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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hickson, Robert Rowan Purdon (1842–1923)

by J. M. Antill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Robert Rowan Purdon Hickson (1842-1923), civil engineer, was born on 15 September 1842 in County Kerry, Ireland, son of Rev. George Hickson and his wife Rebekah Charlotte, née Purdon (Hewson). He was educated at St Columba's College, Dublin. In 1860 he was articled to James Barton, engineer-in-chief for public works in northern Ireland, and in 1864 became his chief assistant. In 1866-72 he was resident engineer and harbourmaster at Carlingford, County Louth, and in 1873-78 managing engineer of the harbour-dredging department at Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire. In 1874 he was elected an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and in 1876 a full member. On 1 August 1866 at Dundalk he had married Sophia Haire (d.1931).

On 9 March 1876 he sailed with his family in the Bangalore for Adelaide as engineer-in-chief for South Australian harbours and jetties. In 1876-80 he was responsible for reorganizing the dredging appliances and services, constructing the breakwater at Victor Harbor and many other improvements. After his department was abolished he moved to New South Wales where on 30 August 1881 he joined the Department of Public Works as assistant engineer at Newcastle, with charge of the water supply of the Hunter district and all river and harbour works to the Queensland border. In 1888 he moved to Sydney as acting engineer-in-chief. In 1889 he was nominated to the Board of Water Supply and Sewerage, became commissioner for roads, reorganized his department and insisted on first-class workmanship and sound administration. He significantly improved bridge design and road construction, and extended metropolitan water supply and sewerage. When various branches of the Public Works Department were amalgamated in 1895 he became engineer-in-chief and in 1896-1901 was under-secretary for public works.

After bubonic plague broke out on the Sydney waterfront Hickson was appointed chairman of an advisory board on harbour-foreshore resumption in 1900. In 1901 he became first president of the Sydney Harbour Trust and began a programme of improvements which among other things provided a vast wharfage, diverted sewers discharging into the harbour bays and instituted measures for preventing pollution of port waters. In 1907 he studied the principal ports and harbours of Europe. He sat on royal commissions on improvements to Sydney and suburbs in 1908-09 and on railway decentralization in 1910-11. When he retired on 31 December 1912 he had been responsible for the expenditure of £6,250,000 in capital works on the Sydney waterfront. The Imperial Service Order had been conferred on him on 24 June 1910.

In retirement he was consulted by the British government on harbour improvements in Fiji. He died at Lindfield on 28 June 1923 and was buried in the Anglican section of the Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was survived by his wife, five sons and two daughters to whom he left £8000. A road from Circular Quay to Sussex Street was named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Antill, ‘Robert Rowan Purdon Hickson: Civil Engineer’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 55, part 3, Sept 1969, pp 228-44, and for bibliography.

Citation details

J. M. Antill, 'Hickson, Robert Rowan Purdon (1842–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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