The unknown officer who designed Australia

It may have been the spirit of Australia’s greatest architect that stopped me in my tracks as I walked through the inner Brisbane park. I paused, looked down, and searched. After a few minutes I had found a handful of treasures that led me to discover one of the greatest designers of colonial Australia. His work is still on display across Australia and New Zealand, although he is little-known today. Watch the short film here.

John James Clark 1838-1915 - John Oxley Library, State Library of QueenslandJohn James Clark (pictured right) began practicing as an architect at just fourteen years of age. In 1857, when he was nineteen, he designed the Melbourne Treasury Building, which is accepted as Australia’s finest Renaissance Revival building.

Clark was the colonial architect for Queensland in 1883-1885 and won first prize for his design for the Brisbane Town Hall (pictured below). It would be another 40 years before Brisbane got its hall, although it wasn’t built to Clark’s design. Clark’s masterpieces across Australasia include Brisbane’s Treasury Building and Central Station clock tower, Fremantle Town Hall, Auckland Town Hall, Melbourne’s City Baths, Town Hall Administration Building, Supreme Court of Australia, Queen Victoria Hospital, and Royal Melbourne Mint.

New Town Hall Brisbane accepted design1 - JJ Clark - State Library of Victoria 704583761The items that I found hidden in the park that day (see photo below) included a 164-year-old Queen Victoria sixpence and a 112-year-old King Edward II halfpenny. However, it was the back of a sterling silver watch case that was hallmarked in Birmingham, England, 1906, that signaled intrigue. I almost threw out the piece thinking it was scrap. Engraved by hand are the letter’s ‘J.J.’ The most famous person of that name in Brisbane at the time was architect John James Clark, commonly called ‘J.J.’

The style with which J.J. dressed suggests that the 1900s sterling silver collar stud that I found could have also been his. Whether J.J. himself had lost these things, I don’t think it matters, because the treasures that I found led me to learn for the first time about this great contributor to our history and culture.

King Edward Park - best findsClark was born in 1838 in Liverpool, England,  and when he was thirteen he migrated to Melbourne where he lived for the next thirty years. It was there that he served as an officer of the Victorian Volunteer Engineers. (See the main photo above – that’s him standing second from left.) Clark moved where his career took him, and for a total of thirteen years from 1883 to 1902 resided in Brisbane with his son Edward John ‘E.J.’ Clark. His work attracted some controversy due to Clark’s penchant for running a private practice while also in the employ of colonial governments.

Clark embarked on a world tour in 1907 and returned to Australia in 1908. This was the same year that his son’s father-in-law died, which may have been the reason for his visit to Brisbane. The 1906 English-made watch could have been bought on J.J.’s world tour and then lost on his return, along with the 1907 penny and 1900s collar stud. J.J.’s city office a few years earlier was just 400 metres from where I made the discoveries.

His son E.J. had been married at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Brisbane in 1899, and when I was given permission to metal detect there, I found a button from the period purchased from a top-end Brisbane clothing store. Co-incidentally it was owned by another Clark, Brisbane mayor John A. Clark.

A devoted and tireless practitioner, J.J. Clark passed away in 1915, having never retired. When he died he was called ‘Australia’s greatest architect’. His architectural legacy is among the most distinguished in Australia.

King Edward Park - hallmark mystery (2)The remarkable history that I found in the park included hot metal typeset used to print a Bayards department store advertisement in Brisbane’s Telegraph newspaper in 1928. However, it was the sterling silver that led me to J.J., that was most extraordinary. Maybe it was his tireless ghost that guided me that day.

You’ve read the story, now please click here watch the short film.

Photo credits:
J J Clark standing second from left as an officer of the Victorian Volunteer Engineers 1861 – Photograph by Batchelder and ONeill, State Library Victoria H26046
John James Clark 1838-1915 – John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
New Town Hall Brisbane accepted design 1884 – State Library of Victoria 704583761
Best finds – my own
Hallmark mystery – my own


  1. Interesting, Harold, that your finds are still close to the surface. You`d think with the passage of time and gardening (mowing, top-dressing, etc.), that objects would be buried deeper. I remember reading of an early cottage in Sydney where small items were found six feet under around the building. But that might be an extreme case.


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