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William Johnstone Newbigin (1874–1927)

by Arthur Corbett

This article was published:

William Johnstone Newbigin (1874-1927), mechanical engineer and company director, was born on 12 June 1874 at Alnwick, Northumberland, England, son of James Leslie Newbigin, master druggist, and his wife Emma, née France. On completing his apprenticeship in 1895 he was appointed foreman in charge of testing by Messrs C. A. Parsons & Co., Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He arrived in Victoria in 1899 as guarantee engineer for plant installed at the Spencer Street power station of Victorian Railways. In 1901-05 he was resident engineer in Australia for Parsons, retaining the position when he became Victorian representative of Sydney-based William Adams & Co. Ltd, engineers and contractors. He also had useful professional connexions in England through his brother Henry. He visited Britain in 1909 and married Edith Margaret Rennoldson, daughter of a shipbuilder, on 2 November at South Shields, Durham.

Newbigin supported movements aimed at the promotion and conservation of the interests of professional engineers and of private business. He was a council-member of the Victorian Institute of Engineers for 1904-05 and the Victorian Institute of Electrical Engineers from 1910 (president, 1913), and a member of the federal council of the Electrical Association of Australia in 1914-19.

Recognizing the weakness of a fragmented profession, further subdivided by State boundaries, he played an important part with R. W. H. Hawken and D. F. J. Harricks in the conferences which led to the foundation of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and was a foundation council-member until his death. He served as vice-president in 1919-20 and as second president in 1921. In his presidential address he stressed the value of individual effort based on reason rather than on emotion. Moving to Sydney in 1922 as managing director of William Adams & Co., Newbigin was a council-member of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce and represented the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Australia on the main committee of the Australian Commonwealth Standards Association and supported standardization at an early stage. In 1926 he was appointed to the executive of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research under (Sir) George Julius.

Valued as an after-dinner speaker with a ready wit, Newbigin also published many semi-satirical analyses of current problems under a pen-name. In the 1900s he had sailed regularly in the famous Victorian yacht, Sayonara, and later enjoyed 'meticulous cabinet-making and carpentry'. He belonged to the Australian Club, Sydney, and to the Royal Society of New South Wales. His thoroughness, attention to detail, wide knowledge and experience were appreciated both in engineering and in commerce.

Survived by a son and two daughters, Newbigin died suddenly of pneumonia on 20 April 1927 at his Wahroonga home and was buried in the 'unsectarian' section of Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Corbett, The Institution of Engineers, Australia (Syd, 1973)
  • Institution of Engineers, Australia, Transactions, 2 (1921), 8 (1928)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Apr 1927
  • private information.

Citation details

Arthur Corbett, 'Newbigin, William Johnstone (1874–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 7 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]


12 June, 1874
Alnwick, Northumberland, England


20 April, 1927 (aged 52)
Wahroonga, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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