Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Norman Fernie (1898–1977)

by Richard G. Hartley

This article was published:

Norman Fernie (1898-1977), engineer, was born on 18 June 1898, at Leederville, Perth, fourth child of Alexander Fernie, a carpenter from Victoria, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Renkin. Norman attended Scotch College (1910-11), Perth Modern School (1912-14) and the University of Western Australia where he studied engineering (B.Sc., 1920; B.E., 1923; M.E., 1936). On 12 July 1921 he married Iris Evelyn Weston at the Presbyterian Church, Subiaco. Fernie had joined the Department of Public Works that year and was employed on the development of water supplies from rock catchments in the eastern wheatbelt. In 1930 he became district engineer at Northam with the task of restoring the 328-mile (528 km) water-supply pipeline to Kalgoorlie. He devised a method of refurbishing the buried pipeline by re-laying it above ground which enabled complete reconstruction in a decade. For this work he was awarded the R. W. Chapman medal by the Institution of Engineers, Australia.

On leave of absence from the department in 1935-36 and 1938-39, Fernie designed and supervised the construction of sewerage schemes for the municipalities of Northam and Kalgoorlie, the first such undertakings in the State outside Perth. In 1939 he was seconded to the Department of Industrial Development and Employment; two years later he was appointed director of industrial development. He was largely responsible for establishing several strategically important, government-owned enterprises—notably the Chandler alunite industry (1943), the Wundowie wood distillation and charcoal ironworks (1948) and the Chamberlain tractor factory (1949)—together with a wide range of smaller, privately-owned businesses. During his directorship Fernie served on about thirty boards, committees and panels, most of which he chaired.

On 31 July 1950 he resigned from the public service to accept the managing directorship of Griffin Coal Mining Co. Ltd which operated several underground mines at Collie. When major new seams were discovered in 1953, Fernie pressed for the development of open-cut mining. In the midst of a prolonged miners' strike against open-cut work, the Brand government signed a new three-year contract with Griffin on 16 December 1960. Earlier that year the company had formed a joint-venture to export low-grade iron ore, after processing it into sponge iron using char derived from Collie coal. By this means Fernie hoped to bypass the Commonwealth's 22-year-old embargo on the export of iron ore. Although the ban was lifted in December 1960 and an export agreement was signed next March, the project did not proceed because of richer deposits in the Pilbara region. In August 1963 Fernie retired from Griffin 'under medical advice'. His struggles to overcome union and government resistance to open-cutting had exacted their toll.

A thin, ascetic-looking man, and a lifelong Labor supporter, Fernie pursued his policies with a commitment and vigour that often made him a controversial figure. He served on the university senate (1943-45), as a State electricity commissioner (1949-53) and as chairman of the Western Australian division of the Institution of Engineers (1943). Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died on 25 May 1977 at Claremont and was cremated with Congregational forms.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Firkins (ed), A History of Commerce and Industry in Western Australia (Perth, 1979)
  • J. S. H. Le Page, Building a State (Perth, 1986)
  • B. Moore, From the Ground Up (Perth, 1987)
  • West Australian, 17 June 1957, 9 Sept 1963, 22 Dec 1973, 2 Feb 1974, 5, 20 Jan, 27 May 1977
  • files of the Western Australian Depts of Industrial Development and Mines, and Public Works (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • N. Fernie, personal note, Feb 1976 (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • Auditor's Dept (Western Australia), Report on the Wood Distillation, Charcoal, Iron and Steel Industry, 1967 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • J. Teasdale, interview with A. C. Harris (transcript, 1976, State Library of Western Australia)
  • R. G. Hartley, Norman Fernie Engineer, 1898-1977 (typescript, 1991, State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Richard G. Hartley, 'Fernie, Norman (1898–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 14 June 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 June, 1898
Leederville, Perth, Western Australia, Australia


25 May, 1977 (aged 78)
Claremont, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.