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Walter John Riddell (1859–1930)

by Ronald McNicoll

This article was published:

Walter John Carre Riddell (1859-1930), solicitor, public servant and sportsman, was born on 19 October 1859 in Melbourne, second son of John Carre Riddell, pastoralist and politician, and his wife Marianne Sibella, née Stephen. Because of poor health he was not sent to school until his eleventh year, and even then his eyesight so troubled him that he had to abandon the thought of reading for the Bar. At Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, which he entered in 1873, in spite of his indifferent health he was captain of cricket and football for several years.

In 1881-82 Riddell passed at the University of Melbourne the examinations required in the articled clerks' course. Admitted to practice as a solicitor on 1 September 1885, he joined the firm of Smale, Hamilton & Wynne, of which one of the partners was John Ferrier Hamilton, eldest son of T. F. Hamilton, his father's cousin and former partner on the land. Walter continued to play first-class cricket and football, but in time these gave place to lawn tennis, in which he played for the Bohemians, a club of elegant and cultivated sportsmen, in 1884. He later represented Victoria against New South Wales six times, was twice singles champion of Victoria, twice doubles champion, once (with one of his sisters) mixed doubles champion, and twice doubles champion of New South Wales.

In 1889 Riddell was elected to the council of the Shire of Caulfield in which lay the Riddell house, Cavers Carre, and in 1891 he became a commissioner representing the council on the new Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. His interest in sanitation was not new: during extensive travels in Europe in 1888 he had inspected sewage farms in Berlin and Edinburgh, the sewering of Melbourne being a live issue.

Riddell's law practice flourished. He had become a partner in his Collins Street firm, which in 1896 changed its name to Hamilton, Wynne & Riddell: the other principal was Agar Wynne. Continuing to serve on the Caulfield Council, Riddell was president in 1897-98. In 1901 he was vice-president and in 1902 president of the Bohemians. A 'well-knit, active figure of medium build', he had ceased to play serious tennis, and had taken up trap-shooting, at which he soon excelled. Next came golf. From 1900 to 1904 Riddell was captain of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club, in 1901 and 1903 Victorian amateur champion, in 1901-02 runner-up for the Australian amateur championship, and in 1908 doubles champion of Australia; he was four times doubles champion of Victoria. A founder of the Victorian Golf Association, he was the second president in 1903-04 and was to serve as such for three more terms.

In 1905 following the illness and death of the first chairman of the Board of Works, Edmund FitzGibbon, Riddell agreed to act as chairman, a duty he carried out for fifteen months in an honorary capacity as under the board's Act he could not accept a salary until he abandoned his legal practice. In April 1907 he was unanimously elected full-time chairman.

During Riddell's twenty years as chairman the sewerage of Melbourne did not present major problems. The 'metropolitan farm' at Werribee was extended as necessary, grass filtration being used as well as land filtration, and the chairman took a special interest in the breeding of the cattle raised on its pastures. The works as built were somewhat unbalanced, but the increasing population of the eastern and south-eastern suburbs had not yet begun to tax the capacity of the western works. Riddell could see this coming, and planned a south-eastern system.

Of greater concern during these years was Melbourne's water supply. What had been quite adequate in 1891 when the population was about half a million, would not do for a metropolis swollen at a rate never forecast, and with an increased consumption rate. The O'Shannassy scheme was begun in 1911 and its first stage was completed in 1914 just in time to avert water restrictions during the drought of 1914-15. Preliminary work began on the Maroondah scheme in 1917, and on the Silvan reservoir in 1926. Projects such as these were rarely finished in time to avoid criticism, notably from the Melbourne Age, which Riddell bitterly resented.

Planning and execution of works, day to day management and financial administration were in the hands of the board's professional and technical staff, for whom Riddell saw an adequate superannuation scheme introduced. But top management was nominally in the hands of a changing, mainly elected body: with his long experience and sound knowledge of law and municipal affairs, it is not surprising that Riddell dominated the board just as FitzGibbon had done.

In 1923 the board's responsibilities were enlarged, to cope with the problem of stormwater flowing from one municipality to another and to provide for management of the Yarra River upstream of Spencer Street to the metropolitan boundary. These were fields in which the board's officers were experienced, but in 1924 the Health Act gave the board duties which it did not seek and for which it was not equipped. Riddell cited this Act as the proximate cause of his retirement at the end of 1927. He was aged 68, his health was not good, and he was tired of criticism.

Walter Riddell died unmarried in East Melbourne on 12 March 1930 and was buried in Gisborne cemetery. Judge Moule, recalling the Bohemians, described him as 'an expert in every sport (but why did he always play billiards in a tall hat?) and … one of the finest public officials we have ever had'. Riddell had frequented the Bohemians' club house rather more than that of the Melbourne Club, of which he had been a member since 1890.

Riddell was survived by three sisters and his elder brother Thomas William Carre (1852-1930) who had commanded the Victorian Mounted Rifles and the 9th Australian Light Horse, had served as honorary aide-de-camp to successive Victorian governors, and in his time had been, like Walter, a distinguished sportsman and Bohemian.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Grimwade (ed), The Bohemians Melbourne, a Chronicle of the Bohemians in Five Periods, from 1875 to 1931 (Melb, 1931)
  • A. D. Ellis, The History of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club, vol 1 (Melb, 1941)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 28 Dec 1905
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 6, 13 Apr 1907
  • Punch (Melbourne), 13 Aug 1908
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Mar 1930
  • Riddell papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Riddell, Walter John (1859–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 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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