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Norman Charles Harris (1887–1963)

by Sebastian Clark

This article was published:

Norman Charles Harris (1887-1963), railways administrator, was born on 10 April 1887 at Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, second child of Victorian-born parents Charles Joseph Harris, civil servant, and his wife Isabella, née McKay. Charles rose to be chief clerk of the rolling-stock branch and superintendent (1920-25) of the refreshment services branch of the Victorian Railways. At Scotch College, East Melbourne, Norman was head prefect, dux in science, mathematics and modern languages, a member of the firsts in rowing, cricket, football and athletics, and a witty contributor to the Scotch Collegian. In 1906-10 he studied engineering at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, where he graduated M.Sc. During his holidays he earned ten cents an hour with the Canadian Pacific Railway Co.

On leaving McGill, Harris joined C.P.R.'s technical staff and learned about rolling-stock construction, on which he was to become a world authority. In 1911 he returned to Australia to take up a post as an assistant-engineer with the Hydro-Electric Power Co. in Tasmania. On 10 April 1912 at the Presbyterian Church, Armadale, Melbourne, he married Rita May Wilson Moss. His career in the Victorian Railways commenced in 1913 when he entered its way and works branch as a draftsman; one year later he joined his father in the rolling-stock branch.

In 1912 Harris had been commissioned in the Militia. Appointed captain in the Australian Imperial Force on 18 October 1915, he served on the Western Front with the 2nd Divisional Engineers and was promoted major in July 1917. At Pozières, France, in July-August that year, while often under heavy shell-fire, he organized trench improvements and the consolidation of captured works, and was awarded the Military Cross. He won the Distinguished Service Order for his actions on 19 May 1918, near Albert, when again under enemy shelling he supervised the construction of four bridges over the River Ancre, enabling a successful attack to be launched. Twice mentioned in dispatches, he was granted leave after the Armistice to study railway and engineering practices in Britain. He returned to Melbourne in 1919, was promoted lieutenant colonel (1921) in the Militia and held engineering and staff posts until 1928.

Harris had rejoined the rolling-stock branch in 1919; he was promoted assistant chief mechanical engineer (1922) and chief mechanical engineer (1928). Appointed a commissioner of the Victorian Railways in 1933, seven years later he succeeded (Sir) Harold Clapp as chairman of commissioners. In his first report (1940) Harris suggested that Melbourne should have an underground railway and urged the need for further electrification. During World War II he chaired the transport sub-committee of the Emergency Council for Civil Defence. His greatest peacetime triumph was 'Operation Phoenix', begun in 1950, which saw the refurbishment and replacement of rolling-stock. Thirty new seven-carriage suburban trains came into use from 1956 and were named 'Harris trains'. Maintaining that 'railroading is a team job', Harris was well known for shovelling with the fireman, for his meticulous care of royal trains and for his denunciation of competition from road haulage.

Appointed C.M.G. in 1949, Harris retired in 1950, but remained chairman (1949-51) of the Victorian branch of the Institute of Transport of Australia. A subsequent chairman of commissioners, E. H. Brownbill, said that 'Harris was one of the great railway men of all times'. Having joined the Melbourne Legacy Club in 1935, Harris served on the employment, education and Junior Legacy club committees, as well as the board of management. He was president in 1950. At his home he coached Legacy wards in mathematics and science. Survived by his wife, he died on 3 May 1963 at Brighton and was cremated. His estate, sworn for probate at £28,489, included bequests of £600 to McGill and to Scotch College.

Select Bibliography

  • Victorian Railways, Harris Trains (Melb, 1957)
  • L. J. Harrigan, Victorian Railways to `62 (Melb, 1962)
  • Australian Transport, Feb 1963
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 19 Oct 1949
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Apr 1949, 4 May, 20 Sept 1963
  • Herald (Melbourne), 20 Dec 1944
  • Age (Melbourne) file on N. C. Harris (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Sebastian Clark, 'Harris, Norman Charles (1887–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 April 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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