Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charles Gordon O'Neill (1828–1900)

by C. J. Foley

This article was published:

Charles Gordon O'Neill (1828-1900), engineer and charity worker, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, son of John O'Neill, hotel proprietor, and his wife Mary, née Gallagher. He trained as an engineer in Glasgow and graduated as a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and for some time was chief assistant in the Public Works Office, Glasgow. As a captain in the 3rd Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers he made miniature targets for the better training of soldiers in rifle shooting. On graduation he had joined the Society of St Vincent de Paul, a society of Catholic laymen devoted to works of charity. He was secretary at Dumbarton in 1851 and by 1863 was president of the Superior Council of Glasgow and a member of the Council General in Paris. He resigned in August and went to New Zealand where he became in January 1864 surveyor to the Otago provincial government and later district engineer at Clutha. He laid out the town of Milton and supervised the construction of a bridge over the Clyde River in 1865. In the House of Representatives he held a seat for the Otago Goldfields District in 1866-70 and Thames in 1871-75. He became provincial engineer at Wellington and helped to survey a railway route between Wellington and Wairarapa. He planned and supervised the construction of Wellington's tramway system, and reported on water-supply systems for the Otago and Thames goldfields and for Auckland. His evidence at a commission of inquiry into an explosion on the Thames goldfield had helped to create an Inspection of Machinery Department in 1874. In Wellington he was active in the Society of St Vincent de Paul and in 1876 founded its first conference to be aggregated in New Zealand.

In 1881 O'Neill moved to Sydney and, with aid from the Marist Fathers, founded on 24 July the first conference of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Australia to be firmly established at St Patrick's, Church Hill. On that day a preliminary meeting was held, resulting in the formation of a conference at St Francis's, Haymarket; by December four branches were established. Recognized as head of the society in Sydney because of his leadership and apostolic zeal, he became first president of the Particular Council of Sydney on 28 January 1884. His untiring energy in the visitation of conferences strengthened them and encouraged their members; by 1890 Sydney had twenty conferences and Braidwood one, and the first special work of the society, St Aloysius Home for Boys (St Vincent's Boys' Home, Westmead) was established in Surry Hills. He was also a member of the third order of St Francis and of the Total Abstinence Society.

On the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Australia O'Neill was presented with an illuminated address. He resigned as president in July 1891 because of an impending lawsuit on the liquidation of the Northumberland Banking Co. Ltd of which he was a director. Acquitted of any misconduct, he remained active in the society. In Sydney he practised as an architect and engineer, and was a member of the Engineering Association of New South Wales in 1883-90. He supervised the construction of church and school buildings. In 1885 he had tendered for the construction of a tunnel under the harbour to North Sydney. After reporting on a proposed water-supply scheme for Temora, he gave evidence to a Legislative Assembly select committee in 1887 on the Broken Hill water-supply bill, asserting the practicability of pumping water from the River Darling.

In 1888 O'Neill was a vice-president of the Irish National League. Aged 72 O'Neill died in St Vincent's Hospital on 8 November 1900 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. In 1961 his remains were removed to the society's burial plot for the destitute at Rookwood in company of those he served so well. A bachelor, his inseparable companion was his brother John (d.1901).

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Scholefield (ed), A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (Wellington, 1940)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New Zealand), 1867-1875
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1887-88, 2, 877
  • New Zealand Tablet, 1873-1881
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 30 July 1881–12 July 1902
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Nov 1891, 2 Mar 1892, 9 Nov 1900
  • Council reports (St Vincent de Paul Society, Sydney).

Citation details

C. J. Foley, 'O'Neill, Charles Gordon (1828–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 June 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]


Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


8 November, 1900 (aged ~ 72)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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