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John Gurner Burnell (1885–1967)

by M. S. Churchward

This article was published:

John Gurner Burnell (1885-1967), engineer, was born on 21 January 1885 at Paddington, Sydney, eldest son of native-born parents Hubert Gray Burnell, bank manager, and his wife Emeline Kate, née Wills. His father's death when John was only 10 left a lasting impression, thrusting early responsibilities on him and creating a strong bond with his mother whom he admired throughout his life for her capability and strength of character. Educated at The King's School, Parramatta, and the University of Sydney (B.E., 1907), he completed one year of an arts course in 1903 before transferring to mechanical engineering. During his course Burnell gained practical experience at the New South Wales railway workshops and at the Pyrmont plant of the Colonial Sugar Refining Co.

After graduating with first-class honours, in 1908 he was appointed to the new State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria under Elwood Mead and by 1911 was chief mechanical engineer. Burnell travelled extensively throughout northern Victoria, supervising the installation and testing of steam-driven pumping plants which provided water for irrigation, stock and domestic use. He came into close contact with the engineering firm, Thompson & Co. (Castlemaine) Pty Ltd, one of the commission's major contractors.

Commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force on 29 September 1915, Burnell was posted to the 5th Field Company, Engineers. He was then 5 ft 7½ ins (171 cm) tall and 10 st. 7 lb. (67 kg). Embarking for Egypt on 23 November 1915, he served in France from March 1916 and was awarded the Military Cross for carrying out a dangerous reconnaissance on 13 September at Pozières. He was wounded at Bullecourt on 8 May 1917, convalesced in England and returned to France where he was promoted captain in November. In May 1918 he became staff officer to the chief engineer Brigadier Foott. Awarded the French Croix de Guerre in November, he performed administrative duties next year in London and took leave to study water supply. On 28 June 1919 at St Paul's Church, Knightsbridge, he married Adèle Dewez (d.1950); they were to have a son and daughter. His appointment terminated in Australia on 13 February 1920 and he resumed his job in Melbourne.

In 1922 Burnell resigned from the commission to become assistant-manager with Thompson & Co. When the company was reconstructed as Thompsons Engineering & Pipe Co. Ltd in 1925, he was appointed to the board as technical director and promoted to general manager. Responsible for the day-to-day running of the firm's Castlemaine works, he played a major part in building the company into Australia's leading manufacturer of high-efficiency pumps. In 1928 he oversaw the introduction of a standard range of general service pumps and in 1932-33 designed special, centrifugal pumps for treating juices containing cane fibres in Queensland sugar-mills. Having investigated the theory and design of large, axial flow-pumps, in 1939 he persuaded the board to install an hydraulic laboratory with the capacity to measure flows of up to 30,000 gallons (136,383 litres) per minute and to handle pumping loads of 15,000 horsepower. By 1940 pumping equipment had become Thompsons' major product, representing 40 per cent of the Castlemaine works' output.

During World War II Burnell supervised the manufacture of artillery and tank guns, marine engines, circulating pumps and other heavy forging and foundry work. After the war he guided the firm through a further period of expansion in which major contracts were obtained to supply condensing and feedwater plant for new, electric power stations across eastern Australia. The Castlemaine works were extensively re-equipped with modern machine-tools and a fabrication shop was built which almost doubled the workshop space.

Throughout his years with Thompsons, Burnell was approached by those outside the firm who valued his expertise. In 1928 he had commenced work on the Australian pump test code, on which he published a paper in the Journal of the Institution of Engineers in October 1929. This work subsequently became the basis of an equivalent British standard. He was also engaged to report on pumping and water supply to the irrigation settlements of Mildura, Merbein and Red Cliffs for the Federal Development and Migration Commission. Even major competitors came to him to seek advice on pump-design problems.

Burnell firmly believed in the importance of basic research to engineering design and manufacturing. While at Castlemaine, he conducted many experimental investigations into practical problems and patented design improvements for feedwater heater and de-aerators (1934) and steam desuperheaters (1939). His published research also revealed an involvement in the design of power station feedwater and condensing plant. Other fields in which he was concerned included steam-air ejectors, water jet pumps, water-hammer and cavitation. In 1938 Burnell visited engineering works in England, Sweden, Germany, France and the United States of America where he negotiated Australian manufacturing licenses with several companies. He made a second business trip abroad in 1956.

Actively interested in the welfare of Thompsons' employees, Burnell maintained the firm's almost unblemished industrial record and the policy of paying above-award wages to its best employees. During the Depression he retained its most highly-skilled tradesmen and draftsmen by initiating projects such as the manufacture of steamrollers, even though there was little prospect of the work being profitable.

Convinced of the importance of technical education, Burnell was chairman of the Castlemaine Technical School advisory council and a member (1944-55) of the council of the University of Melbourne. He retained his early interest in the arts and was a proficient cabinet-maker. President of the Castlemaine Art Gallery (1942-56) and a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria (1950-56), he acquired an extensive collection of etchings which he bequeathed to Monash University.

In 1946 Burnell had been awarded the Kernot medal for distinguished engineering achievement in the design and testing of pumps and welded pressure-vessels. In 1951 the Institution of Engineers awarded him the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medal and in 1956 the University of Melbourne conferred on him an honorary doctorate of engineering. On 26 July that year he married a widow Danina Pharazyn, née Truelove, at St John's Church, Napier, New Zealand. He retired as general manager and director of Thompsons in January 1957 and moved to Napier. Survived by his wife and the children of his first marriage, he died on 11 October 1967 at Westminster, London.

Select Bibliography

  • The Thompsons-Byron Jackson Centennial (Castlemaine, Vic, 1975)
  • Monash University, Etching and Collecting (Melb, 1985)
  • Institute of Engineers, Australia, Journal, 24, Jan-Feb 1952, p 32
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Nov 1956
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 Mar 1950, 26 Nov 1951
  • Castlemaine Mail, 5 Feb 1957, 17 Oct 1967
  • R. Burnell (compiler), notes on the career of John Gurner Burnell (manuscript, 1975, copy held by University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Thompsons Engineering and Pipe Co, Directors' minute books, 1925-49 (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

M. S. Churchward, 'Burnell, John Gurner (1885–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 May 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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