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Frederick James Shea (1891–1970)

by Carol Fort

This article was published:

Frederick James Shea (1891-1970), railway engineer and public servant, was born on 6 July 1891 at Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, third of nine children of Victorian-born parents Frederick Shea, compositor, and his wife Ellen, née Crofts. Young Fred won a scholarship to the Melbourne Continuation School where he developed his technical abilities and a talent for mathematics and physics. In 1907 he was apprenticed to a fitter and turner in the Victorian Railways' workshops, Newport. After obtaining a diploma in mechanical engineering (1914) at the Working Men's College, he moved to head office as an engineering-assistant and worked under (Sir) Harold Clapp and A. E. Smith. During his sixteen years with the Victorian Railways he contributed to three innovations that changed the face of railway engineering: electrification, modern workshop methods and the railway engineering-defence connexion. On 21 October 1916 at St Mary's Catholic Church, Hawthorn, he married Eileen Marjorie Smythe (d.1951).

In 1923 Clapp recommended Shea to the chief commissioner of South Australian Railways, W. A. Webb, who was planning to modernize the State's rail system. As chief mechanical engineer (1923-39), Shea oversaw the transformation of the S.A.R. Initially, he overhauled the Islington workshops and tool-room. He then designed three types of locomotives—the 4-8-2 Mountain 500 class, the 4-6-2 Pacific 600 class and the 2-8-2 Mikado 700 class—and assorted carriages, supervised their construction (overseas and later at Islington) and adapted them to local conditions. These designs earned him a reputation as a 'big power man'. For nearly thirty years (from 1924) he was an honorary lieutenant colonel in the Engineer and Railway Staff Corps, Citizen Military Forces. He also served (1932) on a committee of inquiry into the Adelaide Electric Supply Co. Ltd.

World War II extended Shea's career. His mentor, Clapp, general manager (from 1939) of Commonwealth aircraft production, asked him to help with the Bristol Beaufort bomber project. Following the formation of the Aircraft Production Commission under Essington Lewis, Shea managed (1940-41)—from his base at Fishermens Bend, Melbourne—the vast network of government and commercial workshops that comprised the Beaufort division. He was responsible for converting much of Australian industry to a war footing. From January 1942 he was director of aircraft maintenance, Department of Aircraft Production. Augmenting his professional roles with a number of honorary consultancies in government and semi-government service, he published (in 1934) 'The Modern Dynamometer Car' in the Journal of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and (in 1946) 'The Case for the Iron Horse' in the Journal of the Institute of Transport.

Towards the end of the war Clapp, by then director-general of land transport, again called on Shea. He needed a chief mechanical engineer to implement the Commonwealth government's proposal to standardize Australia's railway gauges. Shea joined the venture as director of mechanical engineering in the railway standardization division. Once back in railway work, however, he attracted the attention of the Clyde Engineering Co. Pty Ltd which, in association with General Motors Corporation, was manufacturing locomotives at Granville, Sydney. He worked for that company as director of engineering from 1946 until his retirement in 1958, after which he continued as a consultant to the firm. A Clyde-Maybach diesel hydraulic locomotive was named the F. J. Shea in his honour.

Shea's life was driven by his energy. A slim youth of middle height who filled out in later life, he was known as a fast mover, talker and thinker. He loved Gilbert and Sullivan, and relaxed by listening to records of their operettas and by copious reading, especially about the engineering feats of ancient civilizations. His daughter Betty remembered him as a generous and kind man 'with an unquenchable sense of humour' and as one who was so 'totally absorbed in his work' that he 'did not have much time for sport or hobbies'. On the job he was a rigorous perfectionist and a stickler for detail. As a manager these attributes sometimes made him a hard taskmaster and a grim, rather awesome colleague.

In retirement Shea lived at Clareville Beach. He died on 6 September 1970 at Mona Vale and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. His son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • D. Burke, Kings of the Iron Horse (Syd, 1985)
  • D. A. Cumming and G. C. Moxham, They Built South Australia (Adel, 1986)
  • Annual Report of the South Australia Railway Commissioners, 1923-39
  • Railway Transportation, no 2, 1959
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Sept 1970
  • Aircraft Production Commission files, in particular series MP407/6 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Carol Fort, 'Shea, Frederick James (1891–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 June 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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