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Robert Charles Patterson (1844–1907)

by W. H. Eastman

This article was published:

Robert Charles Patterson (1844-1907), engineer, was born on 21 March 1844 in Melbourne, son of James Patterson, merchant, and his wife Mary Jane, née Keys. Educated at King's College, London, he was articled to the engineer William Wilson of Westminster and at 19 was employed by Peto, Brassey & Betts on the first railway construction in Queensland, from Ipswich to Grandchester. In 1867, as engineer with Doyne, Major & Willet, Patterson surveyed Tasmania's first railway, from Launceston to Deloraine, before joining the South Australian public service as assistant engineer to H. C. Mais. In 1869 he was promoted resident engineer for railways and on 16 October that year at St John's Church, Adelaide, he married Charlotte Elizabeth Ingram.

Patterson's eighteen years in South Australia established him as an authority on railway construction and usage. In 1870 he reported on the construction of railways generally in the colony and on routes for the Port Augusta section of the Great Northern Railway in particular. He saw the construction of this line as impracticable, but expressed his mounting zeal for railways as the prime means of opening up undeveloped areas in an 1870 publication on light railways and in a paper read before the Institute of Civil Engineers, London, in 1878, the year after he was elected a member.

In 1871 Patterson was appointed to take over the trouble-ridden northern section of the Overland Telegraph Line. In a race against time, he met the same frustrations as his predecessors; the wet set in, but the line was completed—some eight and a half months late. In the circumstances no one could have done better. As a serious, careful man Patterson had accomplished a dangerous task where risk-taking could have cost lives.

He became deputy engineer-in-chief in 1880 and had charge of the development of jetties and other harbour works. Patterson resigned and left for Tasmania in 1886. Next year he won the abandoned contract for the final section of the Bridgewater-Glenora railway line and in May 1892, before his early retirement, he completed the Bellerive-Sorell line.

In retirement Patterson was a royal commissioner enquiring into Hobart municipal government in 1901 and stood for both Senate (1901) and House of Assembly. He was member for Hobart in the assembly from March 1900 to April 1903 and then for South Hobart to July 1904. A forcible speaker on practical questions, he was leader of the Opposition in 1903 but resigned because of ill health after only a few months.

Despite a strong tendency towards strict self-discipline Patterson was occasionally the subject of controversy. Careless remarks about the stability of poles on the Overland Telegraph Line led to a humiliating retraction when the matter was aired in parliament, and, although later exonerated, he was accused of impropriety over the purchase of land at the end of his South Australian career. Workers regarded him as a liberal employer.

A pioneer of rail transportation in three States, Patterson's lasting memorial was Hobart's deep-drainage scheme. He was chairman of the Metropolitan Drainage Board from its inception in 1891 until his death of cerebral haemorrhage during a board meeting at Hobart on 21 June 1907. Survived by his wife and adopted son, he was buried in Queenborough cemetery and left an estate valued for probate in four States at over £50,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • P. Taylor, An End to Silence (Syd, 1980)
  • D. A. Cumming and G. C. Moxham, They Built South Australia (Adel, 1986)
  • Report of the Patterson Enquiry Board, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1881 (127)
  • Australian Railway Historical Society, Bulletin, June 1974, p 125
  • Mercury (Hobart), 21, 22, 24 June 1907.

Citation details

W. H. Eastman, 'Patterson, Robert Charles (1844–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 May 2024.

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

View the front pages for Volume 11

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