Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

William Calder (1860–1928)

by Roger J. Southern

This article was published:

William Calder (1860-1928), engineer, was born on 31 July 1860 at his father's sheep-farm at Lovell's Flat, Milton near Dunedin, New Zealand, only son of Arthur Calder and his wife Margaret Milne, née Strachan. Calder was educated at the local school at Milton and the Otago Boys' High School in Dunedin in 1876-77. From 1881 he attended engineering lectures at Otago University before entering the New Zealand Government Survey Department as a cadet in October 1883; after five years practical training he passed the authorized surveyors' examination with credit in July 1888.

Later that year Calder came to Victoria and worked in private engineering and surveying firms. In October 1889 he became assistant town surveyor for the City of Footscray, and in July 1890 town engineer. At night he studied to gain certificates as municipal engineer (1890) and engineer of water-supply (1892). From December 1897 to March 1913, Calder was city engineer and building surveyor to the City of Prahran. Among his achievements were construction of, allegedly, the first asphalted carpet-road surface and the first refuse destructor in Australia, and the completion of a major drainage project.

By 1912 the appalling condition of Victoria's rural roads was a major concern to both farmers and motorists. That year a Country Roads Board was set up and Calder was appointed chairman, with W. T. B. McCormack and F. W. Fricke as the other members. In its first two years, the board travelled ceaselessly, inspecting a road system neglected by indigent municipalities since the building of the railways. A meticulous note-taker and enthusiastic photographer, Calder recorded the board's progress; his notes were transcribed and used as a basic reference for many years. Maps were published in 1914 and 1915 showing the roads selected for improvement. The board was endlessly tactful in receiving interest groups pressing for various improvements, while insisting on high standards of construction and financial control.

After 1918 there were shortages of money and manpower for road-building. Calder campaigned publicly and privately for more funds, especially for arterial roads, and invariably attained rapport with a succession of ministers. In 1924 he toured Europe and North America; his report, published that year, is widely regarded as a classic of road-construction practice and road-administration. In it he evaluated the contemporary controversy over the use of cement concrete (the American model) and bituminous pavement (the British); he favoured the latter for Australian conditions. Other recommendations included experiments with new materials and a fuel tax to replace the vehicle tax. Maintenance was to be given high priority, and he also stressed the importance of regulation of motor transport to preserve road surfaces and to raise revenue.

Many of Calder's recommendations were included in the important Highways and Vehicles Act of 1924, which provided for the declaration of State highways, two-thirds financed by the State government through the C.R.B. This network of highways is perhaps Calder's main achievement: the road to Bendigo and Mildura was named after him. The board's organization was copied in other States, New Zealand and Fiji. He long advocated Federal assistance in highway construction, and attended the first meeting of the Federal Aid Roads Board set up under the Act of 1926.

Calder had married Elizabeth Bagley Palmer of Dunedin on 4 November 1889 at Brunswick. He was a devout Presbyterian and member of his church boards of management of Footscray and Armadale. He retained a pleasant but definite Scots burr all his life. Small, with a pointed beard and a 'puckish sense of humour', he was a conscientious and methodical worker, of conservative disposition and unchallenged integrity. He encouraged young engineers with initiative and had close links with Professor Henry Payne of the University of Melbourne. A 'champion shot', he assisted with military training in the Moorooduc area during World War I. Calder had hoped to retire to his small property at Red Hill, but died of cancer at East Malvern on 18 February 1928. Survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, he was buried in Cheltenham cemetery after a ceremony at Gardiner Presbyterian Church. Calder's wife was saved from financial difficulty by a special State pension.

Memorials to him include an avenue of trees on the road to Geelong beginning one mile past Werribee, cairns at Warragul and elsewhere in Gippsland, and a bridge at Moe. A Tom Roberts portrait hangs in the C.R.B. board room, Kew.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Southern, ‘William Calder — public servant and engineer …’, Victorian Historical Journal, 48 (1977), no 3, and for bibliography.

Citation details

Roger J. Southern, 'Calder, William (1860–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


31 July, 1860
Milton, New Zealand


18 February, 1928 (aged 67)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.