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Hudson, Sir William (1896–1978)

by Eric Sparke

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

Sir William Hudson (1896-1978), civil engineer, was born on 27 April 1896 at East Nelson, New Zealand, seventh of eleven children of James Hudson, a medical practitioner from London, and his New Zealand-born wife Beatrice Jane, née Andrew. Dr Hudson kept a tight rein on his family and expected Bill to study medicine. Bill enraged him when, in his matriculation year at Nelson College, he said that he wanted to be a civil engineer. In a classic case of parental misjudgement, the father told the son destined to become a world leader in his profession, 'Bill, that is about all you are bloody well good for'.

In 1914 Hudson left New Zealand to enter University College, University of London. A brilliant student, he won the Archibald Head medal, gained the college diploma with distinction and in 1920 graduated B.Sc.(Eng.) with first-class honours. His studies had been interrupted by service in World War I. A second lieutenant in the London Regiment, he was wounded in the thigh at Bullecourt, France, in April 1917. He emerged from hospital with a slight limp in his right leg, a limp which only became pronounced when he was tired. To further his interest in hydro-electric engineering, he took a postgraduate course at the University of Grenoble, France.

Hudson's first job was with Sir W. G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. Ltd, London, but he returned to New Zealand in 1922 to join the Public Works Department as an assistant-engineer. He was initially employed on railway construction and then on the Mangahao hydro-electric scheme. Between 1924 and 1927 he again worked with Armstrong, Whitworth as engineer-in-charge of construction of the Arapuni Dam. At St Columba's Presbyterian Church, Fairlie, on 28 December 1926 he married 21-year-old Annie Eileen Trotter.

In 1928 Hudson crossed the Tasman to work first for the New South Wales Department of Public Works and then for the Sydney Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board. Appointed an assistant-engineer, he later took charge of construction of the Nepean Dam. In 1931 the Depression abruptly halted the project and he found himself unemployed. 'Not a man to remain idle', he moved his family to New Zealand and set off to try his luck in Britain. He was instantly rewarded. Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners offered him the post of engineer-in-charge of construction on the Galloway hydro-electric scheme in a remote corner of south-west Scotland. The largest project of its kind in Britain, the undertaking was challenging and presented, albeit on a minor scale, some of the problems he was to face in the Snowy Mountains of Australia.

Hudson notified his wife of his success in typical fashion—by a telegrammed directive, 'Come to Scotland'. Arriving at Tilbury, England, with a child in hand, she found another summons, 'Can't get away. Come to Galloway'. Husband and wife finally met at a small railway-station in Scotland. The five years he spent on the Galloway scheme (which he completed a year ahead of schedule) enhanced his growing reputation as an efficient and dedicated leader. With J. K. Hunter, he presented a paper on the scheme to the Institution of Civil Engineers in London and won the Telford premium.

Returning to Sydney in 1937, Hudson was again recruited by the water board as resident engineer for the Woronora Dam project. By 1948 he was the board's engineer-in-chief. In the following year he applied for the post of commissioner of the newly established Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority. Nelson Lemmon, the Federal minister for works and housing, was attracted by Hudson's reputation for building dams on time and at fixed prices, and by the opinion of union officials that, although a 'bit of a slavedriver', Hudson was decisive and fair. When cabinet demanded the usual three nominations, Lemmon handed Prime Minister J. B. Chifley a slip of paper which read 'Hudson, Hudson, Hudson'.

Appointed on 1 August 1949, at 53 he reached the pinnacle of his career as manager of the Snowy Mountains scheme, responsible for the biggest civil engineering project ever undertaken in Australia and one which the American Society of Civil Engineers would call an engineering wonder of the world. His starting salary was the princely sum of £5000 a year and he was given considerable powers, including direct access to the responsible minister.

Although classed as a statutory body, the S.M.H.E.A. had, to a substantial degree, the freedom of private enterprise, a necessary concomitant of the great task that lay before Hudson. That task, to be performed in a harsh terrain and climate, was to direct operations which would trap the seaward-flowing waters of the Snowy and Eucumbene rivers and drive them westward through long trans-mountain tunnels to irrigate the dry inland plains. In falling through the tunnel systems, the waters would generate electricity for the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Victoria. Ultimately, the workforce (which peaked at 7300 in 1959) built 16 dams, 7 power stations, 50 miles (80 km) of aqueducts and 90 miles (145 km) of tunnels. Completed in 1974, ahead of schedule, and at a cost close to the 1953-54 estimate of £422 million, the scheme had a generating capacity of 3.74 million kilowatts of hydro-electric power and provided an annual average of 2.36 million megalitres of water for irrigation and other purposes.

To head this vast undertaking, Hudson was the ideal man. While reserved and even shy, he was driven by ambition, and knew how to choose men, how to inspire and how to lead them. Of middle height, lean and sharp featured, he had a full mouth, a prominent nose, bushy eyebrows and alert, steely eyes. He shouldered the responsibility with a crusading zeal which left no doubt that he saw it as the opportunity for which he had waited and prepared all his life.

Engineers and technical staff were in short supply in 1949. Hudson began at once to 'search the world' for skilled workers and found numbers of them in refugee camps in Europe. Two-thirds of all Snowy personnel were to come from overseas. The S.M.H.E.A. employed people of thirty-two nationalities on the job, some of whom had fought against each other in World War II. Hudson imbued them with an esprit de corps by extolling the overriding importance of the project—'You aren't any longer Czechs or Germans, you are men of the Snowy'. He won their respect by taking practical measures for their well-being, by ensuring that they had good pay, food and quarters, by providing housing for their families and by showing concern for their safety. To stir their pride and sense of camaraderie, he kept them informed, published a staff magazine and even promoted a song, Snowy River Roll. Alive to the problems likely to arise with an isolated army of men cut off from normal life, he encouraged sporting activity and camp concerts, and allowed wet canteens.

He ensured that, in the allotment of houses and in all else, the immigrants were given equal opportunity and status with the Australian born. His constant aim was to pre-empt anything that might impede the work. Wary of politicians, he nevertheless made strenuous efforts to keep them on side and to avoid political interference. He found a powerful ally in (Sir) Robert Menzies who had been critical of the scheme before becoming prime minister in December 1949. In addition, Hudson moved to prevent industrial troubles. One short strike, which he admitted was mainly the fault of management, taught him a valuable lesson. Instead of resorting to the industrial courts, he secured a private arbitrator Stanley Taylor who quickly settled disputes. Each month supervising engineers sat round the table with local union representatives to identify matters liable to cause unrest.

Industrial safety was another vital concern. To reduce the number of accidents causing serious injury and loss of life, Hudson initiated a joint safety campaign which resulted in a dramatic reduction in the accident rate among the authority's and contractors' personnel. He stipulated that no one would be employed unless he signed a statement agreeing to observe prescribed safety precautions and in 1958 he ordered seat belts to be worn in the S.M.H.E.A. vehicles. Failure to do so, after one warning, meant dismissal.

Everything was judged by its 'usefulness to the scheme'. Acting on this key tenet, Hudson was a hard and demanding taskmaster. 'He expected complete loyalty, complete devotion and hard work'. On the other hand, he was fair and always ready to listen to people. Good performances were rewarded with incentive payments. World tunnelling records were broken. But any sign of slackness or idleness roused his quick temper. He once approached a group of workers who appeared to be taking an unauthorised tea-break and sacked them on the spot. The men looked puzzled. One of them said: 'We don't know who you are, but we work for the Main Roads Department'.

Hudson loved work and led from the front, showing stamina, drive and extraordinary industry. He toiled seven days a week, with lights shining in his office at Cooma until the early hours of the morning. He rarely took holidays and relaxed, when he felt the need, by bushwalking. There was something evangelical about his approach to the Snowy project, which may help to explain the success of his public-relations programme. People in the media found him pleasant, quiet and direct. Thousands of Australians came on tours arranged by the authority and the 'Snowy' became a household word. The project grew to be a source of national pride, a symbol of the burgeoning Australia of the 1960s.

In 1955 Hudson had been appointed K.B.E.; in 1964 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London. Sir William's tenure as commissioner was extended twice and Menzies promised that he would be allowed to finish the task, provided his health held. Menzies' successor Harold Holt did not honour the pledge and Hudson was retired in 1967, on the eve of his 71st birthday. He moved to the suburb of Garran in Canberra. In 1974 he attended a ceremony to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the project which had changed the face of Australia.

Among many distinctions, Hudson received the (W. C.) Kernot memorial medal (1958), the James N. Kirby medal (1962), and the James Cook medal (1966) of the Royal Society of New South Wales. He was elected a fellow (1961) of University College, London, and was a foundation fellow (1975) of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences. Accorded honorary memberships of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (1961) and of the Institution of Engineers, Australia (1962), he was also an honorary fellow (1967) of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. He was awarded an honorary LL.D. by the Australian National University (1962) and an honorary D.Eng. by Monash University (1968). The Returned Services League of Australia conferred honorary life membership (1968) on him and the Braille Library of Victoria made him a life governor (1976).

Other countries sought Hudson's guidance on water-control undertakings. He gave advice on the Volta River project in Ghana and assisted the United Nations in deciding what money to allot for similar works elsewhere. The first chairman of the Australian committee of the International Commission on Large Dams, he had attended an executive-conference in Moscow in 1962. Such a man never retires. After leaving the Snowy, he held numerous engineering consultancies and presided over organizations whose concerns ranged from inland development and research into welding to combating drug dependence. He headed the National Safety Council of Australia and the New South Wales Road Safety Council (from 1968), and served as a Commonwealth arbitrator on disputes involving engineering.

Through it all, Hudson never forgot the Snowy. He loved attending meetings of the 'Old Hands'—those who had worked on the scheme from the first year—to whom he was known as 'King Billy' or simply 'the Old Man'. Grimly fighting the pain of arthritis as he grew older, Hudson walked the hills behind Garran every day until illness overtook him. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died on 12 September 1978 at Red Hill, Canberra, and was buried with Anglican rites in Cooma cemetery, close to the project of which he had been 'the heart, soul and inspiration'.

Select Bibliography

  • S. McHugh, The Snowy (Melb, 1989)
  • M. Unger, Voices from the Snowy (Syd, 1989)
  • B. Collis, Snowy (Syd, 1990)
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (Lond), 25, Nov 1979
  • Canberra Times, 14 Sept 1978
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Sept 1978
  • M. Pratt, interview with William Hudson, (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • M. Murphy, interview with William Flynn, (transcript, 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Eric Sparke, 'Hudson, Sir William (1896–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 27 October 2016.

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

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