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Alfred Stephen Kenyon (1867–1943)

by Ronald McNicoll

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Alfred Stephen Kenyon (1867-1943), engineer, ethnologist and historian, was born on 7 December 1867 at Homebush, Victoria, third son of Alfred Henderson Kenyon, storekeeper from Manchester, England, and his Scottish wife Agnes Fleming, née Agnew. In 1869 the family shifted to Avoca, where A. H. Kenyon established a general store, followed by others at Ararat, Beaufort, Buangor, Stawell and Horsham. In 1875, because of ill health, he took up farming at Bulgana. 

Alfred was educated mostly at home, by his father, mother and uncle, until the drought of 1878-81 drove the family to Melbourne. There the elder Kenyon set up in Richmond, as bookseller, librarian, stationer and purveyor of artists' materials. Alfred attended St Stephen's Grammar School. In 1884 he matriculated at the University of Melbourne, beginning an arts degree as a preliminary to engineering. At the end of his third year he entered the Public Works Department, in order to gain the required practical experience, and remained there as a pupil engineer, chiefly at the drawing table. Kenyon lived at home, influenced by the Bohemian group, which included Arthur Streeton and George Rossi Ashton, centred on his father's Richmond shop and home. He also played baseball, cricket and football.

In August 1888 Kenyon was appointed draughtsman in the Department of Victorian Water Supply, and a year later junior engineering draughtsman, passing the departmental examination for the hydraulic engineers' certificate. His duties related to stream gauging and other measurements of water supply. In 1899 his section was reorganized as a branch of the Department of Mines and Water Supply and his professional duties were stated as 'supervising loan expenditure on Trust works and on Mallee Water Supply Works'. On 27 December 1900 he became an assistant engineer. In January 1906 Dr Thomas Cherry persuaded him to join the Department of Agriculture as engineer of agriculture. In his specially created position Kenyon superintended irrigation and water-supply activities for farmers, boring for water, and construction of silos. He went on to open up the interior of the Mallee, being responsible for road construction and the provision of local water-supply by bores and tanks. He was concerned with large-scale methods of clearing and cultivation by the use of mechanical plant — steam traction engines — in place of horse teams. He contributed to the Journal of Agriculture on many topics, lectured in all the agricultural districts and explored much of the western Mallee.

In 1896 Kenyon was elected as a member of the Australasian Institute of Mining Engineers (later, of Mining and Metallurgy) and at once became assistant honorary secretary. He delivered his first paper to the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria in 1906 and joined the Royal Society of Victoria, of which he was for a time librarian. In 1911 he was elected to the council of the recently formed Historical Society of Victoria. In his first paper in August he urged legislative action to preserve Aboriginal relics. His own collection of stone implements, which he had begun in 1898 and which by 1907 numbered over one thousand objects, had been purchased by the National Museum; he had set about building another, while continuing to help the museum with acquisitions and advice.

In 1910 the responsibility for crown lands improvement in the northern Mallee was transferred to the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, and the staff with it. Kenyon was appointed engineer-in-charge, North-West Mallee, and opened wide tracts to farming. He also supervised large flood reclamation works at Kooweerup and Cardinia in western Gippsland, and stream improvements in all parts of Victoria. In 1915 he published his first major literary work, The Story of the Mallee.

Despite his lack of an academic qualification Kenyon had become influential in the Melbourne University Engineering Society which he represented at the conference in Melbourne in February 1918 in furtherance of the amalgamation of the professional engineering institutions. He became an associate member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, in 1920, and a member two years later.

In 1918 Kenyon was asked to report on land settlement for the dried fruits industry, needed for the placement of former soldiers. He recommended the development of Red Cliffs, the extension of Merbein, and the establishment of what was to become the Robinvale Irrigation District, all on the Murray River. He was placed in charge of developing the Red Cliffs District, which before long became prosperous. He maintained his headquarters in Melbourne. While distracted by his many outside interests, he still gave proper attention to the special problems of his area and displayed originality in solving them. For example, it was he who devised the 'ironclad catchment' for conserving the scanty rain for domestic and stock supplies.

In 1932 Kenyon was at last appointed a commissioner. Meanwhile, he had published Pastures New (1930), followed two years later by Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip, both written with R. V. Billis. He had served his turn as chairman of the Melbourne division of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, in 1927, and as president of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in 1928. From 1931 to 1935 he was president of the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria, and thereafter edited its journal. He collaborated with Charles Barrett in writing two books dealing with Aboriginals, published in 1932 and 1934, and he was closely concerned with the historical aspects of the 1934 celebration of Victoria's centenary. Early in 1935 Kenyon retired from the Public Service. He dispersed his ethnological collection, and thereafter wrote more on historical subjects. He gave his card index of pioneers to the Public Library of Victoria. Before the war he had joined the Victorian Numismatic Society; he now spent more time as numismatist with the Public Library, and in 1938 he added the responsibilities of keeper of antiquities when that department was set up in the National Museum. He continued to write and lecture actively until shortly before his death at his home in Heidelberg on 14 May 1943. On 2 April 1895 he had married, with Australian Church forms, Alexandrine Aurélie Leontine Augustine Délépine from St Helier, Jersey. She died in 1940. Their only daughter survived them.

Not everyone liked Alfred Kenyon. He was a man of strong opinions, and he expressed them without reserve, never withholding due criticism. However, the closer the association, the greater the respect and affection he inspired. His was an original mind, and his interests covered an extraordinarily wide field. He spoke French and read German, and moved widely in diverse cultural circles. He is remembered not only as a unique personality, but for his work in opening up the northern and western Mallee and extending the districts irrigated from the Murray, and for his pioneer studies in the ethnology of Victorian Aboriginals and pastoral history.

A portrait of Kenyon by Graham Thorley hangs in the A. S. Kenyon Library, Red Cliffs.

Select Bibliography

  • Institute of Engineers, Australia, Transactions, 1919
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Proceedings, 121, Feb 1941
  • Victorian Naturalist, 60, June 1943
  • Aqua, Aug, Oct 1957
  • Kenyon papers (Royal Historical Society of Victoria, and State Library of Victoria).

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Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Kenyon, Alfred Stephen (1867–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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