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Catani, Carlo Giorgio Domenico Enrico (1852–1918)

by Ronald McNicoll

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Carlo Giorgio Domenico Enrico Catani (1852-1918), civil engineer, was born on 22 April 1852 at Florence, Italy, son of Enrico Catani, merchant, and his wife Augusta, née Geri. He was educated at the Technical Institute of Florence, where he received his civil engineering diploma. As a young man he was employed in railway construction in Italy.

Early in 1876 Catani and two of his colleagues, Pietro Baracchi and Ettore Checchi resolved to migrate from Italy; it is likely that they were recruited by the New Zealand immigration agency in Germany. They sailed as 'labourers' from Hamburg in the Fritz Reuter, reaching Wellington on 7 August. There was no professional work for the new arrivals, so Catani and his friends decided to go to Australia. Describing themselves now as miners, they took steerage passages in the Alhambra, arriving in Melbourne on 27 September.

Within a few weeks all three had joined the Department of Lands and Survey as draftsmen. In 1880 Catani was registered as a surveyor under the Land Act. Two years later he and Checchi were transferred to the Public Works Department, where they were employed as engineering draughtsmen preparing plans for harbours, jetties and coast works, and by early 1886 they were both assistant engineers. On 18 May that year at Fitzroy Catani married, according to the rites of the Free Church of England, 26-year-old Cathrine Hanley, daughter of a Belfast (Port Fairy) farmer. On 15 March 1892 he was naturalized.

In November Catani was promoted head of his section. One of the projects under the direction of his department was the draining of the Koo-Wee-Rup swamp, West Gippsland. Finding the work of the contractors unsatisfactory, he devised a system of using the labour of unemployed married men who were offered small farms on the newly drained land. Despite the mixed success of his scheme, most of the works were finished by the end of 1897. He had taken a close personal interest in the project, visiting all parts of the work and getting to know many of the men. A new township in the area was named after him.

Catani was next concerned with the widening and improvement of the River Yarra upstream from Princes Bridge, Melbourne. Through his urging, the scope of the flood mitigation programme was greatly enlarged. Work began in August 1896; next winter he began to plant elms, oaks and poplars along the left bank and the newly formed Alexandra Avenue. His river works extended upstream as far as Cremorne railway bridge, and included the road bridge at Anderson Street. The laying out and planting of the Alexandra Gardens was executed by the Public Works Department under Catani's direction.

Other works associated with him are the roads to Arthur's Seat and to Mount Donna Buang, the draining of Kow Swamp, the Elster Canal, the River Murray levees in the Strathmerton district, and drainage at Framlingham. He was also closely involved in the opening-up of the Mount Buffalo Plateau and the damming there of Eurobin Creek to form the lake which bears his name.

Catani's last major project was the reclamation of the foreshore of St Kilda. He was an original member of the St Kilda Foreshore Trust, set up in 1906, and after his retirement in 1917 he continued as government representative. He designed the landscaping of the gardens at the beach end of Fitzroy Street, later named the Catani Gardens, and was responsible for the foreshore works all the way to Point Ormond.

In 1914 the Catani family had moved from Armadale to St Kilda where they became regular attenders at Holy Trinity Church. Carlo Catani never returned to Italy. He died, intestate, at St Kilda on 20 July 1918, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. He was survived by his wife (d.1925), one of his three sons and two of his three daughters: his second son had been killed in action in 1916.

Sir Kingsley Norris recalled Catani as a 'remarkable little bald-headed, bearded man'. One officer of his department remembered that he was always clad in Fox's serge and wore his spectacles on the end of his nose. A close associate wrote that 'he saw possibilities to which others were blind'. Other contemporaries recorded his 'unfailing courtesy and kindly nature', qualities which are not always found in persons of energy and imagination. There is a bronze bust of Catani at the foot of Schefferle's memorial clock tower on the St Kilda Esplanade.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • J. B. Cooper, The History of St Kilda (Melb, 1931)
  • N. Gunson, The Good Country (Melb, 1968)
  • F. K. Norris, No Memory for Pain (Melb, 1970)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 July 1918
  • Public Works Dept files (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Catani, Carlo Giorgio Domenico Enrico (1852–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/catani-carlo-giorgio-domenico-enrico-5532/text9423, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 30 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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