Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ernest Macartney de Burgh (1863–1929)

by J. M. Antill

This article was published:

Ernest Macartney de Burgh (1863-1929), civil engineer, was born on 18 January 1863 at Sandymount, Dublin, Ireland, youngest son of Rev. William de Burgh, and his wife Janette, née Macartney. He was educated at Rathmines School and the Royal College of Science for Ireland, and for a time was engaged on railway construction in Ireland.

On 21 March 1885 de Burgh arrived in Melbourne in the Orient and on 30 April joined the New South Wales Department of Public Works. He was engaged for two years on survey work for Sydney's southern outfall sewer and in 1887 was sent to construct bridges over the Murrumbidgee and Snowy rivers. In 1891 he became supervising bridge engineer and in 1901-03 engineer for bridges; he superintended the construction of those over the Darling at Wilcannia and Wentworth, the Murray at Albury, Corowa, Mulwala, and Koondrook and Swan Hill, Victoria, the Murrumbidgee at Wagga Wagga and Darlington Point, the Hunter at Singleton and Morpeth, the Macleay at Kempsey, and the Tweed at Murwillumbah. In his spare time he enjoyed golf and photography.

On 1 July 1903 de Burgh became acting principal assistant engineer for rivers, water-supply and drainage and was a member of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Advisory Board. Confirmed in his position next year, he was sent to England and France to study dam construction and water-supply. On his return he was given special responsibility for the construction of Cataract Dam for the Sydney water-supply and served on the royal commission to report upon the project. In 1910-13 he represented the State government at engineers' conferences leading to the River Murray Waters Act. He was associated with Leslie Wade in the design and construction of Burrinjuck Dam and the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme.

On 16 April 1909 de Burgh became chief engineer for harbours and water-supply, and in 1911-13 was also a member of the committee of management of Cockatoo Island Dockyard. On 26 February 1913 he was appointed chief engineer for water-supply and sewerage, and was responsible for the design and construction of the Cordeaux, Avon and Nepean dams (Sydney water-supply), the Chichester scheme for Newcastle and the Umberumberka scheme for Broken Hill. In 1921-25 he was a member of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee and prepared the original plans for Canberra's water-supply. Charles Studdy Daley recalled that although he was often 'a drastic critic in expression, at the same time he possessed that characteristic Irish wit and humour that removed the sting but left the logic. He was adept at dealing with politicians, and it was a delight to hear him giving advice, in a racy manner, to the ministers'.

De Burgh was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, and twice won the Telford premium. He was regarded as one of the ablest civil engineers in Australia when he retired on 22 November 1927. His last year in office had been marred by illness, and he died of tuberculosis at his home at Vaucluse on 4 April 1929 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife Constance Mary, née Yeo, whom he married at All Saints Church, Woollahra, on 20 March 1888, and by two sons and a daughter. De Burgh's Bridge over the Lane Cove River, Sydney, is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Town and Country Journal, 25 Sept 1907
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 July, 14 Sept 1927, 5, 6, 11 Apr 1929
  • Canberra Times, 19 June 1965
  • Public Works Dept, records, and Annual Report, 1919-26 (State Records New South Wales).

Additional Resources

  • funeral, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 April 1929, p 21

Citation details

J. M. Antill, 'de Burgh, Ernest Macartney (1863–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 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]


18 January, 1863
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


4 April, 1929 (aged 66)
Vaucluse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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