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Thomas Higinbotham (1819–1880)

by R. L. Wettenhall

This article was published:

Thomas Higinbotham (1819-1880), by unknown engraver, 1880

Thomas Higinbotham (1819-1880), by unknown engraver, 1880

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S11/09/80/233

Thomas Higinbotham (1819-1880), engineer and civil servant, was born in Dublin, the third son of Henry Higinbotham, merchant, and his wife Sarah, née Wilson. Educated in Dublin at Castle Dawson School and the Royal Dublin Society House, Higinbotham moved to London about 1839. At first he worked for a firm that promoted railway companies, and often appeared before parliamentary committees on railways. He then worked for several years as an engineer on British railroads and won high repute in his profession. He was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on 7 February 1854.

In 1857 Higinbotham followed his younger brother George to Melbourne. He joined his brother's household first at Emerald Hill and after 1860 near the beach at Brighton in a villa which Thomas was chiefly responsible for designing. He never married and lived with his brother, sister-in-law, nephews and nieces till 1880 in a relationship characterized by remarkable tolerance, friendship and respect despite strong differences in political opinion.

After a short time in private practice in Melbourne Higinbotham was appointed inspector-general of roads and bridges. In 1860 he became engineer-in-chief of the Victorian railways. He supervised the surveying and construction of all new Victorian lines and also guided the settlement of such railway questions as city stations and facilities and the lighting of trains. He fearlessly contested proposals that he considered unsound, such as cheap narrow-gauge lines, and showed great vision in advocating a railway renewals fund, construction of Melbourne's outer-circle railway and adaptations to permit unbroken rail traffic between Sydney and Melbourne. At the government's request in 1874-75 he investigated and reported on the latest developments in railway construction and management in Europe, America and India. With other senior public officials he was removed from office in January 1878 by the Berry government. In the next two years he was invited by the South Australian, Tasmanian and New Zealand governments to report on their railway systems. In March 1880 the Service government reappointed him engineer-in-chief of the Victorian railways, but the ministry soon fell and he was unhappy under its successor. He had decided to resign but died in his sleep on 5 September.

Higinbotham was one of that select band of English railway engineers who exercised a profound influence on the development of Australian communications in the second half of the nineteenth century. They provided practically the only mark of distinction in the Australian colonies' railway departments of the day. But their efforts were not enough to provide firm foundations for sound management as political pressures developed. Though Higinbotham did not live to see the change, his own Victorian service became the first candidate for management by public corporation when the system of political control was formally discredited in 1883.

Higinbotham was an Anglican and for many years a member of the Royal Society of Victoria. His loss was greatly lamented by a society in which public officials of such widely-acknowledged integrity were all too rare. His property, valued at £21,000, was left to his brother George and his family with the request that the family name be changed to Verner, the maiden name of his paternal grandmother. This odd request was not a condition and was therefore ignored.

Select Bibliography

  • E. E. Morris, A Memoir of George Higinbotham (Lond, 1895)
  • R. L. Wettenhall, Railway Management and Politics in Victoria, 1856-1906 (Canberra, 1961)
  • L. J. Harrigan, Victorian Railways to '62 (Melb, 1962)
  • N. G. Butlin, Investment in Australian Economic Development, 1861-1900 (Cambridge, 1964)
  • 'Obituary: Mr. Thomas Higinbotham, M.I.C.E.', Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, vol 17, 1880, pp 91-92
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Sept 1880
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Sept 1880.

Citation details

R. L. Wettenhall, 'Higinbotham, Thomas (1819–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 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

Thomas Higinbotham (1819-1880), by unknown engraver, 1880

Thomas Higinbotham (1819-1880), by unknown engraver, 1880

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S11/09/80/233

Life Summary [details]


Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


5 September, 1880 (aged ~ 61)
Victoria, Australia

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