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Lahey, Romeo Watkins (1887–1968)

by Betty Crouchley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Romeo Watkins Lahey (1887-1968), engineer, timber merchant and national parks advocate, was born on 2 June 1887 at Pimpama, Queensland, third son of David Lahey, arrowroot merchant, and his wife Jane Jemima, née Walmsley. Educated at Pimpama and Junction Park State schools, the Normal School and Brisbane Grammar School, he was a clerk with the Australian Mutual Provident Society in Brisbane before entering the University of Sydney (B.E., 1914; M.E., 1921). In World War I he served with the Royal Australian Engineers, from July 1915 in the 11th Field Company, Australian Imperial Force. Commissioned second lieutenant in December, he was wounded in action in December 1916 and promoted lieutenant next month. In 1919 he attended a town planning course at the University of London, winning the Lever prize.

An imaginative engineer, Lahey worked mainly in south-east Queensland in a private capacity and for the extensive Lahey sawmilling enterprises. A considerable achievement was the Mount Cainbable road, depicted in Chauvel's film Heritage. A director of Brisbane Timber Ltd and its Fiji-based subsidiary from 1924 until after the Depression, he was then chairman of directors of Laheys (1934) Pty Ltd until 1949. He managed Laheys' activities at Canungra including banana-growing, dairy-farms and a successful Jersey stud. Well aware of the conflict between conservation and exploitation, he initiated reafforestation and reduced wastage in milling. He was a compulsive buyer of land, usually in areas of scenic beauty, but restless energy and lack of capital often prevented him from waiting for a favourable return. Lengthy litigation followed the Commonwealth's resumption in 1942 of his Bulimba land for the Brisbane Graving Dock.

In evidence to the 1931 royal commission on the development of North Queensland, he supported a timber industry. His ambitious 'Lahey Scheme' for timber-cutting near Cardwell was denied approval in 1932 by both the Moore and Forgan Smith governments: the latter ignored Lahey's contention that E. G. Theodore had first put up the proposition. Percy Pease, Labor's secretary for public lands, attacked Lahey's rebuilding of the Yarraman State Sawmill in the November 1932 supply debate, and again rebuffed Lahey when, with J. A. Fihelly and William McCormack, he resubmitted the plan in November 1933.

In World War II Lahey served with the Royal Australian Engineers in Northern Command in 1940-43, reaching the rank of major. He then joined the Allied Works Council as an engineer, transferring in 1945 to the Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing. In 1950-52 he was technical assistant, lands requisition branch, Queensland State Housing Commission.

Four years dedicated work by Lahey as a young man had culminated in the proclamation in July 1915 of Lamington National Park. In 1932 he took an option on adjoining Mount Roberts, and with Arthur Groom and others established Queensland Holiday Resorts Ltd which built Binna Burra Lodge. Resigning as director in 1946 in protest at tree-felling on the property, he rejoined the board in 1954. He was a founder of the 'Save the Trees' campaign in 1946 and chairman until 1949.

Largely at Lahey's instigation, the National Parks Association of Queensland was formed in April 1930. Although he had been a Nationalist candidate for Fassifern in 1923 (not contesting the seat because of a leg injury), as president of the association he eschewed politics and maintained amicable relations with ministers (including Pease) in charge of national parks. He designed graded tracks to minimize ecological disturbance, often at his own expense surveyed suitable areas, and in his seventies completed field work for a Windsor Tableland park, paying for aerial surveying and a field trip. He was appointed M.B.E. in 1960. A plaque was unveiled in 1967 by Premier (Sir) Francis Nicklin on land Lahey gave for incorporation in Lamington National Park, one of several gifts to the national estate.

Small but dynamic, modest but self-assured, quiet but tenacious, Lahey was in Arthur Groom's words 'a thorny problem to many who have not seen eye to eye with him'. Lahey had married Alice Sybil Delpratt on 13 February 1920 in St John's Cathedral, Brisbane. He died on 26 October 1968 at his Yeronga home and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and a son, David Delpratt Lahey, prominent in the national parks movements of Victoria and South Australia. The National Parks Association of Queensland sponsored the Romeo Watkins Lahey memorial lectures and the minister for lands opened a lookout in his memory at Mount Cainbable in 1970. A house designed by Lahey, and for many years the home of his elder sister Frances Vida Lahey, has been classified by the National Trust of Australia (Queensland).

Select Bibliography

  • A. Groom, One Mountain After Another (Syd, 1949)
  • D. Jones, Cardwell Shire Story (Brisb, 1961)
  • M. Curtis, Canungra Heritage 1879-1979 (Brisb, 1979)
  • R. W. Lahey memorial lectures, 1-7, 1969-1981 (National Parks Assn, Brisbane)
  • A. S. Drake, biographical sketch of R. W. Lahey (manuscript, copy in ADB file)
  • R. W. Lahey diaries (privately held)
  • PRE/A 1086 no 6902/1933 (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Betty Crouchley, 'Lahey, Romeo Watkins (1887–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lahey-romeo-watkins-7009/text12187, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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