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Gilbert Rotherdale McMinn (1841–1924)

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This is a shared entry with William McMinn

Gilbert Rotherdale McMinn (1841-1924), surveyor and public servant, and William McMinn (1844-1884), surveyor and architect, were born at Newry, County Down, Ireland, sons of Joseph McMinn, bank manager, and his wife Martha, née Hamill. After Joseph died, Martha sailed with her eight children in the Albatross and arrived at Port Adelaide in September 1850. On leaving school Gilbert took up surveying and William was apprenticed to the architect, James Macgeorge (d.1918).

In June 1864 William sailed for the Northern Territory in the Henry Ellis as a chainman for the expedition of B. T. Finniss and Gilbert followed in the South Australian as a labourer in October. William was appointed a surveyor on 17 August 1865 at 16s. 6d. a day and mapped some 15,000 acres (6070 ha) around the Adelaide River but suffered from the steamy heat and quarrelsome colleagues. The expedition became so desperate that a group of thirty took passage in a ship bound for Singapore while William and five others bought from another ship a 23-foot (7 m) boat, named it the Forlorn Hope and sailed 2000 miles (3219 km) to Champion Bay (Geraldton). At Adelaide in March 1866 he gave damning evidence to the commission inquiring into Finniss's expedition.

William had joined the public service as a draftsman on his return but resigned in 1867 to practise as an architect. Among other work he helped to prepare the plans for Prince Alfred College and the successful competition design for the General Post Office in 1867 and alterations to the Supreme Court in 1869. Next year John McKinlay offered to mark a route for the overland telegraph from Port Darwin to Port Augusta, and nominated William as his surveyor. The government rejected the proposal but appointed him surveyor and overseer of works for the northern part of the telegraph. The section contractors, Joseph Darwent and William Trevett Dalwood, arrived at Darwin on 9 September and completed ninety miles (145 km) of line before the rainy season set in on 8 November. Despite bogged vehicles and a strike, another hundred miles (161 km) had been cleared and poles erected by mid-March 1871. McMinn warned the contractors that their progress was unsatisfactory and although the 'wet' had ended annulled the contract on 3 May. The remaining eighty-three miles (134 km) of the section were finished by government parties, but McMinn's action was ill judged. On his return to Adelaide in July he was dismissed and after long inquiry Dalwood was compensated with £11,000.

Meanwhile in the central section of the overland telegraph Gilbert had become leader of a subsection from Marchant Springs to the Alice River. On his surveys in February 1871 he discovered Simson's Gap and thereby a practical route east of J. M. Stuart's track through the MacDonnell Ranges. He completed his subsection on 15 November and took over the next northern subsection from W. W. Mills, finishing it on 29 December. He then started building the telegraph station at Alice Springs and in July 1872 left for Adelaide, a month before the first transcontinental message came through.

In Adelaide William had taken an office in the Register Building and practised as an architect, sometimes with partners but mostly by himself. He designed and built several dignified houses with elegant entrances, some hotels and the original wing of the Children's Hospital. He also won second place for his design of a bridge over the Torrens. While in partnership with Edward John Woods in 1877-78 McMinn's greatest triumph was the first building of the University of Adelaide. At Glenelg on 14 March 1877 he married Mary Frances Muirhead; they had two daughters. He died in North Adelaide on 14 February 1884 aged 40.

On 18 June 1873 Gilbert had been appointed senior surveyor and supervisor of works in the Northern Territory at a salary of £350. He wrote a section of the chapter on the territory in South Australia: Its History, Resources and Productions, edited by W. Harcus in 1876. Until J. L. Parsons arrived at Palmerston in May 1884 McMinn acted as government resident for fourteen months; his quarterly reports were succinct and practical, and he was also responsible for finding the tree marked by Stuart when he reached the north coast. In 1884 Gilbert took leave in the south and after his return was appointed resident magistrate and customs officer in 1886 at Borroloola near the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Queensland border. Resigning on 26 May 1888, he went to Adelaide and in 1890 to Sydney, where he became a justice of the peace and in 1894 published a paper on drainage in the Agricultural Gazette. Next year he moved to Adelaide and worked in the education department but resigned in August 1896 to try his fortune in Western Australia. By August 1899 he was in Adelaide planning with two others to undertake hydraulic mining in the Northern Territory, but in a few years the project dwindled and died. By 1907 he was settled in Melbourne and on 2 July read a paper on the Northern Territory to the Hawthorn Literary Society.

At Palmerston McMinn was twice married: first, on 28 November 1874 to Anna Grove, and second, on 15 November 1884 to Madge Fleetwood Marsh. He lived for some years at Hawthorn and then St Kilda with his daughter Beulah, a nurse. Aged 83 he died from sudden heart failure on 18 October 1924 and was buried privately in the Box Hill cemetery. Predeceased by his wives and two daughters, he was survived by one son of his first marriage and two sons and two daughters of his second.

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. Bagot, Some Nineteenth Century Adelaide Architects (Adel, 1958)
  • Institution of Engineers (Australia) and Australian Post Office, The Centenary of the Adelaide-Darwin Overland Telegraph Line (Syd, 1972)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1865 (89), 1865-66 (131), 1866-67 (17), 1870-71 (36), 1875 (122), 1877 (103)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 15, 16 Feb 1884
  • Register (Adelaide), 8 Aug 1899
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1924
  • Centralian Advocate (Alice Springs), 29 Oct 1970, 11 Feb 1971
  • McMinn papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • University of Adelaide Archives.

Citation details

'McMinn, Gilbert Rotherdale (1841–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Newry, Down, Ireland


18 October, 1924 (aged ~ 83)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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