Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Montgomery Coane (1848–1923)

by Roger J. Southern

This article was published:

John Montgomery Coane (1848-1923), surveyor and consulting engineer, was born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland, son of Henry James Coane, barrister, and his wife Jane, née Montgomery. He was educated in Dublin apparently with a view to joining the Royal Engineers but instead came to Australia about 1867. For at least three years he worked in Queensland mining districts before going to Victoria. In November 1873 he joined the Victorian Education Department, teaching for a year at Napoleon, south of Ballarat, and then at Samaria near Benalla, from 1 January 1875 until 31 December 1878. On 1 January 1876 he married Emma Anna Hunt Collas at Wycliff Church of England, Learmonth.

In February 1879 Coane was authorized as a surveyor and was appointed to Benalla in August. Later that year, with George Hudson Grant, he established a general surveying and civil, hydraulic and mining engineering practice. They became one of the most distinguished consulting engineering partnerships of the era—their office was located in Melbourne from 1886. In the 1880s they undertook extensive land surveying, including selections, roads and townships for the Lands Department in the Yea and Seymour areas. New techniques for levelling in steep country were developed. The firm expanded into subdivisional work in Melbourne and country towns and into developmental works in rural Victoria. Projects included the 'improvement of private estates in Melbourne and elsewhere', the new Epsom race-course at Mordialloc, a survey of the Cape Otway Forest, the water-supply for Shepparton, Daylesford and other districts, municipal works and swamp reclamation. Coane advised the government on the rate of flow of the Goulburn River for irrigation and electric supply and laid out several private irrigation schemes. For some years he was a partner in a fruit-growing and exporting firm (until July 1903 known as Blacker's Orchard and Cannery Co.), at Toolamba in the Goulburn valley.

Coane's papers read to the Victorian Institute of Surveyors indicate his wide experience and high standing in the profession. While he was president in 1890-91 and 1905-06, the institute lobbied ministers on legislation and the surveyor-general on the scale of fees. Coane was often called as an expert witness in arbitrations and in engineering and property valuation disputes; he represented the institute on the Land Surveyors' Board in 1906-14. As chairman of the Mines Department's Sludge Abatement Board in 1905-17 he influenced the mining companies to accept it as an environmental authority.

Henry Edward Coane (1877-1923) joined his father in 1892 as an articled pupil, and at the turn of the century the firm became known as J. M. and H. E. Coane; Grant had left in the early 1890s. John Montgomery Coane junior (1884-1910) completed the talented and highly regarded partnership later. Before their early deaths, they with their father, won renown with their Australasian Roads, a handbook on road construction, maintenance and administration, which ran to five editions between 1908 and 1937; later revisions were undertaken by B. M. Coutie. It was the first practical handbook relevant to Australian and New Zealand conditions.

J. M. and H. E. Coane designed the water-supply system for the coal mine town of Wonthaggi, and were consultants for railway construction in the New South Wales coal mining area of Newcastle, Maitland and Cessnock. They were also consulting engineers in 1907-08 to the Pacific Phosphate Co. Ltd of London for installations on Nauru; they did similar work on Ocean Island, and on Makatea where they acted for a French company. In 1912 Coane senior chaired the board which advised King O'Malley on designs for the new Federal capital. Coane disagreed with his fellow members who supported Walter Burley Griffin's plan; his minority report recommended proposals by Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell. In June 1913 he read a paper at the International Road Congress in London before visiting Europe and the United States of America. In 1921-22 the Coanes were consulting engineers to the State Electricity Commission of Victoria.

Coane senior had lived in Brighton from the mid-1880s. In 1899-1921, when he was consulting engineer to the City of Brighton the area's roads, drainage and administration were much improved. Offered the post of city engineer in 1919, he declined because he earned more as a consultant. Active in local affairs he helped to found the Brighton Re-adaptation Society in 1919. Aged 75, he died at his daughter's home in North Sydney on 28 December 1923 and was buried in Melbourne in the Church of England section of Brighton cemetery. He was survived by his wife (d.1924) and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Southern, ‘John Montgomery Coane …’, Victorian Historical Journal, May 1978, and for bibliography.

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Citation details

Roger J. Southern, 'Coane, John Montgomery (1848–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Ballyshannon, Donegal, Ireland


28 December, 1923 (aged ~ 75)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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