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Joshua Fielden Ramsbotham (1878–1951)

by Michael Komesaroff

This article was published:

Joshua Fielden Ramsbotham (1878-1951), by unknown photographer, 1917

Joshua Fielden Ramsbotham (1878-1951), by unknown photographer, 1917

National Archives of Australia, A6247:RAMSBOTHAM

Joshua Fielden Ramsbotham (1878-1951), civil engineer, was born on 27 June 1878 at Todmorden, Yorkshire, England, son of Richard Hugh Ramsbotham, secretary, and his wife Agnes Geraldine, née Hoyle. Educated at Giggleswick Grammar School, Yorkshire, in 1896 he was apprenticed to A. G. Lyster, engineer-in-chief of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Between 1901 and 1909 Ramsbotham was resident engineer on various dock modifications at Liverpool. On 9 December 1908 he married Ruth Arnold at the Bullen parish church, Westmorland.

In September 1910 the government of Western Australia appointed him engineer-in-charge to design and complete extensions to the Fremantle graving dock. On discovering, after his arrival in November, that the dock area had been dredged to expose a bad bottom, Ramsbotham advised a new site, though the government did not terminate work until July 1911. For the duration of his three-year contract, Ramsbotham reported on proposed extensions for other Western Australian ports. On 31 January 1913 he submitted his report on improvements and general extensions to Fremantle harbour.

In September Ramsbotham was appointed director of the new Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. The appointment of an engineer rather than a mariner was a surprise and supporters of C. R. W. Brewis claimed it was the result of political influence. The government justified its decision by citing a number of overseas lighthouse authorities administered by engineers.

After Federation, State governments had expected the Commonwealth to take over their lighthouse services, so a huge backlog of essential works confronted Ramsbotham. His first responsibility was to develop a national lighthouse network. The outbreak of World War I and a shortage of funds and equipment prevented full adoption of his recommendations, but the six State services were transformed into an efficient national administration. By 1926 over forty new lighthouses had been constructed and two hundred existing aids modified and improved. In 1926 the government accepted the recommendation of a Public Service Board inquiry to restructure the lighthouse service. Though the inquiry described Ramsbotham as an able officer who had done much to improve the service, he opposed the reorganization and resigned shortly after he returned to England in 1926.

An able and competent harbour engineer, Ramsbotham also advised the Federal government, reporting on Cockburn Sound Naval Base in 1913. In 1922 he was appointed to the Great Barrier Reef Committee and in 1924 was asked to advise on harbour works in the Northern Territory. His recommendations appear to have been accepted when the ill-conceived Fremantle project was modified and resumed in 1927. The unique design of the Barrier Reef light-structures bears Ramsbotham's imprint: for the first time, large unattended lights were built directly over exposed coral and sand cays. A member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, Ramsbotham maintained a steady output of papers for engineering journals on topics ranging from optics to harbour bridge construction.

A tall man of ample proportions and reddish complexion who dressed elegantly, in his relationships with colleagues Ramsbotham sometimes seemed aloof and pompous, standing apart from things Australian.

Ramsbotham died on 19 October 1951 at Milnthorpe, Westmorland, and was buried in Beetham cemetery. A son and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • M. B. Komesaroff, ‘The Commonwealth Lighthouse Service’, Victorian Historical Journal, 48, no 2, 1977
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 July 1913
  • Pearce papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Michael Komesaroff, 'Ramsbotham, Joshua Fielden (1878–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Joshua Fielden Ramsbotham (1878-1951), by unknown photographer, 1917

Joshua Fielden Ramsbotham (1878-1951), by unknown photographer, 1917

National Archives of Australia, A6247:RAMSBOTHAM

Life Summary [details]


27 June, 1878
Todmorden, Yorkshire, England


19 October, 1951 (aged 73)
Milnthorpe, Westmorland, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.