Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robb, John (1834–1896)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

John Robb (1834-1896), contractor, was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, son of Arthur Robb, gentleman, and his wife Sarah, née Bird. He arrived in Victoria about 1854, visited various goldfields and turned to contracting, first with Best Overend as Overend and Robb, and on his own after Overend's death in 1877. Their first large government contract was in 1863 for the removal of Batman's Hill to make way for Spencer Street railway station in Melbourne. In 1868 the firm constructed the Launceston and Western Railway in Tasmania. For a few years their contracts in Victoria were for water-supply and drainage but from 1874 they concentrated on railways, building the Wangaratta-Beechworth line, sections of the Geelong-Colac line and the Ararat-Hamilton line. In 1877 in South Australia they built the railway from Kapunda to the Murray River.

In 1880 Robb built the Victor Harbor breakwater and a section of the Adelaide sewers. He also constructed the first section of the Fremantle to Guildford railway in Western Australia; when the governor opened the line in September 1880 he said that 'not a single case of dispute between the Works Department and the contractors had been brought to his notice'. Other contracts held by Robb in Victoria included the Morwell-Mirboo (1884), Footscray-Bacchus Marsh (1884-87), Murtoa-Warracknabeal (1885-88) and Moe-Narracan (1886-88) lines.

Constantly on the move, at various times Robb had mining interests in Ballarat, Rutherglen and Tasmania. He was a founding director of the Federal Bank in 1881 and of the Melbourne Hydraulic Power Co. in 1887. Robb's Buildings (1885) on the corner of Collins and King streets was reputedly the highest structure in Melbourne. By 1889 he held valuable freeholds and leaseholds in Victoria and South Australia and had £30,000 invested in the Cudgen Sugar Plantation on the Tweed River in New South Wales. In 1881-82 he had bought Talawanta and Toulby stations in the Warrego district of New South Wales in partnership with James Blackwood's son, Arthur.

Robb's 1887 contract for the second section of the Cairns-Herberton railway led to litigation with the Queensland government. Robb claimed in excess of £250,000, was awarded £20,800 and incurred costs of £28,000. By mid-1893 the case had been settled, but he was in serious financial trouble with large rural losses and the collapse of the inflated value of his real estate at the end of the Victorian land boom. The Federal Bank closed and an investigation in 1893 disclosed Robb's part in prodigal milking of funds by its directors. Robb had an overdraft of £21,000. Insolvent in October 1894 by £680,000 and supported by relations, he eventually paid 1s. 6d. in the pound.

For many years Robb lived at Coonac, Toorak; aged 62 he died suddenly on 18 May 1896 of apoplexy while on business in the city. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth, née Stranger, three of their eight sons and three daughters. The funeral cortège was joined at Princes Bridge by two hundred of his workmen, who marched in two lines to the Melbourne general cemetery. When the news of his death reached Adelaide, the flag was flown at half-mast from the Royal Exchange. A Presbyterian, Robb had 'a quiet and effective way' and a 'distinct talent for managing men'. He left personalty of £2000.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 3 (Melb, 1905)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • J. W. Collinson, ‘Building the Cairns Range railway’, JRHSQ, 5 (1955)
  • West Australian, 3 Sept 1880
  • Australasian Sketcher, 14 Jan 1885
  • Australasian, 13 May 1893
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Oct 1893, 7 Apr 1894, 19 May 1896
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Oct 1894, 19, 21 May 1896
  • Register (Adelaide), 20 May 1896
  • insolvency papers (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

John Lack, 'Robb, John (1834–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robb-john-4484/text7323, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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