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Robert Allan Horsfall (1909–1974)

by R. Wright

This article was published:

Robert Allan Horsfall (1909-1974), by unknown photographer, c1964

Robert Allan Horsfall (1909-1974), by unknown photographer, c1964

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/2007

Robert Allan Horsfall (1909-1974), civil engineer, was born on 20 July 1909 at Somerville, Victoria, son of Francis Arthur Horsfall, civil engineer, and his wife Campbell Isabel, née Donaldson, both Victorian born. Educated at Korumburra Higher Elementary School, Scotch College, Hawthorn, and the University of Melbourne (B.C.E., 1931; BME, 1946; MCE, 1949), Bob was employed by the Shire of Korumburra (1931), Mt Isa Mines Ltd (1932-34) and Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Co. Ltd (1934-38). He married Catherine Mary Bowen on 20 December 1934 with Catholic rites at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne. On 11 August 1938 he joined the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission as an engineering assistant.

In 1940 Horsfall was commissioned in the Royal Australian Engineers. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 28 July 1941 and, as a major, commanded the 2nd/4th Field Squadron in New Guinea in 1944. Energetic and resourceful, he was appointed M.B.E. (1945) for his contribution to the rapid construction of the base at Madang. Having served in Borneo in 1945, he relinquished his command in January 1946 and returned to the S.R.W.S.C.

An innovative engineer whose commitment to professional water management meshed perfectly with the developmental ethos of the immediate postwar years, Horsfall exerted considerable influence in the investigations and designs branch. As assistant chief designing engineer (1947), and chief designing engineer and branch head (from 1958), he was associated with almost every major civil engineering project undertaken by the commission until the early 1970s. He contributed to the planning and design of some twenty new large dams, and to the enlargement of eight others, including the Cairn Curran, Glenmaggie, Eildon and Hume storage facilities. Urban water supply proposals, drainage and land reclamation schemes, flood mitigation plans, salinity investigations, irrigation developments, and channel, tunnel, spillway, levee and river diversion schemes throughout Victoria bore his mark. His reputation for engineering versatility and administrative flair was further enhanced by an ability to devise novel, cost-saving design features.

In 1946-47 Horsfall served as deputy-commissioner of the Central Planning Authority and as government nominee (until 1956) on the Central Highlands Regional Committee. At the request of the Federal government, in 1951 he represented Australia at the congress of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage, and at a conference of the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East on flood control, held in India. In 1952 he travelled to England and Germany to finalize contracts for the stage-two construction of the Eildon, Cairn Curran and Glenmaggie dams. He conducted special investigations, appeared frequently before State parliament's public works committee as an expert witness, prepared numerous technical reports, and wrote and spoke widely on water management and associated engineering matters.

On 1 February 1963 Horsfall was appointed commissioner of water supply. Two years later he was promoted to deputy-chairman of the S.R.W.S.C., responsible for design policy and financial oversight of water management. He was ministerial adviser on water trust operations, Victorian representative on the River Murray Commission and a member of the Snowy Mountains Council; he chaired a 1964 interdepartmental committee investigating the economic viability of small-town water supply proposals and prepared draft legislation for the commission. In 1964 he investigated water-supply practices in Europe and attended conferences in Edinburgh and Stockholm. In 1966 and 1968 he again represented Australia at E.C.A.F.E. conferences in Canberra and Bangkok.

Economic rationalists and emerging conservationists alike, however, were increasingly questioning the 'big dams' mentality that so informed government and commission policy. Quietly firm, Horsfall persisted. The Dartmouth Dam, now Victoria's largest water-storage facility, was the last major project on which he worked. Following a period of ill health and some disaffection with the reorientation of resource management, he retired from the S.W.R.S.C. in October 1972. He subsequently accepted consultancies with J. B. Ley & Partners, and with Maunsell & Partners, Melbourne. In 1974 he was appointed I.S.O.

Approachable and generous, the heavy-smoking Horsfall was of middle height and medium build, with dark brown hair and a weather-beaten complexion. He served on many community and professional bodies, including Melbourne Legacy, the 2nd/4th Field Squadron Association (president 1946-55), the Institution of Engineers, Australia, the standing committee of convocation of the University of Melbourne (1955-61) and the Environment Protection Council. He enjoyed tennis and bushwalking as a young man, and remained an enthusiastic crewman and member of the Royal Brighton Yacht Club. Survived by his wife and two of their three sons, he died of hypertensive coronary vascular disease on 16 September 1974 at Fitzroy and was buried with Presbyterian forms in Brighton cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Powell, Watering the Garden State (Syd, 1989)
  • Department of Conservation and Environment (Victoria), Water Victoria (Melb, 1991)
  • Aqua, Summer/Autumn 1975, p 14
  • Horsfall personnel file (State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Rural Water Corporation, Armadale, Melbourne)
  • bibliography of Horsfall's publications held on ADB file
  • private information.

Citation details

R. Wright, 'Horsfall, Robert Allan (1909–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 May 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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