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Norman Selfe (1839–1911)

by S. Murray-Smith

This article was published:

Norman Selfe (1839-1911), by unknown photographer

Norman Selfe (1839-1911), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17900

Norman Selfe (1839-1911), engineer and educationist, was born on 9 December 1839 at Teddington, Middlesex, England, son of Henry Selfe, plumber, and his wife Elizabeth, née Smith. Educated at Kingston-upon-Thames, he arrived in Sydney with his parents in January 1855. At 17 he was apprenticed to P. N. Russell & Co., reputedly becoming chief draftsman before completing his articles; while with the firm he designed gunboats for service in the Maori wars. In 1865-68 Selfe was in partnership with James Dunlop and was responsible for designing and building major installations for the Australasian Mineral Oil Co., the Western Kerosene Oil Co. and the Australian Gaslight Co. In 1869 he became chief engineer and draftsman for Mort's Dock and Engineering Co., designing the machinery for the Governor Blackall (500 tons).

Selfe set up in private practice in 1876 and soon became known as a versatile and original engineer. He designed over fifty steamships, including two torpedo boats for the New South Wales government and the first double-ended screw ferry, Wallaby; he was reputed to have introduced the compound engine in Australian boats. Expert in dock design, he built the first concrete quay wall in Sydney Harbour and most of the wharves for deep-sea vessels. Skilled in refrigeration engineering, he designed the first ice-making machines in New South Wales; he also introduced the first lifts, patented an improved system of wool-pressing and carried out many other hydraulic and electric light installations in Sydney. He worked and published on compressed air and its application to railway brakes, designed many friction winches and the acetylene gas storage plant for the New South Wales railways, and planned mills, waterworks and pumping stations. He was the leading representative of the generation of 'the all-round engineer'. In 1884-85 Selfe visited seventy cities in North America and Europe, inspecting engineering works and notable bridges. A strong advocate of a 'Circular City Railway' linking Sydney's outlying suburbs to the ferries, in 1903 he largely designed a cantilever harbour bridge from Dawes Point to McMahon's Point; the plans were accepted but not proceeded with owing to a change of government.

In 1870 he had been a founder of the Engineering Association of New South Wales and president in 1877-79. Like his contemporary in Melbourne, W. C. Kernot, Selfe had a strong sense of 'natural justice' and his spirited paper, 'Sydney and its institutions, as they are, and might be', published in the Proceedings of the Engineering Association in 1900, gives a clear picture of his forthright personality and his professional and social interests. An active member of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and of the Royal Society of New South Wales, in 1901 he was founding vice-president of the Australian Historical Society, president in 1902 and a committee-man until 1911. He was also a prominent Anglican and a Freemason.

As early as 1865 Selfe had been teaching mechanical drawing at the School of Arts and in 1883 became a member of the Board of Technical Education. He was acting president for much of 1887-89 when the board confronted the minister of public instruction, James Inglis, and his departmental officers. Selfe wanted an independent system of technical education, with the task of building a trained workforce. The board was abolished in 1889 and Selfe lost a contest in which he had probably gone, tactically at least, too far in expressing his contempt for the civil service and for traditional educational values, but he did see the concept of workshop training introduced into Australia.

Selfe died of heart failure at Normanhurst, the suburb named after him, on 15 October 1911 and was buried in the Gore Hill cemetery. He was survived by two daughters of his first wife Emily Anne, née Booth, whom he had married in Sydney on 10 October 1872, and by his second wife Barbara Marion, née Bolton (B.A., Sydney), whom he had married on 12 May 1906. His estate was sworn for probate at almost £5000.

Select Bibliography

  • L. A. Mandelson, ‘Norman Selfe and the beginnings of technical education’, Pioneers of Australian Education, C. Turney ed, vol 2 (Syd, 1972)
  • A. Pugh, ‘One hundred years ago …’, Institution of Engineers (Australia), Journal, July-Aug 1970
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Oct 1911
  • manuscript and printed catalogues under Selfe (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

S. Murray-Smith, 'Selfe, Norman (1839–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Norman Selfe (1839-1911), by unknown photographer

Norman Selfe (1839-1911), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17900

Life Summary [details]


9 December, 1839
London, Middlesex, England


15 October, 1911 (aged 71)
Normanhurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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