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Albert Francis (Bert) Ronalds (1913–1999)

by Beverley F. Ronalds

This article was published online in 2022

Albert Francis Ronalds (1913–1999), civil engineer, was born on 23 April 1913 at Drouin, Victoria, fourth of five children of Victorian-born parents Ernest Albert Ronalds and his wife Pamela Louisa, née Drew, farmers. Bert began his education at Poowong East State School, then boarded privately while he attended Warragul High School (1925–29), passing the Leaving certificate examination at age fifteen. With his older brothers continuing on the family farm, he was able to study at the University of Melbourne (BEng, 1934; MEng, 1940), sharing the Argus scholarship as top student in civil engineering in 1933.

The next year Ronalds gained employment as a junior draftsman with the Melbourne Harbour Trust and helped to supervise the construction of the centenary bridge at Station Pier, Port Melbourne. Joining the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (SRWSC) in 1935, he would spend most of the next three decades creating infrastructure for water distribution in a dry continent. He completed a thesis on the regulation of water deliveries in the Bacchus Marsh and Werribee irrigation districts for his master’s degree, and researched novel low-heat cement for the spillway of Lauriston Reservoir. He also worked on the design and construction of the Yarrawonga Weir on the Murray River.

During World War II Ronalds began full-time duty on 7 November 1941 as a lieutenant in the Royal Australian Engineers, Citizen Military Forces. In January 1942 he rose to temporary captain (substantive July 1943) and in December 1942 he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. He served in Victoria with the 2nd Field Squadron, RAE (1941–43), and as deputy assistant director of engineering equipment, responsible for bridging equipment, at Allied Land Forces Headquarters, Melbourne (1943–44). On 11 February 1942 at Christ Church, South Yarra, he had married Elizabeth Joan (Betty) Stride, a clerk. The couple played A-grade competition tennis as a pair for many years.

Released from the army in June 1944 at the request of the SRWSC, Ronalds was appointed senior research engineer, reporting directly to the chairman, (Sir) Ronald East, on special assignments. He was the Victorian member of an interstate committee of engineers supporting the River Murray Commission. In 1946 the State government appointed him to advise the Commonwealth on alternative schemes for the diversion of the Snowy River for power generation and irrigation. His paper on the regulation of river flows, presented to the Institution of Engineers, Australia, was awarded the Warren memorial prize in 1948.

In 1950 Ronalds joined the new Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority as principal investigating engineer for the project’s planning phase. The next year he was appointed chief civil designing engineer responsible for the dams, tunnels, penstocks, power houses, access roads, and bridges. He moved to Cooma, New South Wales, in 1952, and supervised completion of the first component of the Snowy Mountains scheme, the Guthega project.

Ronalds returned to Victoria in 1955 to the new position of engineer-in-chief of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW), overseeing the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of water supply, sewerage, drainage, and river improvements for the city. He was a contentious choice, with a number of the board’s commissioners arguing publicly for an internal appointment. In his first year Ronalds restructured the water supply and sewerage branches into services and operations divisions to increase efficiency and bring opportunities for career advancement. He also conceived an innovative technique for installing jointed sewerage pipes through bored holes to reduce construction time and cost.

In 1962 Ronalds published a master plan for Melbourne’s water supply to meet the future requirements of the rapidly growing metropolis. To augment supply in the short term, he proposed the diversion of some water from the northerly flowing Big River, while a subsequent scheme would redirect and later dam the Thomson River. The Big River plan was opposed by northern Victorian irrigators and the SRWSC. On the eve of the 1964 election, during the extensive parliamentary Public Works Committee investigation into the plan, Premier (Sir) Henry Bolte famously vowed that he would not allow ‘one drop’ of water to cross the Great Dividing Range for the city (Age 1964, 1). Unpopular water restrictions introduced in 1967 heightened community focus on Melbourne’s future supply and that year the government commenced staged approvals of the Thomson River works.

Resigning from the MMBW, Ronalds became chairman (1967–71) of the new Victorian Pipelines Commission, established to construct, maintain, and operate transmission pipelines for the recently discovered natural gas fields in Bass Strait. A large-diameter, high-pressure pipeline from Longford to Dandenong was brought into operation in 1969 to serve Melbourne, and Geelong was connected two years later, after which the commission was abolished. Ronalds then took on executive engineering and management responsibilities with the Railway Construction Board, including planning for the proposed line to Doncaster East and the design of the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop. He retired in 1978 but until 1982 was a part-time chairman of the transport consultative committees of several Victorian regions advising the minister of transport.

A fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, Ronalds was ‘modest about his achievements’ (Australian 1967, 13), respected by colleagues and staff for his fearless integrity, and popular socially. An accomplished golfer and keen gardener, he shared with his wife a love of ‘exercise and the fresh air’ (Australian 1967, 13). Another interest was his family history, about which he privately published two booklets. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died on 10 May 1999 at Kew, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Premier Will Not Let City Have Northern Waters.’ 22 April 1964, 1, 3
  • Australian (Sydney). ‘Knows Pipes but not Gas.’ 25 February 1967, 13
  • Australian (Sydney). ‘Politics Clog the Pipelines.’ 5 February 1968, 7
  • Dingle, Tony, and Carolyn Rasmussen. Vital Connections: Melbourne and Its Board of Works 1891–1991. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1991
  • Engineers Australia (Civil ed.) (Barton, ACT). ‘Albert Ronalds.’ July 1999, 26
  • Gippsland Independent and Express. ‘Young Man’s Remarkable Career.’ 30 March 1950. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX117273
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Ronalds, A. F. Professional Career. Ronalds Papers. Private collection. Copy held on ADB file
  • Spillway / State Rivers. ‘Personality Parade: A. F. Ronalds.’ 12, no. 4 (October 1947): 7

Additional Resources

Citation details

Beverley F. Ronalds, 'Ronalds, Albert Francis (Bert) (1913–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 April, 1913
Drouin, Victoria, Australia


10 May, 1999 (aged 86)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (stomach)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Organisations