Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alexander Kennedy Smith (1824–1881)

by Jill Eastwood

This article was published:

Alexander Kennedy Smith (1824-1881), engineer, was born on 7 July 1824 at Cauldmill near Hawick, Roxburghshire, Scotland, son of James Smith, engineer, and his wife Margaret, née Kennedy. Six of their eight sons were engineers and Alexander began his indentures with his father and, after completing them with a Galashiels firm, had a successful and varied career in England from 1846 when he joined the Great Western Railway Co. For some years he practised in Exeter, Devon, as a civil and practical engineer dealing with gas works, rope works, paper-making machinery and dynamometers, and then was engineer to the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society. He designed a piping system to service an entire model farm with water and liquid manure.

In 1853 Smith was engaged on a five-year contract to build and manage the works of the Melbourne Gas and Coke Co. Arriving in Melbourne in April 1854, he soon won a City Council prize of £50 for a refuse disposal plan. He completed the gas works despite flooding difficulties but did not stay with the company; instead he set up as a civil and consulting engineer with his own foundry at Carlton. He built gas works at Ballarat, Castlemaine, Sandhurst and Newcastle; he also provided plans and specifications for gas supplies for many centres both in Australia and abroad, including Sydney, Shanghai, Yokohama, Auckland, Dunedin and Nelson, and for Victorian country towns such as Portland, Warrnambool and Stawell. In rural areas he designed and built mining machinery, sawmills and water-wheels. He designed the Sydney and the Coliban water-supplies and was engineer to the South Yarra Waterworks in the 1860s. He was consulting and locomotive engineer for the Melbourne and Suburban Railway Co.

Able, vigorous and with broad interests, Smith was eager that citizens should understand the scientific and technological principles of the harnessing of the power of nature. He supported in 1854 both the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science and the Philosophical Society of Victoria and was a life member and office-bearer of their successor, the Royal Society; his papers to these groups are vividly expressed and of high practical value. A member of the Mining Institute of Victoria, he belonged to the Humane Society and was a prominent Freemason under the Scotch constitution. A promoter of the volunteer rifle movement in the 1850s, from 1860 he was a major in the Victorian Volunteer Artillery Regiment. For fifteen years he represented La Trobe Ward in the Melbourne City Council and was mayor in 1875-76. He stood twice for both the Legislative Council and the Assembly before becoming member for East Melbourne in the Legislative Assembly from May 1877 to January 1881. In the House he spoke infrequently but attended regularly while in good health.

Smith died of heart disease and anasarca at his home at Studley Park on 16 January 1881, survived by his wife Isobel Cochrane, née Brockie, whom he had married in Wiltshire when he was 22, and by two of their four daughters. He was buried in the Melbourne cemetery; the funeral service was conducted by a Presbyterian minister, followed by a Masonic ceremony. His estate was valued for probate at £12,537 and included shares in six Victorian gas companies.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • J. D. Keating, The Lambent Flame (Melb, 1974)
  • Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science, Transactions, 1 (1854-55)
  • Royal Society of Victoria, Proceedings, 17 (1881), 46 (1933-34)
  • R. B. Alexander, ‘Prominent personalities of the eighteen-fifties’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 24 (1951-52).

Citation details

Jill Eastwood, 'Smith, Alexander Kennedy (1824–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 17 July 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

Life Summary [details]


7 July, 1824
Cauldmill, Roxburghshire, Scotland


16 January, 1881 (aged 56)
Studley Park, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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