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Edward Fearnley (Ted) Rowntree (1894–1966)

by Roger Lupton

This article was published:

Edward Fearnley (Ted) Rowntree (1894-1966), engineer, was born on 23 January 1894 in Hobart, one of eight children of Francis Rowntree, engineer, and his wife Ann Maria, née Fearnley. Amy Rowntree was his sister. Ted was educated at the Philip Smith Training College, Hobart, the University of Tasmania (B.Sc., 1914) and the University of Melbourne (B.Mech.E., 1921). He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 21 January 1916 and sailed for England in November. Commissioned as an observer in the Australian Flying Corps on 23 June 1917, he was promoted lieutenant in September and posted to No.3 Squadron in France in January 1918. For carrying out patrols at low altitude in August, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He returned to England and completed pilot training after the Armistice. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Hobart on 4 February 1920.

Twelve days earlier Rowntree had joined the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Department as an engineering draftsman, on a salary of £250 per annum. He won rapid promotion and by 1924 was principal assistant to the hydraulic engineer. Deployed on surveys of the State's water resources and projects to expand generating capacity, he was involved in the design and construction of Tasmania's second hydro-electric scheme, a subsidiary power-station on the Shannon River. On 25 July 1928 at Christ Church, St Kilda, Melbourne, he married with Anglican rites Mary Catherine Neilson.

In 1933 Rowntree was appointed acting hydraulic engineer, Hydro-Electric Commission, Tasmania. Responsible for design and construction, he began work on what was then Australia's most ambitious hydro-electric undertaking, the Derwent Valley power development project. Next year Commissioner William Maclean restructured the civil engineering branch, effectively demoting Rowntree by appointing him civil engineer, design. Maclean had wide practical experience, but little formal training. He and the university-trained Rowntree soon came into conflict over numerous aspects of the scheme. Maclean continually took the side of his construction engineers against his design chief, often with costly results. Their differences culminated in a disagreement over the design of the second stage of the Derwent development, with Maclean insisting on a conventional concrete arch and Rowntree arguing in favour of a rock-fill dam. The technology which Rowntree advocated was unfamiliar to Australian engineers, and several dams built by that method in the United States had leaked badly. Rowntree was convinced that the new practice of concrete-facing would solve the problem and effect savings of more than £100,000.

Aware that Rowntree was job-hunting while interstate on business for the H.E.C., Maclean called him to his office on 5 June 1940, abolished his £850 per annum position and gave him four weeks notice. Within a few months a board of inquiry examined the H.E.C.'s administrative structure: it criticized Maclean's overbearing style, his disregard for the opinions and feelings of his senior engineers, and his failure to grasp and act upon the urgent need to expand the State's power-generating capacity. Rowntree, who was praised for his valuable contribution to the inquiry, successfully sued the H.E.C. for wrongful dismissal.

From 1941 Rowntree worked in temporary positions in several Commonwealth government departments. Appointed engineer for major investigations, Department of Public Works and Housing, in January 1947, he was seconded in 1948 to a joint committee of officers from the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victoria to prepare preliminary proposals for the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme. On 1 December 1949 he joined the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority as chief investigating and design engineer. According to his senior colleagues, he provided 'remarkably accurate' calculations of river flows and projected power outputs for the scheme.

Apparently disenchanted with the bureaucratic structure of the S.M.H.E.A., Rowntree returned to Tasmania in 1951 and to the H.E.C. as consulting hydraulic engineer. With no administrative responsibilities, and with Maclean replaced, he worked directly to the chief civil engineer on investigation and design problems. Following his formal retirement in December 1958, he continued to be employed by the commission on a part-time basis. Principal executive-officer of the Hobart Rivulet Flood Protection Authority from 1961, he was engaged by the Rivers and Water Supply Commission in 1965 to investigate the State's water resources. In 1964 he was appointed M.B.E.

A quiet, deliberately spoken man with a nicotine-stained moustache and a hacking cough, Rowntree preferred working alone and held firmly to his opinions. He invented the 'Rowntree Control' to reduce turbulence and loss through spillage in overflowing canals, and the 'Draft Tube Plate' to increase the flow of water when storage in dams was low. Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, he died on 30 June 1966 in St John's Hospital, South Hobart, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Board of Inquiry on the Hydro-Electric Commission, Journal and Parliamentary Papers (Tasmania), 1941
  • Examiner (Launceston), 19 July 1941
  • J. K. Wilkins, A Pride of Engineers, manuscript, and Rowntree file (Hydro-Electric Commission, Hobart)
  • Rowntree biography file (Institute of Architects, Hobart)
  • private information.

Citation details

Roger Lupton, 'Rowntree, Edward Fearnley (Ted) (1894–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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