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Sir Russell John Dumas (1887–1975)

by Lenore Layman

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Sir Russell John Dumas (1887-1975), engineer, was born on 17 January 1887 at Mount Barker, South Australia, one of five children of Charles Morris Russell Dumas, printer, and his wife Amelia, née Paltridge. (Sir) Lloyd was his younger brother. After winning a bursary to complete his schooling at Prince Alfred College, Russell studied engineering at the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1909; Dip.Elec.E., 1910; B.E., 1913; M.E., 1931). On 11 April 1910 he began work as a draughtsman in the South Australian Engineer-in-Chief's Department and from July 1912 was employed designing drainage-works at Naracoorte.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 26 January 1916, Dumas was commissioned in June. He served on the Western Front in 1917-18, mainly with the 5th Field Company, Engineers, rose to lieutenant and was twice wounded. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Australia on 16 November 1919. Next day he resumed his former job. As assistant resident engineer (from 1923 resident engineer), he helped to build locks on the Murray River.

At St Paul's Anglican Church, Naracoorte, on 2 November 1920 Dumas had married Muriel Elsie Rogers (d.1960), a nurse. With their two children, in 1925 they moved to Western Australia where he took up an appointment with the Metropolitan Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Department as resident engineer on the construction of Churchman Brook Reservoir, the first of several proposed dams in the hills that were designed to supply Perth's demand for water. A number of similar projects followed its completion in 1928. Between 1929 and 1933 he directed construction of Drakesbrook and Wellington dams, the raising of Harvey Weir, and the extension of the Collie and Harvey irrigation areas, all carried out by sustenance labour. Dumas' own employment was precarious in these Depression years. In 1930 he was placed on the temporary staff at a reduced salary and was not reclassified until 1933. Meantime, he chaired (1932) the Perth division of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. Appointed chief engineer in the department in 1934, he directed the design and construction of the Canning, Samson Brook and Stirling dams, and established his reputation. He had gained his master's degree with a thesis on the design of high masonry dams. Stirling Dam, at 148 ft (45 m), was the highest earthen dam in Australia. Proud of these engineering achievements, Dumas was none the less critical of the State's development process: 'no time or money for preparation, and the designs and plans barely a nose ahead of construction if they are so much as that'. 'Planning ahead' was needed. It was a tenet he practised as he forged his career.

Made director of works and buildings in 1941, Dumas became engineering head of the Public Works Department. He had great faith in his profession. 'Engineering is the basis of civilisation', he declared, and its greatest work the storage and distribution of water. Water shortage was Western Australia's most immediate agricultural problem. The Depression had highlighted the wheat-belt's need for a comprehensive water-supply to enable farmers to carry sheep as an alternative source of income. Engineers, among them Dumas, had put various proposals to provide this service. The preferred scheme—to raise Mundaring Weir and Wellington Dam—was to become Western Australia's major, postwar public-works project, involving both the State and Federal governments. The commitment of Commonwealth funds, finally negotiated in 1947, was primarily Dumas' achievement.

Having been requested in 1941 to investigate the North-West's potential for 'increased settlement and greater productiveness', Dumas concluded that closer settlement, through irrigation, was the answer and identified the Ord River as the most promising site. He promoted the Ord River Scheme and facilitated the first stages of its development, seeing it as a forerunner of many similar settlements. His visits to the North in 1941 and 1942 fostered an interest in that region of the State which strengthened after World War II through his appointments as chairman of the North-West Development Committee and member of the Commonwealth Northern Australia Development Committee. From 1949 he was a powerful supporter of government assistance for I. H. Grabowsky (of Australian National Airways Pty Ltd) to trial the Glenroy Air Beef project, but, as a member of the 1954-55 Commonwealth Air Beef Panel, he agreed that air transport of beef was 'not economically sound' at that time.

Dumas believed that bold initiative, basic planning and large-scale development were essential to lift Western Australia from its status as a claimant State. As chairman (1946-53) of the Albany Zone Development Committee, he drove the extensive land development in that district. Industry had to be attracted, too, and in 1951-52 he had his greatest success. With the minister for works, (Sir) David Brand's support, Dumas negotiated the establishment at Kwinana of the £40 million Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.'s refinery, Broken Hill Pty Ltd's £4 million steel-rolling-mill and Rugby Portland Cement Co.'s £2.2 million works (through its subsidiary Cockburn Cement Pty Ltd). His role in attracting this capital was so crucial that the government extended his employment beyond normal retirement age, giving him additional power and status as co-ordinator of works and industrial development to ensure co-operation from all public service departments in the Kwinana initiatives. Dumas finally retired in December 1953.

He then joined the Weld Club and became a director of several companies, including Cockburn Cement and Freney Kimberley Oil Co. In the early 1960s, in an unusual display of public activism, he participated in the campaign to save Perth's Barracks Arch. He remained influential in shaping economic development policies through his advisory role to (Sir) Charles Court who, when he became minister for industrial development in 1959, made Dumas chairman of the newly formed Industries Advisory Committee.

One of Western Australia's most powerful public servants, Dumas transformed the State's approach to development. He named Robert Chapman, his university engineering teacher, as 'possibly the greatest influence' on his life, and Essington Lewis as the Australian who had contributed most to the country's 'real advancement'. A man of great energy, prodigious hard work and determination, Dumas seemed to those around him to be able to 'see far ahead' and 'make things happen'—a 'visionary' and a 'bulldozer'. His achievements were well acknowledged: a series of awards culminated in the Peter Nicol Russell medal (1952); he was appointed C.M.G. (1950), K.B. (1959) and K.B.E. (1964); and, prominent in Perth's landscape, the new multi-storey headquarters of the Public Works Department was named Dumas House. Survived by his daughter and son, Sir Russell died on 10 August 1975 at Albany and was buried in Allambie Park cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. H. Le Page, Building a State (Perth, 1986)
  • B. Moore, From the Ground Up (Perth, 1987)
  • Public Service Review (Adelaide), Oct 1914, p 184, Feb 1917, p 117
  • L. Layman, 'Development Ideology in Western Australia', Historical Studies, no 79, Oct 1982
  • West Australian, 17, 22 Jan 1953, 1 Jan 1959, 30 Apr 1960, 13 June, 31 Dec 1964, 11, 12 Aug 1975
  • Albany Advertiser, 3 May 1960
  • Dumas papers (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • Public Works Dept, Dumas file (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • R. G. Hartley, Norman Fernie—Engineer, 1898-1977 (typescript, 1991, State Library of Western Australia).

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Citation details

Lenore Layman, 'Dumas, Sir Russell John (1887–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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