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Herbert John Swain (1882–1959)

by Joan E. Cobb

This article was published:

Herbert John Swain (1882-1959), engineer and educationist, was born on 28 April 1882 at Lambeth, London, son of Frederick Ashton Swain, carpenter, and his wife Florinda, née Johnston. Brought to Australia as a child, he was educated at Sydney Boys' High School. While serving an apprenticeship in mechanical and electrical engineering at the New South Wales railway workshops, he attended classes at Sydney Technical College; he became a journeyman fitter and later transferred to the General Post Office instrument shop. In 1905 he won a Sir Peter Russell scholarship to the University of Sydney (B.E., 1908; B.Sc., 1910). Graduating with first-class honours, Swain was awarded an Exhibition of 1851 scholarship in 1909. At Emmanuel College, Cambridge (B.A. [Research], 1911), he studied the internal combustion engine under Professor B. Hopkinson.

Returning to Sydney, Swain was awarded the Russell gold medal for research (1912), lectured (until the late 1940s) at the university on combustion engines and was asked to design a petrol and hydraulics laboratory. On 9 January 1914 he married Clarice Kate Mitchell at St Philip's Anglican Church; they were to have two sons and a daughter.

As lecturer-in-charge of mechanical engineering at Sydney Technical College from 1913, Swain administered a growing department which was responsible for engineering courses in branch colleges. Following Peter Board's 1913 reforms, Swain was involved in redesigning diploma and trade courses, and setting up advisory committees. In 1916 he was asked to direct the pilot training school at Richmond: after the war its aircraft mechanics section was transferred to the college's new East Sydney annexe where Swain established the bases of later schools of aircraft and automotive engineering.

Despite shortage of funds, the department of engineering expanded in the 1920s and recovered quickly from the Depression. Between 1935 and 1940 enrolments in all engineering courses in the State rose from 1250 to 3800; technical education received greater government attention after the 1933 commission of inquiry set up by D. H. Drummond. Swain was appointed principal of Sydney Technical College in 1936.

After 1939 he adapted to the demands of a wartime college which operated on a 24-hour basis and was expected to fulfil normal training functions; its inadequate facilities were stretched to provide accommodation and training for defence services, munition factory workers and military personnel, and to conduct the vastly increased range of correspondence courses required by allied troops. By 1944 the first Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme students were also accommodated. Swain prepared, as well, for the introduction of daylight training for apprentices.

A founder of the Technical Teachers' Association, Swain was an executive-member of the Engineering Association of New South Wales and the Sydney University Engineering Society, and a foundation associate of the Institution of Engineers, Australia; he served on various government committees and chaired the royal commission into administrative matters under the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board (1932-33).

Nicknamed 'Bunny', he was a large, unco-ordinated man who was known for bursts of colourful, inventive language. Rumour had it that he could be heard in Melbourne without a telephone. His colleagues found him generally good-humoured and good-hearted. Swain retired in 1947. Survived by his wife and one son, he died at his Gordon home on 8 August 1959 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Engineering Association of New South Wales, Minutes, 1913-14, p 161
  • Technical Gazette of New South Wales, 3, pt 3, 1913, p 43, 8, pt 1, 1918, p 56, and pt 2, p 65
  • Dept of Technical Education files, 1913-47 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Joan E. Cobb, 'Swain, Herbert John (1882–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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