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William Eustace Maclean (1884–1964)

by Roger Lupton

This article was published:

William Eustace Maclean (1884-1964), engineer, was born on 4 October 1884 in Sydney, son of Hector Roderick Maclean, a London-born musician, and his wife Margaret, née McKay. Educated at Fort Street Model School, William studied fitting-and-turning and technical drawing at Sydney Technical College and by his own account attended the University of Sydney without completing a degree. He worked as a surveyor, draftsman and engineer in private firms, the Department of Public Works and the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways.

Moving to Canada in 1911, Maclean was employed on power-station construction, surveys and designs. In 1915-16 in Russia he was general superintendent of a team of 520 Canadians, building the Kola to Kandalashka section of the Murmansk war emergency railway. Back in Canada, on 30 November 1918 he married Lilian Agnes Balcombe. Learning of a hydro-electric scheme being built in Tasmania, he wrote to (Sir) John Butters, general manager of the Hydro-Electric Department, to ask about employment prospects, describing himself as 'a first class instrument man and draftsman [with] a thorough knowledge of present-day construction methods' and supplying references. Butters replied: 'You will commence at a salary of £375 if you match your papers'.

Next year Maclean joined the H.E.D. as an assistant engineer, surveying the hydro-electric power potential of the Huon River system and at Lake Rolleston. Twelve months later, his wife having tired of life in the bush, he applied for a position in head office. Instead, Butters gave him a pay rise and sent him as resident engineer to the southern end of the Great Lake, on Tasmania's bleak central plateau, to supervise construction of a massive, multiple-arch dam at Miena. His superior later wrote that Maclean had 'great executive ability, a vigorous constitution and a personality that commands respect and a hearty cooperation'. In 1922, shortly before the dam was completed, Maclean went back to Canada because of his pregnant wife's ill health. He also worked in the United States of America and England, before returning to Sydney in 1927 as managing director of International Combustion (Australasia) Ltd. He was responsible for power developments at Newcastle, Collie (Western Australia) and Wonthaggi (Victoria).

Following the death in office of Harry Curtis, Maclean was appointed chief of the Hydro Electric Commission, Tasmania, on 4 September 1933. As commissioner, he built the Tarraleah power station (opened in February 1938), on the Upper Derwent, to increase power for Tasmanian industries, including pulp and paper mills. Later that year he spent five months in Europe and North America to study dam construction and make contact with aluminium-producing interests.

By then Maclean was at increasingly bitter odds with some of his senior staff, notably two with higher academic qualifications than his. In 1940 a public inquiry found that some of his actions indicated 'a desire to control the undertaking alone'. The premier (Sir) Robert Cosgrove introduced a bill in line with the inquiry's report, threatening to end Maclean's tenure, but he fought back, and emerged in August 1941 with a renewed, five-year contract. Maclean then had his internal critics dismissed, but problems continued as wartime stringency impeded further development, and the commissioner disagreed with Cosgrove's emphasis on extending services to rural areas. There was little doubt that when the five years expired the government would seek a successor with higher qualifications and a more dynamic style. Maclean did not reapply and (Sir) Allan Knight succeeded him.

Appointed justice of the peace in February 1940 Maclean was coroner at the Kingston court in 1951-63. He belonged to the Tasmanian Club and Hobart Rotary Club and his hobby was golf. A Freemason, he was a member of the Tasmanian Union Lodge, Hobart, and sometime master of Bothwell Tasmanian Union Lodge. Maclean died on 17 February 1964 in Royal Hobart Hospital and was cremated. His wife and their two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Lupton, Lifeblood: Tasmania’s Hydro Power (Syd, 2000?)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 26 July 1933, p 6, 16 May 1938, p 6, 19 Feb 1964, p 5.

Citation details

Roger Lupton, 'Maclean, William Eustace (1884–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 October, 1884
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


17 February, 1964 (aged 79)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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