Thomas Frost, a man of many skills, rose above significant trials and tribulations in the early years of South Australia’s settlement to become a respected architect and highly regarded member of the community.
Third in a family of eight children, Frost was born at ‘Springfield Cottage’, Leamington Priors, Warwickshire, England on 8 May 1825. His father, James, who died in 1835, was a nurseryman. The garden manager appointed after his death misappropriated proceeds of sales, leaving Frost’s mother, Eliza, destitute with a young family. Frost was adopted and educated by his uncle, a successful builder who, with his own father, employed some 300 men all year round. Upon leaving school at 13 years of age, against the headmaster’s wishes and having studied both drawing and painting, Frost worked for his uncle’s firm Samuel Letts & Son. He gained experience in the carpenters’ and plumbers’ shops and in glazing, painting and paper hanging. His uncle’s bank, of which he was a major shareholder, experienced difficulties in 1838 and Mr Letts’ property was seized and auctioned. Due to an interview between Frost’s uncle and Robert Gouger, then Colonial Secretary of South Australia, the Letts family decided to emigrate to the new colony. Frost felt ‘much exhilaration at the prospect’ and was pleased that his brother Lewis would also come as an adopted son (Frost 1881; Manning 1985).
The Letts and the Frost boys arrived on the Asia in March 1839, and over the next nine years endured much hardship. At one stage, for several months, the family lived on sago and rice with the occasional slice of bread. Thomas worked as a labourer, gardener, shepherd, cowherd, drover, house repairer, miner and contractor. He treasured the few books he had and tried to keep the Sabbath. He and his brother returned to England in 1847 as sailors on the Britannia, although Thomas came back to South Australia in 1849, ‘quite appalled at the wretchedness that abounded’ in his homeland (Manning 1985: 83). Apart from two forays to the Victorian goldfields in the early 1850s, he made Adelaide his home. He married Harriet Gibson of Bowden on 24 October 1853 with Reverend Thomas Quinton Stow, the influential and respected Congregational minister, presiding. Frost built their home, a three-roomed cottage, on Strangways Terrace. They went on to have ten children (Frost 1881; Manning 1985). He died at the age of 85 on 4 June 1910 (Obituary: 40a).
Known for his religious and philanthropic work, Frost was a devoted and active member of the Congregational Church, supporting Sunday schools, the Young Men’s Literary Society and undertaking the role of deacon (Obituary: 40a; Frost 1881; Manning 1985).
Upon his return to Adelaide in 1849, Frost was engaged to build cottages for a Mr Pickering in Hindmarsh and invited to plan a new Congregational Church whose construction he oversaw. Due to the economic conditions he was not paid for the latter (Frost 1881; Manning 1985). He was not only a builder and contractor and then architect, but was employed at the Register although it is not known in what capacity (Morgan and Gilbert 1969). After eschewing life on the goldfields, Frost formed a partnership with Mr C Watson, contracting for buildings, roads and bridges. They constructed the first weir, ‘Tall Dam’, in the Torrens Gorge, a railway line from Gawler to Freeling, Redruth Gaol and additions to Adelaide Gaol. Their tender for the Overland Telegraph to Melbourne in 1857 was rejected. However they were engaged that year to do additions of a sanctuary and transepts for St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Walkerville, to the design of Edward Hamilton (AHPI/AHDB). This partnership dissolved in March 1860 (Frost 1881; Manning 1985). That same year, Frost was the Clerk of Works for the construction of the Congregational Church, Brougham Place, North Adelaide (Morgan and Gilbert 1969; AHPI). He became Clerk of the District Council of Hindmarsh in 1868 and later its first Town Clerk and Surveyor. He went on to be Surveyor for the town of Kensington and Norwood (Morgan and Gilbert 1969).
Evidence that Frost began to work as an architect appears in the 1870s (Jensen and Jensen 1980). In 1878, he was commissioned to design a lecture hall, classrooms and an organ gallery for the Brougham Place church. A manse in Kermode Street, North Adelaide, followed in 1879 as well as, it is believed, extensive additions to the McEwin house, ‘Glen Ewin’, at Lower Hermitage (AHPI/State Heritage Register). He designed a large hall for the Hindmarsh Corporation behind their original building in 1880, and what is now the Lutheran Seminary in Jeffcott Street, North Adelaide (formerly Whinham College) which was completed in 1882 (Obituary 1910; Morgan and Gilbert 1969; ‘Opening of Whinham College’ 1882). Houses within the City Land Investment Company subdivision (1884) in North Adelaide were designed by Frost and are described as ‘representative of the type of building which gives North Adelaide much of its distinctive character’ (Donovan et al. 1982: 29; AHPI/AHDB). He appears to have continued practising well into his old age, as the Sands & McDougall Directories (1899-1905) show Frost to have had an office in Grenfell Street, Adelaide, and then in 1906, in Ward Street, North Adelaide.