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Sir John Robert Kemp (1883–1955)

by Kay Cohen

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Sir John Robert Kemp (1883-1955), engineer and public servant, was born on 6 October 1883 at Yendon, Victoria, son of native-born parents John Winterburn Kemp, schoolteacher, and his wife Elizabeth, née McClelland. Young John attended state schools and studied engineering (1903 and 1905-06) at the University of Melbourne. He worked (1905-07) as a draftsman and cadet engineer in the Victorian Department of Public Works before becoming assistant-examiner in the patents branch of the Commonwealth Department of Trade and Customs. An appointment (1910) as shire engineer of Karkarooc Shire, in north-west Victoria, gave him a grounding in local government administration. Three years later he joined the Victorian Country Roads Board. On 23 April 1913 at Christ Church, Hawthorn, he married with Anglican rites Iva Estelle Maude Lilley (d.1952); they were to remain childless.

The C.R.B. was at the forefront of Australian road-making and Kemp's experience earned him the post of foundation chairman (1920) of the Queensland Main Roads Board. In 1925 the board was replaced by the Main Roads Commission, with Kemp as sole commissioner. He initiated a State-wide road-survey and liaised with local government authorities on long-term planning for the construction and maintenance of declared 'main' roads.

From the outset Kemp developed a reputation among his staff for counting 'the shekels'. Aware of the need to balance funds with objectives, he gave priority to the length of roads over their width, and was not averse to private or toll roads if they added miles to the system. From 1923 the Commonwealth government granted money to the States for road-making. Commonwealth-State road-funding then expanded to encompass 'development' and 'tourist' roads. Kemp proved a persuasive advocate for continued Federal financial support and represented Queensland at Commonwealth-State discussions, such as the 1926 Federal Aid (Roads) conference of State ministers and their chief engineers. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, when horses provided most of the workpower, he was a familiar sight to road-gangs during his tours of inspection, often conducted in the knee-deep mud of Central Queensland's black-soil plains.

Kemp’s persistent efforts to improve professional standards led to increasing numbers of Main Roads engineers being employed by local councils. He encouraged his staff to study for formal qualifications at the Central Technical College and, after 1930, at the University of Queensland where he assisted in developing the curriculum for the faculty of engineering. That year he became a board-member of the Professional Engineers of Queensland. He was vice-chairman (1925) and chairman (1927) of the Brisbane division of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and a councillor (1923-34), vice-president (1928-30) and president (1931-32) of the national body. Unusually for public servants of that time, he delivered numerous papers at specialist and public forums. In 1938 he was the Australian delegate to the international road congress in The Hague, and made an extensive tour of Europe and the United States of America to observe new road technology.

With his knowledge of infrastructure requirements, transport economics and local conditions, Kemp became the Queensland government’s chief development adviser. He chaired (1935-36) the royal commission on electricity and was a member (1936-37) of the royal commission on transport. Chairman (1932-38) of the industry, mining and works committee of the State Employment Council (which assessed development projects for unemployment relief), he headed the Stanley River Works Board, formed to build Somerset Dam, and the Bridge Board, on which his drive and enthusiasm contributed to the early completion (1940) of Brisbane’s (J. D.) Story Bridge. From 1939 he held office as Queensland’s co-ordinator-general of works.

In 1942 Kemp became deputy director-general of allied works, Queensland, and supervised hundreds of defence projects, ranging from airstrips to naval bases. To meet military deadlines, he overcame shortages of manpower and equipment, and the logistical problems of moving plant and workers throughout Queensland. During construction of the Inland Defence Road (Ipswich to Charters Towers) and the road from Mount Isa to Tennant Creek, Northern Territory, he showed considerable tact in dealing with allied forces representatives who did not comprehend the difficulties involved. Begun in August 1942, the Brisbane Graving Dock was completed in twenty-two months, despite wartime shortages.

Kemp was awarded the W. C. Kernot medal (1932) by the University of Melbourne and the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medal (1942) by the Institution of Engineers. As chairman (1937-46) of the Works Board, he was involved in building the University of Queensland at St Lucia. A member (1927-55) of the university’s senate, he received the honorary degree of master of engineering in 1949, the year he retired as Main Roads commissioner. In 1951 he was knighted. Held in awe for his achievements, Sir John was never aloof and retained the respect of colleagues and staff. His work was his life. With little leisure time, he found relaxation in reading; after World War II he took up golf.

At the Presbyterian Church, Armadale, Melbourne, on 23 October 1954 Kemp married 56-year-old Annie Janet Tulloch, his former secretary. Survived by his wife, he died on 28 February 1955 in Brisbane and was cremated. In the eulogy given at his funeral service in St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Archbishop (Sir) Reginald Halse described Kemp as 'a man of very great gifts' and 'extraordinary versatility' who was 'a national benefactor'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Lack (compiler), Three Decades of Queensland Political History, 1929-1960 (Brisb, 1962)
  • R. L. Whitmore (ed), Eminent Queensland Engineers (Brisb, 1984)
  • K. Cohen, Australia Remembers: The Main Roads Commission Construction Works during World War Two, Cloncurry District (Brisb, 1995)
  • Queensland Main Roads Board, Annual Report, 1922
  • Queensland Main Roads Commission, Annual Report, 1945
  • Journal of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, 27, no 3, 1955
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1, 3 Mar 1955
  • A. J. Wheeler, To Be a Superman (M.Pub.Ad. thesis, Department of Government, University of Queensland, 1975)
  • J. E. England, Memoirs, typescript, 1970, and F. S. Parkes, Past Experiences—No.1, typescript, no date (both held at Queensland Main Roads Commission, Brisbane)
  • J. R. Kemp papers (held at Institution of Engineers, Canberra and Queensland Transport Department Archives and Heritage Unit, Brisbane).

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Citation details

Kay Cohen, 'Kemp, Sir John Robert (1883–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kemp, John

6 October, 1883
Yendon, Victoria, Australia


28 February, 1955 (aged 71)
Brisbane, Queensland, 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.