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John Dickson Derry (1840–1913)

by L. J. Blake

This article was published:

John Dickson Derry (1840-1913), surveyor and engineer, was born at Plymouth of an old Devonshire family. In 1859 he became a probationary engineer in the Public Works Department of the Indian government; he was best known and commended by the government for his part in building the Sirhind Canal in the Punjab, begun in 1878. He retired on a pension in 1880 and went to Victoria. There he was attracted by the surveys of George Gordon and Alexander Black and their plans for water supply to the northern plains. Derry's initiative led to the formation of the Wimmera United Waterworks Trust on 6 October 1882. As its engineer he constructed several weirs and pumping stations and was mainly responsible for the Natimuk Channel.

In 1885 Derry went to California with Alfred Deakin, then chairman of the royal commission on water supply, to investigate irrigation methods; he wrote the second progress report for the commission. Back in the Wimmera in May 1885 Derry, with Samuel Carter, recommended the building of the Wartook dam on the Mackenzie River in the Grampians. In July he resigned from the Wimmera waterworks and next month took up the Wimmera Shire's contract to build the dam; the first public irrigation storage in Australia, it was completed on 17 August 1886 and improved in 1887-88 at a total cost of £4635 3s. 8d. The dam was extended by Derry with Stuart Murray in 1889 at a further cost of £19,665. Derry acted as consultant for the Wimmera United Waterworks Trust and in February 1886 made a government survey of the Wimmera River sources. Later that year with G. J. Burke, Derry issued the irrigation report which laid the basis for the present channel system from the Wimmera to the Mallee region. After the 1886 Water Conservation Act, the Wimmera Shire set up its own trust for which Derry worked until September 1888 when it was absorbed into the new Western Wimmera Irrigation and Water Supply Trust. Employed on a commission basis as designing engineer from April 1889, Derry prepared an irrigation scheme for 200,000 acres (80,938 ha) north and south of the Wimmera River.

At Victoria's first Irrigation Conference in Melbourne in 1890 Derry spoke of his preparatory work for the 500-acre (202 ha) irrigation colony at Burnlea, and next year a company was formed to take it over from him. In several public projects he was associated with James Brake of the Horsham Borough Council, water commissioner and later politician, with whom he held an irrigation property at Nurrabiel. Derry was also active in plans for water supplies for Horsham, Pimpinio and Natimuk; he had an interest in Broken Hill's water problems and in 1892 gave gratuitous service to the Tucker village settlers at Wonwondah East near Horsham. Despite the trust's objections Derry proceeded with water surveys in connexion with the Co-operative Irrigation & Mercantile Society's colony at Quantong near Horsham. His work outside the sphere of the trust and his failure to take up appointment in April 1891 as the trust's salaried resident engineer led to his dismissal in October. He was awarded £4713 in his claims against the trust but sued for more and received £650 under arbitration. Derry lived in Stawell, Murtoa, Horsham and finally St Kilda; he returned to England in 1894. He died suddenly of pneumonia on 12 March 1913 at Barnes, London, survived by his wife Edith, née Handley, their four daughters and one son who was in the Chinese consular service.

In 1865 Derry had become an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in London and was elected a member in 1878; he wrote several papers on irrigation. Polished and formal in manner, he was an engineer of 'much ability and originality'. His memorial is the Wartook dam. Highly sensitive to criticism, he was frustrated by the attitude of some settlers and officials to his elaborate plans and practical achievements. He worked strenuously to develop the water resources of the Wimmera, but much of what he projected was scaled down when several irrigation colonies ran into difficulties and near-bankrupt trusts faced investigation by the royal commission on water supply in 1896.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Gordon and A. Black, Supply of Water to the Northern Plains (Melb, 1882)
  • Horsham Irrigation Colonizing Coy. Ltd. (Melb, 1890)
  • R. F. McNab, The Early Settlement and Water Supply of the Wimmera and Mallee (Melb, 1944)
  • State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Water Resources of Victoria (Melb, 1962)
  • A. S. Kenyon, ‘Stuart Murray and Irrigation in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 10, no 3, June 1925, pp 112-22
  • Aqua (Melbourne), May 1962, Feb, Nov 1963, Apr 1964
  • Horsham Times, May 1882, 8 Oct 1886, 3 Feb 1888, 18 Apr, 23, 29 May 1890
  • Wimmera Star, 20 June 1890, 22 May 1891
  • Institution of Civil Engineers (London) records
  • Wimmera United Waterworks Trust minutes, 1886-89
  • Shire of Wimmera Waterworks Trust minutes
  • Western Irrigation and Water Supply minutes, 1889-93.

Citation details

L. J. Blake, 'Derry, John Dickson (1840–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Plymouth, Devon, England


12 March, 1913 (aged ~ 73)
London, Middlesex, England

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