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Architect Personal Details



First name

William Bennett







William Hays was a colonial government civil engineer and architect. He was responsible for several important structures which were constructed in the early decades of South Australia’s settlement most notably a bridge over the River Torrens and the House of Assembly building.

William Bennett Hays was born in Wandsworth, Surrey, England in 1814 to Thomas and Elizabeth Hays. He was christened at St Mary’s Church, Lewisham, London on 15 December 1814. His first marriage was to Elizabeth Hays on 20 June 1839 at St Mary Newington, Surrey (Australian Dictionary of Biography – Online Edition).

Hays arrived in South Australia on 4 November 1849 aboard the ship Navarino. At the age of 36, after being widowed, he married Harriet Gilbert on 3 October 1850 at the Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide (SLSA Family History Database). They had three daughters; Mary born on 25 August 1853 at Glen Osmond, Anna born c.1855, and Mennie Cara born c.1863. The two youngest daughters were not born in South Australia (SLSA Family History Database).

Prior to migrating to Australia, Hays worked for Walker and Burgess on various railway projects in both England and Ireland (Cumming and Moxham 1986: 95). After settling in South Australia, he was appointed Surveyor of Main Roads in January 1850 and shortly after on 8 March he was promoted to Clerk of Works and Architect (Morgan and Gilbert 1969: 148) (Page 1986: 30). On 27 October 1851, a sub-committee of the Legislative Council called for the establishment of a new position entitled Colonial Architect and Supervisor of Works (SRSA GRG38 online). Hays was appointed to this position on 1 January 1852. As head of the Colonial Architect’s Department, as it became known, his role was to ‘exercise a general and complete supervision over all public works’ (SRSA GRG38 online). In January 1855 he took a year’s leave of absence due to ‘circumstances of a private nature’ and travelled back to England (Morgan and Gilbert 1969: 148). In January 1856 Hays was dismissed from the Public Works Department, as it was then known (Morgan and Gilbert 1969: 148). It is unclear whether he returned to South Australia. By 1861 Hays was living in England with his family (SLSA Family History Database). It is not known when Hays died although he predeceased his wife who died in October 1887 (Australian Dictionary of Biography – Online Edition).

Hays had wide ranging interests. In 1850 Hays, noted as a ‘civil engineer’, was issued a South Australian patent for the term of ten years for ‘the exclusive right to an improved method of Manufacturing Charcoal, for making available most of the other component parts of Wood, and for applying the gaseous products of such Wood’ (Flinders University online). In 1853 he became a founding member of the Adelaide Philosophical Society (Cumming and Moxham 1986: 95). In 1855 while in England he applied for, and was granted, another patent for ‘an improved breakwater’ (Brookman online) (Woodcroft online).

Although Hays had published several papers in the late 1830s, it was not until 1856 when he wrote his book entitled Engineering in South Australia: being an account of the principal public works now executed: preceded by a historical sketch of the colony, from its foundation to the present time. Hays’ text was published in London and through it he promoted his role in developing the colony’s key public works. He described his attempt to improve the colony’s roads by introducing ‘a formation somewhat analogous to the plank roads of America’ (Hays 1856: 21). He experimented with designing a eucalyptus or red gum plank road on a substrate of sand as a roadway approach for one of the colony’s new jetties.

In his text, Hays also described the colony’s requirement for a bridge across the River Torrens which would connect the city proper to North Adelaide. After the failure of numerous early bridges and the ‘destruction of the principal bridges in the winter of 1852’, the government held a design competition for a new bridge from King William Street (Hays 1856: 27). Architect Edmund William Wright was awarded first prize. The winning design was never constructed though because, according to Hays, ‘the river had made such inroads upon its banks, that the plan was found to be no longer suitable’ (Hays 1856: 27). In 1853 Hays was commissioned to design a new bridge. There was public outcry when Wright’s design was usurped by Hays (Jensen and Jensen 1980: 94). However Hays’ bridge went ahead and the foundations were laid in 1853-4. The bridge was a single clear span with stone foundations, wing-walls, and abutments, two wrought iron bowstring girders with plate-iron cross girders which carried the road and footpath. The roadway was built with timber bearers and decking. Hays did not supervise the construction of the bridge (Page 1986: 33). The bridge was completed c.1856 but no longer stands.

One of Hays’ most detailed accounts in his book was for the ‘Port Elliott [sic] and Goolwa Railway, and Harbour Improvements’ (Hays 1856: 34). In 1851 the government requested Hays to implement the scheme for a single line railway between Port Elliot and Goolwa (to be worked by horses initially and later locomotives), including a small wharf at Goolwa and a jetty, a small breakwater and moorings at Port Elliot (Hays 1856: 34, 39, 41). The railway line was opened in May 1854. This development was significant because it linked the River Murray with the sea via Port Elliot (Hays 1856: 36). The construction of the Port Elliot breakwater commenced in April 1853. It was built of granite and was completed c.1855.

Hays’ experimentation and interest in breakwaters coincided with his design of the Glenelg Jetty (Jensen and Jensen 1980: 208). During leave in England Hays ‘arranged the purchase of material for the Glenelg Jetty … [h]e selected an expensive method of shipping this material’ (Cumming and Moxham 1986: 95). While on leave, he was also accused of receiving a £76 payment from a contractor who had used one of his patents when constructing the Port Willunga Jetty; a payment which had not been disclosed to the government. These events later led to his dismissal from the Public Works Department in 1856.

Earlier, in September 1851, a design competition was held by the government for ‘plans, specifications and estimates for additions to the existing Legislature or for a completely new building’ (Jensen and Jensen 1980: 101). Hays won the competition but there was disquiet about favouritism by one of the judges (Page 1986: 32). In 1853 he drew up plans and prepared cost estimates for a House of Assembly building ‘to accommodate two chambers, one for thirty six members and the other for twelve, costing no more than £20,000’ (Marsden 1996: 246). It was to adjoin the existing Legislative Council Chamber. It was designed in the Elizabethan style and was constructed from limestone and red brickwork. In 1854 the builders English & Brown began work. The building was completed in 1855. It is Hays' best-known surviving work. The building has undergone many subsequent alterations and additions and is now known as Old Parliament House. ‘As the name … suggests, this is one of South Australia’s most important historical buildings as it was the first permanent site of the South Australian parliament’ (Marsden 1996: 245).

Hays designed other public buildings including, in 1854, additions to the Mounted Police Barracks in the form of the Armoury and inspector's residences for the police (Marsden 1996: 256). 'The Armoury was ... a single storey building, but it was very tall with a steep roof ... [it] is unique in South Australia, its scope (and the large cache of arms it held) indicating the strength of the colony's mounted police in the early decades of settlement' (Marsden 1996: 257).

During the period from 1850 to 1855 when Hays worked as a government architect, it is likely that he was involved in the design of other public works including the additions to Government House (1855).

Susan Collins

Citation details
Collins, Susan, ‘Hays, William Bennett', Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia: []




Architectural works in South Australia

Name Suburb Year Designed
House of Assembly Adelaide
Armoury and Inspectors' Residences Adelaide
River Torrens Bridge Adelaide

Firms or Professional Partnerships

Name Dates Worked

Bibliographic Sources


Cumming, D.A. and Moxham, G.C. (1986) They Built South Australia: Engineers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Contractors and Their Work. Cumming and Moxham, South Australia.
Hays, William Bennett (1856) Engineering in South Australia: being an account of the principal public works now executed: preceded by a historical sketch of the colony from its foundation to the present time, John Knott, London.
Jensen, Elfrida and Jensen, Rolf (1980) Colonial Architecture in South Australia: a definitive chronicle of development 1836-1890 and the social history of the times, Rigby Publishers Ltd. Adelaide.
Langmead, Donald (1994) Accidental Architect: The Life and Times of George Strickland Kingston, Crossing Press, Sydney.
Lustri, S. (2012) 'Hays, William Bennett' in Goad, P. and Willis, J. (eds) The encyclopaedia of Australian architecture, Cambridge University Press: 320.
Marsden, S., Stark, P. and Sumerling, P, (1990, second imprint 1996) Heritage of the City of Adelaide: An illustrated guide, Corporation of the City of Adelaide, Adelaide.
Morgan, EJR and Gilbert, SH (1969) Early Adelaide Architecture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Page, M (1986) Sculptors in Space: South Australian Architects 1836-1986, RAIA (SA), Adelaide.

Jolly, Bridget (2000) Preliminary listing for the Database of Australasian Architects and Associated Professionals, unpublished report.

State Records of South Australia (SRSA), GRG38 Public Buildings Department, and the predecessor and successor agencies.
State Records of South Australia (SRSA), GRG42 South Australian Railways.

Australian Heritage Places Inventory, (Old Parliament House, North Terrace, Adelaide - Register of National Estate) accessed online 18 August 2008 at
Brookman, R.A. (ed.) (1855) The Mechanics’ Magazine, Robertson, Brookman, and Co., Mechanics Magazine Office, London, p.455 accessed online 18 August 2008 at
Fencak, Mary M., 'Hays, William Bennett (1814-1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography accessed online 29 July 2008 at
Flinders Academic Commons, Flinders University, accessed online 18 August 2008 at
Woodcroft, Bennet (1856) Chronological Index of Patents Applied for and Patents granted, for the Year 1855, Order of the Honourable the Commissioners’ of Patents, London, p.51 accessed online 18 August 2008 at

State Library of South Australia (SLSA) Family History Database, Ancestry UK Database, ‘Marriage Index 1837-1983’, ‘1861 England Census’, and ‘1871 England Census’.

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