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Charles Wooller Marshall (1904–1991)

by Vanessa Finney

This article was published:

Charles Wooller Marshall (1904-1991), surveyor and mining consultant, was born on 19 February 1904 at Merinda, near Bowen, Queensland, third surviving child of New South Wales-born parents Charles John Marshall, meatworks manager, and his wife Mary Constance, née Wooller. Both of Charles’s grandfathers had joined the gold rush to California in the 1840s; his great-grandfather, James Adams, took up gold mining at Ophir, New South Wales, in 1851; and his father pioneered coal mining in North Queensland. Educated locally and at Newington College, Sydney (1919-22), he was articled to Henry George Foxall as a mining and engineering cadet surveyor. He qualified as a licensed surveyor in 1928.

Encouraged by Foxall, in 1927 Marshall had joined Oriomo Oil Ltd as surveyor and assistant to the geologist V. L. Newberry. In 1927-28 he participated in and led oil and minerals exploration expeditions in the Western division of Papua, including one journey that took him four hundred miles (640 km) up the Fly River. He travelled to regions previously unvisited by Europeans. Oil was not found in commercial quantities and he returned to Sydney in 1929.

In June that year Marshall joined the newly formed New Guinea Goldfields Ltd in what he called ‘one of the last of the great land gold rushes’ (Proceedings: Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy 1982, 8) at Wau and Edie Creek in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. During the next ten years with the company he was, successively, chief surveyor, mine manager, mine superintendent, alluvial superintendent, and construction superintendent. He designed and built treatment plants and large hydraulicking operations on the Bulolo River and Koranga Creek.

Earlier, Marshall had made many exploratory trips on behalf of the company. The most significant of these expeditions was the journey with the prospectors Michael and Daniel Leahy to the Chimbu district in the New Guinea highlands in February 1933. The three men were the first Europeans to see the Wahgi Valley; Marshall called this sight ‘one of the greater thrills of my life’ (Proceedings: Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy 1982, 9). Like all his expeditions, the trip was meticulously planned, scientific, orderly, and focused (to fellow prospector Mick Leahy’s annoyance) on fast and accurate records: he took photographs and compass bearings, made notes describing the country, recorded possible types of rock formations, washed river gravel to check for gold, mapped, and obtained local names for landmarks. ‘The strain of heavy climbing, being surrounded by hundreds of excited natives and the delicate task of making friends with them’ began to tell (Marshall 1983, 113). The explorers moved as fast as possible to reduce the risk of attack. On 12 June 1935 at St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point, Sydney, he married Eileen Marian Channon, from Killara.

In 1939 Marshall returned to Australia and worked for the New South Wales Main Roads Board as a district engineer. Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 30 March 1942, and commissioned as an engineer officer in May, he served in mobile works and airfield construction squadrons in northern Australia, on Morotai, and in Borneo, before being demobilised on 28 November 1945 as a flight lieutenant. Following another stint with the Main Roads Board, he joined the Commonwealth-New South Wales Joint Coal Board when it was formed in 1947. By 1949 he was the engineer-in-charge of all open-cut coal mining in the state. He became assistant general manager of Davis Contractors Pty Ltd in 1954. Four years later he formed his own firm of mining and engineering consultants, which gained a high reputation as an adviser to governments.

The expeditions and survey work that Marshall had conducted in Papua New Guinea resulted in some of the first accurate maps of the country. In his later career he revolutionised open-cut coal mining in Australia. He was a fellow (1937) of the Institution of Surveyors, Australia. A councillor (1964-74) and president (1969) of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, he was awarded the institute’s medal for 1981. That year he was appointed AO. He held office in 1981-83 as the first chairman of the Minerals Industry Consultants Association.

Marshall took an interest in the history of mining and the industry’s social and cultural context. He donated the artefacts he collected on his prospecting expeditions in Papua New Guinea, together with his photographs and diaries from that time, to the Australian Museum in Sydney. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died on 25 August 1991 at Wahroonga, Sydney, and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Museum Archives. AMS148. ‘C W Marshall Survey Notebooks, Diaries and Sketch Map’
  • Australian Museum Archives. AMS321. ‘Charles Marshall Photographs 1927-1933’
  • Connolly, Bob, and Robin Anderson. First Contact. New York: Viking, 1987
  • Marshall, Charles. ‘The Chimbu Expedition: New Guinea—February 1933: An Adventurer Tells His Story.’ Australian Natural History 21, no. 3 (1983): 104-15
  • Proceedings: The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. ‘Presentation of The Institute Medal, 1981, to Charles Wooller Marshall, A.O.’ No. 282 (June 1982): 5-9
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Marshall C W
  • The Australian Surveyor. ‘Personalities of the Profession: Charles Wooller Marshall.’ 33, no. 6 (June 1987): 556-57
  • Waterhouse, Michael. Not a Poor Man’s Field: The New Guinea Goldfields to 1942—An Australian Colonial History. Canberra: Halstead Press, 2010.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Vanessa Finney, 'Marshall, Charles Wooller (1904–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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