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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Menkens, Frederick Burnhardt (1855–1910)

by L. A. Reedman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Frederick Burnhardt Menkens (1855-1910), architect, was born at Varel, Oldenburg, Germany, son of Herman Heinrich Menkens, and his wife Anna Margaret. Educated at home until 13, he worked for five years at practical trades and attended building academies in Nienburg and Holzminden. He attended the Royal Polytechnicum at Hanover (Dip. Arch., 1876), toured Europe in 1877 and migrated to Adelaide in 1878. After a few months in the Colonial Architect's Office he moved to Melbourne. A slump in the building industry caused him to work as a tradesman along the Murray River, at Echuca and at Sandhurst. In 1881 he set up an architectural practice in Maitland, New South Wales, and in 1882 moved to Newcastle. In 1884 he completed the interior of the temporary pro-Cathedral designed by J. H. Hunt. Menkens was a staunch friend until they argued over Newcastle Cathedral in the early 1890s. He achieved early success with his work on the School of Arts, Newcastle, the Deaf and Dumb Institute, Waratah, and the Mechanics' Institute, Hamilton. By 1888 'he had been successful and had obtained more than his share of public support'; he also won a competition for the building of the main Presbyterian Church, St Andrews, and in 1891 for a new Town Hall in Newcastle. After a stormy meeting the aldermen of the council awarded the £100 prize to Menkens but later disagreements brought an end to the scheme.

In June 1895 Menkens was sued in the Supreme Court for slander and £1000 damages by H. Kingsbury, an electrical contractor, whom he had accused of installing a lightning conductor made of cheaper metal than specified and of trying to deceive his client. Kingsbury was awarded 40s. damages and £126 costs but Menkens refused to pay and was imprisoned for debt. At first in the Maitland lock-up, he was feasted by his friends, who also supplied him with comfortable furniture, his drawing equipment and commissions until he was moved to Darlinghurst Gaol. In October his estate was sequestrated; apart from what he owed to Kingsbury he admitted moneys marked cash in his cheque book were winnings at the races and items drawn to self were losses; in October 1894 he had borrowed £40 from William Rouse to cover losses on the Caulfield Cup. His only assets were a block of land at Auburn and his wearing apparel. On 9 August 1896 his estate was released and he was discharged from prison.

More successful than ever Menkens designed many commercial buildings in Newcastle including five city warehouses. He worked for such notable citizens as Bishop Murray. Always strongly professional he was sometimes feared by local builders, but he combined a thorough understanding of architecture with a practical knowledge of the building trades. In 1907 he took F. G. Casteleden into partnership and visited his aged mother in Germany. He returned to live in Sydney in his newly-built house in Avoca Street, Randwick.

Aged 55 Menkens died childless at Randwick from cirrhosis on 10 March 1910 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at over £6500. On 16 November 1885 at St Patrick's Church, Sydney, he had married a widow Margaret Downey, née Brennan, according to Roman Catholic rites. The marriage was dissolved in the Supreme Court on 25 February 1891 on the petition of Menkens; costs went against the co-respondent.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Freeland, Architect Extraordinary (Melb, 1970)
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 12 Dec 1884
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4, 5 June, 7 Aug 1895
  • bankruptcy papers, 10218/7 (State Records New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

L. A. Reedman, 'Menkens, Frederick Burnhardt (1855–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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