Celebrating Guyana's built heritage - Austin House History This Week
By Lloyd F Kandasammy
Stabroek News
July 13th 2006

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Standing majestically behind the simple wrought iron picket fence at Lots 49-53 High Street, Kingston is one of Georgetown's most recognizable monuments, Austin House, the Official Residence of the Anglican Bishop of Guyana. This simple L-shaped structure is the second building, which was erected to accommodate the Anglican Bishop of Guyana.

The first structure, which was referred to as Kingston House, was according to one report, a simple, square wooden structure raised on brick columns. This was a typical feature of the colonial architecture in the 19th century.

According to local tales the structure was relocated on its present site as Bishop Austin's children had adopted the habit of throwing objects at persons. However according to one report published in the Liberator, a daily newspaper, in 1893 Kingston House was 'old and in a state of disrepair when Bishop Swaby arrived in May 1893, upon his appointment as Bishop of Guyana after the death of Bishop William Austin on 9 November 1892. The report further stated that 'the building was not at all to his liking.'

It is doubtful that Bishop Swaby ever occupied the building. At the end of three months he went to England on business and upon his return to Guyana in November 1893 he resided at 'St. Huthbert's' at the corner of Main and Bentick streets, which was at that time the home of Mr. Arthur Webber.

In his charge to the Synod in 1894 Bishop Swaby noted his regret of not being able to occupy Kingston House 'with its historic associations' because he considered the house to be uninhabitable. He emphatically urged that measures be undertaken to either repair or replace the house.

In the circumstance, the Synod accepted a motion from Deacon Castell and directed the Diocesan Council 'to take the necessary steps to provide a suitable residence for the Bishop of Guyana. The office of the Colonial civil engineer was then contacted and asked to inspect Kingston House and offer recommendations regarding its state. This office, which was then under the guidance of G. W. Dickson, the Colonial Civil Engineer, submitted a report to the Anglican Dioceses stating that the building was indeed in a very poor state and recommended that a new structure be erected.

Having carefully studied the report submitted Mr. G Russell Garnett, a member of the council, forwarded a plan for the construction of a house based on a plan made by Mr. Joseph Bradshaw Sharples, an engineer, who had been contracted for the design and construction of several train stations throughout the country, along with the building which presently houses the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology and the former Residence of the President of Guyana in Queenstown and several others in Georgetown.

Garnett noted that the proposed building could be erected for the sum of $6000. On 23 June 1894 this plan was laid before the Diocesan Council and a building committee comprising of the Honourable C B Hamilton, G R Garnett and Thomas Daly was appointed. They were 'authorized to negotiate with Mr. Sharples for the building of a house on the plan submitted.'

Based on the plans submitted Mr. Sharples then tendered for the contract and submitted an estimate of $8,954.00, which included the papering, and painting of the new building. After some discussions Sharples deducted $1,200.00 noting that some of the materials from the building to be demolished could be used in the construction of the new edifice. The Council deemed this acceptable and Sharples was then contracted for the construction of the Bishop's new residence which he promised would be 'completed in 12 weeks'.

It appears that the council did not have the necessary funds required to pay for the construction of this new building and it was recommended that the sum be borrowed from 'the Clergy Widows and orphans fund, at a rate of 5% per annum and handed over to the building committee as they required it.'

On 7 July 1894 Kingston House was demolished and construction of the present structure commenced on 17 July 1894. Whilst construction was taking place, Bishop Swaby requested that an entrance porch and a staircase to the house be added. This was agreed to at an additional cost of $192.00. It appears as though Sharples and the Committee had several differences of opinions owing to the design of the building. The Liberator, one of the daily newspapers in the 19th century, refers to the squabbles between the contractor and the committee. What could have counted for this? If one examines the other buildings designed by Sharples, in the city there is a noted presence of decorative cast iron stairs and the elaborate usage of fretwork, spandrels, balustrades etc. It is very possible that the simplicity of the present Austin House may have accounted for these squabbles.

Despite whatever disagreements they may have had Sharples, as promised, completed the construction of the new building along with a cottage for Bishop Swaby's Domestic Chaplin within 12 weeks. He was paid the sum of $7,650.00 for his services. The council was billed for the additional costs of $370.00 for the installation of two 25,000 gallon water tanks at the side of the house, $52.00 for the erection of 2 arches in the dining room, $19.84 for removing columns and $18.00 for the installation of wallpaper.

On 5 October 1894 the building was officially handed over to the Bishop and the Diocesan Council at a simple ceremony.

The report in the Liberator on 6 October 1894 noted:

'Yesterday afternoon the ceremony of handing over Kingston House, the new residence of the Bishop of Guiana, took place. The committee upon whom duties of supervising the erection of the building were dissolved, RTA Daly, the Honourable C B Hamilton, Mr. G R Garnett (the latter being absent) was present and the following members of the Diocesan Council attended - Venerable Archdeacon Castell, Canon Stevenson, Canon Smith, Revds. G W Matthews, J T Roberts Rea and Mr E J R Willcocks, Mr. J B Sharples, the building contractor, was also in attendance.

At this ceremony Archdeacon Castell noted that the house 'was considered to be a very cheap one' he further noted that he hoped that 'it would meet with his Lordship's approval and that of the Diocesan Council and members of the Widows & Orphans Fund who had advanced the sum.' Special thanks were also extended to Mr. Daly whom Mr. Hamilton noted had taken 'the work on his own shoulders, having devoted a very considerable portion of his time upon it.'

A description of the newly constructed building stated that the L-shaped building, which measured 64 x 60 feet rested on a foundation of Portland cement and concrete and 10 feet high brick pillars. The building consisted of a study 36 x 28 feet, a dining room 13 feet high, a drawing room 28 x 23 feet, a morning room 16 x 16 feet, a gallery 40 x 12 feet, a dressing room 16 x 16 feet and five bedrooms the first - 28 x 18 feet, the second, 24 x 16 feet, the third 12 ft 6 ins high and 16 x 14 feet, the fourth 28 x 18 feet and the fifth 28 x 22 feet.

Under the tenure of Bishop Swaby Kingston House was referred to as the Bishop's Court, this was noted on the signature of the official documents of the Dioceses. Bishop Swaby resided there until his translation to Barbados in 1899.

He was succeeded by Bishop Edward Parry who resided at Kingston House from 1900 until he retired in 1921. He was then succeeded by Bishop Oswald Parry who renamed Kingston House, Austin House in recognition of Bishop William Austin in recognition of his tremendous contributions to the Anglican Church.

Austin was born in 1807, was ordained as Deacon in 1831, Rural Dean of Essequibo in 1836, Arch deacon of British Guiana in 1838 and Bishop of Guiana in 1842 and First Primate of the West Indies in 1883.

According to one report, `From Kingston House, Bishop Austin set out on his romantic missionary journey into the practically unknown interior, immaculately turned out in morning dress and top hat, for he was never seen otherwise - and to his house he would return weeks later, weary and perhaps not so perfectly attired, rejoicing because still more missions had been established.

Another report by Miss Van Sertima, who had served under Bishop Austin noted that 'the Bishop would set off on these bush expeditions with six strong canisters each containing a complete change of raiment from underclothes to frock coat, breeches and gaiters, and how he used to bring the canisters back full of muddy garments to be cleaned and pressed by the servants in readiness for the next Episcopal excursion.'

Bishop Austin, it appears was also known for driving his own carriage to church and later sending his family home in the carriage, while he walked from the Cathedral with as many children as he could gather hanging on to his coat tails.

Bishop Oswald Parry (1921 - 1937) appears to heave been the most controversial as he endured severe opposition from the Anglican congregation and the dioceses as he had contemplated, according to one report, selling Austin House and its grounds, as the church had experienced great financial difficulties. He had proposed that a smaller, more modern house be constructed next to the present Deanery in Carmichael Street. Thankfully this proposal was never endorsed.

Austin House, when compared to the other timber structures erected during that period is rather simple. The structure - has changed slightly with the enclosing of the ground floor to provide additional office space in 1930 and the addition of two stained glass windows in the 1950s.

The first depicts the Arms of the Dioceses of Barbados and Guiana, with the arms of the Austin family, with the motto 'MENS CONSARECTI'; it is believed that this may have been a part of the original Kingston House and quite possibly the only existing remnant of the first residence of that era. The second portrays the arms of the Dioceses of London and Canterbury with the likeness of St. Michael.

Today Austin House is the residence Bishop Randolph George and his family. Bishop George is the sixth Anglican Bishop of Guyana and the first Guyanese to attain this distinguished office. A glimpse at Austin House and its expansive manicured grounds reflect signs of an era passed. The cobblestones and the hitching post, used for securing the horses and buggy at the main entrance are examples of that era.

For 112 years Austin House has graced the landscape of the Garden city of the Caribbean. Its endearing value to the cultural landscape of the city has been identified, as it is one of the twelve essentially listed monuments to be included in Georgetown's nomination dossier to the World Heritage Centre for inscription into their prestigious list of sites of universal and outstanding value reflecting a unique and diverse craftsmanship.

Today Austin House stands not only as a reflection to Sharples or of a colonial era but also as a testimony to the unaccredited African carpenters, masons and workers whom no doubt worked tirelessly under Sharples to complete this simple, yet eloquent timber masterpiece.