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John Boyle (1904–1979)

by Helen Boxall

This article was published:

John Boyle (1904-1979), surveyor and public servant, was born on 14 March 1904 at Marrickville, Sydney, seventh child of John Boyle, quarryman, and his wife Annie (Joanna), née Sweeney, both native-born. Educated at Christian Brothers' High School, Lewisham, young John studied arts as an evening student at the University of Sydney. In 1926-27 he was a cadet draftsman in the New South Wales Department of the Attorney-General and of Justice, and on 29 August 1933 became a registered surveyor. He married a schoolteacher and fellow debating enthusiast Philomena Margaret Flynn on 26 October 1935 at St Brigid's Catholic Church, Marrickville.

During the Depression Boyle worked for A. F. Hall & Co., civil engineers and surveyors of Newcastle. Frequently unemployed, he sailed alone to Papua in 1937 and for almost twelve months surveyed the Fly River region. On his return to New South Wales, he undertook contract jobs for local councils. In 1942 he joined the Commonwealth Public Service and moved to Canberra. Initial engagements in defence projects took him to Maralinga, South Australia, and to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. He travelled to Norfolk Island in 1945 where he surveyed the island's aerodrome. Back in Canberra, he was promoted senior surveyor (1950) and chief surveyor (1952), and appointed Commonwealth surveyor-general in March 1964.

Intent on innovation, Boyle shed extraneous official tasks in order to implement efficiencies in the Australian Survey Office, which had been expanding from the early 1950s to meet the demands of construction, mining and space-exploration projects. He introduced one of the public service's first electronic computers and acquired advanced surveying equipment, including distance-measuring instruments. At an international conference in Portugal and on tours of Britain and the United States of America, he examined the latest photogrammetric devices and techniques. Dedicated and determined, he asserted his authority, but, in confronting issues and challenging bureaucratic controls, he came into conflict with members of the Public Service Board.

A keen Labor supporter, Boyle was loyal to his professional colleagues. He established and was foundation president (1964) of the Commonwealth Professional Surveyors' Association, and also advocated the introduction of university degrees in surveying. Chairman of the Surveyors' Board of the Australian Capital Territory, he was a member (1964-69) of the National Mapping Council of Australia. From 1960 he had belonged to the Canberra division of the Institution of Surveyors, Australia. Sturdy in build, he had a steady, confident gaze.

Late in Boyle's term of office his authoritarianism and inability to accept advice put him at odds with his staff who allowed his retirement to pass without ceremony. He spent his final years quietly and enjoyed bowls, gardening and watching football. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 21 August 1979 in Royal Canberra Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times, 15 Mar 1969, 3 Sept 1979
  • private information.

Citation details

Helen Boxall, 'Boyle, John (1904–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 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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