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David Kirkcaldie (1848–1909)

by J. D. Walker

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David Kirkcaldie (1848-1909), railway commissioner, was born in December 1848 near Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire, Scotland, son of William Kirkcaldie, farmer, and his wife Katherine, née Methuen. In 1861 after local schooling, he joined the Leven and East of Fife Railway as a cadet. He spent nearly fifteen years with that company and with the North British Railway which absorbed it, slowly climbing the ladder on the traffic side.

Kirkcaldie arrived in Sydney in 1876 and was appointed as a clerk in the New South Wales railways. Promoted chief clerk in 1880 and office superintendent next year, in 1883 he became assistant traffic manager for the southern and western lines at a salary of £550 a year. In 1889, after the southern and western system was connected to the northern line by the new Hawkesbury River bridge, he became chief traffic manager for the combined system at a salary of £1000, increased in 1891 to £1100.

In October 1897 Kirkcaldie was appointed a railway commissioner after the death of E. M. G. Eddy. He brought to his new position a thorough grounding and wide experience in all traffic matters, especially rates and rating, but a clash of personalities with the chief commissioner C. N. J. Oliver led to the appointment of the royal commission into railway administration in 1905. Part of its brief was to examine the 'inharmonious relations' between the commissioners. The royal commission concluded that the term 'inharmonious relations' was a euphemism, and that the cause of the conflict was Oliver's autocratic style and his long-standing personal antipathy to Kirkcaldie, who had opposed him on a number of issues. The result of the inquiry was the abolition of the system of three commissioners. Kirkcaldie became assistant commissioner for railways under the new commissioner, T. R. Johnson.

Bearded, with a dignified and rather austere countenance, Kirkcaldie had a strong capacity for friendship. Although quick-tempered and at times impatient, he had a rigid sense of justice, and was quick to admit fault if one of his decisions was proven wrong. It was this quality, combined with a courteous attitude to his juniors, an instinctive leadership and a commanding presence which enabled him to control with conspicuous success a large and expanding staff at a time of increasing union militancy. His contemporaries recognized his commercial and technical ability. In 1901 he was offered the commissionership of the Victorian Railways and, to keep him, the New South Wales government carried a special Act to increase his salary.

Kirkcaldie had married Alice Angela Mountain at Petersham on 5 June 1884; they lived at Homebush. He died in hospital at Summer Hill on 5 September 1909 from septicaemia following an operation for appendicitis, and was buried in the graveyard at St Thomas Anglican Church, Enfield.

He was survived by his wife and three daughters, the second of whom, Rosa Angela Kirkcaldie served as a nursing sister overseas in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1906, 4, p 295
  • Pastoral Review, 15 Sept 1909
  • Town and Country Journal, 11 Apr 1906, 30 Jan 1907, 8 Sept 1909
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Sept 1909.

Citation details

J. D. Walker, 'Kirkcaldie, David (1848–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


December, 1848
Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland


5 September, 1909 (aged 60)
Summer Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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