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Thomas Bruce Nicol (1896–1987)

by Jon Breen

This article was published:

Thomas Bruce Nicol (1896-1987), civil engineer, was born on 25 January 1896 at Lismore, New South Wales, one of twin sons and four children of Scottish-born parents Thomas Nicol, cabinet-maker and joiner, and his wife Helen, née McKenzie, dressmaker. Tom was joint dux at Sydney Boys’ High School in 1913 and then began studying engineering at the University of Sydney. On 19 October 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Serving in Egypt (1916) then on the Western Front with the 1st Field Company, Australian Engineers, he was shot in the right hand in September 1917 and mentioned in despatches in 1919. He returned to Sydney, where he was discharged on 10 June. Completing his course at the University of Sydney (BE, 1921), he was awarded the university medal for engineering.

In 1921 Nicol commenced work with the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage (Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board) as an engineering draftsman. Designing engineer from 1928, he was one of the chief witnesses before the 1932-33 royal commission that dealt with the failure of the Sydney (water) pressure tunnel from Potts Hill to Waterloo and that of a smaller tunnel under the Parramatta River. The board, after considering an additional report, resolved on 19 July 1933 to support Nicol. Assistant engineer, water supply (1934), he became chief investigating engineer in 1935. He lectured (1928-49) part time at the University of Sydney. On 17 July 1936 at the Presbyterian Church, Crows Nest, Nicol married Charlotte (Lottie) Isabella Leslie Gammie, a medical practitioner.

Deputy engineer-in-chief (1937-49) at the board, Nicol was involved in drought relief works and wartime defences. He toured the United States of America in 1941, studying treatment of water from less pristine catchments. In 1949 he served as a commissioner investigating the sewerage system in Auckland, New Zealand, and was appointed engineer-in-chief of the board. He joined a panel of experts that year to review the Chichester and Grahamstown dams of the Newcastle water supply. In 1957 he toured the USA, Europe and Britain, especially to finalise the floodgates for Warragamba Dam. The dam, his direct responsibility, was opened in 1960. John Goodsell, president of the board, described Nicol as ‘a kindly soft-spoken “Chief” ... who commands a remarkably affectionate loyalty from his army of engineers’. After Nicol retired in 1961, he became a specialist consultant for the World Health Organization. He served on the Australian National Committee (of the International Commission) on Large Dams.

A member of professional bodies in Australia and overseas, Nicol was a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers. In 1961 he became a member of the Ku-ring-gai Chase Trust. He was appointed CBE in 1960 and was awarded the Peter Nicol Russell memorial medal in 1965. An active committee member in the Presbyterian Fellowship Union of New South Wales, he worshipped with the Uniting Church in Australia after it formed in 1977. He died on 2 July 1987 in his home at Crows Nest and was cremated; his wife and their daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission of Investigation into Certain Matters under the Administrative Control of the Metropolitan Board of Water, Sewerage and Drainage, Report, Parliamentary Papers (NSW), 1933, vol 1, paper no 30, p 581
  • Journal of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, vol 37, no 12, 1965, p N127
  • Sydney Water Board Journal, Apr 1960, p 1, July 1961, p 48
  • B2455, item NICOL THOMAS BRUCE (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Jon Breen, 'Nicol, Thomas Bruce (1896–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 January, 1896
Lismore, New South Wales, Australia


2 July, 1987 (aged 91)
Crows Nest, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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