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William (Bill) Coffey (1910–1997)

by John Farquharson

William Henry (Bill) Coffey, who died at Mirinjani Nursing Home on 15 October 1997, was the supervising architect for the Canberra Community Hospital, later the Royal Canberra.

He was manager of the Sydney office of Leighton Irwin, the Melbourne-based architectural firm which had won the contract for the hospital design. He used to travel by train from Sydney once a week, and on arrival head for the Hotel Canberra for breakfast. Then he would walk over the old Lennox Crossing, just behind the Albert Hall, to the building site and make his inspections. The hospital was completed in 1942 and occupied by a United States Medical Corps unit before being handed over for civilian use and officially opened the following year.

Bill Coffey had joined Leighton Irwin’s, which specialised in hospitals, after graduating from Melbourne University, where he had initially undertaken an engineering course before switching to architecture, in which he found his true metier. At Irwin’s, Coffey was marked as a young man of promise and was sent to Hobart to supervise construction of the Royal Hobart Hospital. Other hospitals for which he was supervising architect were the Rachel Foster Hospital for women, in Sydney, and Prince Henry’s, in Melbourne (now demolished).

Before going up to university and Queen’s College, he had won a scholarship to Wesley College, where he distinguished himself not only scholastically, but also on the athletic track. His interest in athletics, along with the theatre, continued at university. In later years he was fond of relating how he beat ‘Weary’ Dunlop, of Burma railway fame, to win the university’s inter-collegiate high-jump title. Other university and Queen’s College contemporaries included, Harold Holt, ‘Spot’ Turnbull, later a colourful Tasmanian and later Federal politician, and Allen Brown, later Sir Allen and Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department at the beginning of Menzies’ second Prime Ministership.

The Coffey family, in various ways, had been involved in the development of early Melbourne, and Bill Coffey was immensely proud of this. His grandmother, Helen, was the eldest daughter of William Kerr, founder and first editor of the Melbourne Argus, one of Australia’s great daily newspapers until its demise, after it passed into British hands, in 1956. His grandfather, Henry Alfred Coffey, a ship’s captain, came from landed Irish stock and was largely responsible for the development of Sorrento, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsular. He was also commodore of the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria (1871-75). Bill Coffey’s father, Henry Edmond, through the Victorian railways, worked in the tourist development field and had a key part in the development of the Mt Hotham snowfields. His eldest brother, John, a professional soldier, retired with the rank of Brigadier, while his other two older brothers were Melbourne business men. Cyril headed one of the early insulation companies, Insulwool, and Alan, through his company, Coffey Motors, which had as its slogan ‘Coffey for Ford’, became one of Melbourne’s leading Ford dealers.

When supervising the building of Canberra hospital, in the evenings he would often wander up to Parliament House to catch up with an old friend, Fred McLaughlin, who was private secretary to the then Prime Minister, John Curtin. He and McLaughlin shared an interest in and association with Moral Re-Armament. This interest, to which he was subsequently to devote his life, had been aroused by the well-known Gilbert and Sullivan star, Ivan Menzies, who was touring Australia just before the outbreak of World War II.

The touch with Curtin, first established through McLaughlin, was to develop later and to play a small but crucial part in influencing the lives of Coffey and his wife. In 1942, concerned about the war effort and civilian morale, Curtin at the instigation of Dave Watkins, Federal MP for Newcastle, saw a wartime revue, ‘Battle for Australia’. This had been put together for the stage by Ivan Menzies and the Australian actress/producer/director Beryl Bryant, who ran Bryant’s Playhouse, in Sydney. Curtin felt the revue ‘had a message of distinct value’ and arranged for the Parliament House dining room to be turned into a theatre and had the review put on there. And it fell to Bill Coffey to make all the arrangements for the staging of the show. Later Curtin made it possible for Coffey and his wife to obtain a passage by ship to travel to the US during wartime to gain further experience in MRA work.

After returning to Australia, Coffey decided to leave his job to devote himself full-time, with only voluntary support for financial needs, to developing the work of MRA in Australia. His first initiative, in 1946, was organising a nation-wide conference, which led to the launching of an industrial drama, ‘The Forgotten Factor’ and its staging in Geelong, Melbourne and then New Zealand. Through what to him was ‘service to God,’ inspired by the work of MRA, Bill Coffey brought enrichment to the lives of a wide range of people and through them had a constructive, though unheralded influence on the affairs not only of this country but others in the Asia/pacific region.

His last years were clouded by a losing battle with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He is survived by his wife, Eunice, two daughters, Celia (Farquharson), Marian (Wallace), two sons, Tim and Andrew, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Coffey, William (Bill) (1910–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 April 2024.

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