Australian Dictionary of Biography

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George Gordon (1829–1907)

by Donald S. Garden

This article was published:

George Gordon (1829-1907), engineer, was born at Arbroath, Forfarshire, Scotland, son of Robert Gordon and his wife Margaret, née Auton; the family home was Cargield House, near Dumfries. After apprenticeship in England with a consulting engineer he spent six years in Holland, four of them as chief engineer of the Amsterdam Water Co., and then served for ten years as chief district engineer of the Madras Irrigation and Canal Co. As an hydraulic engineer he offered his services to the Victorian government and in 1871 was asked to report on the public waterworks but the appointment was cancelled. In October the Duffy government opened fresh negotiations and on 5 May 1872 Gordon arrived in Melbourne to become chief engineer of the lands and works board. On 2 February 1875 he became chief engineer of the water supply department and held the post till Black Wednesday, 9 January 1878. His dismissal was raised in parliament and he petitioned the governor and the Queen for reinstatement and compensation but to no avail.

In 1880 Gordon was appointed to a water conservancy board to report on supplying water to the northern plains of Victoria for stock and domestic purposes. The twelve reports in 1880-81 and two on irrigation in 1882 and 1884 were cautious. The board concluded that the best means of supplying water was by using the natural channels and building cheap works for diversion and storage under the control of local trusts. These principles met with spirited opposition from advocates of large-scale irrigation such as Hugh McColl but became the basis of the Victorian Water Conservation Act of 1881 and later legislation in 1883-84. The board was then dissolved and Gordon was virtually dismissed. Again his case was raised in parliament where his work, particularly the Stony Creek weir, was criticized. In the controversy opinions of his ability ranged from adulation to condemnation. The political overtones of the quarrel confuse any assessment of his talent and even later writers disagree as to whether his reports and works have been vindicated by time.

In the next two decades Gordon managed his own engineering firm, consolidated the wealth he was amassing in private ventures, worked occasionally for the lands and works board and was consulted by the governments of Tasmania and New South Wales. He continued his interest in water schemes and in 1889 was a founding partner of the Lake Boga Irrigation Co. He also held land in the Chaffey Bros' scheme at Mildura.

Gordon published several articles and pamphlets on irrigation and water conservation, including a report on water supply for Invercargill, New Zealand, after a visit in April-May 1878. He was a fellow of the Victorian branch of the Royal Geographical Society. He died aged 78 at his home, Ellerslie, Toorak, on 25 February 1907, survived by two children of his first marriage, and by his second wife Violette Elizabeth, née Eddington, and their three sons and one daughter. He left assets of over £8000.

Select Bibliography

  • F. W. Eggleston, State Socialism in Victoria (Lond, 1932)
  • C. S. Martin, Irrigation and Closer Settlement in the Shepparton District, 1836-1906, J. L. F. Woodburn ed (Melb, 1955)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 20 Nov 1884, 24 June 1886
  • J. H. McColl, ‘Hugh McColl and the Water Question in Northern Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 5, no 4, June 1917, pp 145-63
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Sept 1878
  • Gordon papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Donald S. Garden, 'Gordon, George (1829–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 28 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]


Arbroath, Forfarshire, Scotland


25 February, 1907 (aged ~ 78)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.