Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert Ballard (1839–1912)

by Jacqueline Bell

This article was published:

Robert Ballard (1839-1912), railway engineer, was born on 28 March 1839 at Ledbury, Herefordshire, England, son of Robert Ballard, builder, and his wife Catherine Maria, née Pedlingham. He first attended King Edward Grammar School, Ledbury; later he trained as a civil engineer under his uncle, Stephen Ballard, in Britain and Holland and under George Woodhouse in France. He became a member of the Institution of Engineers, England, and the American Society of Engineers. Sent by Thomas Brassey (1805-1870) of Peto, Brassey & Betts, railways contractors, to New South Wales in 1859, Ballard constructed the railway from Maitland to Singleton. In 1863-65 he worked for the government as resident engineer, superintending the rail extension from Picton to Goulburn. In 1865 he rejoined Peto, Brassey & Betts, now contracting for Queensland's first railway from Ipswich to Toowoomba. Ballard was resident engineer for the Main Range section of the line. 'I was chosen for that work because of its extremely heavy character, comprising many tunnels, at which sort of work I was considered expert', wrote Ballard in 1899. Much controversy was caused in Queensland by the construction of the line but Ballard's section was an exception: he won praise for his careful work.

After the 1866 financial crisis and trouble between government and contractors, Ballard left the company and was later appointed official mining surveyor for the Gympie goldfields. In 1872 he was appointed chief engineer on the Great Northern railway to build the line from Westwood, beyond Rockhampton, to Dawson Bridge. His system offered a quick cheap means of constructing the Queensland narrow gauge railway line of 3 ft 6 ins. Though a public servant, Ballard let subcontracts directly to tradesmen, thus eliminating the profits made by large contractors. He was appointed chief engineer of the Central and Northern railway in 1878. In recognition of his achievements in cheap railway construction Ballard was granted £5000 by the Queensland government. He was considered one of the boldest engineers in Australia and patented a number of his own inventions, including a new fish joint for rails. On the Charters Towers railway Ballard saved a detour of five miles (8 km) and £30,000 by making steep mountain tracks with some grades of one in twenty-five and curves of four chains (80 m) radius; the time of construction was cut by two years.

When he left the Queensland government service in 1886 Ballard prepared a report on railways construction which was accepted by the South Australian government. Later he served as consulting engineer for the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Co. and several English gold-mining companies at Menzies, Western Australia. He had married Tamar, née Brown, at West Maitland, New South Wales, on 22 December 1862; they had seven children. He died in London on 22 November 1912.

Ballard was determined and resolute with many interests outside his field. He was a member of the Johnsonian Club of Brisbane. In New York and London he published The Solution of the Pyramid Problem; or, Pyramid Discoveries. With a New Theory as to Their Ancient Use (1882), arguing that the pyramids were the 'theodolites of the Egyptians'. His Man's Blood-Guilt (London, 1906) speculated on the history of the human soul. His collection of drawings and paintings of Australian butterflies and moths is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Wakeling (ed), A Century of Service: The Story of the Queensland Government Railways (Brisb, 1965)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1869, 2, 763
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1873, 1133
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 17 Oct 1879
  • Menzies Miner, Mar 1899
  • Ballard family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Jacqueline Bell, 'Ballard, Robert (1839–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Ballard, n.d.

Robert Ballard, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 69360

Life Summary [details]


28 March, 1839
Ledbury, Herefordshire, England


22 November, 1912 (aged 73)
London, Middlesex, England

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