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William Davidson (1844–1920)

by Ronald McNicoll

This article was published:

William Davidson (1844-1920), civil engineer, was born on 6 December 1844 in the village of Moy, County Tyrone, Ireland, son of John Davidson, architect, and his wife Eliza, née McCudden. He was educated at the local National school, which he left when 13: he was described as 'a keen bright boy … with a receptive mind, and plenty of push'. After a few months as a clerk in Belfast, he displayed his initiative by working his passage from Liverpool to Melbourne, where he arrived in 1859, walking to Ballarat, and presenting himself to his uncle Robert Davidson, a mining surveyor.

The boy was found work as a 'useful' to a survey party. Before long he was a chainman: when surveying was slack he took to jackerooing or splitting. In 1864 he gained his surveyor's certificate. During the next few years he surveyed underground workings, farming selections, and routes for municipal roads, gaining an intimate knowledge of both north-west Victoria and Gippsland.

In April 1873 the superintending engineer of the Melbourne water supply, Charles Taylor, appointed Davidson as his assistant. When Taylor was dismissed without notice by Graham Berry in January 1878, Davidson was left in charge. The Melbourne water came from the foothills of the Dividing Range and was carried from the Yan Yean reservoir by aqueduct to a service reservoir at Preston. On 16 March 1878 a major flood destroyed most of the bridge which carried the aqueduct over the Plenty River, and washed out much of the embankment. Davidson saw that the only quick way to restore the supply was to span the gap with a wooden flume on timber supports. Work continued for three days and nights without a halt under his personal supervision, while Melbourne was obliged to cart water from the Yarra. A few weeks later the minister of public works, (Sir) James Patterson appointed him superintending engineer 'for the outstanding part he had played in expediting repairs and restoring water to Melbourne in three days'.

Demands on the Yan Yean system continued to increase in the 1880s. Davidson extended the catchment in 1883-84 by constructing and aqueduct from Wallaby Creek, in the Goulburn watershed, over a saddle in the Dividing Range, and building the Touroorong Reservoir to regulate the yield. He did the same with Silver Creek in 1886. The Yan Yean catchment was now fully exploited, and Davidson turned to the Watts River, building a diversion weir and 42 miles (68 km) of aqueduct to Preston. He made sure that all alienated land in the new catchment was resumed and all buildings removed. His forethought extended to planning for a future Maroondah reservoir; and to persuading the government to reserve 115,000 acres (46,539 ha) of the Upper Yarra watershed for Melbourne's future needs. Davidson knew the positions of his mains in Melbourne so intimately that he was sometimes called in to advise the fire brigades where they could obtain the best pressure.

In 1889 Davidson succeeded W. H. Steel as inspector-general of public works and chief engineer of the Melbourne water supply. On 30 June 1891 the latter was transferred to the newly established Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works: Davidson perforce severed his long-standing connexion with Yan Yean and Maroondah. He was now in charge of works all over Victoria, including many on the seaboard. During his period of office the Warrnambool breakwater, the Lakes Entrance works and the Portland harbour were built. As the superior officer of Carlo Catani he allowed that imaginative man his head. Davidson had much office work to do, but inspected works in the field when he could. 'The weary train journeys do not worry him if there is a good horse to be mounted at his destination'. His influence with the government was seen in 1910 when the O'Shannassy water-supply scheme was approved and the Maroondah reservoir deferred. His last important undertaking was a visit to England to consult Coode Son & Matthews on plans for Melbourne's harbour: this led to the construction of Station Pier at Port Melbourne.

Davidson was awarded the I.S.O. in 1911 and retired from the public service next year. He continued his ties with the engineering profession: on 4 December 1888 he had been elected to membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers (London), and in 1914-19 was chairman of its Victorian branch. He was lunching with old friends when he collapsed and died of a heart attack on 2 September 1920. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth, née Cherry, whom he had married on 3 January 1874 at St John's Church, Ballarat, and by a son and three daughters.

Davidson was widely and favourably known, a leading member of the Yorick Club, and (rare distinction) an honorary life member of the Victoria Racing Club. He was conscious of his unorthodox route to senior office: 'A man could not do in England what I have done in Victoria. I have learnt my profession by degrees, and I have been paid for learning it'. There can be no doubt of his personal qualities: he was considered 'an ideal public servant, efficient, conscientious and extremely trustworthy'.

Select Bibliography

  • Institute of Engineers, Australia, Journal, 6 (1934)
  • Living City, 19 (1976)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 28 Feb 1891, 4 Dec 1897
  • Punch (Melbourne), 1 June 1905
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Sept 1920
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Sept 1920.

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Davidson, William (1844–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 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]


6 December, 1844
Moy, Tyrone, Ireland


2 September, 1920 (aged 75)
Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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