The Judges House is a heritage-listed former gentleman’s villa residence and homeless shelter and now corporates offices and restaurant located at 529 – 531 Kent Street, in the Sydney central business district, in the City of Sydney local government area of New South Wales, Australia. Its design is attributed to William Harper. The property has been sub-divided. The lot on which the main structure of the Judges House stands is numbered 531, while number 529 contains the Japanese-influenced modern addition to the back of the property together with sections of the former garden. The modern addition was previously the Suntory Restaurant and now houses Tetsuya’s restaurant. The property is privately owned. It was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 2 April 1999.
The Judges House was built and most probably designed by William Harper and constructed in 1827. It is historically significant because it represents the oldest building in the City area, which was originally constructed as a private residence. Adding to its significance is that, after considering Harper’s situation, skills and other evidence, we are now able with some degree of certainty attribute the design of the house to Harper. Further, it demonstrates a very early use of corrugated iron in the colony. The house is significant architecturally, because it represents one of the earliest remaining examples of the Colonial Georgian house in Sydney.
While there is no evidence remaining on the site of its use as a refuge and soup kitchen, the range of uses from gentleman’s residence to night refuge and soup kitchen for the homeless, also contributes to its historic value. Such uses reflect the changing character of the area, as it evolved from an idyllic waterfront environment to a congested and less salubrious precinct. From a social perspective the house has cultural and social links with the experiences of unemployed and homeless people during a period of 100 years including the depression eras of the 1890s and the 1930s; and because of its links with the evolution of privately-funded welfare provision in Sydney. Its history embraced the diverse social environments which developed from the late 19th century through to the 1960s and provides a significant reminder that unemployment and homelessness have long been a feature of Australian society. The house has additional significance because of its associations with the legal history of NSW, through its tenancy by Judge Dowling. This association has been consolidated by its enduring title, the Judge’s House.
The building known as the Judge’s House still stands at 531 Kent Street, Sydney. Its title is unusual in that it derives, not from its original owner and builder. but from its first tenant. This circumstance clearly reflects the differing status and fortunes of the two men concerned in its early history, both before and after their arrival in New South Wales.
First to arrive was William Harper, who landed at Port Jackson in 1821 with his wife and two children. Aged 29, Harper was a trained surveyor with considerable experience in land and road surveys in Scotland. He arrived with a letter of recommendation as a free settler from Earl Bathurst and professional recommendations from his patrons, Sir John Oswald and Robert Ferguson Esq of Raith.
Harper was also ambitious and enterprising. While en route and still on board the Westmoreland at Port Dalrymple, he had applied for appointment as a surveyor in Van Diemen’s Land. On arrival in Sydney he continued his quest for survey work and by July, on the recommendation of Surveyor GeneralJohn Oxley, had been appointed as an assistant in his department, with a salary of £109/10/0 per annum.
By the early part of 1822 Harper’s expertise in road survey work was being utilised, and he surveyed a new line of road from Prospect to Richmond. He must have regarded his future as promising, especially in view of the shortage of surveyors in the colony and the great demand for their work, as its boundaries extended. But he also recognised other opportunities in the making. In a memorial addressed to Macquarie in September 1821 he declared himself possessed of property to the value of £620, which could be used in agricultural and other pursuits. Together with proceeds from the sale of property which he possessed in Scotland, his capital had the potential to reach £1,370 . Consequently he requested Macquarie to grant him a “portion of land and other indulgences…usually given to persons of his class”. Macquarie responded with the promise of a grant of 283 hectares (700 acres) and three convict servants, who, together with his wife and two children, were to be victualled for six months on the King’s stores.
Harper’s outlook remained promising throughout most of 1822. In March of that year Governor Brisbane requested Oxley’s immediate attention to the production of an accurate map of the town of Sydney, showing the exact boundaries of every grant or unexpired lease. That Harper was assigned this task reflects the confidence placed in his abilities and the urgency of the task was apparent in the Governor‘s later directive that “Harper was to concentrate on completing the map of Sydney and not be given any other duty till it was finished”. By September of the same year favourable reports of Harper’s abilities had spread beyond the confines of the colony, and Major-General Macquarie recommended him to succeed James Meehan as Deputy Surveyor General, on the latter’s imminent retirement.
As 1823 progressed, however, Harper’s fortunes gradually began to change. This was the result of a deterioration in his health, due to the onset of a paralytic condition which affected his right hand, reducing his capacity for field work and mapping. In September Robert Hoddle was appointed as temporary assistant surveyor and instructed to complete the map of Sydney, which had been proceeding too slowly under Harper. Oxley was instructed to order Harper to commence the survey of the County of Argyle, and if he proved “as lax, as his progress was slow in perfecting the map of Sydney”, he was to be informed
…of the necessity which will be imposed on His Excellency to provide a surveyor competent to execute the public duties entrusted to him with more alacrity.
This was hardly an ideal situation for Harper to pursue his interest in land. To add to his problems Macquarie’s promised grant of 283 hectares (700 acres) had not materialised and with the arrival of Governor Brisbane a different policy on land grants prevailed. Consequently, in April 1822 Harper was granted permission to occupy 283 hectares (700 acres) of land, but without the promise of a grant. This land was probably situated at Hunter’s River, where, by August 1823 Harper occupied a farm of 809 hectares (2,000 acres). It was also at this time that he requested to be given a town allotment in Newcastle, on which he intended
…to erect a House for the accommodation of [himself] and Family in going to, or from the Farm.
Harper’s duties in the Survey Department, however, necessitated the availability of accommodation for himself and his family in Sydney. His salary as assistant surveyor included a rental allowance of £50 per year, but this was inadequate to meet the high rental costs them prevailing in the town. Consequently, in April 1824 Harper applied to Governor Brisbane for a town allotment in Sydney on which to ‘erect a house for the accommodation of [himself] and family. He was promptly informed that as the survey of the town of Sydney was complete there was no objection to his obtaining, on lease, any vacant allotment he chose.
Either by necessity or preference Harper chose an allotment on the outskirts of the town at the southern end of Kent Street. Unlike Sussex Street, which marked the western extremity of the allotment, Kent Street terminated before reaching Liverpool Street. In combination with the undulating topography of the area and its proximity to Cockle Bay, this must have contributed to the semi-rural atmosphere which prevailed. In his reminiscences of the area as it appeared in 1828 James Sheen Dowling described it as “surrounded by paddocks and comparatively in the country”. Maclehose’s 1839 description of the southern extremity of Kent Street indicates some change in that”
“…..several cottages and substantial dwelling houses have been erected, most of them having small gardens attached. However, this section of the street still boasted …a beautifully diversified landscape view of the waters and shores of Darling Harbour and extending to the westward over an extensive range of thickly wooded undulating country….. it only requires to be seen in order to be appreciated as one of the most romantic prospects that the eye can behold”.— Maclehose, 1839.
Surviving records do not enable a definitive dating of Harper’s house, but it is clear that construction could not have commenced before the middle of 1824. A later start, however, is a distinct possibility, especially as the land had been leased, not granted, and Harper’s health had already begun to deteriorate. A listing of persons eligible for jury service in Sydney, dated 1 November 1825, and organised on a street by street basis, includes Harper’s name in the list for O’Connell Street, with the annotation “Surveyor General Office”. As the Office was in Macquarie Street, this suggests that Harper was renting in O’Connell Street. It also seems probable that if Harper’s elegant cottage had been completed by 1825, with Harper in residence, he would have proffered his Kent Street address for the listing. Even more significantly, returns of the Surveyor General’s Department indicate that Harper was still receiving a rental allowance of £50 per annum in September 1826.