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John Murdoch (Jack) Main (1893–1967)

by Rachel Grahame

This article was published:

John Murdoch (Jack) Main (1893-1967), director of public works, was born on 24 July 1893 in Sydney, son of William Main, a publican from Scotland, and his Irish-born wife Bridget, née Flannery. Jack was educated at Parramatta, St Joseph's College (1907-08), Hunters Hill, St Mary's Cathedral High School (1909-10), Sydney, and Marist Brothers' High School, Darlinghurst. He failed to matriculate at the senior public examination in 1911, but succeeded in December 1912. At the University of Sydney (B.E., 1917), he graduated with first-class honours in civil engineering.

Joining the Forestry Commission on 11 April 1917, Main served as a forestry engineer. He transferred to the Department of Public Works in 1920 and became a supervising engineer on the reconstruction of the Parramatta Road. At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral on 28 March 1921 he married Myra Alphonsa (Phonsie) Grace; they were to remain childless. He moved to Bourke in 1922, then served at Dubbo (1924-27), Coffs Harbour (1927-30) and Broken Hill (1930-34). His experience of public works was extraordinarily broad. He managed harbour works; he oversaw railways and roads, using both horse and camel teams in the western district; and at Dubbo he was responsible for construction of the town's sewerage scheme and the Narromine water works. As manager of the Broken Hill Water Supply and district engineer, he controlled 270 men, supervised the construction of pumping-stations, roads, railway lines, bridges and public buildings, directed the maintenance of river locks over an area which stretched from the Victorian to the Queensland borders, collected revenue and ran the office at Broken Hill. In referring to his responsibilities for water supply, St Joseph's College Magazine noted that 'Jack was always able to save the thirsty population from the necessity of a little trip up to the corner'. In the years 1917 to 1933 he took not a single day of sick leave, and often worked in the evenings and at weekends. His file was endorsed 'a most efficient officer'.

In 1934 Main returned to Sydney and head office. He was seconded to the Department of Labour and Industry in 1935-36 as consulting engineer to the Unemployment Relief Council. Back at the Department of Public Works, he prospered, becoming assistant principal engineer (1936) and principal designing engineer (1938). In 1942 he was appointed chief engineer, responsible to the minister for co-ordinating all technical matters arising in the various professional sections. He was appointed director of public works and permanent head of the department in 1950.

Throughout his career Main was prepared to take on additional responsibilities. He served (1944-50) on the Crown Employees (Land Surveyors) Conciliation Committee, chaired the State Committee of Testing Authorities, and was a councillor (ex officio) of the National Association of Testing Authorities. Of the many committees of investigation on which he sat, the most notable were the inquiry into the establishment of a deep-water port at Iluka, and the Snowy River Investigation Committee which was appointed by the State government in December 1941. Under his chairmanship the latter committee endorsed the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission's plans to dam and divert the Snowy. When the Snowy River scheme began, Jack Main, as director of public works in New South Wales, was responsible for constructing Adaminaby Dam. He was also a member (1947-50) of the Commonwealth-State Snowy River Investigation Committee.

Main's interest in port development was shown by his involvement in harbour works at Port Kembla, Newcastle, Coffs Harbour and Iluka. As departmental head, he was an astute manager of resources, buying surplus earth-moving equipment cheaply from the Joint Coal Board for use on public-works projects. In 1956 Main defended his staff working on the Adaminaby Dam against allegations of maladministration and malpractice (such as using departmental vehicles for private purposes); in doing so, he showed knowledge of and sympathy for the isolation and difficult working conditions. In 1957 he was appointed C.B.E. He retired in December 1958.

Active in the Institution of Engineers, Australia, Main contributed to its Proceedings and in 1966 organized its national conference. In retirement, he joined (1961) the advisory board of St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and chaired its works and property committee until his death. He belonged to the New South Wales Club. Music was one of his lifelong enjoyments. Although he played golf in middle age, he later took to bowls and joined the Double Bay club. Survived by his wife, he died on 30 October 1967 in St Vincent's Hospital and was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • St Joseph's College Magazine, Dec 1934, p 96
  • Department of Public Works Staff Association (New South Wales), Stateworks, 3, no 6, 1958, p 5, 13, no 1, 1968, p 7
  • St Vincent's Hospital (Sydney), Annual Report, 1968
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Dec 1912, 21 Sept 1954, 16 Jan 1956, 1 Jan 1957, 31 Oct 1967
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 5 Feb 1956
  • St Joseph's College, Hunter's Hill, Sydney, Archives
  • J. M. Main, personal file, Dept of Public Works 10/49869 (State Records New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Rachel Grahame, 'Main, John Murdoch (Jack) (1893–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 July 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]


24 July, 1893
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


30 October, 1967 (aged 74)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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