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Bennett, William Christopher (1824–1889)

by Robert Johnson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Christopher Bennett (1824-1889), engineer and surveyor, was born on 4 July 1824 at Rathmines, Dublin, eldest son of Ignatius Bennett, traffic manager, and his wife Alicia, née Garvey. In 1840 he was articled in Ireland where he worked on border surveys and as a surveyor and engineer on railways and drainage works. In 1852 he accepted appointment with Gisborne & Forde to go to South America and report on the navigation of the Magdalena River, its connexion with the sea by canal and the possibilities of a further canal link with Bogota, capital of Nueva Granada (Colombia). As a preliminary he toured the Rhone and Saône Rivers in France to study methods of river navigation by large boats. After he returned to England from Colombia, he helped to plan a proposed embankment for the Thames. It was not implemented and he went to Ireland where he shared in planning northern and western railways. In 1853 he rejoined Gisborne & Forde in another expedition to Latin America, this time in charge of surveying and exploring the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Darien for the international ship canal. There he also assisted Lieutenant Forsythe and a detail from H.M.S. Virago in the hazardous rescue of a missing exploration party of United States navy personnel under Lieutenant Strain.

After a few months in England Bennett went to New Zealand in 1854, looking for work, but left early in 1855. Calling at Sydney on his planned return to England, he met Sir Thomas Mitchell, and accepted a position in the Survey Department. Nine months later he became assistant city engineer on sewage works under Edward Bell, holding the office until it was abolished in December 1856. In 1857 John Whitton gave him charge of the Campbelltown railway extension. In August 1858 Captain Ben Martindale chose him as assistant engineer of main roads to superintend the repair of a flood-damaged bridge at Bathurst. On 1 January 1859 Bennett became engineer to the Department of Roads which he helped to form.

Before resigning in 1861 Martindale had hoped, with the support of William Arnold, to make Bennett his successor. However, Bennett had resigned on 1 December 1860, giving as his reason the unpleasant and insecure tenure of public appointments. He went to England, intending to obtain work in India, but learned that he was too old for official appointment. After fruitless inquiries about other possibilities such as Canada and Russia, he returned to Sydney where he arrived in February 1862. He served again briefly in the Railway Department under Whitton, and at the end of the year was appointed commissioner for main roads, a position he held until he retired.

In 1857 Bennett and a subordinate, W. B. Wade, won a competition for designing the Launceston sewerage system. In the field of water supply and sewerage in Sydney Bennett was appointed to special commissions in 1868, 1875 and 1888, and two standing boards as an additional member. He also served in commissions on Sydney's water supply in 1868, on Hunter River floods in 1869 and on Darling Harbour in 1878, and gave evidence to several select committees on various engineering problems. When a narrow-gauge railway to Mudgee was proposed, his advice to the appointed commission saved the colony from the confusion of two internal railway gauges. Under his direction the main roads of the colony were extended to nearly 6000 miles (9656 km), the unsurfaced roads to nearly 4000 miles (6437 km), and the total length of bridges to 40 miles (64 km). He was made an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, in 1857 and a member in 1864.

Letters and testimonials from his superiors, subordinates and friends indicate that Bennett had great ability both as an engineer and as an administrator. In his own words, he was 'naturally, and by habit, anxious and energetic'. In particular he was anxious for assurance of the approval of his superiors, and apt to offer resignation if he lacked it. Yet he distrusted public approbation and avoided limelight. Ambitious in the tasks he was prepared to undertake, he drove his subordinates hard but was loyal and generous in return and made staunch friends among them. In 1872 Sir Henry Parkes, speaking in support of an increase in Bennett's salary to £1000, described him in parliament as 'one of the ablest officers in the government service' and asserted that he had been grossly underpaid for his important and competent work. Bennett's own letters hint at another side of his character, a degree of intellectual refinement and developed tastes.

On 15 November 1862 at St Thomas's Church, Willoughby, Bennett married Agnes Amelia, second daughter of Henry Hays, of Cricklewood, Middlesex; they had four sons and three daughters. In 1878 his wife took the children on an extended educational tour of England and Europe, but on 14 June 1881 she died of smallpox at Dulwich, London. Bennett went to England and brought the children back to Sydney. On 12 January 1883, again at St Thomas's, he married Sarah Jane, sixth daughter of Joseph Darling, of Mantaro, Rutlandshire; they had one son and one daughter.

In March 1889, after long suffering from a heart ailment, Bennett sustained an attack but, against medical advice, continued work until June when he had to resign. He remained bedridden at his home, Honda, St Leonards East, until his death on 29 September. He was buried in the Anglican churchyard at Willoughby. His estate was sworn for probate at more than £8000.

Select Bibliography

  • 'Obituary: William Christopher Bennett', Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol 99, 1890, pp 346-50
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Nov 1862, 19 Jan 1883, 30 Sept 1889
  • Bennett papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Robert Johnson, 'Bennett, William Christopher (1824–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-william-christopher-2976/text4339, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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