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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Leighton, William Thomas (Bill) (1905–1990)

by Vyonne Geneve

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

William Thomas Leighton (1905–1990), architect, was born on 15 July 1905 at Fremantle, Western Australia, youngest of five children of James Leighton, a Scottish-born fish-preserver, and his wife Margaret, née Howard, from London.  William attended Fremantle Boys’ School but left at 14 and obtained employment at Fremantle Prison.  His talent for drawing saw him articled in 1921 to a local architectural firm,  Allen & Nicholas, where he quickly became a proficient draughtsman.  In studies at Perth and Fremantle Technical colleges he gained 100 per cent in geometrical drawing in consecutive years.  He was registered as an architect on 21 December 1926.

In 1928 Leighton joined the architectural practice Bohringer, Taylor & Johnson, and worked on designs for the 'atmospheric' Ambassadors Theatre in Perth before transferring to the firm’s Sydney branch, and then to Melbourne to supervise construction of the ornate State Theatre.  On 3 November 1928 at Carlton he married with Presbyterian forms Miriam Olga Wight, a shop assistant.  Sent to Auckland, he organised a New Zealand office and oversaw the building of the Civic Theatre.  Bohringer expressed gratitude to the 'highly qualified young architect' for his speed, skill and diligence in carrying out this project.

Leighton managed other development projects in Auckland before returning to Australia in 1933.  In Sydney he undertook work, including Wynyard station, for the New South Wales Department of Railways, but he specialised in designing and remodelling cinemas, such as the Embassy Theatre, in the new Art Deco style.  Back in Perth in 1936 he entered into practice with Baxter Cox.  His designs for the Piccadilly Theatre and Arcade, commissioned by Claude de Bernales, crystallised his Art Moderne style, and were quickly followed by innovative designs for the Windsor and Como indoor/outdoor cinemas and Devon House, Hay Street.  He remodelled the Metro, Astor, Ambassadors and Royal theatres in 1938 and completed, in 1940, reconstruction of the Plaza Theatre, which was hailed in the press as having 'subtly employed all that is modern in theatre architecture'.

Commissioned and mobilised (1940-41) in the Militia before volunteering for the Australian Imperial Force, Leighton served in Australia, mainly with the 2/10th Armoured Regiment, and transferred to the Reserve of Officers as a major in December 1944.  In 1946 he became a partner in Hobbs, Winning & Leighton.  He designed and detailed an administration building and passenger terminal for the Fremantle Harbour Trust (1959-64) and, with his son Garry, many drive-in cinemas.  A councillor (1938-56), president (1950-52, 1963-64) and life fellow of the Western Australian chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, he was active in the move to establish uniform building codes.  Before retiring in 1975 he worked on plans for buildings at the Princess Margaret Hospital for Children.

Tall, handsome and charming, with brown wavy hair, Bill Leighton had a pleasant personality and a gentlemanly disposition.  He had artistic talent and an ability to design and build with speed and dexterity.  Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 11 March 1990 at his Dalkeith home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Geneve, 'William Thomas Leighton', in D. Bromfield (ed), Essays on Art and Architecture in Western Australia, 1988
  • V. Geneve, 'William Leighton, Architect', Kino (Australian Theatre History Society), September 1988, p 7
  • V. Geneve, 'Obituary: William Leighton', Kino (Australian Theatre History Society), September 1990, p 14
  • V. Geneve, 'William Thomas Leighton', Architect (Perth), Winter, 1990, p 7
  • V. Geneve, Versions of Modernism in Western Australian Cinema Design 1930-1940 (MA thesis, University of Western Australia, 1991)
  • personal knowledge

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Citation details

Vyonne Geneve, 'Leighton, William Thomas (Bill) (1905–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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