Frederick Austin Vernon 1882-1972

Austin Vernon was Architect and Surveyor to the Dulwich Estate for over twenty years and the founder of the architectural practice, Austin Vernon & Partners, which designed most of the developments on the Estate during the 1950s and 1960s. He lived in a large Victorian house ‘Cavaick’, 185 Tulse Hill (now demolished), with his wife, a senior buyer at department store Swears & Wells.

A pupil at Dulwich College from 1898 -1901, he undertook his architectural studies part time at the Regent Street Polytechnic and the School of Arts & Crafts while articled to architect Horace Field. Following promotion to assistant, he moved on to work for a short period with his uncle, George Vernon, and then relocated to Birmingham to work for Swann, Harvey & Wides.

He started practice on his own in 1910 returning to London in 1913. He served with the forces for the whole of the First World War and set up a partnership with architect H Courteney Constantine in 1920. The firm carried out a considerable amount of work in the West End. Their most important buildings (still standing) included 82 Mortimer Street (where they had their office), 100 Oxford Street, Henlys Garage in Euston Road and Kelvin House in Cleveland Street.

He applied to be admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1929 (aged 47) and, in his application, he described his experience as “Involved in the erection of private houses, business premises, hospitals and, in particular, the Children’s’ Hospital at West Wickham, Kent”. Amongst his many other projects were the St Marylebone Hospital Nurses Home, the Unic Motor Factory, Alperton, the Splintex Glass Factory in Morden, and houses in Keats Close, Hampstead, Northwood, Kingston, Bushey Heath, Herts. and Sunningdale.

The partnership with H Courtenay Constantine broke up around 1933 but he continued his practice from an office in Cavendish Square completing several projects in Charlotte Street and Berwick Street for Schmidts’, the well-known Austrian restaurant. He also carried out several smaller projects in Dulwich, including alterations to Bell House for the Governors of Dulwich College, and was clearly known to the Estate Governors when he applied for the post of Architect and Surveyor in March 1937 following the death of C E Barry. He was 55 at the time.

The Estate at first considered that they might not need to appoint a new Architect & Surveyor but a sub-committee set up to review the position finally decided that they did, albeit at a reduced stipend of £100 per annum (C E Barry had received £350). The post was advertised late in the summer and the names on the final short list were Mr R J H Minty, Mr F C Button, Mr C K Buysman Mr F A Vernon and Mr C A Barry.

The Board interviewed the candidates on 28th October 1937 and “having considered their respective applications, it was Resolved that Mr Frederick Austin Vernon be, and he is hereby, appointed Architect & Surveyor to the Governors.” His appointment saw the end of the long Barry family dynasty in the post - the family having held it from the 1830’s.

As well as his work as Architect and Surveyor, Austin Vernon built up his practice on the back of various projects he secured in Dulwich either as a result of war damage or private commissions from local residents. He was joined in the practice in 1948 by his nephew, Russell Vernon, and their most important joint work was the reconstruction of the bomb damaged Dulwich Picture Gallery (what you see there now is primarily their work) and war damage repairs on Christ’s Chapel and the Almshouses.

Other Dulwich projects where he was the main designer included the bijou cottages in Park Hall Road and Lloyds Bank around the corner in Croxted Road. He also master planned the Frank Dixon Way/Avenue development and designed several of the houses - he was very fond of white render finish, ‘white cement’, as he called it, and also Dutch gables - apparently he was interested in Dutch architecture and spent many of his holidays in the Netherlands.

Although remembered as a very smartly dressed gentleman - he tended to walk around Dulwich wearing a waistcoat and Fedora hat and carrying a cane, he became more irascible as he grew older and probably held the post of Architect and Surveyor far longer than he should have done. In the mid 1950s potential purchasers of plots in Frank Dixon Way, and their architects, had considerable difficulties with him - unless of course they had asked him to design their house. Whether purchasers were informally advised to go to him is not recorded but those who used their own architects had problems - as Estate Architect and Surveyor he had to approve all the designs. David Goddard, the architect of the 1930s modernist 13 College Road (now demolished), had more difficulty than most but the unluckiest was an architect called Harrington who designed No 18 Frank Dixon Way for a Mr F P Fisher. In this particular case Austin Vernon was extremely tardy about responding to correspondence and, following a series of complaints from the owner, the Governors were forced to instruct him to be more helpful.

He became more and more difficult to deal with and by December 1958, when he was 76, the Governors had had enough. At a board meeting later that month the Chairman noted that “in view of the advancing age of Mr Austin Vernon, the increasing volume of duties attached to his office, and the heavy accumulation of work resulting from the numerous developments on the Estate, and bearing in mind the previous decisions of the Board, the Architect has been asked to consider tendering his resignation or, at least, giving the Governors one year’s notice of his intention to resign.” The Board discussed the matter at some length and unanimously agreed to give him a maximum of 6 months to make up his mind and they also set up a special committee to decide on a replacement.

Austin Vernon promised to give the matter further consideration, and hopefully pointed out “that, as there were so many developments on the Estate, in prospect and in hand, in which he was personally involved, it would be unfair to him and the Governors if he resigned at this stage.” It was to no avail and the Governors appointed Russell Vernon, his nephew and partner, to the post on June 1959.

Austin Vernon retired to the Sussex coast shortly afterwards but lived on until his 90th year.

by Ian McInnes