One of Bastow’s early designs for the Department of Education in 1874 - Walhalla State School no.253: Photographs of State School Buildings. Department of Education: VPRS SSO957-3: Reproduced with permission of the keeper of public records, Public Records Office of Victoria
Henry Robert Bastow was the son of surveyor Henry and housewife Susanna Bastow. Life must have been good for the family for they employed a house servant and put young Bastow through school. He was then offered an apprenticeship in architecture.
The family lived in Bridport, England – which, like any town with a thousand years of Anglo occupation, was steeped in heritage. Castles, imposing cathedrals, elegant grand town halls with handsome clock towers, even small and quaint limestone houses – all this must have impressed Bastow as a young boy.
From his simple small-town existence in Bridport the young Bastow headed to the larger Dorchester to study architecture. Thomas Hardy, poet and author of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd, was also apprenticed, and Bastow and Hardy became friends.
This friendship with Hardy must have included lively debate about religion and other social issues as Hardy toyed with the idea of converting to Bastow’s Baptist faith, but changed his mind. The two exchanged mail for many years after Bastow’s emigration to Australia.
Chapter 16: A Hat, a Staircase and a Mighty ControversyThere was something of the adventurer in Bastow, for he joined the thousands who were seeking their fortune in newly colonised Australia. Where there was gold, there lay the opportunity for architectural greatness, and Bastow wanted that opportunity.
Bastow emigrated to Tasmania, where his first significant entry into the world of architecture was when he won a design award for Hobart’s Town Hall in 1861. This could have been a great triumph for Bastow, but his design was never used. A complaint about the height of the grand staircase in the Town Hall was printed in the Tasmanian Mercury.
Bastow stood up for himself:
“… with reference to the only objection stated, the extreme lowness of the grand staircase, as insufficient for a “ tall man,” or a “ short man,” to go up with his hat on, and find that it is entirely without foundation in fact, and, that in no part is the head room lower than eight feet six inches, …”
HENRY R. BASTOW, Architect, Stone Buildings, 14 February 1862.
Unfortunately the mud stuck. The contract was awarded to architect Henry Hunter – who interestingly had lost out to both first and second place winners in the Town Hall design competition.
Newspaper article of Bastow’s complete response to criticisms about the height of the ceiling in his competition
winning plan for Hobart Town Hall, 14.02.1862: National Library of Australia
Chapter 17: A Wise Move North
Henry and Eliza Bastow with two of their children: Bastow Family Collection
After such public humiliation and the loss of several significant design contracts that followed, Tasmania possibly seemed too parochial for Bastow and he headed north to Victoria. In 1866 he became a draughtsman with the Victorian Water Supply Department, and later, architect and civil engineer with the Railways Department.
He returned to Tasmania in 1867 to marry Eliza Litchfield, daughter of a previous Hobart mayor.
In 1873 things changed significantly with Bastow’s appointment as Victoria’s Departmental Architect and Surveyor in the State Schools Division. The intensity of designing and building hundreds of new schools every year, along with an expanding brood of young Bastows, would have made work and home life demanding.
In 1883 the education building program was transferred to the Public Works Department and Bastow was appointed as their senior architect. This increased the range of influence Bastow had on public design, which contributed to Melbourne’s picturesque gothic look.
Chapter 18: From Architecture to Apples
Bastow in later years. Painter unknown: Bastow Family Collection
Disaster struck in the 1890s when recession forced the retrenchment of thousands of public servants. Bastow was one such casualty. He chose not to pursue architecture further and instead took his family to central Victoria.
Bastow retired from public life, built a simple home equipped with a meeting room for his Brethren fellows, and became an apple orchardist.
Bastow’s influence was felt for decades afterwards, despite changes in architectural style and advancements in our understanding of teaching and learning.
Above all else, it was Bastow’s love of neo-gothic that is most remembered. He gave school buildings individual touches – a sense of grandeur to the large schools, and decorative detail to the small.