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O'Connor, Charles Yelverton (1843–1902)

by Merab Harris Tauman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Charles Yelverton O'Connor (1843-1902), by unknown photographer, 1890s

Charles Yelverton O'Connor (1843-1902), by unknown photographer, 1890s

State Library of Western Australia, 003356D

Charles Yelverton O'Connor (1843-1902), engineer, was born on 11 January 1843 at Gravelmount, Castletown, Meath, Ireland, third and youngest son and fourth child of John O'Connor, farmer and company secretary, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née O'Keefe. Educated first at his aunt's home, then at Waterford Endowed School (Bishop Foy's School), O'Connor was 'almost brought up on railways'. He was articled to John Chaloner Smith, engineer to the Waterford-Kilkenny line, and gained experience in constructing railways in the south and west of Ireland, and water-control works in the north.

In 1865 O'Connor migrated to New Zealand. He joined Rowland Campion Long in undertaking a survey contract at Ngahinapouri, Waipa River area, North Island. In September O'Connor joined the staff of Edward Dobson, head of the Department of Works of Canterbury province, which embraced the west-coast region with its many gold-mining centres. Here he worked initially on the locating and survey of a route for the first dray and coach road across the Southern Alps. In 1867 he was the surveyor of the proposed Greymouth-Hokitika-Christchurch railway. Next August he was appointed assistant engineer, lands and works, for the Westland area; in 1870 he became county engineer. These appointments threw all responsibility for decision-making upon O'Connor. In 1872 he became district engineer for Canterbury province. On 5 March 1874, at Christchurch, he married Susan Laetitia Ness; they had eight children.

O'Connor's work included the provision of controlled supplies of water for the pumping and sluicing needs of the goldminers, locating tracks and roads, building bridges, and improving harbour facilities. During the 1870s he knew engineers of international repute: John Carruthers, engineer-in-chief in the colony in 1871-79, and Sir John Coode. O'Connor went to Dunedin in 1880 to become inspecting engineer for the South Island. That year he was elected to the Institution of Civil Engineers, London. O'Connor's west-coast experience had proved his capacity for initiative and leadership and toughened him physically. By the early 1880s his views on the effective construction and operation of colonial railways became widely known, as did his work in improving harbours. In 1883-90 he was under-secretary for public works. In 1890, however, following reorganization, he unexpectedly was appointed not departmental head but, instead, marine engineer for the whole colony. He began examining employment prospects elsewhere.

In April 1891 (Sir) John Forrest, premier of Western Australia, offered O'Connor the position of engineer-in-chief. In reply to his inquiry as to whether his responsibilities would cover railways or harbours or roads, Forrest cabled 'Everything'. O'Connor, with his eldest daughter Aileen, travelled via Victoria where he presented to the government a report on its railways. In June he met Forrest. Both were big men, O'Connor, lithe and athletic; at over six feet (185 cm), he was slightly the taller. Both had known the toughening experience of surveyors working in unexplored places. O'Connor was the more sensitive, with wide and cultivated tastes and a passionate sense of justice for men of all degree. For the next ten years they worked closely together.

O'Connor found that he was also to act as general manager of government railways. He carried this dual responsibility for the next five and a half years. Forrest's first demand was a harbour at Fremantle to accommodate the royal mail contractors, the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. and the Orient Steam Navigation Co., whose vessels were the largest steamers coming to Australia. Forrest and some of his influential peers had decided on the harbour they wanted and where it should be sited. They had accepted plans elaborated in 1887 by Sir John Coode who had found that the Swan River's entrance was obstructed by a bar of rock exposed at low water in an estuary, with little difference between high and low water. Some local people believed the region was menaced by serious littoral sand travel. So Coode designed an outer harbour. Though his estimates were higher than Forrest could accept in 1891, the premier supported his plan.

O'Connor doubted whether evidence had been tested. With characteristic independence and thoroughness he examined all the data, and collected more: he had observations and soundings made; and he consulted everyone who handled ships and knew the area's seas, currents and winds. This convinced him that there was no serious littoral sand travel. He considered it would be practical and economical to remove the obstructing bar, deepen the area within the river mouth, and to keep it clear by dredging. An extensive sheltered harbour, further protected by a north and south mole stretching seawards from Rous Head and Arthur Head, could be created within the estuary to satisfy Forrest's demand, and at a cost consistent with available resources.

Before the end of the year O'Connor completed plans and estimates for an inner harbour for all vessels drawing 30 feet (9 m) at low water, and sufficient to meet the port's demands for the foreseeable future. He calculated that the more extensive of his two schemes would cost £800,000, and could be completed in eight years. Forrest was convinced by the clarity of O'Connor's presentation and by parliament's acceptance of the findings of a select committee inquiring into the competing plans for the works.

O'Connor settled in Fremantle at Park Bungalow in Quarry Street, overlooking the river. In 1900 the family moved to Beach Street; most of them easily adapted to the West.

In November 1892 the inauguration ceremony of the harbour works took place. In 1897 Lady Forrest opened the harbour, and in 1900 the mail station was altered from Albany to Fremantle. The official seal of success was set when on 12 September R.M.S. Himalaya, the P. & O. mail carrier outward bound from London, entered the inner harbour and berthed. The harbour of 1900 was larger than that O'Connor had detailed in his first meticulous plans and was capable of extension.

O'Connor effected striking improvements in building and operating the government railways. In his first loan bill (£1,336,000) Forrest had earmarked practically two-thirds for railway construction. Succeeding budgets provided additional funds. By June 1896 new lines had been built: the Yilgarn, extending from Northam to Southern Cross; the South-West, including the Donnybrook and Vasse branches; and the Northern, with the Walkaway and Mullewa branches. By the end of the year the Yilgarn railway had been extended to Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie; and the government arranged to buy the Great Southern Railway from the West Australian Land Co., linking Albany with Beverley. Until December his double responsibility as engineer-in-chief and acting general manager of railways enabled O'Connor to influence railway policy. He insisted that the existing lines be upgraded and that new lines appropriate for colonial conditions be planned and constructed. Though he encountered criticism and obstruction to his proposals to re-route and upgrade the key line of the future, the Eastern line (from Fremantle, Perth and Guildford to Spencer's Brook, with spur lines to Newcastle (Toodyay), Northam and Beverley), he succeeded in making these changes by more competent surveys, improved routes and gradients, and a better road-bed, laid with heavier rails. He demanded more and better rolling stock suitable for Western Australia.

O'Connor insisted that the basis of more efficient and economic government railways was well-sited, well-equipped locomotive, maintenance and repair workshops. Though he immediately improved the layout, staffing and equipping of the cramped Fremantle workshops, it took another twelve years for governments to implement his proposals for modern shops on a better site. O'Connor fostered the well-being of the railway workers. In his last report as acting general manager he wrote that they were overworked, underpaid and endured poor working conditions; he demanded better education, recruitment and training of cadets. His management of the railways yielded results: for the first time, they paid their way.

The steam railways were handicapped by scarcity of water, more acute the further inland the lines penetrated. In 1891 and 1892 John W. James, a hydraulic expert, examined the water resources of the Avon Valley, the Darling Range and the watershed of the Swan River, and reported on the possibilities of water conservation. In 1892 on a journey to Southern Cross, a new gold-mining centre, O'Connor saw for himself the arid, riverless country through which the new railway line from Northam must pass. He saw the wells and bores put down, the ground tanks made, and the condensers built to treat heavily mineralized water where it could be found. He initiated the first systematic search for water along the route of the Northam-Southern Cross line, selecting the young assistant engineer William Herbert Shields as surveyor. As a result, several rock catchments were used and ground-water tanks constructed to provide water for the railway.

With the rush following the discovery of rich gold at Coolgardie (1892) and Kalgoorlie (1893), the lack of water became more serious. In November 1893 responsibility for water-supplies on the goldfields passed permanently to the Department of Public Works: O'Connor established the goldfields water-supply branch. Its engineers were remarkable men using every possible device to conserve water, even though it might be no more than a gallon (4.5 litres) or less a day, a pitiably small amount in an area of high temperatures and dust.

Just when O'Connor began work on a plan to provide an abundant, permanent supply of fresh water for the Coolgardie goldfields is not known, but by mid-1895 his plans were under way. Details had still to be clarified: costs; the latest evidence of appropriate equipment; the supply price of pumps and materials from overseas landed in the colony; records of rainfall; evaporation rates; and estimates of potential water consumption. O'Connor's scheme would provide water for the men and the mines, for the railway, and for the townships Forrest expected to grow along the Yilgarn line.

With limited resources but with the enthusiasm of his staff, O'Connor made plans. By the end of October 1895, designs and estimates—showing alternative materials, pipes of varying dimensions, three different quantities of water—were ready for Forrest. The scheme was imaginative and dramatic; simple but bold. Water would be stored on the wet western slope of the Darling Range. From there it would be lifted a thousand feet (304 m) over the escarpment and pumped 328 miles (528 km) across the plateau to a reservoir at Coolgardie. Through 21 steel mains, 30 inches (762 mm) in diameter, 5 million gallons (22.7m litres) of water would be delivered daily to Coolgardie for 3s. 6d. per 1000 gallons (4546 litres). The scheme could be completed in three years and was estimated to cost £2½ million. Forrest accepted it but he had to convince parliament, and persuade it to support the raising of a London loan.

O'Connor suggested that the scheme be submitted in 1897 to a commission of experts: he visited London where three British engineers commended the plan as entirely practical, the greatest undertaking of its kind yet constructed. But nothing stilled the local opposition, criticism and attack. That year O'Connor was appointed C.M.G.

Two years passed, from his own initial approval of the plans, before Forrest obtained the parliamentary support for the Coolgardie Water Supply Scheme that he sought. Even then, delays occurred. It was October 1898 before the government signed contracts with Mephan Ferguson of Melbourne and the Hoskins brothers of Sydney, to manufacture steel pipes for the water main. Steel plate would not be shipped from the United States of America and Germany for another six months. Meanwhile in the valley of the Helena River excavations began for the great reservoir at Mundaring; surveys were made of the pipe-line route to Coolgardie.

Forrest and his friend (Sir) John Winthrop Hackett, editor of the West Australian, commended the plan. Both Forrest and O'Connor saw it in a wider context, as part of a related plan to enhance the colony's development: a harbour at Fremantle; railways and communications; water for railways, potential settlements, goldminers; and, later, the western link of an Australian transcontinental railway.

In February 1901 when Forrest withdrew from the State government to enter the first Federal parliament, the realization of that link seemed near. As Federal minister for defence, he requested O'Connor in April to report on an Australian transcontinental line, to connect the terminal at Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta, South Australia. On 19 May O'Connor presented plans and estimates.

In Western Australia Forrest's dominance was not repeated. Short-lived, unstable governments left the Coolgardie water scheme and O'Connor vulnerable. Work was well advanced, but at a crucial stage. His decision to use on the water main a novel, electric caulking machine provoked a storm. In 1902 while he was in South Australia advising its government on an outer harbour for Adelaide, harassment intensified. In parliament much criticism was uninformed, malicious and unbridled. Eventually O'Connor submitted a detailed memorandum, rebutting a long list of criticisms aired in both Houses.

The Sunday Times was vicious and defamatory. These attacks, and the silence of the minister and the government, wounded him. Depressed, affected by neuralgia and insomnia intensified by overwork and nervous exhaustion, O'Connor needed a respite not controversy. Unfortunately, the under-secretary Martin Jull, a friend and colleague of administrative skill who would have recommended the appropriate ministerial action, had left the State for a year.

O'Connor's confidence in his scheme was vindicated on 8 March 1902 by a successful preliminary pumping test of six miles (9.6 km) of the water main over the most difficult part of the route. That evening one small leak was discovered near Chidlow's Well. He arranged to accompany the engineer in charge of construction to the site on Monday. That morning, 10 March 1902, he prepared for his customary early ride but his usual companion, his youngest daughter, was unwell. He rode alone along the Fremantle beach past the new harbour, then south to Robb Jetty, where he rode his horse into the sea. His deft revolver shot ended his life.

He had left a note: 'The Coolgardie Scheme is alright and I could finish it if I got a chance and protection from misrepresentation but there is no hope of that now and it is better that it should be given to some entirely new man to do who will be untrammelled by prior responsibility'.

O'Connor had been a man of strong personality, initiative and imagination. He was compassionate, forward looking and seemed to many contemporaries a genius. With his varied interests and quick wit he was a delightful host, and a man of strong family feeling.

On 12 March a vast congregation followed his body to the Anglican portion of the new cemetery at Fremantle, the grave to be marked by a great Celtic cross erected by his staff. His wife, three sons and four daughters survived him. Two of the sons were engineers; two of the daughters married engineers, one of them being (Sir) George Julius; another daughter Kathleen (Kate) became a distinguished artist. A bronze statue of O'Connor by Pietro Porcelli was later erected at Fremantle.

By the end of 1902, as planned, the work was completed for the estimated cost: the great reservoir was ready, the pumps installed, the main laid to Coolgardie and extended another twenty-five miles (40 km) to Kalgoorlie. The water had completed its carefully regulated flow begun eight months before in the Helena River valley at Mundaring. On 24 January 1903, amid great rejoicing, Forrest turned on the water at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. He praised O'Connor, 'the great builder of this work … to bring happiness and comfort to the people of the goldfields for all time'.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Tauman, The Chief, C. Y. O'Connor, 1843-1902 (Perth, 1978), and for references.

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Citation details

Merab Harris Tauman, 'O'Connor, Charles Yelverton (1843–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oconnor-charles-yelverton-7874/text13685, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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