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John Allan Aird (1892–1959)

by J. M. Powell

This article was published:

John Allan Aird (1892-1959), irrigation commissioner, was born on 17 October 1892 at Clifton Hill, Melbourne, second son of Andrew Aird, a storeman from Scotland, and his native-born wife Augustine, née Baum. Educated at Scotch College, Jock joined the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, and in 1913 was sponsored by that agency—then under the leadership of the controversial American engineer Elwood Mead—to study in the United States of America. In 1915 Aird completed a B.S. (Agriculture) at the University of California, Berkeley. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 11 October 1916 and served in the 1st Divisional Ammunition Column on the Western Front. Promoted lieutenant in February 1919, he studied briefly in England at the University of Leeds before returning to Australia in 1920 and resuming his former employment. On 3 October 1922 he married Jessie Alice Adam at the Presbyterian Church, Brunswick, Melbourne.

His career in Victoria's celebrated water management commission spanned its early years, the booms and busts of rural settlement expansion, and the commencement of the great surge of dam building under Premier (Sir) Henry Bolte. While rising in the commission's ranks, Aird graduated from the University of Melbourne (B.Ag.Sc., 1922; Dip.Comm., 1932) and was a member (1931-58) of the faculty of agriculture. His senior career appointments included superintendent of irrigation settlements (1927-33), closer settlement commissioner (1933-49) and chief irrigation officer (1939-49). Appointed commissioner (one of three top executives) in 1949, he held that post until his retirement in 1958.

A large, genial man, Jock Aird had a temperament and an expertise which complemented those of his fellow executives. In a powerful monopolistic agency dominated by engineering perspectives (though less so than related bodies in other States) his training had given him insights into the complex spectrum of water uses and the changing demands made by rural consumers. With forceful Chief Commissioner (Sir) Ronald East and Commissioner Harold Hanslow, he persuaded the Victorian cabinet to introduce novel legislation dealing with soil conservation, despite the machinations of Premier (Sir) Albert Dunstan. Under East's instructions, Aird prepared important review material, accompanied government advisers on a well-prepared, fact-finding tour of New South Wales and carefully drafted their main recommendations. The 1940 legislation, amended by successive governments after the war, owed much to the commission's efforts.

Aird's principal technical publications derived from his work with the commission and for the most part enjoyed only limited circulation. They included practical papers on the economics of erosion, and on representative costs on pioneer irrigated blocks and the efficient control of irrigation water; economic studies of water conservation in the Campaspe, Goulburn and Werribee catchments; and a survey of soldier settlement after World War I. He also contributed to the growing debate on the wisdom of continuing public investment in irrigation and to arguments for new and augmented dams. In a wider arena, his simple paper on the relationships between rainfall, productivity and the distribution of population was frequently consulted and cribbed in Victoria's secondary schools.

In the commission, an institution that was synonymous with the development of Victoria, Aird won the affection and loyalty of subordinates. An honorary life member of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, England, he served as secretary of the local body for many years. He died of myocardial infarction on 25 January 1959 at his East Malvern home and was cremated; his wife, son and daughter survived him. The J. A. Aird prize in public administration is awarded annually at the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Powell, Watering the Garden State (Syd, 1989)
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Feb 1933, 30 Jan 1959.

Citation details

J. M. Powell, 'Aird, John Allan (1892–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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