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Sir Robert Joseph Risson (1901–1992)

by Marcus Fielding

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Sir Robert Joseph Henry Risson (1901–1992), army officer and tramways board chairman, was born on 20 April 1901 at Ma Ma Creek, near Grantham, Queensland, the son of Queensland-born Robert Risson, farmer, and his English-born wife Emma Florence, née Turner. He was educated at nearby Gatton High School, where he was a cadet (1915–19), and at the University of Queensland, where he studied civil engineering (BE, 1923) and won a blue for football. After graduating, Risson joined the newly formed Brisbane Tramways Trust in 1923 (Brisbane City Council tramways department from 1925), remaining until the onset of World War II. On 12 May 1934 at St John’s Church of England Cathedral, Brisbane, he had married Gwendolyn Edith Millicent Spurgin. The couple did not have children.

 Risson was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force on 13 October 1939 with the rank of major and joined the 2/3rd Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers. Sent with his unit to the Middle East in December 1940, he played an important role in the defence of Tobruk, Libya, in March-May 1941, and was appointed OBE (1942) in recognition of his initiative, ability, and leadership. On 29 May 1941 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the 7th Division’s engineers. He planned and developed vital defences during the Syrian campaign of June-July and was mentioned in despatches for this work.

On 24 January 1942 Risson took command of the 9th Division’s engineers. During action at El Alamein, Egypt, in October-November, his men cleared seven enemy minefields, contributing significantly to the division’s success. Again mentioned in despatches, he was wounded on 1 November and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1943) for gallantry and inspiring leadership. After recuperation, Risson returned to Australia in February and resumed his command. On 23 March he was promoted to temporary brigadier and appointed chief engineer, II Corps. Following recovery from a bout of malaria, in October he embarked for New Guinea, where, on 12 April 1944, he took over as chief engineer of I Corps. For his meritorious work in the South-West Pacific Area between 1 April and 30 September he was elevated to CBE (1945). Having returned to Australia in September 1945, he was demobilised on 21 December. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers. Although feared by his junior officers, he was highly regarded by his seniors. Beneath a stern exterior he could be warm and understanding of human problems. Many benefited from his wise counsel and positive advice.

Resuming work with the Brisbane City Council, Risson helped the transport department to modernise and expand its bus and tramway services, rising to the position of assistant general manager (1948).  In October 1949 he assumed office as chairman of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB). He took up his new position during a period of debate on the future of the Melbourne transport system and, in particular, the capacity of the tramway system to serve the needs of an expanding city. Risson was ‘passionate about trams’ (Cervini 1994, 15), which he believed were the best vehicles for efficiently moving large numbers of passengers around the inner Melbourne metropolitan area (Turnbull 2001, 3). In the face of widespread public opposition, the car lobby, and the opinions of some within the government, he ‘almost single-handedly saved the city’s century-old tramway system from expulsion’ (Cervero 1998, 404). He achieved this ‘by sheer force of personality, and aided by a boom-box voice, he managed to intimidate his opponents and fend off efforts to curb tram services’ (Cervero, 321). Being 6 feet (183cm) tall gave him presence too. After attending mess dinners he would return home on a tram wearing his scarlet mess uniform and sit behind the driver, watching his every move. Tram drivers preferred not to be driving on such evenings because Risson was very observant and aware of the MMTB’s every policy and rule.

Risson continued part-time service with the Citizen Military Forces and, holding the rank of major general, commanded the 3rd Division (1953–56). He was CMF member of the Military Board (1957–58) and was appointed CB (1958). A Freemason from 1961, he served as president of the board of general purposes (1969–71), senior grand warden (1971–72), deputy grand master (1972–74), and grand master (1974–76) of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria. Other offices held by Risson included president of the Victoria division of the Institution of Engineers, Australia (1954); chief commissioner of the Boy Scouts Association, Victoria (1958–63); chairman of the National Fitness Council (1961–71); president of the Good Neighbour Council Victoria (1963–68); and chairman of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme (1963). He was also a foundation committee member of the Victorian Association of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, holding the presidency between 1980 and 1983.

Knighted on 13 June 1970 for services to the community, Risson retired as chairman of the MMTB at the end of that month. He then served as executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Committee until 1978. Predeceased by his wife, Sir Robert died on 19 July 1992 at his home in Murrumbeena, Melbourne, and was cremated at Springvale Crematorium. The inaugural Sir Robert Risson memorial lecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology was held in 2001.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Cervero, Robert. The Transit Metropolis. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1998
  • Cervini, Erica. ‘The Spirit that Saved the Icon.’ Age (Melbourne), 26 April 1994, 15
  • Defence Archive Centre, Fort Queenscliff, Victoria. Australian Army Service of QX6062, Major General Robert Joseph Henry Risson
  • Henderson, Kent. The Masonic Grand Masters of Australia. Melbourne: Ian Drakeford Publishing, 1988
  • McNicoll, Ronald. The Royal Australian Engineers 1919–1945, Teeth and Tail. Canberra: Corps Committee of the Royal Australian Engineers, 1982
  • National Archives of Australia. J1795, item Risson Robert Joseph Henry
  • Turnbull, Graeme. The Sir Robert Risson Era: An Enduring Legacy. Hawthorn: Friends of Hawthorn Tram Depot, 2001.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Marcus Fielding, 'Risson, Sir Robert Joseph (1901–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 25 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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