Sydney Architecture Images- Gone but not forgotten

Union Club


William Wardell


2 Bligh Street


1883- 87, demolished


Victorian Italianate Renaissance Revival




  The Union Club, originally located at 2 Bligh Street, Sydney, was designed by William Wardell in 1884 in the Classical Revival style. The site is now occupied by the Sofitel Wentworth Hotel. On the site previously was Robert Campbell's house.
Above- with the Hotel Metropole in the background.
Above- on the site today, the Sofitel Wentworth Hotel.

Within the fine Francis Greenway-designed St James' Church in King Street, Sydney, can be found a marble tablet, which reads:

In memory of Robert Campbell, Esquire, of Bligh-street, Sydney, the last surviving son of the late William Campbell Esq., Advocate of Scotland. Born 8th FEBry1789, died OCTr 5, 1851. Agnes Sarah, youngest daughter of the above Robert Campbell, and Margaret, his wife, born 6th DECr 1820. Died 13th DECr 1825;William Mori"ison, second son of the above, born 5thFEBry, 1813, died 23rd SEPTr 1833; and James Piper, their third son, born 17th AUGst 1815, died June 29,1839.
Thy will be done.

Through some miracle St James' remains much as Greenway built it, apart from the additions executed by John Verge and Varney Parkes. For well over one hundred and fifty years it has played an important part in the spiritual life of New South Wales. When Sydney was a town barely extending past the Darlinghurst Ridge to the east and land north of the harbour was hardly settled, St James' drew together its Anglican worshippers. Many of the colony's leading citizens met each Sunday morning at the church, driving up in handsome coaches and dressed in their finest clothes. One of the more prominent families were the Campbells; indeed it was a name that almost dominated early Sydney.

In the 1820s there were two Campbells of note in the mercantile trade: Robert Campbell "of the Wharf', the older Scottish immigrant who built an enormous business reputation by the shores of Sydney Cove, and his nephew, who set up in competition in his home in Bligh Street, and in so doing created a rift in the family that was never entirely healed. The latter Robert Campbell, who was designated 'junior" to avoid undue confusion, built a magnificent stone residence on his land. The architect was Francis Greenway, one of Australia's first architects and today one of the best known. The mansion dominated Bligh and Bent Streets and was both a home to Campbell's large family and the base from which a thriving mercantile business grew. On his death in 1851, it was briefly a home for his widow, Margaret, then was leased and later sold to the Union Club as a new clubhouse.

It was extended in the mid-1870s by Benjamin Backhouse, refurbished on various occasions and finally demolished in 1884 to make way for new club buildings designed by William Wilkinson Wardell. In the late 1950s these buildings too were demolished. The Union Club still retains its position on the Bligh and Bent Street corner, but much of Campbell's original land now forms part of the Wentworth Hotel site. The man who came to be known as Robert Campbell Junior was born at Greenock, Scotland, in February 1789, the eldest son of William Campbell. He was apprenticed to a surgeon, but in 1805 was persuaded to travel to New South Wales with his uncle, Robert Campbell.

Arriving in Sydney in August 1806 aboard the Albion, the seventeen-year-old Campbell began work at the Wharf offices of Campbell and Company. The following year he learned his first hard lesson in the colonial life of Sydney. In October 1807 Campbell assisted his uncle, who was acting as naval officer, to seize stills illegally imported into New South Wales. Governor Bligh tells the story in a dispatch to William Windham dated 31 October 1807:The Distillation of Spirits being prohibited for the best and wisest reasons, everything has been done to prevent such a destructive business being carried on; nevertheless, a defiance has been set up to Government by Mr McArthur, in importing a Still of sixty Gallons [273 litres], directed to himself and another of forty Gallons [182litres] directed to Captain Abbott, of the New South Wales Corps, brought out in the ship Dart, consigned to Mr McArthur, as part owner of the said ship with the House of Bullets and Company, of London. These Stills I ordered into the King's Stores to be sent to the Custom House in London by the safest opportunity .

On'' their being directed to be put on board the Duke of Portland, the Coppers were found in Mr McArthur's House, from when, after some objection, they were taken by a young Gentleman, the Naval Officer's Clerk, in consequence of my orders, and shipped with the other parts; but Mr McArthur, not being satisfied, called the Naval Officer's Clerk before a Bench of Magistrates (the Minutes of which are enclosed) and on which I regret being obliged to shew, by his speech, the inimicability of his mind to Government. Campbell junior appeared before Major George Johnston, Richard Atkins and John Palmer. Macarthur was powerful and a champion of the rebel officers who were growing increasingly hostile to Bligh. It was no surprise that by a two to one majority (Palmer dissenting) that the judgment went to Macarthur on the grounds that Campbell had no official status. Campbell emerged from this experience much wiser as to the actual power in the colony, demonstrated just a short time later when Bligh was forcibly removed from office and the military took control.

This did not stop him, however, from taking the post of assistant naval officer in 1810, evidenced by the official notice appearing in the Sydney Gazette of 31 March. His uncle had resigned and the governor appointed Captain Henry Glenholme of the 73rd Regiment to the post, with Campbell junior as second-in-command. Campbell's appointment took effect from the first day of April of that year. His period at the Wharf gave him the necessary mercantile experience to pursue his own business. In 1811 he funded the establishment of a Hunter Street retail establishment, managed by an Edward Lambe.

At this time Robert Campbell Senior was in England and by the time he returned in 1814,Robert junior had left the Wharf and established his own company, operating from a newly acquired residence in Bligh Street. Despite the occasional recessions that affected the colony in the early nineteenth century, it was still possible for talented merchants to reap handsome rewards. Campbell was one of those men, and he prospered despite the hostility of his uncle and most of the family, who came to view the nephew's business dealings with less than charity.

By 1812 he wasmarketing a large variety of goods from his home No. 8 Bligh Street. A notice in the Sydney Gazette in early March 1812 indicated that Campbell was selling sugar by the ton for five pence per pound (450 grams) or by the bag for sixpence per pound, tablecloths, calico by the bale or single piece, saltpetre, pepper, tallow and wax candles, window glass, sugar candy, Madeira, wine, rice, coffee,, tobacco, Cape wine by the cask, vinegar, gunpowder, earthenware, rope and cables. In 1812 he married Margaret Murrell, a seventeen year-old girl born in the colony.

The Campbell family eventually included four sons and a daughter. The confusion that arose between uncle and nephew of the same name continued into the next generation. Robert senior's second son, born in 1804, was named Robert but, despite later carrying on his father's business, did not acquire any distinguishing title. Robert junior's son, born in 1811, was also named Robert, but was generally known as Robert Tertius. Campbell's other sons included William Morrison, born 1813, and James Piper, born 1815.

His only daughter, Agnes Sarah, was born 1820.With an expanding family (Campbell was, by February 1819, advertising for a "Female Servant of good character as Nursery Maid") and a thriving business operating from the family home, conditions were getting rather cramped. Campbell must have considered that there was no finer area for a developing mercantile empire than Bligh Street, for in 1820 he began to purchase adjoining properties along the eastern side of the street. On 27 March he completed the purchase, for £35,of the land and residence on the corner of Bligh and Bent Streets. The house, known as the "Mud Cottage", was bought from its owner, Thomas Winder. On 29 March Campbell brought from John Austin a property for £25, and on 10 May he made his largest purchase, a large area for which he paid £120. It was on these consolidated blocks, running a quarter of the length of Bligh Street from Bent Street, that Campbell envisaged constructing his new home and offices.

The architect he chose was Francis Greenway and by June 1822 this ex-convict, whose career had been fostered and encouraged by Governor Macquarie, was advrrtising for stone masons willing to work on the building. With its completion, the Campbell reputation was fully established- a mansion in a city of few mansions, built with the proceeds of a business barely ten years old, but so successful that Campbell later boasted that between 1811 and1813 he made in excess of £20,000. The 1820s were even more profitable; there were no checks to the Campbell fortunes as had occurred during the depressions of the previous decade.

In 1822 he advertised a wide variety of items including baskets of Brazilian tobacco, raisins at £2 16s per box of 25 to 28 pounds, hams at £1 9s per pound, English and Swedish iron and iron pots, all of which sold readily. On 2 January 1826 he gave notice in the Sydney Gazette that "AFEW PIPES of very superior TENERIFFE, ex Brig Columbia, are now on SALE at Mr R. CAMPBELL'S, jun. Bligh-street, at the Rate of Six Shillings per Gallon". Campbell was also a prominent Freemason and in 1825 he was appointed Worshipful Master of the Australian Social Lodge No. 260. In 1835, by which time he was already a director of the Bank of New South Wales, Campbell further extended his business by forming Campbell and Company in partnership with James Milson. Milson's father, also James, had travelled with Campbell to Australia aboard the Albion.

Although beginning colonial life as a farmer, the elder Milson gathered extensive land holdings, including the areas later known as Hunters Hill, Castle Hill, Pennant Hills, Milsons Point and Neutral Bay. When his son reached nineteen years of age, Milson provided him with the capital to enter into partnership with Campbell. Times were not easy and a depression in the early1840s almost destroyed the company. These difficulties were weathered, however, and by the time Milson branched into business on his own in 1846, Campbell had brought Robert Tertius into the company. Tertius had, by the mid-1840s, acquired a considerable fortune of his own and his residence at Woolloomooloo was justly regarded as one of the finest in the area. At the time Samuel Lyons was auctioning the subdivision of the late Chief Justice Sir James Dowling's Woolloomooloo holdings in December 1844, the mere mention that Robert Tertius Campbell's residence was in the immediate vicinity was enough to ensure that potential buyers were fully aware of the social importance of the area. Robert Tertius left Australia in the late 1840s to settle in England.

On the morning of Sunday, 5 October 1851, Robert Campbell of Bligh Street died. He was 63 years of age. Led by the black-garbed figure of his wife and members of the Australian Social Lodge No. 260, the funeral procession moved from the mansion at 8 o'clock on the morning of the following Thursday. Campbell was buried at Waverley Cemetery. Black veils shrouded the marble mourning busts in the foyer of Campbell's house, but life carried on, after a respectable period, very much as before. Campbell's judicious investments provided a suitable income for the estate and were supervised by trusted and respected friends of the family. In 1855 the east side of Bligh Street was occupied by only four properties.

Mrs Campbell continued to live in the family mansion at 1-3 Bligh Street, while the large stores complex, later known as "The Barracks", to the south and rear of the main buildings was occupied by William Goodman Henfrey, manufacturer of cordials and aerated waters. At No.5 was Francis B. Miller, assay officer of the Sydney Mint and James Lunn, coffee merchant, and No. 7 was shared by H. Noufflard, an importer and buyer of Australian wool for the French market, and John Armitage Buttrey, a merchant. The west side was considerably more congested. Occupiers included the East India Company's Horse Repository operated at No.18 by Buchan Thomson, a railway contractor named William Randle at No. 10, the Government Emigration Office, the City Grammar School, and Thomas Frederick Staddon, wholesale confectioner.

In 1857 there occurred an event that would have agreat impact on the Campbell house. At leased premises in Wynyard Square, a group of professional men formed the Union Club. The first president was James Macarthur, son of John. The club attracted members rapidly and by August of the founding year larger premises were an urgent necessity. Several sites were inspected and the Campbell residence, which had lain vacant since Margaret Campbell's departure for England in the mid-1850s, was decided upon. James Milson, acting as Mrs Campbell's attorney, leased the property to the Union Club for a period of three years at £800per annum. The lease was signed late in October 1859 and in December the Club moved to Bligh Street. There were almost 300 members by this time and the president was Sir William Westbrook Burton, then president of the Legislative Council.

When William Henfrey's lease on the adjoining warehouse expired in 1863, the club took out a ten-year lease for both residence and warehouse. The total annual rental was £1000, dependent on the club carrying out certain improvements. On 6 July 1865 the committee allowed a resolution inviting members to contribute £5 each to defray costs, which to that date had exceeded £1000. In publishing a view of the Union Club, the Illustrated Sydney News of 3 October 1868 noted: Clubs and Clubhouses are becoming prominent throughout the world, and in this respect Australians are keeping pace with the times. Sydney contains five admirably managed establishments of this character, the most flourishing being the subject of our illustration, which is located at the corner of Bent and Bligh-streets the mansion formerly occupied by the Campbell family.

As the name implies "The Union" is the resort of all shades of religious and political opinions, but both subjects are strictly tabooed at the table. The premises contain all the necessary accommodation for the members, including a splendid billiard room, which was patronised by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, K. G., and suite during their late visit to New South Wales. By this time Margaret Campbell had passed away, leaving not only the mansion but also extensive holdings in the Bank of New South Wales, the Gas Company, the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) and the Union Bank. Several years later the Union Club offered her trustees, James Milson and Edward Knox, founder of CSR, £15,000 for the house, but this fell far below the estimated value and was politely rejected.

The club's officers endeavoured to find other sites, with a view to building their own clubhouse. Sites in Bent Street, Castlereagh Street, and land fronting Hyde Park as well as a position just across Bligh Street were investigated and rejected. Finally, negotiations recommenced with Milson and Knox, the result being the recommendation of the Union Club's committee on21 July 1873 that the offer to sell the premises for £20,000 be accepted. At the same meeting the subscription and entrance fees were increased. The Campbell property underwent changes from the early days of the club's occupancy. The stores were remodelled and became the bedroom Wing; for almost one hundred years this building was known as "The Barracks". When the mansion itself was demolished, the Barracks were the only part of Campbell's buildings to remain.

A weatherboard billiard room was added in 1867-68, and was outfitted in time to become the virtual hostel for the entourage of the visiting Duke of Edinburgh in January 1868. The first stage of the plan to demolish the Campbell house and rebuild was the addition of a new wing with a dining hall and kitchen, which was commenced in 1875. The architect was Benjamin Backhouse (he won a £100 first prize for the design), and the total cost was £6650. It was completed in 1877, and the following year new servants' quarters were begun. The design by George Allan Mansfield followed the Committee's instructions that the new building should utilise "the Rackets Court and embodying absolute segregation of sexes a good drying ground, two bathrooms for men- two or three lavatory basins on each floor and a space to be reserved for a two-stall cow byre and feed room".

In 1882 the firm of Richardson and Wrench valued the property at £47,500. It measured 99 metres to Bligh Street, 44 metres to Bent Street and 25 metres to Phillip Street. The central portion of the Campbell house was first to be demolished and rebuilt to the new plan. Then the northern portion, facing Bent Street, fell, until by 1886 nothing remained of the Regency home from where Campbell had made his fortune. In its place was a fine example of Classic Revival, grim and austere in Pyrmont sandstone, and designed by William Wilkinson Wardell. Under the heading "Public Improvements", the Sydney Morning Herald of 5 March 1887 carried a report of the new building: The Union is the only club proper in Sydney where the members can luxuriate in the enviable dolce vita beneath their own shade-trees, in a veritable rus in urbe,and imagine themselves sitting in the grounds of a comfortable mansion far away from the worry and cares of everyday life.

The original premises became in time too small for accommodation of the still increasing membership, and Mr W. W. Wardell, now of the firm of Wardell and Vernon, was requested to make out the drawings for the necessary additions and alterations to the old building. The present works were commenced in April, 1884, and the execution of the contract was entrusted to the excellent hands of Messrs. McLeod and Noble. As it was requisite to study the conveniences of the members, only a portion of the additions was carried out at first, which accounts for the apparently long time that the work has been in hand.

The style of architecture adopted in this case, by Mr Wardell is Italian, and very suitable to the kind of building to which it has been applied, the severe character of the details of the elevation harmonising well with the fine site; those of the ground floor being the stately Doric, and those of the upper floors the lighter and more plastic Ionic. The main entrance remained the Bligh Street frontage, up a flight of steps from the street and under a portico 13 metres long that towered 9 metres above the pavement. As the guests entered the vestibule, to the right was the hall porter's room and to the left the strangers' reception room. Forward through the vestibule was a corridor running transversely, with a second large vestibule and entrances to the private dining room and the reading room, where a large bay window gave views of the garden.

The main stairs ran up from the principal hall, over 10 metres long and6 metres wide and ringed by galleries. The stairs were nearly2 metres wide and were enclosed with a wrought-iron balustrade. At the foot of the stairs were two large newels, topped with elegant lamps. The smoking room, through which access could be gained to the garden, was to the left of the principal hall. Further down the corridor was the dining room with access to the secretary's room, the back stairs, pantries, serving rooms and clerk's office. On the first floor was the library, and through one of its three large windows was a balcony set on top of the Bligh Street portico. There were eight club bedrooms on the first floor, plus the secretary's bedroom and three card rooms. On the second floor were another fifteen bedrooms.

Until 1955, when the committee decided to sell the southern portion of its property and build a new clubhouse on the remaining portion, Wardell's Union Club played host to a large number of visiting dignitaries. Perhaps the best known was novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who in the hushed precincts of the Union Club's library penned the "Open Letter to the Reverend Dr Hyde", otherwise known as the Damien Letter, early in ·1890. Stevenson had visited a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai the previous year and although he did not meet its priest, Father Damien, who had died a month before his arrival, he was greatly impressed with his work. When the Reverend Dr Hyde, a minister in Honolulu, made a stinging attack on the character of Damien, reprinted in a Sydney newspaper, Stevenson vented his outrage by composing the Damien Letter.

It was published in the Sydney Star on 24 May1890, and in newspapers throughout the world, and had extensive distribution as a pamphlet. A plaque commemorating the event, as well as the leather chair in which Stevenson sat, remain prized possessions of the Union Club. After Wardell's Union Club was demolished, new premises were built in 1958 fronting Bent Street. Although the club had occupied two of the more remarkable buildings of nineteenth-century Sydney, the current premises are nondescript. The major portion of Campbell's land is now the rear of the Sheraton-Wentworth Hotel.


Lost Glories: A Memorial to Forgotten Australian Buildings
David Latta, Angus & Robertson, 1986