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McCormack, William Thomas Bartholomew (1879–1938)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William Thomas Bartholomew McCormack (1879-1938), civil engineer and public servant, was born on 1 January 1879 at Heathcote, Victoria, son of Thomas McCormack, Irish-born publican and his wife Emily, née Ewen, of Sydney. Educated at the local state school and privately, he worked as a clerk in the shire office at Seymour before being appointed in 1902 secretary and shire engineer at Mirboo, Gippsland. On 27 September 1904 at Mirboo Catholic Church, he married Margaret Muirhead. Certificated as municipal surveyor, hydraulic engineer and municipal clerk (Victoria) and engineer (New South Wales), he worked as shire engineer at Lockhart, New South Wales, and Korumburra, Victoria, before being appointed in 1909 to the Public Works Department as assistant engineer, engaged in constructing roads and levees and reclaiming swamps. He was an honorary lecturer in engineering at the University of Melbourne in 1913-15, a foundation member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London.

In March 1913 McCormack was appointed one of the three foundation members of the Country Roads Board of Victoria. In 1913-15 they travelled widely, frequently on horseback, to lay the foundation of the State's road network. McCormack's knowledge of local government, his diplomatic skills and quiet, equable personality made him a successful ambassador for the board in its negotiations with sometimes fractious shire councils.

A lieutenant in the Australian Intelligence Corps in 1911-14, McCormack enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in January 1916 and in June embarked as major commanding the 10th Field Company, Engineers. In 1917 he acted as commanding royal engineer, 3rd Division, under his mentor Major General (Sir) John Monash. Following the battle of Messines he was mentioned in dispatches and in August 1918 was awarded the French Croix de Guerre. After the war he briefly studied British road construction, town planning, sewerage and water-supply.

Returning to Australia in April 1919 McCormack resumed his work with the Country Roads Board, taking charge of the construction, initially by returned soldiers, of the Great Ocean Road which reached Eastern View in 1922 and, eventually, Apollo Bay in 1932. Acting chairman of the board during William Calder's visit to Europe and the United States of America in 1924, he was appointed chairman upon Calder's death in March 1928. During his decade in office about 11,000 miles (17,703 km) of roadway were under his jurisdiction and in that time much of its macadam surface, suitable for horse-drawn vehicles, was replaced with more durable bitumen and gravel. He also established the board's research laboratory. In 1937 McCormack visited North America to study advances in road-building and published a report on his return.

Contemporaries observed that McCormack spoke of roads with poetic eloquence, insisting that they should 'follow the lines of Nature' for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. He was committed to providing 'a road to every farmer's gate' and urged the use of local materials wherever possible.

A pianist and composer of dance music, McCormack was also a member of Victoria Golf Club and donor of the McCormack cup to the Melbourne division of the Institution of Engineers. He died in Melbourne from pneumonia on 23 January 1938 and was buried with Catholic rites in Brighton cemetery. His wife, daughter and two sons survived him. Memorials to him include an archway at Eastern View, opened by General Sir Harry Chauvel in 1939.

Select Bibliography

  • Institute of Engineers Journal, 11, no 12, Dec 1939
  • Australian Road Research, Sept 1963
  • Herald (Melbourne), 27 Feb 1913, 15 Mar 1928, 24 Jan 1938, 2 Nov 1939
  • Age (Melbourne), 3, 24 Jan 1938
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1938
  • private information.

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Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'McCormack, William Thomas Bartholomew (1879–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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