Photos of the building of the University taken by John Smith, 1857 to 1862

Establishment of the University of Sydney

The University of Sydney is the oldest university in Australia, incorporated by an act of the New South Wales Parliament on 1 October 1850. The University was inaugurated on Monday 11 October 1852 in the hall of what is now Sydney Grammar School in College Street. In 1853 the Senate of the University negotiated with the government for site known as Grose Farm a few kilometres west of Sydney, on what is now Parramatta Road . A building sub-committee of Senate recommended an "Elizabethan style" for the University accommodation at Grose Farm, because it allowed "indefinite extension without impairing its general effect as a whole."


In 1854 Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883) (guide to his papers here), who although Colonial Architect at the time retained his private practice, was engaged as University Architect on the proviso that he resigned his Government Office. In June of that year Blacket presented plans and designs for the University buildings before the Senate. The original plans by Blacket have apparently not survived. The University Archives holds a photographic copy of one of the ground plans signed by Blacket.

This elevation, which is unsigned, is not in the same hand as drawings signed by Blacket, but is the earliest original drawing of the buildings held by the University Archives. It also differs in detail from the building as constructed. The image reproduced shows the drawing prior to conservation.


In 1855, 128 acres of Grose Farm were received by deed of grant from the colonial government. Following the clearing of the ground and laying of part of the foundations, the walls of the Great Hall were completed to a height of 21 feet in 1855. The decision had been made during the year for the building to be of stone rather than brick. Blacket had put the total cost of the work in stone at one hundred and forty eight thousand pounds.

By the end of 1856 work had commenced on the eastern front, described by Senate in its "Re port for 1855" as: "(1) The Great Hall, 135 feet, by 45 feet, by 71 feet high; (2) the compartments between the Hall and the centre tower; (3) the centre tower with turrets to a height of 101 feet; (4) the compartment on the other side of the tower, corresponding to compartment two; and (5) the compartment containing the Laboratory at the south eastern corner of the building."

The view below shows masons at work on the carvings for the central tower. The central figure (in top hat) is James Barnet , Clerk of Works. c. 1857

Carving the gargoyles

In Michaelmas Term 1857 sufficient progress had been made for the professors to commence lecturing in the incomplete structure.

The image shows the Main Building c. 1857. It is interesting because it shows the three foundation professors of the University, John Smith (timing the exposure, left), Morris Birkbeck Pell (1827-1879) Professor of Mathematics, and John Woolley (1816-1866) Principal and Professor of Classics.

Founding professors inspecting the carving

The Senate required additional funds to complete the buildings. It was not until January 1859 that advice came from the Legislative Assembly that more money had been granted. Contracts were signed for the completion of the eastern front, with the exception of internal fittings and the battlements of the tower. At the commencement of Trinity Term in 1859 work on the Great Hall was sufficiently completed for it to be used in the Annual Commemoration. This was held on Monday 18 July of that year, and was effectively the public opening of the buildings.

This view shows the incomplete tower and sections of the facade. It bears the initials J. S. and the date 18/11/59. Note that the roof and windows on the left (southern side) are incomplete. Blacket provided the University with a choice of different tops to the central tower.

Entrance to Great Hall

In 1860 funds which were to be used to complete the battlements of the tower were used to house the Nicholson collection of antiquities. In 1862 the University received an addition grant to complete the tower and the entire interior, with the exception of two rooms. Below is a view of the completed building, with builders fence still in place, and below that is a view of the completed University from Parramatta Road.

Main Quadrangle
Main Quadrangle from a distance

These two photos show the Great Hall, with the Angel of Knowledge which was removed c. 1874 because it was unstable, and a general view from the south east.

Angel of Knowledge
Angel of Knowledge from a distance