Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Athelstane Russell Ford (1901–1979)

by Louise Chappell

This article was published:

Athelstane Russell Ford (1901-1979), engineer, was born on 28 August 1901 at Waitara, New South Wales, second son of native-born parents Herbert Macquarie Ford, engineering draftsman, and his wife Priscilla, née Russell. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), Athel studied civil engineering at the University of Sydney (B.E., 1923). He joined the Department of Public Works in March 1923 and was employed as an engineering assistant, initially on the Chichester Dam project and then on the River Murray projects at Wentworth, Hay and Maude. On 22 January 1927 he married Ruby Gray Crang with Presbyterian forms at her parents' home at Wentworth. Over forty-three years he worked on many major engineering works across the State, among them the south-west tablelands' water supply, the Cowra, Bega and Maitland sewerage systems, and the development of safe fishing ports along the coast.

After serving as a district engineer at Port Kembla and Coffs Harbour, Ford entered the harbours and rivers branch in 1947. He was enthusiastic about his profession, maintained an interest in current research in his field, and in 1956 undertook a postgraduate course in statistics and hydrology at the New South Wales University of Technology. As principal engineer (harbours and rivers) from 1957 until 1962, he largely concentrated on projects in the Port of Newcastle, including deepening the harbour and reclaiming land to create Kooragang Island for industrial development, described by Ford as one of the largest reclamation projects in the world. He was a member of the Newcastle Port Development Committee and the Hunter Valley Conservation Trust. In 1961 he and J. C. C. Humphrey, assistant-director of the D.P.W., toured England, Holland, France and the United States of America where they visited universities and hydraulic laboratories to inspect engineering developments relating to siltation problems and coastal river-flood mitigation schemes. In a paper presented to the Hunter District Water Board engineers, Ford described his trip as 'quite an eye opener'.

He was appointed deputy chief engineer in 1963 and promoted chief engineer in March 1964. Self-effacing, but full of energy and verve, he was a committed member of the Presbyterian Church and acknowledged by his colleagues as a 'Christian Gentleman'. Ford dressed in a navy blue suit, even in the field, and was stiff with his junior staff. He was preoccupied with mathematics and on journeys enjoyed calculating the speed of a train by timing how long it took to pass a set number of telegraph poles. A member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, and the Institution of Engineers, Australia, he presented papers to these and other organizations. On his retirement in August 1966, he returned to Wentworth. In the following year, to honour his contribution to the public works at Newcastle, a new tug was named the A. R. Ford. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died on 30 December 1979 at Curlwaa and was buried in Wentworth cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Armstrong, Shaping the Hunter (Newcastle, NSW, 1983)
  • L. Coltheart, A Guide to the History of the Public Works Department of New South Wales (Syd, 1991)
  • Department of Public Works (New South Wales), Annual Report, 1962
  • Department of Public Works Staff Association (New South Wales), Stateworks, 11, no 5, Oct 1966, p 20, 12, no 5, 1967, p 13
  • Sunraysia Daily, 1 Jan 1980
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan 1980
  • L. Coltheart, New South Wales Ports and Rivers (manuscript, privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Louise Chappell, 'Ford, Athelstane Russell (1901–1979)', 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]


28 August, 1901
Waitara, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


30 December, 1979 (aged 78)
Curlwaa, New South Wales, 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.