As a young man, Wardell studied under the Gothic architect Augustus Pugin. Pugin became his friend and mentor, and was to inspire him not only in architecture but also in his religious convictions. Mixed in the artistic and literary circles of London, he fell in with the philosophies of the Oxford and Cambridge movement, which taught (amongst other things) that Gothic architecture, as symbolized by the great medieval cathedrals of England, was the only form of architecture worthy of God and fostered a spirituality that made it easier to communicate with God. In 1843 Wardell made the then conventionally unusual decision to convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, adopting the motto "Inveni Quod Quaesivi"( "I have found that which I sought"). This would have been a very difficult decision to make at the time; while Catholics were not actively persecuted in Britain at the time, there was still open discrimination against the faith in certain political and business quarters. The leader of the Oxford movement, John Henry Newman, did not himself make the leap of faith until 1845.
Wardell's conversion to the Roman Catholic faith was the result of a period of deep internal reflection. This affiliation to a more high church ritual was manifested in his architectural interests which concentrated on the more Gothic designs of England's medieval architecture. For the remainder of his life he saw architecture as a means of praising God. He always had a room in his home set aside as a chapel for personal devotion which he visited several times during the course of a day. Dominating this room was an ancient carved wooden French cross that now belongs to the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission, who also own several other mementos of his persona devotion. Wardell also wrote, in particular two prayers devoted to the Virgin Mary, who he seems to have regarded as his especial saint. It is known that he frequently prayed for help and guidance when working on plans of church buildings.
On 7 October 1847 Wardell married Lucy Ann Butler, the daughter of William Henry Butler, a wine merchant and one time Mayor of Oxford. The couple married at St. Mary's Catholic Church, Moorfields and are known to have had at least two sons and one daughter.
By the time of his marriage aged 23, he was already a successful architect. Between 1846 and 1858 he designed over 30 churches in England, at the rate of over two a year, a phenomenal output. As this was an era of massive church restoration (Nikolaus Pevsner has said many churches were "over-restored" during this time) it is possible that this high figure may include churches Wardell only redesigned or restored. Whatever the true number of churches he designed in England, this was a period not only of church restoration but also building of many new Roman Catholic Churches. Wardell's work wasn't just limited to England though. He was commissioned by Robert Hope-Scott and his wife, of Abbotsford, Melrose, to build a church for the growing Roman Catholic community in the nearby town of Galashiels. The designs drawn, work began in 1856 and wouldn't be completed for another 20 years. Our Lady & Saint Andrew's is still in use as the Parish Church to this day. Wardell and John Newman were by no means the only converts to Catholicism; a large number of notable intellectuals too changed their faith. This, coupled with the greater freedom Catholics obtained by the Catholic Emancipation Act which restored the hierarchy and removed some of the prohibitions on Catholics which had prevailed since the time of the reformation, led to the Catholic Church having a revival in Britain. Thus the newly converted Pugin and his protege Wardell were well placed to receive the numerous commissions which came flooding in.
By 1858, aged 35, Wardell was in poor health, and felt that the warmer climate of Australia would be more beneficial to his health. Obtaining the position of "Government Architect" to the city of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, Wardell and his family emigrated.
Wardell's prolific work in London included several notable churches. St Birinus, Bridge End, Dorchester-on-Thames was begun in 1846, and completed by 1849. This church, in Oxfordshire, was one of the first Roman Catholic churches built following the passing of the 1839 Catholic Emancipation Act. The small and simple building is an almost exact replica of a 14th-century Gothic chapel. It is constructed of Littlemore stone with a Caen stone porch. The interior has rectangular nave leading in the traditional fashion through a rood screen to a smaller and lower ceilinged chancel. The nave has a vaulted ceiling supported by wooden strapwork. Lit by stained glass windows, the whole structure hardly differs from the design of Anglican churches constructed in the same period. The expected paraphernalia of the more ritualistic Catholic worship is absent; side chapels and numerous secondary altars are conspicuous by their absence. The only contemporary jarring feature not found in an English country church is the set of late Byzantine style gilt chandeliers.
Another church from this period was Our Lady Star of the Sea, Greenwich, a Gothic church begun in 1846 and completed circa 1851. It is surmounted by a tower completed by an ornate spire which in turn is complemented by the smaller spire of the adjacent stair turret. The church has remarkable architectural similarities to Wardell's later and largest work, St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne. Our Immaculate Lady of Victories, Clapham (also known as St. Mary's), situated in Clapham Park Road, Clapham, London SW4 was built between 1848 and 1851, the same year that Wardell completed Holy Trinity, Hammersmith.
Melbourne in the early 1850s was a rough and primitive place with potholed roads. Robbery was commonplace, and the poverty caused by the soaring inflation, and streets that were in 1854 described as open sewers ensured that disease was rife. It was into this environment came men seeking fortunes digging for gold. Within ten years the gold rush had transformed Melbourne from a provincial outpost of the British Empire to a wealthy and rapidly expanding city. Between 1853 and 1854 Melbourne doubled in size, however many of its new and expanding population lived in tented villages within the city. This need for building coupled with available funding drew aspiring young architects from around the world, among them John James Clark, Peter Kerr and in William Wilkinson Wardell.
As the newly arrived and appointed Government Architect, Wardell immediately began work on St Patrick's Cathedral, a task which was to occupy him for much of his life. In 1867 the Wardell Family moved into a large new house known as Ardoch, at 226 Dandenong Road, St Kilda, at the time one of the smartest and most expensive residential areas of Melbourne. The 13-roomed two-storied house in an Italianate style was built for £225 in 1864. The Wardell family purchased it in 1867 and moved from their previous home in Powlett Street, East Melbourne. Wardell designed both the Catholic churches dedicated to St Mary in St Kilda East where he personally worshipped. The first was completed in 1859 and its larger replacement completed in 1897.
In Melbourne, Wardell was not only the state-employed Government Architect, but also had a flourishing private practice as well, building houses, shops, and business premises for all who could afford him. He did not work in any one exclusive style, and could design in any architectural form his patrons required - Palladian, Neoclassical plus the various forms of Gothic, including notably at the ANZ Bank the floral Venetian Gothic.
In 1877 Sir Graham Berry became the premier of Victoria. His mission, considered radically left wing at the time, was to redistribute the grazing land of Victoria, and to introduce a bill providing for the payment of members of the Legislative Assembly, which would enable working-class candidates to be elected. When his aims were rejected by the Legislative Council, he embarked on a public campaign of "coercion". "We coerce madmen," he said, "we put them into lunatic asylums, and never was anything more the act of madmen than the rejection of the Appropriation Bill." On 8 January 1878, known afterwards as "Black Wednesday", his "coercing" began. Using the reasoning that without his bill civil servants could not be paid, Berry began to dismiss public servants, starting with police and judges. Wardell's was one of the many heads which fell - dismissed from office, he left Melbourne to seek employment in Sydney.
During his time in Melbourne, Wardell designed numerous buildings, including 14 parish churches, in both the private and public sectors. While St Patrick's Cathedral is the largest and best known, other notable buildings are listed below.
This Melbourne Cathedral is the largest church to have been commenced and brought to near completion anywhere in the world in the 19th century. Construction of a church on the site began in 1850, commissioned by Bishop James Alipius Goold. Building was delayed by the furore of the Gold rush. In 1858, Goold laid the foundation stone for a second, larger, church on the site. After only eight months of construction, work on the 2nd church ceased. Goold then instructed the newly arrived Wardell to design a cathedral on the site, and just a month later in December 1858 the new plans were accepted and work commenced.
Contrary to common belief, Wardell was not uniquely responsible for the design. Bishop Goold instructed him to incorporate into the design as much as could be saved of the previous church. Thus he was forced retain the existing floor level, rather than raising it five metres which would have kept it on a level with the nearby street rather than below it.
Wardell's overall design was in Gothic Revival style, paying tribute to the mediaeval cathedrals of Europe. The nave was Early English in style, while the remainder of the building is in the Decorated Gothic, a somewhat later Gothic style.
St Patrick's Cathedral became Wardell's life's work and his most notable commission. The original plans remained unaltered during construction. The nave and its aisles were completed just ten years later, and the building was finally consecrated for use in 1897. At the time of his death in 1899, Wardell was still working on designs for the minor altars and fixtures and fittings. The spires which today adorn the building are not by Wardell.
Wardell's ANZ Gothic Bank is located on Collins Street in Melbourne and is considered by many to be the finest secular Neo-Gothic building in Australia. It was built between the years of 1883 to 1887. It was the largest bank in Australia at the time, and also the most expensive (£77,000). In 1987 it was voted Victoria's favorite building by readers of The Age newspaper. The bank manager, Sir George Verdon, was responsible for commissioning the bank's lavish design. He lived in an apartment above the bank. The banking chamber is supported by teal columns with floral Crockett capitals, and the ceiling is hand-painted in gold leaf. The interior features spectacular flying Gothic arches, which appear out of place in a secular building. One noteworthy aspect to the exterior is an octagonal turret. Supported by a ribbed corbel it rises into a small medieval spire, demonstrating Wardell's love of asymmetry.
Government House in Melbourne is an example of the period in Wardell's career when he found his "newly discovered love for Italianate, Palladian and Venetian architecture". Designed to be the official residence of the Governor General of Australia in what is commonly described today as the Italianate style, cream coloured Government House—except for its machiolated signorial tower that Wardell crowned with a belvedere—would not be out of place among the unified streets and squares in Thomas Cubitt's Belgravia, London. It is one of the best-known buildings in this style; its possible inspiration was Queen Victoria's summer residence Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, England. Osborne was built between 1845 and 1851, based loosely on the palazzi of the Italian Renaissance. As the serving Inspector General of the Public Works Department, Wardell was the obvious choice of architect for Government House; work commenced in 1871 and lasted for five years.
Wardell's plan included the three-storey principal block containing the state rooms for official entertaining, and the secondary two-storey wing to the north intended to contain the private apartments of the vice-regal family.
The facade of the principal block or corps de logis is of six bays, the pedimented windows of the first and central floor being larger than those below and above thus indicating the piano nobile. The hipped roof is concealed by a balustraded parapet. The principal block is flanked by two lower asymmetrical secondary wings that contribute picturesque massing, best appreciated from an angled view. The larger of these is divided from the principal block by the belvedere tower. The smaller ballroom block is entered through a columned porte-cochere designed as a single storey prostyle portico. The ballroom is said to have been the largest in the British Empire.
The interior of the house was in contrast to the classical interior. Fireplaces of Carrara and black Belgian marble were inset with Minton tiles in the Victorian style, while the elaborate plaster ceilings had deep recessed panels and moulded cornices at odds with the classicism of the design of the mansion. However, despite the heavy-handed interiors, the state rooms adequately fulfilled their purpose. Government house was declared open at a ball attended by 1400 people in 1876.
Wardell arrived in Sydney in 1878. He designed many buildings, the most notable being St Mary's Cathedral and St John's College, University of Sydney. St Mary's Cathedral is slightly larger than St Patrick's Cathedral, and is the largest ecclesiastical building in Australia. Wardell designed the cathedral in the Gothic style. Work began in 1868 while Wardell was still based in Melbourne. Work continued throughout Wardell's lifetime, the cathedral finally being completed in 1928. In 2000 the spires Wardell had intended, a scheme abandoned due to lack of finance, were finally constructed.
In February 1859 Wardell was appointed architect for St John's College. Working from Melbourne, he drew up the general plans and sent them to Sydney in May 1859. Wardell designed St John's College as a three-storeyed sandstone Gothic Revival building on an H-shaped plan but because of budget restrictions with a limit of 30,000 pounds, July and August saw discussion of Wardell's design and of how much could be built within the budget. In September and October the general plans were approved by the St John's Council and the University Senate. During the period from October 1859 to April 1860 relations between Wardell and the Council deteriorated for various reasons, ultimately ending with Wardell's resignation in June 1860.
The ASN Co Building (see illustration at top of page) is a large warehouse at 1-5 Hickson Road, The Rocks, Sydney. Designed by Wardell for the Australasian Steam Navigation Co Building in 1884. It had distinctive Flemish gables and a bell tower, which has ensured it has "long been regarded as a significant Sydney landmark".
Wardell also designed the building at 31 Bligh Street, currently occupied by The Lowy Institute for International Policy.
Wardell died at his home, Upton Grange, in Edward Street, North Sydney on 19 November 1899 of heart failure and pleurisy. He is buried in the Catholic section of Gore Hill Cemetery. He did not live long enough to see the final finishing touches to St Patrick's Cathedral, and St Mary's Cathedral was far from finished. His legacy to Australia has been to give that country two cathedrals which rank among the finest modern examples of gothic architecture. St Patrick's Cathedral is considered one of the few Australian buildings to be of world significance. However, Wardell's work was more than the design of two cathedrals, his work was versatile and skilful in both the Gothic and classical styles and has given both Sydney and Melbourne some of their most distinguished 19th-century buildings.