counters made of Queensland walnut. The counters featured artistic panelling with walnut veneer, with bronze standards supporting the bronze ribbon mesh wire surround the tellers’ boxes, each of which having a front shield of glass inset with rectangular grill gates.
The two new “wings” of the bank created working space for staff, separated from the public area by the counters, and supported by five brick piers on each side. This allowed light from the new, large windows to fill the public space. The windows were steel and painted dark green. The manager had an office in the front of the building, facing East Street.
The Commonwealth Bank was publicly owned, and so its buildings were public works. This meant that issues arose around public works – local content and labour issues – regarding the bank renovations in Rockhampton.
The local federal member for Capricornia was Frank Forde (1890-1983). Forde, who holds the record as Australia’s Prime Minister with the shortest tenure (7 days in 1945), was born in Mitchell, and became a telegraphist in Rockhampton before being elected to State Parliament at the age of 26. He later won the federal seat and was for some years the only Labor Federal Parliamentarian from Queensland. Forde was a strong proponent of local industry and was regarded as an architect of the Scullin Government’s tariff policies.
This strong interest in helping local industry played out in relation to the building work on the Rockhampton Commonwealth Bank. Forde made representations about the use of local marble for the bank, encouraged by the rather ominous sounding Ulam Marble Syndicate. The Department duly specified this local product for use on the job. He then asked in Parliament why no local firms were being used as sub-contractors on the joinery work. The answer from the Department was that no was no local firm with the class of experience required (the work was done by a Mr Arthur Foote of Ipswich).
Another key issue was the use of returned servicemen on the build. After the First World War, all Australian governments had a policy of employing returned men, all things being equal. Some of the men working on the Bank job were not returned, and the RSL wrote to the Department raising this issue and Forde wrote to the Minister. The Queensland Works Director, James Orwin, was charged with investigating and found that some of the men in question had been too young to enlist and one was not able to enlist because of disability. The builder said their families dependent on them. In a strange turn of events, Forde changed his position and wrote to the Department on the behalf of these men. Ultimately the matter was settled with the substitution of some returned men though at the expense of one carpenter and one labourer who were discharged from the job. The RSL was appreciative of the approach taken.
The issue could not get more local. The Manager of the branch complained to the Council about the need for a new foopath outside the renovated bank and then spoke to the local paper about the matter. His argument was that the existing footpath was broken and worn, and, if Rockhampton was to have a banking chamber “second to none throughout Australia” then a new footpath was essential (Morning Bulletin 17 November 1932). The Council eventually agreed after due consideration by the Works Committee. And so the building was complete.
EH Henderson, Principal Designing Architect of the Commonwealth, designed the renovations for the building. The Central Queensland Herald (19 January 1933) waxed lyrical about the finished product:
After months of intensive building the Rockhampton Branch of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia stands, a solid looking, impressive structure, on the site of the building it has supplanted. In the ‘new’ bank’s modem, seemingly impregnable exterior and its roomy, well-ventilated interior few would recognise anything of the former building which so inadequately accommodated a staff that had grown with the growth of the bank’s business.
The paper commented on the architectural style:
Horizontal lines give an appearance of simple strength to the front of the building, which has a modern formation in keeping with other banking buildings lately built or being built by the Commonwealth Works Department.
The nature of the architecture creates an at atmosphere of dignity in keeping with principles of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
This certainly reflects pubic commentary on Henderson’s work on many other Commonwealth Banks around Australia. The stripped classical style, with some modest embellishment, conveyed exactly the reaction that it was intended to create.
What was pleasing is that the design of the courthouse was deliberately mirrored in the design of the new Police Court nearby to the Bank, creating a small precinct with strong aesthetic merit. This precinct is now heritage listed.
The process for the design of the Bank is illustrative of Henderson’s role, his approach to his client and how the work of the head office in Canberra was carried out in the states.
As with any good architect, on 5 February 1931 Henderson went to meet with the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney (its head office) to discuss its needs for the branch. He then produced two sketches, reflecting options depending on how much land was used. The bank faced considerations around potentially acquiring further adjoining land for the branch or working within its existing boundaries. It chose the latter. In June 1931 Henderson again met with the Bank to discuss its requirements with the bank asking for further revised sketches.
At this point, the Works Director for Queensland, James Orwin, became involved. Orwin was a close friend of Henderson’s, a fellow Geordie, and would sadly play a significant role in the events leading up to Henderson’s suicide in 1939. Orwin and his staff took the sketches and prepared cost estimates for the bank, based on knowledge of local building costs. Henderson provided sketches and elevations to Orwin for this purpose.
The Commonwealth Bank was like any client of an architect – wanting the best outcome, but also being conscious of cost. At this stage, the Bank wanted its removed Branch to stand out more, writing on 7 October 1931:
We realize the elevations are well proportioned but would point out our need for prominence and suggest that you heighten the front façade as much as permissible from an architectural viewpoint and existing construction”
With these changes made, the Bank was prepared to proceed. The state office of the Department then prepared working drawings, with architect HW Barker preparing the drawings to be signed off by Orwin. The tender was issued locally and assessed by Orwin. Orwin communicated directly with the Bank around costs and finalising the tender, which closed in February 1932. The lowest tenderer died, resulting in the next lowest tenderer (EH Fletcher) getting the job.
So Henderson’s role was in engaging the client, understanding their needs, developing a design and securing the client’s approval. The detailed drawings and management of the build were handled locally. This reflects a pragmatic approach to the country-wide responsibilities of the Works Department, but also a public service approach to the division of labour between the centre and the regions.
The building continued to be used by the Bank until 1986 when it was purchased by the State Government and converted to house the District Court and associated staff. and general facilities for the use of the public and staff members of the Court. The internal area has been modified externally. The building now houses the Family Circuit Court. It remains a handsome part of Rockhampton’s architectural heritage.
National Archives of Australia A284 B3858 and J6181932/290
Queensland Heritage Register
Watson, Donald; McKay, Judith (1994). Queensland Architects of the 19th Century: A biographical dictionary. Brisbane: Queensland Museum