Esther Legoe was the first woman to study an architectural course in South Australia although she did not practice as an architect, instead becoming a noted photographer.
Esther Lenn Legoe was the daughter of businessman and grazier Glen Legoe and his wife Jessie (nee Dean) and had a brother, Richard and a sister, Nancy. She was born at Largs Bay on 24 May 1898. As a girl Esther was a keen photographer and painter and ‘began taking photos with a Box Brownie gift aged 12’ (DAAO) converting a cellar of her home into a darkroom and studio. The Legoe home was ‘Trefresa’, at 16 Victoria Avenue, Unley Park, which had significant alterations and additions in the Arts and Crafts style designed by Louis Laybourne Smith of Woods, Bagot, Jory and Laybourne Smith, in 1919, a watercolour of which by Arthur d’Auvergne Boxall (1895-1944) is held in the Gavin Walkley collection of the Architecture Museum, University of South Australia.
Esther had been schooled as a boarder at C.E.G.G.S., Church of England Girls Grammar School at Geelong, Victoria, and when she returned to South Australia to embark on an architectural course she was the first woman to do so. She recalled in a letter to Gavin Walkley that ‘when I was 17 years old – wanting really to be an interior decorator. Architecture was the nearest thing.’ Much of her story has been compiled using letters she wrote to former lecturers at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries (now University of South Australia), Louis Laybourne Smith and Gavin Walkley, and held in the Architecture Museum at the same institution.
Esther Legoe attended the South Australian School of Mines and Industries from 1917 to about 1921. She had almost completed the course, with only two more exams to undertake when she gave up, mistakenly believing women would never be admitted to the Institute of Architects. Esther Legoe began her architectural training when she turned 18 years old, beginning her articles with Woods, Bagot, Jory and Laybourne Smith after filling in time after leaving school with watercolour lessons with Gwen Barringer and modelling at the School of Mines and Industries, and English and Geology lectures at the University of Adelaide.
Louis Laybourne Smith, with the aid of Walter Bagot had founded the Architectural Department at the School of Mines and Industries in 1906. Later, in the 1910s, the School of Mines and Industries and the University of Adelaide agreed to offer a combined four-year course leading to a joint award of Fellowship of the School of Mines and University Diploma in Applied Science in Architectural Engineering. This is the course Esther Legoe enrolled in. Esther recalls attending: ‘I went to Physics lectures at the University given by Prof. Kerr Grant, first year Maths at the University, Architectural History lectures given by Walter Bagot (quite my favourite subject), all those drawing subjects given by Mr Pavia at the School of Mines, and lots of lectures by Louis Laybourne Smith. I attended all the lectures from the office and looked in the shop windows as I walked en route along Rundle Street!!’ Esther recalled, ‘My chief memory of Louis Laybourne Smith is one of kindness. One dark winter’s night I left the School of Mines after a lecture and running across North terrace was knocked over by a bicycle! Mr Laybourne Smith coming along, I think on his motorcycle, picked me up and guided me – still seeing stars – to the oncoming tram bound for Unley Park. I used to enjoy Mr Laybourne Smith’s lectures. He sometimes wore a bow tie.’
In 1917 Esther was ‘the most successful student in the department’ (School of Mines and Industries 1917: 32). It was reported in the Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ Architecture magazine on 20 November 1918 that ‘The Council awarded the annual book prize, value £3, for the best student in the Architectural Course, to Miss Esther Legoe.’ Esther recalled, in a letter to Gavin Walkley, that she ‘topped the classes and won a scholarship … with which I bought two lovely books, - Lutyens English Houses, and another one of Italian Gardens. D’Auvergne Boxall … made a very attractive plate which he stuck in the Lutyens book’. The full titles are E.L. Lutyens, 1914, Houses and Gardens, published by Country Life, and E.March Phillipps, 1919, The Gardens of Italy, published by Country Life, these copies are held at the University of South Australia Library in the Gavin Walkley Special Collection.
While she studied Architecture Esther was also an articled pupil in the office of Woods Bagot Jory and Laybourne Smith, who in a letter to her father expressed the partners’ ‘entire satisfaction’ that she did ‘better than we expected’ and had an ‘excellent attitude towards the routine of the office’. However in a draft of a letter regarding Miss Legoe, Laybourne Smith wrote of his concern that “she must be prepared to meet the various grades of people employed in the Building Trades to face any slight disabilities attendant on inspection of works such as mounting scaffolds”, there he trailed off and the draft of the letter was left unfinished. (Laybourne Smith to Glen Legoe Esq., 7 June 1917).
Esther Legoe noted on the reverse of a watercolour sketch of an office interior made in about 1917-1919 that it was ‘A sketch by d’Auvergne Boxall of part of Woods Bagot Jory & Laybourne Smith’s office in the Steamship Buildings. Mr Harris leaning on his drawing board – strong room on right. My board in foreground and Boxall’s is behind where he sketched this!’ (D’Auvergne Boxall, c.1918). The Steamship Buildings were on Currie Street, Adelaide and are now demolished. Esther Legoe remained working in the office for four and a half years before leaving the profession having ‘heard rumours’ that women would never be admitted to the Institute of Architects.
In 1923 Esther began to pursue ‘an interest in artistic photography as a serious amateur’, and was a member of the Adelaide Photographic Society exhibiting in group exhibition in 1928 (‘Pictorial Photography’ 1928 p19). Her talent was such that her photographs Esther was the first female photographer represented in an Australian public collection at the Art Gallery of South Australia (‘Public Library’ 1926: 12). Recently her photographs were included in a significant exhibition of South Australian photographers in 2007 at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Curator of the exhibition, Julie Robinson, noted in ‘A century in focus: South Australian Photographers 1840s - 1940s’, that her works ‘reveal her love of architecture, gardens and travel’ (2007, p.158). Later, her love of painting took over from photography and she was a member of a women’s art group called ‘The Gropers’ (DAAO).
Esther married Denis Gordon Baylis (1901-1973) in the mid-1920s,and they lived at Binnum in the southeast of South Australia and, later, possibly from 1958 they lived at Kongbool, Balmoral, Victoria. They had two sons. Esther passed away in 1990 and is buried with her husband at the Municipal Cemetery at Drysdale, Victoria.
Collins, Julie, ‘Legoe, Esther Lenn’, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2013, Architects of South Australia: [http://www.architectsdatabase.unisa.edu.au/arch_full.asp?Arch_ID=114]