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Goninan, Ralph Williams (1874–1948)

by L. E. Fredman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

This is a shared entry with Alfred Goninan

Alfred Goninan (1865-1953) and Ralph Williams Goninan (1874-1948), engineers, were born on 29 May 1865 and 12 June 1874 at St Just in Penwith, Cornwall, England, sons of Alfred Goninan, grocer and later tin-dresser, and his wife Rebecca, née Thomas. The brothers were apprenticed locally to N. Holman & Sons. Alfred spent several years as a marine engineer. He married Annie Charleston on 12 November 1889 at the parish church, St Erth; in 1891 they followed her siblings to Australia. Having worked at Port Pirie, South Australia, and Hill End, New South Wales, in 1899 he established an engineering business at Wickham, near Newcastle, with his brother Ralph who had reached Australia in 1894 and worked at Port Pirie, Broken Hill, New South Wales, Western Australia and New Guinea. On 15 March 1900 at her mother's Hill End home Ralph married Ellen Jane Thomas with Wesleyan forms. After her death, he married a widow Bertha Maude Cregan, née MacDonald, on 20 March 1937 at St James's Anglican Church, Sydney.

A. Goninan & Co. Ltd had been incorporated as a public company in 1905, with Alfred and H. Charleston as joint governing directors. The firm experienced difficulties during World War I in supplying their customers. In 1917 Alfred helped to establish Commonwealth Steel Products Co. Ltd at Waratah, mainly to produce railway wheels and axles which could no longer be imported from Belgium. In that year he visited the United States of America to buy machinery, one of seven overseas trips he made to obtain equipment and new ideas. Goninan & Co. moved to more convenient freehold land at Broadmeadow in 1919 and built a flourishing business in general engineering. By 1926 the brothers were joint managing directors and Alfred was chairman. They made pitheads, boilers, wagons and a huge, cast 41-ton block for the district's coal trade.

Alfred helped to establish Henry Lane (Australia) Ltd at Hamilton and was a director of Non-Metallics Ltd. In 1930 he stood unsuccessfully as the National Party's candidate for the seat of Newcastle in the Legislative Assembly. Unable to meet a large personal overdraft during the Depression, he was eased out of his firm in 1933 with a small ex gratia pension and some recriminations. Under Ralph as managing director, the company reached its peak in the 1940s and was one of the largest in general engineering in Australia, employing over seven hundred people and with three years of orders in hand. He retired in 1946 and was succeeded by his eldest son, also named Ralph (d.1972). Goninan died on 16 May 1948 at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Waratah, and was cremated with Methodist forms; his wife survived him, as did the two sons and three daughters of his first marriage.

The family, particularly Alfred, were proud of their Cornish heritage and of being 'Cousin Jacks', as Cornishmen were called overseas. His daughter Alfreda, a noted artist, married Radoje Marcovitch, a Yugoslav diplomat and journalist who became a casualty of World War II. In 1941 she returned to Australia with her children to join her father and in the early 1950s encouraged him to write his memoirs. Another daughter Edmée married Thomas Hamilton, a prominent Newcastle surgeon. Alfred died on 25 August 1953 in his home at Chatswood, Sydney, and was cremated with Anglican rites; his three sons and three of his four daughters survived him. Alfred Goninan was a creative engineer who saw Newcastle as a 'Ruhr of the Antipodes', but he lacked the financial capacity to realize his vision. The closing of the foundry in 1985 marked the end of an era in general engineering, but the firm still bears his name—though owned by Howard Smith Ltd—and is Australia's largest maker of rail-cars.

Select Bibliography

  • L. E. Fredman (ed), A Cousin Jack in Australia (Newcastle, NSW, 1992)
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 18 May, 26 June 1948
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Aug 1953
  • private information.

Citation details

L. E. Fredman, 'Goninan, Ralph Williams (1874–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goninan-ralph-williams-10688/text18275, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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