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Edward Alexander Ernest Cullen (1861–1950)

by Gordon R. McKay

This article was published:

Edward Alexander Ernest Cullen (1861-1950), engineer, was born on 21 December 1861 at South Brisbane, son of Edward Boyd Cullen, an accountant from Scotland, and his Irish-born wife Fanny, née Moore. His father subsequently became under-secretary of the Treasury. After leaving Brisbane Boys' Grammar School about 1875, Cullen joined the Royal Navy survey of the Queensland coast as a civil assistant in 1878-80. He was assistant to J. B. Henderson, the government hydraulic engineer, until 1883.

After his appointment as nautical surveyor to the Department of Harbours and Rivers in 1884, some of Cullen's early surveys were virtually voyages of discovery. He made the first survey of the Norman River in 1884, and was associated with H. H. Milinan in the discovery in 1887 of Port Musgrave, describing it as 'the best natural harbour in Queensland except Port Curtis'; its western promontory is still known as Cullen Point. He also surveyed in detail the northern half of Moreton Bay in 1890-91, securing a master's certificate in order to command his own survey vessels. On 26 November 1892, at Stanthorpe, he married Mary Margaret Robinson, née Cullen, a divorcee.

The Department of Harbours and Rivers was abolished in 1893 and Cullen was transferred to the Department of Marine as Principal engineer. Here began his main work of transforming the shallow Brisbane River to a fourteen-mile (22 km) channel of usable depth. Because finance was so short, he spent much of his time sounding to estimate quantities dredged. Realizing the futility of only dredging, he proposed in 1897 that training walls be built to confine the tidal flow; his proposal was supported by the American expert L. W. Bates, but was not at once accepted.

Cullen went to the United States of America and Europe in 1900 to report on harbours and water power. He returned to become chief engineer of a new Department of Harbours and Rivers. Elected an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, in 1895, he became a full member in 1902. When the government eventually accepted his river-control scheme, in 1912, he aligned the walls purely from his own intimate knowledge of the river and organized their construction to secure immediate benefits. In 1913 he obtained consent to the reclamation of land at Hamilton and, against considerable opposition, organized the progressive transfer of port facilities downstream. His continuing work on the river made Brisbane one of the few successful river ports of the era. By the time of his retirement in December 1931, his scheme, though by no means complete, offered a safe sixteen-feet (5 m) depth to Hamilton and beyond—a depth which is only just now becoming inadequate. In 1922 his paper, 'Improvement of the Brisbane River', won him the coveted Telford Premium.

Cullen's responsibilities ranged far beyond the Brisbane River. In one way or another he was involved in the development of all ports in Queensland, twenty of which were gazetted. When he became engineer in 1900, the only means of travelling to central and North Queensland was by coastal steamer. Since land travel beyond the railways was difficult and hazardous, every protected cove and river was used to transport local produce and supplies. Even in 1927 there was still a weekly express steamer to Mackay supplemented by calls from the Torres Strait mail service.

Because of the need to maintain these vital links, with larger ships needing deeper berths and wider turning-basins, Cullen was inevitably involved in bitter disputes between local factions. Sometimes the disputes involved adjacent ports such as Rockhampton and Broadsound, Gladstone and Port Alma, or Townsville and Bowen. Some of his decisions, such as the abandonment of the Flat Top Island port at Mackay, must have required great courage, but they were usually accepted without resentment. According to local opinion in Mackay, however, Cullen's Island, a large sand and gravel mass which built up in the Pioneer River, was the only explicit result of his director wall designed to increase depths at the town wharf.

After his retirement, Cullen became the Australian representative on the council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and was awarded the Imperial Service Order in 1932. For a time he joined his son Edward Boyd in business as a consulting engineer. Predeceased by his wife, Cullen died on 13 April 1950 at St Helen's Private Hospital, South Brisbane, and was buried in South Brisbane cemetery with Presbyterian forms. His estate, valued for probate at £15,817, was left to his son and daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Lewis, A History of the Ports of Queensland (Brisb, 1973)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1885, 3, 393, 1887, 4, 3, 1900, 5, 1013
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 27 Nov 1950.

Citation details

Gordon R. McKay, 'Cullen, Edward Alexander Ernest (1861–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 July 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]


21 December, 1861
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


13 April, 1950 (aged 88)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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