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Maurice William Mehaffey (1884–1970)

by Michael Komesaroff

This article was published:

Maurice William Mehaffey (1884-1970), engineer and public servant, was born on 17 December 1884 at Invercargill, New Zealand, son of William Graham Mehaffey, teacher, and his wife Violet Ann, née Mitchell. He was educated at Southland Boys' High School and Canterbury College, University of New Zealand (B.E. (Mech), 1910). He combined his studies with tennis and football and executive positions in student associations. In 1909-10 he lectured in engineering at Canterbury College, then joined the Auckland Harbour Board as assistant engineer.

In 1911 Mehaffey was appointed to the Queensland Railways, and was involved in the design of bridges. In 1912 he took up a position with the Queensland Harbour and Rivers Department and in 1914 was resident engineer at Bowen where he designed and constructed harbour and wharf extensions. In March 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, but after 300 days service he was discharged on the application of the Commonwealth government to permit his appointment to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service as district lighthouse engineer, Queensland. On 3 July 1917 he married Alma Frances Le Neven in Cairns Presbyterian church. Between 1917 and 1923 Mehaffey supervised the construction of more than twenty lighthouses along the Queensland coast.

In 1923 he became assistant lighthouse engineer at the Melbourne headquarters. As an authority on harbour engineering and the Australian coastline, Mehaffey was twice seconded in 1924 and 1925 to the Prime Minister's Department to advise on national harbour projects. In 1927 he was appointed lighthouse engineer and in 1931-36 was director of lighthouses. His attendance at an international conference on signalling in Paris in 1933 resulted in the programme he initiated for the electrification of Australia's major lighthouses.

In 1936 Mehaffey was appointed Commonwealth director-general of works, and in January-April 1939 was acting director-general of civil aviation. In 1938 he had been responsible for the £400,000 extension of the General Post Office, Sydney. Political agitation led in 1939 to a royal commission into the 'almost fantastically complicated' circumstances relating to the largest Federal public works contract since the Depression. The commission found Mehaffey guilty of serious errors of administration, but not of improper motives. A departmental inquiry reprimanded him and he was transferred to Sydney as assistant director-general of works. From 1940 he was responsible for the construction of the Captain Cook graving dock which was so important in the maintenance of naval shipping during the Pacific War. He retired in December 1949.

Mehaffey was an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London. He died on 25 July 1970 in a private hospital at Turramurra, Sydney, and was cremated. Two sons and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. B. Schaffer and D. C. Corbett (eds), Decisions (Melb, 1965)
  • M. Komesaroff, ‘The Commonwealth Lighthouse Service: its formation and early development’, Victorian Historical Journal, vol 48, no 2, May 1977
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 24 Mar 1945
  • MT267/1, file 43/1759 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Michael Komesaroff, 'Mehaffey, Maurice William (1884–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 December, 1884
Invercargill, New Zealand


25 July, 1970 (aged 85)
Turramurra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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