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Moncrieff, Alexander Bain (1845–1928)

by Alex H. Moncrieff and A. J. Stimson

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

Alexander Bain Moncrieff (1845-1928), by unknown photographer, c1880

Alexander Bain Moncrieff (1845-1928), by unknown photographer, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3834

Alexander Bain Moncrieff (1845-1928), engineer, was born on 22 May 1845 in Dublin, eldest son of Alexander Rutherford Moncrieff, corn merchant, and his wife Anne, née Bain. After attending Belfast Academy he was articled at 15 to the Great Southern and Western Railway of Ireland; this included manual work in the blacksmith's shop which gave him a lifelong understanding of fellow workers. He then had jobs in engineering works in Drogheda, Glasgow, Scotland, and Hertfordshire, England. In November 1874, dissatisfied with his prospects, with his brother Joseph Cowan Bain he went to South Australia as an engineering draughtsman in the civil service. On 23 August 1877, at Kent Town, he married Mary Bonson Sunter; they had a daughter and two sons.

Next year Moncrieff helped (Sir) Peter Scratchley to design and construct fortifications at Largs Bay and Glanville; upon their completion he became resident engineer for the Great Northern Railway at Quorn. In 1888 Moncrieff returned to Adelaide as engineer-in-chief, succeeding H. C. Mais. The position had been stripped of much of its former authority in railway management, but the Department of Harbours and Jetties and the Hydraulic Department (waterworks and sewers) were brought under his control. He now held 'one of the most senior positions in the Civil Service', although the radical press suggested that he was 'drawing a nice fat salary with minimal responsibilities'.

This was unfair. Moncrieff was largely responsible for the design of several lighthouses, ably supervised difficult and controversial work on Adelaide's Outer Harbour, and designed and implemented far-sighted drainage schemes in the South-East (1911). His Barossa dam was hailed by an American engineering journal as fit 'to rank with the most famous dams in the world' for 'the boldness of its design'. He also accumulated other responsibilities: chairmanship of the Supply and Tender Board (1895-99); presidency of the Institution of Surveyors in 1901; chairmanship of the Municipal Tramways Trust in 1907-22; and, from 1909, railways commissioner. He was appointed C.M.G. that year. He had been elected to the British Institution of Civil Engineers, London, in 1888 and the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1894.

Moncrieff retired as railways commissioner in 1916; he had been unable to concentrate fully on railway matters because of his chairmanship of the tramways and was unfortunate to be commissioner at a time when parliament wanted developmental railways. He fought against these lines, and his 1912-13 report warned that railway finances must suffer. But he was perhaps a qualified success. He was not very conversant with the work of traffic branch and in the 1916-18 reports of the North Terrace reserves and railway centres royal commission he was criticized, mainly for the antiquated design of the new Mile End goods yards and signalling devices installed at Adelaide station. He relished the fact that during his seven-year chairmanship no serious accident occurred for which a railway employee could be blamed; his motto was 'safety first'. Moncrieff's approach to transport was democratic: he deplored the two-class system of travel on the railways and prevented it on trams, where he kept fares cheap; he supported unionism and encouraged employees to 'feel that they and we are running the concern'; and he was proud of the trams' 'psychological effect'—they 'put more life into Adelaide than ever it had before'.

He was a Freemason and a pledged teetotaller from schooldays: 'Drunkenness and dishonesty', he said, 'are the two unpardonable crimes of a railwayman'. He expected high moral standards in public life and worked hard, holidaying only when compelled by illness. Moncrieff was a member of the Prisoners' Aid Society, and enjoyed gardening and mechanics. He was an Anglican lay preacher and an insatiable reader. He died at his Rose Park home on 11 April 1928 and was buried in Main North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. I. Jennings, W. A. Webb, South Australian Railways Commissioner, 1922-1930 (Adel, 1973)
  • M. Williams, The Making of the South Australian Landscape (Lond, 1974)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1912, 3 (16)
  • Quiz (Adelaide), 26 Jan 1894, 15 June 1899
  • Public Service Review (South Australia), 9, no 6, 1903
  • Observer (Adelaide), 5 May 1888
  • Mail (Adelaide), 18 Jan 1913
  • Register (Adelaide), 13 Apr 1928
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Alex H. Moncrieff and A. J. Stimson, 'Moncrieff, Alexander Bain (1845–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moncrieff-alexander-bain-7620/text13317, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Alexander Bain Moncrieff (1845-1928), by unknown photographer, c1880

Alexander Bain Moncrieff (1845-1928), by unknown photographer, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3834