|List||Commonwealth Heritage List|
|Legal Status||Listed place (24/07/2013)|
|Place File No||9/09/004/0003|
|Summary Statement of Significance|
Australia House is significant as the location of
Australia’s diplomatic presence in the United Kingdom over a period of great
change in our nation’s history. This place has strong associations with
Australia’s High Commissioners – a post that has historically been one of the
most important for Australia – and in particular Stanley Melbourne Bruce.
Australia House is also significant for its rare and impressive architectural
design, decoration and materials. The high degree of integrity associated with
the place with respect to these values is particularly notable.
Completed in 1918, Australia House is significant as one of a number of extraordinary national initiatives that were undertaken after Federation to display Australia’s independence and pride in the newly established nation. Australia House was Australia’s first overseas diplomatic mission and has continued to be a key diplomatic mission for Australia since that time. Australia House is significant for its association with the changing relationship between Australia and the United Kingdom since Federation, and as a diplomatic mission unique among its type.
Australia House is a rare example of an Australian Government building displaying a high degree of creative achievement, richness and exuberance in its form, scale, materials and decoration in the Beaux Arts architectural style. The imposing scale and high quality architectural design of the building reflected Australia’s pride in its newly established nationhood; the importance of the relationship between Australia and the United Kingdom; as well as the dependency of Australia as a former colony on the Imperial motherland.
Until the 1980s, Australia House had a social role as a focal point for expatriate and visiting Australians in London. Australia House also played a major role as the immigration office for the post World War II assisted passage migration scheme to Australia. The migration scheme extended into the 1970s and helped over 1 million British citizens migrate to Australia, which in turn had a major impact on Australian society and culture.
Australia House has a special association with Australia’s High Commissioners to the United Kingdom as their principal place of work. As a group the High Commissioners are important figures in Australia’s history of international relations. In particular, former Australian Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who was appointed High Commissioner in 1933, was able to achieve unprecedented power in the role of High Commissioner. During Bruce’s tenure over 12 years, the High Commissioner played a major role in foreign policy and diplomatic relations.
|Official Values Not Available|
House is located on a block bounded by the Strand, Aldwych
and Melbourne Place, in the heart of London. |
The building is roughly triangular in plan with two basements plus seven floors and a mezzanine (also called an entresol). Australia House is really two buildings – the 1909 Victoria House on the corner of the Strand and Melbourne Place, and the 1918 Australia House which was designed to incorporate Victoria House.
The 1918 building has a steel frame and the external walls are faced with Australian trachyte for the foundation courses and British Portland stone for the upper elevations. There is a flat/trafficable roof behind the upper part of the slate clad mansard roof with copper trimmings. The external windows are steel casements with solid bronze fittings. Internally, there are generally original brick partition walls or later light-weight plasterboard partition walls, hollow brick and reinforced concrete floors, and modern suspended acoustic tile ceilings in office areas. The ceilings in the Exhibition Hall, other main spaces on the ground and first floor, and those in some corridors, as well as walls and string course in some other spaces are stucco (originally described as Lordosis Stuc) which imitates a stone finish.
The main entrance to the building is from the splayed corner of the Strand and Aldwych. In broad terms, rooms are located against the external walls, and there is a central axis from the entrance through the building with the major rooms and the grand staircases either side along its length. Either side of this axis and the centrally located rooms are two large lightwells extending above the mezzanine. Another smaller lightwell is located on the axis closer to the entry corner and extends above the ground floor through the height of the building, with a decorative glass skylight above the first floor.
The two half-circle grand staircases are symmetrically located either side of the central planning axis, closer to the entry corner. The southern staircase extends to all floors, while the northern staircase runs from the lower basement to the second floor. Other notable features of the planning for the various floors include:
-lower basement – a series of storage vaults towards the entry corner and a large, two-storey cinema hall at the back of the building. There is no lower basement under the former Victoria House;
-ground floor – there are a grand series of spaces along the axis including entry spaces leading to a major space, the Exhibition Hall, and another major space on the Strand side of the building;
-mezzanine – includes the upper volumes of the grand spaces on the ground floor;
-first floor – a series of smaller spaces with interesting plan shapes along the axis closer to the entry corner (High Commissioner’s office, rotunda and stair hall), as well as one larger reception space behind – the ornate Downer Room;
-second floor – several smaller spaces with interesting plan shapes along the axis closer to the entry corner, as well as the upper volume of the Downer Room;
-third floor – one larger space on the Strand side of the building;
-sixth floor – one larger space on the axis, to the back of the building; and
-roof – a large part of the roof is trafficable.
External artworks include Mackennal’s bronze sculpture over the entrance of the god Phoebus/Apollo driving his horses of the sun, and Parker’s sculptures flanking the entrance featuring on one side a female figure, a dying explorer and his companion representing the ‘Awakening of Australia’, while on the other figures portray Commonwealth industries denoting the ‘Prosperity of Australia’. Above the door is the Australian coat of arms. Other external decoration includes that integrated with the main external windows – the main arch of each window featuring a large bronze shield, and on the Strand the shields on the six windows bear the coat of arms of the original six States of the Commonwealth. There is also a decorative bronze door to the High Commissioner’s balcony, set into a large window, at the first floor over the main entry to the building. Over the door is a bronze coat of arms for Australia.
The interior has a number of large and highly decorated spaces such as the Exhibition Hall and the Downer Room. There are marble floors, Alabaster light fittings, wood panelling, columns, staircases (including a main spiral staircase running the full height of the building), wall decoration and furniture. Carved panels of Blackbean timber decorate the Downer Room and High Commissioner’s room. Varieties of timber from all Australian states are used in the building, though Blackbean is the most common. The Australian marble used is Buchan (Victoria), Caleula (New South Wales) and Angaston (South Australia).
Later internal artworks include the Tom Thompson murals on the first floor, Jack Carington Smith murals, and paintings in the foyer by Ray Crooke. A large Flemish verdure tapestry is mounted in the Downer Room which was a 1917 wedding gift to the building’s architect, A G R Mackenzie and his wife, from those involved in the construction. After their deaths it was given to the High Commission. The building is also home to a range of other artworks acquired over the years.
The visible exterior features of the former Victoria House match that of the rest of Australia House but the nature of the concealed structure has not been researched. The interior is similar to that for the rest of Australia House. The original external walls and some internal walls of Victoria House survive.
The surviving original furniture is in the late Georgian style.
The building is mostly general office accommodation. Integrated into the building is a quasi-commercial space, the Australia Centre or chancery annex. This houses State government representatives and Austrade, the Australian Wine Board and Tourism Australia.
Australia House, including the modified Victoria House, is broadly in the monumental Beaux Arts style. The building has many decorative spaces and elements, and features include:
-elevations divided into three parts through its height – a base, the main body or colonnade and the parapet above an entablature;
-a mansard roof rises above the parapet and there are two tiers of decorative copper framed dormer windows in the mansard;
-the strongly banded stonework base walls have arched openings to the Strand and Aldwych with windows and secondary doors;
-the southern and northeastern elevations (Strand and Aldwych) are divided into bays with paired giant order Doric columns separating the bays, and three levels of continuous windows are deeply set back behind;
-on the Strand elevation, the former Victoria House has a different treatment with a broadly similar base and parapet to the rest of Australia House, though there are differences in the size and treatment of elements, and the low relief treatment is a more subtle expression of the bay – there are giant order banded Ionian pilasters framing the bay of plain stonework with smaller windows composed in two groups across three levels;
-the splayed entry corner elevation is one large bay with the decorative iron and gilt bronze gates at ground level set into the banded base of the composition, a bay framed by pilasters, with giant order Doric columns and deeply set-back three levels of windows, and the Mackennal sculpture above the cornice set before a prominent parapet. Either side of the main entrance bay at the base are pedestals with the Parker sculptures. Decorative iron gates are also provided to the secondary entrances from the Strand and Aldwych;
-the Melbourne Place elevation has a similar base of strongly banded stonework with arched openings, end bays of banded stonework, six internal bays framed by giant order pilasters with three levels of bronze windows, and entablature, parapet and roof above;
-a linked series of grand, richly decorated spaces from the main entry on the ground floor comprising the vestibule, entrance hall, staircase and Exhibition Hall, and it is still possible to see the entire length of this axis despite the non-original glazed partition walls. There is a decorative wrought iron and bronze screen forming the main inner entrance with an elaborate frieze and gilt bronze decorative elements including a clock case;
-the Exhibition Hall is a large, richly modelled and decorated space which continues the classical theme of the exterior. There are columns, piers, pilasters and panelling, some with decorative relief carvings, surmounted by an entablature – all in polished stone (although historical references also refer to marble stuc), and the entablature has bronze decorative elements. The space has a central open section and a series of side bays formed by stone columns and piers. The floor is also polished stone with a geometric pattern achieved using two types of stone. The domed plaster ceilings have decorative panelled arches between sections, and the skylights are also domed. Lighting is provided by three large and six small chandeliers and by bronze(?) wall mounted lights each in the form of three torches made by Renzo Del Ventissette of Milan. At the Melbourne Place end of the hall is a central doorway with a carved marble coat of arms above;
-the Downer Room (formerly the Library) is also a large, richly decorated space reflecting the classical theme. It has polished Caleula marble columns and pilasters supporting an entablature, a decorative plaster ceiling, and Blackbean timber work including doors, windows and carved timber decorative panels (cartouches) above the doors, and other carved panels in between the windows;
-the High Commissioner’s office features Blackbean timber panelling, Ionic pilasters and columns, cornice and fireplace surround, with carved decoration;
-the grand staircases have marble treads, decorative newels at the lower basement level, decorative metal balustrades with gilt details, and brass handrails;
-the ornate rotunda space on the first and second floors has marble walls and floors, decorative balustrades similar to those of the staircases, and a decorative glazed skylight over the rotunda. Murals are integral with the first floor space;
-there are alabaster light fittings in the ground floor and principal first floor rooms with rams’ heads and wattle decoration; and
-the cinema hall has an impressive volume and retains some decorative elements.
The external and internal decorative elements of the building often have symbolic or referential meanings appropriate to Australia.
Australia House is located in central London in an area with buildings of varying ages from at least the 17th Century through to the modern period. The urban form of the surrounding buildings has a degree of coherence, with a roughly uniform height (3-6 storeys, up to 8 storeys) achieved through varying floor heights, finishes including painted rendered masonry, stone, brick and concrete, and the use of classical architectural elements. The buildings are softened by street trees along the Strand and Aldwych.
Australia House sits at the eastern end of a crescent formed by Aldwych, with the Strand joining the base of the crescent. Australia House faces east to a small square with the 17th Century, heritage listed, Baroque St Clement Danes Church at its centre. Large modern buildings front the southern side of the Strand in this vicinity. To the southwest of Australia House along the Strand is the 18th Century church of St Mary-le-Strand, also heritage listed. Outside of Australia House are two historic grit bins (City of Westminster, Department of Planning and City Development 2003, p.29). There are many other historic buildings in the vicinity including Clement House and Somerset House.
Australia House is a very prominent building given its address to this square, with the roads (Aldwych and the Strand) flowing around it – the Strand being a major London thoroughfare linking St Paul’s Cathedral and Fleet Street with Whitehall.
Australia House is within the Strand Conservation Area identified by the City of Westminster.
‘The Strand Conservation Area incorporates the area from the River Thames through to the southern end of Kingsway and Lincoln's Inn Field, adjacent to the London Borough of Camden and the City of London. The riverside location of the conservation area has shaped its street layout and development. The area's built frontage to the river (the Embankment and Somerset House in particular) makes a significant contribution to the central Thames corridor.
Within this conservation area there are areas of distinct character. The two main routes are the Strand and the Victoria Embankment. The remaining smaller streets contrast in scale with the formal redevelopment around Kingsway and the Aldwych. This includes the substantial complexes of Somerset House and King's College, the Royal Courts of Justice and the London School of Economics.’ (http://www.westminster.gov.uk/services/environment/planning/conservationlisted buildings/areaprofiles/strand/)
As part of this conservation area, Australia House is noted as being in a prominent location and is a landmark in views west along the Strand (City of Westminster, Department of Planning and City Development 2003, p. 22).
of Australian representation in London|
Prior to 1879 the diplomatic representatives of Britain’s colonies in London, including the Australian colonies, were known as Agents-General. The first Agent-General for the Australian colonies was appointed in 1864 by NSW. In 1879 Canada developed a new arrangement and appointed a High Commissioner, who had the status that in other country relationships would be called an ambassador (Australian High Commission 2010a, p. v).
Australia recognised that this arrangement gave Canada a higher diplomatic status than that of its own Agents-General, but made no move to change the Agents-General’s status to High Commissioners until Federation approached and a single independent Australian nation would result. It took almost ten years after Federation in 1901, however, to establish the post of High Commissioner. The Bill to do so was enacted in December 1909 (the High Commissioner (United Kingdom) Act 1909), and Sir George Reid, a former Prime Minister, was appointed the first High Commissioner of the Commonwealth in the United Kingdom on 22 January 1910 (Australian High Commission 2010a, p. v; Chisholm 1958, p. 315).
Construction of Australia House
Sir George Reid joined his first Official Secretary Captain Muirhead Collins in temporary accommodation in Victoria Street, London, in 1910. Captain Collins had in fact been posted in London since 1906, taking four rooms at 72 Victoria Street, and subsequently taking another five rooms upstairs, and then assorted other rooms being added as staff numbers grew, reaching 11 rooms by 1909 (Minute Paper 20/5/09 ‘London office Accommodation’, in Australia House Story 1966, p. 159). In looking for a permanent home, a triangular block of land bounded on the south and east by the Strand, on the north-east by Aldwych, and on the west by Melbourne Place was made available, part of which was leased to the Victorian Government as an office for the State’s Agent-General. The site for the building had been left vacant by a redevelopment of the area to make way for the broad avenues of Kingsway and Aldwych. The freehold for the block was purchased by the Commonwealth Government in 1911 for £379,756 (Chisholm 1958, p. 315; Payne 1993, p. 17). Victoria House, the Victorian Agent-General’s office built in 1907-09 to the design of Alfred Burr, was incorporated into the design and construction of Australia House, though the rights of occupancy of the property did not formally transfer to the Commonwealth until 2006 (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995, p. 15). Victoria House now appears in the streetscape as a seamless part of Australia House, not as a separate building.
A competition for the design of the building to house the High Commission was judged by Australian artists Arthur Streeton, John Longstaff, George W Lambert, Fred Leist and Bertram Mackennal, and was won by Scottish architects Alexander Marshall Mackenzie and his son Alexander George Robertson Mackenzie. Awarded the job in February 1912, plans were available in April that year, and a model of the building was shipped to Melbourne for Commonwealth Government approval (Australia House 1918, pp. 9-10). A M Mackenzie (1848-1933) carried out most of his practice in northern Scotland, often in the Classical and Gothic revival styles. At the turn of the century the firm expanded its reputation with the completion of Marischal College in Aberdeen, and gained Royal patronage. A London office was opened in 1903 with Marshall’s son A G R Mackenzie and brother-in-law and property developer, George Alexander Cooper. The London office won the commission to design the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Aldwych, and Canada House (later deferred and finally cancelled), before winning the competition for Australia House (Dictionary of Scottish Architects). The Senior Assistant to the Australian Director-General of Public Works, and the Commonwealth’s future Chief Architect, J S Murdoch, was sent to London in 1912 to liaise with the architects on the development of the scheme. Murdoch had, perhaps coincidentally, been articled to the Mackenzie firm in Scotland in the 1880s (Office of the High Commissioner 1966, p 23: McDonald 1986).
The Commonwealth’s brief for the building asked for a London headquarters that was a,
‘worthy memorial of the Commonwealth in the metropolis of the Empire which would be a symbolic statement of the strength and stability, the wealth and importance of Australia’ (Payne 1993, p. 7, quoting opening pamphlet)
The brief also sought an Exhibition Hall for the display of Australian products, and rooms that could house the offices of the State Governments (later changed when the States decided to retain their individual offices elsewhere). The design was to meet the London building regulations, and be harmonious with the Aldwych Improvement Scheme of the London County Council (Australia House 1918, pp. 10-11).
King George V laid the foundation stone for Australia House, a name proposed by Sir George Reid, on 24 July 1913. When the Great War broke out in 1914 and most building projects in Britain were put on hold to divert resources to the war effort, the construction of Australia House was allowed to continue ‘arguably due to the morale-boosting value of continuing to ‘build the Empire’, albeit slowly due to delays in the transport of building materials from Australia (Australian High Commission 2010a, p. vi). The six-storey building with two basement levels combining elements, in the architects own description, of Roman and French architectural styles, cost £450,000 and the general contractor was Dove Brothers of Islington (Chisholm 1958, p. 315; Australia House 1918, p. 15). The English Heritage citation for the building describes the style as ‘Monumental Beaux-Arts-Imperial Baroque’ (English Heritage 2010).
Much of the material for the interior, timber, stone and marble, was shipped from Australia during the war, including some 1,200 tons of Buchan, Caleula and Angaston marble (Office of the High Commissioner 1966, pp. 28-29). Australian trachyte was used for the foundation courses with elevations made of British Portland stone, to symbolise the relationship between the two countries. The building was topped with a slate and copper roof. The interior design incorporated large highly decorated public spaces such as the Exhibition Hall, Library and Conference Room (now the Downer Room), and a very high quality of detailing on the marble floors, alabaster light fittings, wood panelling, columns, staircases (including a main spiral staircase originally running the full height of the building), wall decoration and furniture. Carved panels of Blackbean timber decorated the Library and High Commissioner’s room.
The building was well received in Britain and Australia by architects, parliamentarians and the press alike, and was positively reviewed in the British trade journal The Builder (on 5 October 1917 and 12 July 1918), while the Architectural Review (July-December 1918) praised the return to a purer use of classical architecture exemplified by the Beaux-Arts tradition seen in the design of Australia House (Australian High Commission 2010a, p. vi; Australia House 1918, pp. 12-13; Office of the High Commissioner 1966, p. 29; Payne 1993, p. 19).
Australian symbolism adorned the building. The six colonnades on the Strand side represented the States. Bertram Mackennal’s sculpture over the entrance represented the god Phoebus/Apollo driving his horses of the sun, an echo of the Rising Sun emblem worn by Australian soldiers in the ANZAC forces in World War 1. Harold Parker’s sculptures flanking the entrance featured on one side a female figure, a dying explorer and his companion representing the ‘Awakening of Australia’, while on the other side the figures portrayed Commonwealth industries denoting the ‘Prosperity of Australia’. Above the door was placed the Australian coat of arms (Payne 1993, pp. 19-20). The furniture in the late Georgian style was made in Australia.
The acquisition of symbolic Australia art works has continued periodically throughout the life of Australia House, with murals on the first floor by Tom Thompson being mounted in 1959, and paintings in the foyer being commissioned from Ray Crooke in 1975 (Payne 1993, p. 28; Australian High Commission 1967).
The operation of Australia House
The High Commissioner (at that time the Right Honourable Andrew Fisher, former Prime Minister) and his staff were able to move into a portion of the new building late in 1916 (Australia House 1918, p. 10). When Australia House was officially opened on the 3rd of August 1918 by King George V, in the presence of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, the High Commission in London was Australia’s first and only diplomatic mission overseas. Because of the strength of the Australian-British relationship, in investment, imports and exports, immigration, defence and the Constitution, it was seen as being the only international mission that the new nation would need. ‘Australia House’ was envisaged by Reid as symbolising Australia’s ‘home’ in London, and for more than 50 years Australians in the capital could do their banking, check shipping company schedules and ticketing, claim pensions, read Australian papers and journals, dine in the café and collect their mail at Australia House, as well as utilise the more usual functions of an embassy.
Australia’s Department of External Affairs, established at Federation, was abolished in 1916 as a result of the war situation, and relations with the United Kingdom were subsequently handled through the Australian Prime Minister’s Department, a reflection of the view that Australia’s dealings with the UK were not regarded as ‘foreign affairs’. Australia considered itself part of the British Empire, and the relationship with Britain was more a domestic relationship than a foreign relationship. That sentiment died slowly as Australia struggled with the concepts of national independence. The Department of External Affairs was re-established in 1921 to deal with the issues arising from the establishment of the League of Nations, and in 1924 R G Casey, then Liaison Officer to the United Kingdom Foreign Office in London, set up an office of the Department of External Affairs in Australia House. Until 1935 the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs was also the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, and when External Affairs became independent of the Prime Minister’s Department in that year, the High Commissioner’s position remained, uniquely, within the Prime Minister’s Department. While the Statute of Westminster in 1931 formalised the independent status of the nation states within the British Empire, Australia did not finally adopt the Statute until 1942 (Australian High Commission 2010a, pp. vii-viii; Payne 1993, p. 1; Chisholm 1958, vol. 3, pp. 252-254).
It was not until 1939 and 1940 that the Menzies government decided to establish Australian diplomatic missions in Washington, Canada, Tokyo, New Caledonia (after the fall of France), Singapore and Chungking, communications having previously been provided through the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The fall of Singapore in 1942 and the expansion of Japan into the South-West Pacific led to a re-orientation of Australia’s interests to focus on self-defence and alliances that would best support its independence. The focus of defence relationships shifted from Britain to the United States of America, and were confirmed in 1951 in the Australia, New Zealand and United States (ANZUS) Treaty (Australian High Commission 2010a, pp. viii-ix).
Australia House, however, was still the hub of Australian diplomatic and departmental activities in London, with some 923 staff working in the building in 1951 (elsewhere given as 787), dropping to 864 staff in 1954 (elsewhere given as 633, 729 or 690), and changing again to 765 staff by 1957. Some 20,000 Australians were visiting Australia House annually at this time, and numbers were going up (Report from E J E Foxcroft, 26/8/1957; Australia House Story 1966, pp. 46-49; E J Brunton, Australia House, London: Staffing Figures 25/8/1956, in Australia House Story 1966, pp. 141-143). The staff numbers peaked in 1971 with 1,138 people occupying the building, before the end of the Assisted Passage Scheme, then declined to 391 by 1986, and was down to 260 by 1995 (Payne 1993, p. 25; Aplin, Foster and McKernan 1987, p. 23; Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995p, 5).
Accommodation was taken up across the Strand from the building in 1962 to provide relief office accommodation, and a lease was subsequently taken out on ‘Canberra House’ in Arundel Street, where some High Commission staff were located until 1982 (Payne 1993, p. 25). Branch offices were operating in Manchester, Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh and later in Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol and Newcastle, and up to 75,000 immigrants a year were processed until the end of the Assisted Passage Scheme in 1973. They closed as migration decreased, with only Manchester and Edinburgh surviving through the 1980s, and subsequently Manchester was closed and Edinburgh is now the only surviving branch office (Payne 1993, p. 25; Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995, p. 5).
While post-war immigration from Britain, boosted by the assisted passage scheme, maintained the British/Australian cultural connection, this was counter-balanced by the Displaced Persons immigration from Europe, the combination of the two schemes profoundly altering the nature and outlook of post-war Australia. Modification of the White Australia policy in 1966 opened up immigration from the Asia–Pacific region as well. At the same time Britain was looking at alliances outside the Commonwealth, and particularly with Europe, with its first failed attempt to join the European Economic Community in 1960 (Australian High Commission 2010a, p. ix).
With the transfer of Australia House from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Department of Foreign Affairs (itself renamed from ‘External Affairs’ in 1970) in 1972, the Whitlam government demanded that Australia House be run not as a special case but as a normal foreign embassy like those in Washington or Tokyo. Cutbacks in staff and function commenced, with many government departments, such as Public Service, Information, Education and Overseas Telecommunications, vacating the building. Poste restante and banking services were abandoned, and the bookshop, travel facilities and canteen closed. The reading room remained open and in 1978 around 800 people still made use of it daily, and social security payment inquiries could still be made, but in 1981 six more departments were axed and a further 35% of the staff dismissed. The library was closed in 1994 (Sleight 2010, pp. 232-33).
The Australia Centre was established in the mid-1990s to allow for rationalisation of the space now made available in the building. It was an umbrella body created to facilitate the occupation of the building by the State Agents-General, Australian business organisations and other relevant organisations. Under this mechanism the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies of the King’s College London, promoting academic study of Australian issues, relocated to Australia House in 2005 (Sleight 2010, p. 233).
Australia House, the High Commission and diplomacy
Australian foreign relations in the twentieth century were marked by a tension in establishing appropriate trading and defence relations between Britain and Europe, to which it had historical links of culture and ethnic roots, and the Asia-Pacific region, where the nation had its geographical home. Resolving this tension in changing alliance relationships has been characterised as a progression from ‘dependence’ to ‘independence’. In the first four decades of the century, Australia balanced this tension through the institutional framework of British imperial foreign policy (Beaumont 1998, p. 260). As a result, its diplomatic focus was in London, and Australia House was the venue for much of the Australian side of relations with the British Foreign Office. Australia has been said to have had a ‘proto’ foreign policy in the pre-World War 2 period (Edwards 1983).
Lorna Lloyd has looked at the history and evolution of the role of the various dominion’s high commissioners, and has identified a number of phases in the developing relationship with Britain (Lloyd 2007, pp. 2-6):
1880-1914—a period of nation-building for the dominions, focussing on the promotion of trade, the facilitation of commerce, and the supervision of financial matters between the dominion and Britain;
1914-late 1930s—consolidation of the posts, with the granting of the same privileges, but not the same immunities, as foreign diplomats. The diplomatic functions of the high commissioners were, however, limited as other official channels of communication between London and the dominions existed (government-Governor-General-government, and prime minister to prime minister);
Late 1930s-mid 1940s—a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the inferior status of high commissioners compared to that of other ambassadors;
1946-48—the independence of a number of former colonies, most notably India and Pakistan which became republics but stayed in the Commonwealth, giving their diplomatic representation in London ambassadorial status, while other dominion representation remained as it was;
1948-50—Dominion status was discarded and High Commissioners were given the status of other foreign diplomats, but retained the old title;
1950-mid 1960s—High Commissioners benefited from both their ambassadorial status and the closeness and solidarity of the Commonwealth connections; and
mid 1960s-onwards—a period of fragmentation of the Commonwealth as a result of continuing de-colonisation, with the value of Commonwealth connections becoming less important, and relations with Britain approaching those with other countries.
The development of the Australian High Commissioner’s role follows this pattern.
The initial operations of the High Commission in Australia House were aimed primarily at financial, mercantile, public relations and social duties, with no specialist staff in foreign relations (Edwards 1983, p. 18). With the exception of a naval advisor based in Australia House who acted as a conduit between the Admiralty and the embryonic Royal Australian Navy, neither High Commissioner George Reid nor the Australian Government attempted to use the High Commission to short-circuit established imperial channels of communications through the office of the Governor-General (Edwards 1983, p. 19).
In the surge of national pride following World War 1, Australian Prime Minister William Morris Hughes (1915-23) undertook a burst of international activism. He negotiated, through his attendance at the Imperial War Conference and Cabinet in London, the modification of the imperial consultative machinery to gain Australian representation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Ultimately, however, Hughes did nothing to challenge the essentially imperial context of Australian foreign relations. Hughes did not have confidence in his Prime Ministerial predecessor, High Commissioner Andrew Fisher, and that post was not a major part of the Australian diplomatic activities initiated by Hughes (Edwards 1983, p. 32).
Until 1926, the Governor-General was the sole official channel of communication between the Australian and UK governments. The post of High Commissioner was reserved for former Ministers and Prime Ministers at the end of their political careers, and offered them ‘dignity and honour but with little power or influence’ (Edwards 1983, p. 21). The Balfour Report of 1926 changed the status of governors-general from being representatives of the British Government to being representatives of the Crown acting on the advice of the responsible dominion ministers, and in 1931 the Statute of Westminster removed the ability of the Westminster Parliament to legislate for the dominions, though Australia did not adopt the Statute until 1942 (Lee 2010, pp. 82-83). These developments enhanced the potential to use High Commissioners as political representatives of dominion governments.
Little was done by Australia between the wars to match the push for changes in constitutional relationships with Britain being made by other Dominions. Domestically there was a tension within local politics, with the Right using the ANZAC tradition to emphasise its loyalty to Britain, and the Left tending towards isolationism (Beaumont 1998, pp. 260-61). The High Commissioners had an international role at the Geneva meetings of the League of Nations, leading Australia’s representation whenever the Australian government did not send a Minister to head the delegation, but they played to a script still defined firmly by the relationship of dominion to the mother country.
Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce (Prime Minister in 1923-29) came to office with the desire to have Australia consulted on Imperial foreign policy, and an outcome of his efforts was the establishment of the position of an external affairs liaison officer to the Foreign Office in London. The idea initially was to have the High Commissioner fill this role by an expansion of his ambassadorial function, but it was not favoured within Australia as it cut across the existing roles of the Governor-General, and, apparently, also because Prime Minister Bruce did not think highly of High Commissioner Sir Joseph Cook’s (1921-27) suitability for the post, and his successor Major General Sir Granville Ryrie (1927-33) also proved to be a poor diplomat (Attard 2010, p. 60). R G Casey was appointed Liaison Officer and held the position from 1924-31. Casey became the Prime Minister’s advisor and representative in London on a range of sensitive and important foreign affairs issues, rather than turning to High Commissioner Cook or the departmental representatives in Australia House (Edwards 1983, pp. 69-74).
With the appointment of Ryrie as High Commissioner, Bruce instructed that there be weekly meetings and an exchange of information between the Liaison Officer and the High Commissioner. The High Commissioner was then informed and able to act in formal and public representation matters, while the Liaison Officer continued working in a more confidential manner (Edwards 1983, p. 75). Ryrie, however, showed little interest in the weekly briefings, and made little effort to follow up using his position as High Commissioner. The various High Commissioners attended the League of Nations Assemblies in Geneva as Australia’s representatives, together with a Cabinet Minister who generally led the delegation, and had to present Australia’s annual reports on its mandate over New Guinea.
The appointment of former Prime Minister Bruce as High Commissioner in 1933 saw the position take a substantial foreign affairs role that had previously eluded it. Bruce was Australia’s delegate at League of Nations Assemblies from 1932 to 1938, and was also elected temporary member of the League Council from 1933-36, giving him a major position in expressing Australian foreign policy (Lee 2010, pp. 83-84; Edwards 1983, pp. 110-111). Bruce had a major role not only in implementing, but also in formulating Australian foreign policy, and played a major role in challenging imperial policy directions, particularly in the early years of World War 2. As High Commissioner, he brought the Foreign Office Liaison Officer position, which as Prime Minister he had distanced from Australia House, directly under his control. He coordinated the three Defence Liaison Officers’ work, and brought the departmental officers working in Australia House on economic and trade issues under the High Commissioner’s direct control for the first time. Above all, the aspect that set Bruce’s position as High Commissioner on a new level compared with his predecessors was that he had the confidence and support of two of the Prime Ministers under whom he served – Lyons and Menzies (Edwards 1983, pp. 110-116, 120-21).
The growing awareness of the inadequacy of the imperial mechanisms to reflect Australia’s interests in the Asia-Pacific region mounted in the 1930s, and in 1939 led Prime Minister Menzies to establish independent diplomatic relations overseas, including the USA, Japan and China. Menzies offered Bruce the post in Washington, which he regarded as being extremely important, but pressure from British senior politicians to have Bruce stay in Britain led Menzies to instead appoint Casey to Washington. Bruce then collaborated closely with Keith Officer, Counsellor in Washington, and Casey in the new Washington post (Edwards 1983, pp. 110-116, 120-21).
Bruce’s influence lessened with the coming to power in 1940 of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who seldom sought Bruce’s council. Bruce was a strong critic of Churchill, especially his use of Australian troops and ships for British strategic purposes without consultation with the Australian Prime Minister. Bruce’s influence declined further with the appointment of H V Evatt as Australian Minister for External Affairs in 1941. Evatt took a much more hands-on role and at times undermined his diplomats with the rank of minister in London and Washington. Evatt appears to have wanted Bruce removed from London, but was blocked by Prime Minister Curtin (Edwards 1983, pp. 161-66; Bridge 2010, p. 103).
The resolve to exert independent control over Australia’s defence is shown in Curtin’s fight with Churchill, via cables, to return the Australian 6th and 7th Divisions in March 1942. This strengthened after it became known in May that year that Churchill and the US had agreed a ‘beat Hitler first’ strategy that would abandon the Pacific theatre if necessary (Bridge 2010, pp. 108-9). As a concession, Churchill agreed a place in the British War Cabinet for Australia, and Bruce took up the position. However, it was not a voting position, and attendance was only at Churchill’s invitation, which was seldom made. Churchill had the arrangement stopped in 1944, implementing instead monthly meetings with all high commissioners (Bridge 2010, pp. 108-9). Under the lead of External Affairs Minister Evatt, Australian foreign policy became more self-consciously independent. Evatt championed the formation of the United Nations, and became Australia’s only ever chair of its General Assembly in 1948.
In 1950 Australia entered another war, in Korea – for the first time not as a loyal daughter of the British Empire, but as an independent member of the United Nations, and as an ally of the USA. When Australia provided military support for the USA in the Vietnam War in 1962, it was the first war in which Australia took part but in which Britain played no role.
When the responsibility for the administration of Australia House was transferred from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1972, Prime Minister McMahon insisted that the Prime Minister retain control over the appointment of the High Commissioner, in consultation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and that he retain responsibility for ties to the Crown (Ward 2010, pp. 159-161).
The High Commissioners have included a range of prominent Australian politicians and diplomatic staff. See the following table.
Alterations to the building over time
In 1916 the architects proposed altering the roof of Australia House to construct a canvas-roofed belvedere tea house and allow public access. Government Architect Murdoch supported the idea, though it is not clear from the file whether approval was given to proceed (‘Proposal to use roof’, 1916). Many photographs from the World War 1 period onward show large numbers of people either observing street parades from the roof or admiring the view.
While the readily available documentary information is limited on this point, extensive changes to the interior of the building occurred in the 1950s to provide modern office accommodation, though it is claimed, ‘without detriment to the beauty of the original conception’ (report from E J E Foxcroft, 26/8/1957; Australia House Story 1966, p. 54; Office of the High Commissioner 1966, p. 29).
In December 1987 English Heritage, the English government’s heritage agency, listed Australia House as a Grade II building (LBS Number 208535). This listing has been taken into account in subsequent refurbishment programs.
In 1989-90 $4.8 million was spent to renovate the ground floor for immigration use. The works included installation of security protected counters, a new staircase to give access to the mezzanine level, and the Library annexe was relocated to the upper basement area.
$2.8 million was spent in 1992-93 consolidating Defence occupancy on the 4th floor (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995, p. 6). In situ lightweight partitioning with a plasterboard finish was installed and the heating system was renovated using Versatemp individual units.
In August 1994 a series of packages were let to provide disabled access, undertake roof light repairs and replacement, copper roof repairs, stone facade repairs and fire safety repairs including upgrading and changing fire doors (worth $0.660m).
In 1995 a major refurbishment was commenced. There was a conscious decision by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works to support Australia House as the focal point for Australia’s representation in the United Kingdom (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995, p. 9). Works included a staged program of internal refurbishment to upgrade occupational health and safety, replace outdated and obsolete equipment, and provide office accommodation that met current data and communications needs, at an estimated cost of $14.25 million (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995, p. 1). The final cost was actually $20.3 million (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 2005, p. 2). A proposal within this scheme to maximise use included an offer to co-locate State Agents-General in the building, Australia House occupancy having fallen to just 260 staff.
The works included relocation of the Communications Branch from the 6th floor to the 3rd floor; refurbishment of air conditioning systems; redecoration of first floor High Commissioner’s offices and entertainment rooms; installation of two new lifts from the entrance hall off the Strand; reorganisation and refurbishment of roof plant rooms; refurbishment of toilets; and installation of new electrical switch gear for lighting and general power throughout the building (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995, pp. 9-10). The 4th and 5th floors of Victoria House, which are incorporated into Australia House, were renovated as part of this program (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995, p. 15).
A detailed Master Plan Survey and Conservation Management Study was undertaken by London consultants during November 1992 and was reviewed and updated in April 1994 (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995, p. 10). The primary objectives and findings of these studies are:
-a revised space audit was implemented;
-preliminary ‘block planning’ proposals indicated areas of vacant space that can be released for other uses;
-proposals to install a new ground floor entrance on the Strand and associated new lifts were subject to a detailed study;
-refurbishment proposals were examined to achieve consistent and a modern standard of office accommodation;
-the condition of mechanical and electrical services was studied in detail;
-the condition of the structure and external fabric was studied;
-a review and programming for maintenance, fire services, roof plant rationalisation and an overall refurbishment strategy were undertaken; and
-a separate conservation management study was undertaken to ensure maintenance and alterations were implemented in a sensitive manner taking into account the historical significance of the building (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 1995, pp. 10-11).
The fitout of the 6th floor and work to the light wells was undertaken in 1997.
Level 6 appears to have been refurbished in 2004 (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 2005, p. 8 of evidence).
In July 2005 the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works approved the refurbishment of the 4th floor occupied by Defence, and the repair of the substantial lightwells that penetrate the building (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 2005). The Defence area had not been included in the 1995 program, having been renovated as recently as 1992 (see above). New toilets and showers were built and a new office fitout installed. The original Crittal steel window frames and glazing in the three lightwells were replaced with new frames and double glazing, and brick repairs and drainage upgrade works were carried out (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 2005, p. 6).
The Department’s evidence to the Committee noted,
‘Works proposed, however, are not visible from outside the building, and internal works will not be visible from the main “public” and prestige areas within Australia House.
Internal works are constrained to areas where repeated woks have occurred over decades of use, although the areas subject to refurbishment are outside those levels that comprise the internal heritage core. External works to the lightwells will reconstitute areas that are otherwise difficult to access…’ (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade submission to the PWC, p. 5)
The Committee’s report indicates that internally the upper floors including Level 4 have not retained any features or finishes from the original building. Major exhibition and public spaces are on the lower floors, with original features and finishes also retained on the first and second floors (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works 2005, p. 8 of evidence).
Major refurbishment and security works were completed on the building in 2008, consistent with local heritage considerations. This included refurbishment of lightwells, fitout for Defence on the fourth floor, fitout of the DIAC tenancy area, and security hardening works.
Changes made at other times (the dates have not been established) include:
-a glazed partition wall with doors was installed between the staircase and Exhibition Hall on the ground floor;
-the original revolving inner entry doors were replaced by side hung doors;
-the bookcases were removed from the Downer Room;
-the northern staircase was removed above the second floor, and the available space converted for other uses; and
-at least some of the alabaster light fittings have been removed and lighting provided by other fittings.
|Condition and Integrity|
The building is maintained by the Overseas Property
Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and is in generally good
condition. The latest major refurbishment and security works were
completed on the building in 2008, consistent with local heritage
considerations. The modern security
arrangements have, however, compromised the public’s ability to access and
experience the building as originally intended.|
Base building services are currently being renovated, with work progressing on air conditioning, lighting and fire services.
Australia House is a 1918 building which incorporates the 1909 Victoria House. The construction of Australia House resulted in changes to Victoria House to at least achieve its architectural integration. These changes included alteration of the upper elevation and roof of Victoria House facing the Strand.
Following completion, there have been a range of changes to Australia House. In summary these include:
-extensive changes to the interior of the building in the 1950s to provide modern office accommodation;
-in 1989-90 renovation of the ground floor including installation of security protected counters, a new staircase to give access to the mezzanine level, and the Library annexe was relocated to the upper basement area;
-in 1992-93 consolidation of the Defence occupancy on the fourth floor involving in situ lightweight partitioning with a plasterboard finish, and the heating system was renovated using Versatemp individual units;
-in 1994 a series of packages were let to provide disabled access, undertake roof light repairs and replacement, copper roof repairs, stone facade repairs, and fire safety repairs including upgrading and changing fire doors;
-in 1995 a major refurbishment was commenced including a staged program of internal refurbishment to upgrade occupational health and safety, replace outdated and obsolete equipment, and provide office accommodation that met current data and communications needs. Works included relocation of the Communications Branch from the sixth floor to the third floor; refurbishment of air conditioning systems; redecoration of the first floor High Commissioner’s offices and entertainment rooms; installation of two new lifts from an entrance hall off the Strand; reorganisation and refurbishment of roof plant rooms; refurbishment of toilets; and installation of new electrical switch gear for lighting and general power throughout the building. The fourth and fifth floors of the Victoria House section were renovated as part of this program;
-a fitout of the sixth floor and work to the light wells was undertaken in 1997;
-the sixth floor appears to have been refurbished in 2004;
-in 2005 approval was given for the refurbishment of the fourth floor, and the repair of the lightwells. New toilets and showers were built and a new office fitout installed. The original Crittal steel window frames and glazing in the three lightwells were replaced with new frames and double glazing, and brick repairs and drainage upgrade works were carried out;
-major refurbishment and security works were completed on the building in 2008 including refurbishment of lightwells, fitout works on the fourth floor, fitout of the DIAC tenancy area, and security hardening works;
-a glazed partition wall with doors was installed between the staircase and Exhibition Hall on the ground floor;
-the original revolving inner entry doors were replaced by side hung doors;
-the bookcases were removed from the Downer Room;
-the northern staircase was removed above the second floor, and the available space converted for other uses; and
-at least some of the alabaster light fittings have been removed and lighting provided by other fittings.
Some of the gilding on external metal elements has not been maintained (eg. the window above the main entry to the building).
Major changes have been made to the office accommodation in the building as part of upgrading facilities.
Integrity and Authenticity
Given the range of changes made to the building over time it displays a moderate to high level of integrity and authenticity.
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Report Produced Wed Sep 3 06:39:27 2014