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Walter Reeks (1861–1925)

by A. M. Prescott

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Walter Reeks (1861-1925), naval architect, was born on 25 February 1861 at Christchurch, Hampshire, England, son of Charles Reeks, corn dealer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Kent. He served apprenticeships with Alexander Richardson, naval architect, and George Inman & Sons, shipbuilders, acquiring a particularly good knowledge of yacht design and marine propulsion.

In 1885, seeking a warmer climate, he migrated to Sydney, and soon became involved with the yachting fraternity of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron at Kirribilli. The profession of naval architecture was virtually unknown in Australia (its only practitioner before Reeks being Norman Selfe) and severely limited in scope, most local shipbuilding being small tonnage constructed in timber and designed according to 'the rule of King Thumb'.

Reeks's first commissions were from wealthy yacht-owners and this work appears to have been his mainstay throughout his life. In 1888 a syndicate of Sydney yachtsmen sent him to the United States of America to inspect yachts with a view to designing a challenger for the America's Cup. However, the project collapsed through lack of financial backing. Two of his most famous yacht designs were Era (1887) and Thelma (1889). Reeks, a devoted yachtsman, was official measurer for the R.S.Y.S. and its vice-commodore (1906-10), and, heavily involved in the male world of boats, would not allow women on board.

His flair for experimenting in yacht design gave Reeks a reputation as an innovator and in the 1890s he received commissions from the Balmain New Ferry Co. Ltd to design the double-ended, screw-propelled ferryboats operated by that company in Sydney. This work was highly specialized because of the exceptional resistance problems inherent in double-screw propulsion. He tackled the issue in a succession of commissions, starting with The Lady Mary (1892), and evolved a design of vessel driven in 'push-pull' fashion by a propeller at one end only. Ferryboats of this unique design operated on Sydney Harbour until 1984. Similar vessels were built for other Australasian ports.

Far more significant in marine engineering terms were Reeks's commissions from the Manly Co-operative Steamship Co. Ltd and the Port Jackson Co-operative Steamship Co. Ltd for large double-screw ferryboats required to operate at high speed in deep-sea conditions. His designs for Manly (1896) and Kuring Gai (1901) were probably the first of this type of vessel in the world; although neither fully met expectations they pioneered the Manly ferryboat design of the twentieth century. The use of this concept in sea-going ships has since spread to many parts of the world. Reeks also participated in other meagre offerings of the small local industry, most notable of which were two early oil-engined river boats—Fairtrader (1899) and Excella (1912). He presented five papers to the Engineering Association of New South Wales of which he was president in 1914. He was also a member of the Sydney committee of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, in 1920-25.

At St Andrew's Cathedral Reeks had married Mary Emma Kent on 18 March 1889; she bore two children and died in 1895. He married his housekeeper Gertrude Inwood on 8 November 1900. Described as a charming and fair man, handsome and thin, he lost much of his ebullience after his son, an engineer, was killed, possibly murdered, in England in 1914. Reeks was an Anglican, a member of the Prince of Wales Masonic Lodge and a Rotarian. He tried gold-prospecting unsuccessfully, catching typhoid in the process, and lobbied the State government to acquire all of the Sydney Harbour foreshores. By 1889 he had built a home, Twynam, Mosman Bay, where he died of pernicious anaemia on 2 October 1925; he was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. His wife and daughter survived him.

Reeks was an unconventional naval architect given to radical, and not always successful, experiment. His modest achievements in a field dominated from overseas made him the outstanding figure in that profession in Australia before 1945.

Select Bibliography

  • P. R. Stephensen (ed), Sydney Sails (Syd, 1962)
  • A. M. Prescott, Sydney Ferry Fleets (Adel, 1984)
  • Anchor, 22 Feb 1912
  • Bulletin, 8 Oct 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Oct 1925
  • A. M. Prescott, The Manly Ferry (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1984)
  • private information.

Citation details

A. M. Prescott, 'Reeks, Walter (1861–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 June 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

Life Summary [details]


25 February, 1861
Christchurch, Hampshire, England


2 October, 1925 (aged 64)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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