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Sir Lewis Ronald (Ron) East (1899–1994)

by Peter Yule

This article was published:

Ronald East, astride the River Murray before the construction of Hume Reservoir, by State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (detail)

Ronald East, astride the River Murray before the construction of Hume Reservoir, by State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (detail)

State Library of Victoria, 49393084

Sir Lewis Ronald East (1899–1994), engineer and water commissioner, was born on 17 June 1899 at Auburn, Melbourne, second of three children of Lewis Findlay East, civil servant and later secretary of the Commonwealth Marine Branch, and his wife Annie Eleanor, née Burchett, both Victorian born. Ronald was educated at Ringwood and Tooronga Road State schools before winning a scholarship to Scotch College, Hawthorn, which he attended from 1913 to 1916, in his final year winning a government senior scholarship to the University of Melbourne (BEng, 1922; MEng, 1924).

Interrupting his university studies after one year, East enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 17 January 1918 for service in World War I. He arrived in England in May as a 2nd class air mechanic and began flying training in October. In January and February 1919 he was attached to No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, at Cologne, Germany. His AIF service ended in Melbourne in June.

On completing his engineering degree with honours, in April 1922 East was recruited by A. S. Kenyon to the Victorian State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (SRWSC). Kenyon, who was later described by East as ‘the most able and fast-working man I ever met’ (Aqua 1965, 163), had wide interests beyond engineering and he had a great influence on East and his career. Working with Kenyon for thirteen years, East gained a broad knowledge of the water supply problems of rural Victoria. On 23 November 1927 at Spring Road Methodist Church, Prahran, he married Scottish-born Constance Lilias Keil, a schoolteacher and graduate of the University of Glasgow (MA, 1920), whom he had met while on leave in Scotland during World War I.

When Kenyon retired in 1935, East replaced him as one of three commissioners of the SRWSC. It was a difficult period, with the commission facing the financial stringency of the Depression, devastating floods in 1934 and 1935, and the appointment in 1936 of a royal commission into water supply in Victoria. In September 1936 the chairman of the SRWSC died suddenly and a fortnight later the other commissioner’s health broke down, leaving East as the sole member. In October he was appointed chairman, a position he held until his retirement on 31 January 1965 (believed at the time to be the longest tenure as head of a government department or authority in Australia). An outstanding engineer, inspiring leader, efficient administrator, and astute political operator, he dominated successive water ministers with his forceful personality and unmatched knowledge of Victoria’s water issues. He also served as a River Murray commissioner (1936–65), in which role he exerted great influence on water policy throughout south-east Australia. Among many examples, he argued successfully for a large increase in the capacity of the Hume Reservoir. Possibly the most famous photograph used to illustrate Australia’s water problems shows East in 1923 literally standing astride the Murray River at Nyah. By the time of his retirement, the Murray had been ‘drought-proofed’ so that such a photo could no longer be taken.

During East’s first decade as chairman, resources for capital works and even maintenance were limited by the continuing effects of the Depression, World War II, and the ‘deliberate immobilisme’ (Paul 1981, 378) of the Dunstan Country Party governments in power in Victoria for almost this entire period. East also believed that the work of the SRWSC was hampered by the control of its workforce by the Victorian Public Service Board (PSB), which made it difficult to recruit and retain talented staff. Despite these impediments, he led the SRWSC in developing and planning a visionary postwar program of water conservation and utilisation projects, notably the enlarged Eildon reservoir, the Robinvale irrigation settlement, and the first diversion of water across the Great Dividing Range to the interior (the Glenelg River to the Wimmera). Much of the design work was carried out by European refugee engineers, whom East, with Dunstan’s support, employed in defiance of the PSB.

East played a central role in the Snowy Mountains scheme from its origins in the early 1940s until his retirement. He was a member (1947–49) of the committee of technical experts that devised the preliminary plan for the scheme, proposing the formation of what became the Snowy Mountains Authority and arguing successfully that the Snowy and Eucumbene rivers should be diverted into both the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers, rather than just the Murrumbidgee. In 1965 the Victorian premier, Sir Henry Bolte, praised East’s technical knowledge and stated that ‘without Lewis Ronald East, maybe they’d have been only half way through the program that they have now completed’ (Aqua 1965, 157).

In the late 1930s East revived a project to build a large dam on the Goulburn River, gaining government approval for it in 1946. To circumvent the PSB, he persuaded Victoria’s Parliamentary Public Works Committee and then the Commonwealth government that the project should be put out to international tender, with the winning bid coming from the Utah Construction Company. The Eildon Dam was the ‘biggest contract ever let by the State of Victoria and the biggest ever entered into in Australia for a single structure’ (Age 1950, 1). When completed in 1955, Lake Eildon was the largest reservoir in Australia.

Between 1936 and 1965 East was responsible for increasing Victoria’s water storage capacity threefold and more than doubling its irrigated areas. Storages initiated and constructed under his direction included Lauriston, Cairn Curran, Tullaroop, Rocklands, Devilbend, and Eppalock. Irrigation developments included the Murray Valley, Robinvale, and Nambrok-Denison soldier settlements; Red Cliffs, Merbein, Mildura, Nyah, and Woorinen subsurface drainage systems; and the enlargement of the Goulburn channel systems. Reticulated water supplies were provided to 114 towns and the number with sewerage rose from ten to fifty-five. Beyond his official role, East took an interest in the present and future needs of Victoria, using his political skills and influence with governments to help secure the establishment of the Town and Country Planning Board, the Soil Conservation Authority, and the office of the Valuer-General. He identified and addressed problems that were hardly recognised at the time—such as salination, pollution, silting, and loss of river flow—but later realised that he had been insufficiently aware of the deleterious effects of draining swamps.

Ronald East had a strong ethic of public service and a belief in the power of engineering to contribute to human welfare. His personal philosophy derived from his Methodist upbringing and the influence of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879). In 1945 he set out his views in a speech called ‘The Faith of an Engineer,’ in which he decried the fact that the benefits of engineering works went largely to ‘the fortunate owners of land in the areas which receive the benefit of public expenditure’ (East 1945, 184). He believed that engineers should have a broad education and be aware of the social and economic impact of their work.

Described by members of the engineering faculty at the University of Melbourne as ‘politely forceful and discreetly outspoken’ (East 1971, 305), East had strong and usually well-informed views on many issues. From outside the SRWSC he was often seen as an authoritarian figure, but among the commission’s staff he was highly regarded for his nurturing of talent, ability to delegate, and appreciation for work well done. A lifelong teetotaller, he would reply when offered an alcoholic drink, ‘Not for me, I’m a Water Commissioner’ (East 1971, 294).

In 1951 East had been appointed CBE and in 1966 he was knighted. He was president (1952–53) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, vice-president (1959–62) of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage, and a member (1960–62) of the council of the Institution of Civil Engineers (London). A member (1943–65) of the faculty of engineering at the University of Melbourne, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of engineering in 1981. That year the university established the L. R. East medal for a final year engineering student.

Sir Ronald enjoyed a long and productive retirement. With broad interests from model engineering to history, he campaigned for the fluoridation of water supplies and was active in the Methodist (later Uniting) Church, Rotary International, the Returned and Services League, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, the Henry George League, and the Old People’s Welfare Council. When his cousin, the journalist Wilfred Burchett, was denied an Australian passport, he campaigned on his behalf. He was generous with his help and advice to family, friends, and strangers. It was often said that no matter what your job, Ron East would tell you how to do it. Until the onset of ill-health at the age of ninety-two, he was a sought-after public speaker, able to speak on anything from gum trees to astronomy. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1982) and survived by his three daughters, he died on 9 March 1994 at West Heidelberg and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Eildon Contract Goes to U.S. Firm.’ 23 August 1950, 1
  • Aqua: Official Journal of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Victoria. ‘Chairman Retires After Record 30-Year Term as Commissioner.’ 16, no. 5 (January 1965): 100–105
  • Aqua: Official Journal of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Victoria. ‘Devilbend Reservoir Opening Ceremony.’ 16, no. 7 (March 1965): 147–58
  • Aqua: Official Journal of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Victoria. ‘Farewell to Mr East.’ 16, no. 7 (March 1965): 159–65
  • East, L.R. ‘The Faith of an Engineer: A Discussion of the Land Problem.’ Journal of the Institution of Engineers Australia 17, no. 9 (1945): 183–90
  • East, Sir Ronald. A South Australian Colonist of 1836 and His Descendants. Melbourne: Gardner Printing and Publishing, 1971
  • Paul, J. B. ‘Dunstan, Sir Albert Arthur (1882–1950).’ In Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 8, edited by Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle, 376–79. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1981
  • Personal knowledge ADB subject
  • Powell, J. M. Watering the Garden State: Water, Land and Community in Victoria, 1834–1988. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989
  • State Library of Victoria. MS 8447, Reports and Papers of Sir Ronald East, 1907–1986
  • Wigmore, Lionel. Struggle for the Snowy: The Background of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1968
  • Yule, Valerie (née East). Personal communication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter Yule, 'East, Sir Lewis Ronald (Ron) (1899–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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