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William Thwaites (1853–1907)

by Tony Dingle

This article was published:

William Thwaites (1853-1907), by unknown engraver, 1891

William Thwaites (1853-1907), by unknown engraver, 1891

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/09/91/16 [detail]

William Thwaites (1853-1907), civil engineer and public servant, was born on 13 August 1853 in Melbourne, son of Thomas Thwaites, cabinetmaker, and his wife Eliza, née Raven, both English born. Educated at the Victorian Grammar School, Collins Street, and the Model School, Spring Street, he passed the civil service examination in 1868, but went to the University of Melbourne (Certificate of Engineering, 1873; B.A., 1874; M.A., 1876; M.C.E., 1901). An outstanding student, he won numerous prizes and scholarships.

Commencing his professional career as a pupil-draftsman with the Victorian Department of Railways in 1874, he transferred in 1876 to the South Australian department as an assistant draftsman. In 1879 he returned to the Victorian Department of Public Works and completed engineering surveys for Sir John Coode's reports on Portland Harbour, Lakes Entrance and the Sale navigation, as well as a survey for defence purposes of Swan Island in Port Phillip Bay. Transferring to the water supply branch, he designed the Toorourrong reservoir, the Essendon and Caulfield service reservoirs, and other facilities. Thwaites was appointed engineer of roads, bridges and reclamation works in 1883. Here he made his mark on Melbourne's landscape through the Dight's Falls scheme (which directed salt-free water to the lakes in the Botanic Gardens and in Albert Park), and by draining Elwood swamp and Port Melbourne lagoon. He also began drainage works at the Condah, Moe and Koo-wee-rup swamps.

Elected a member of the Victorian Institute of Engineers (1881) and a councillor of the Institute of Surveyors (1887), Thwaites became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, in 1889, and Australasian representative on its council in 1899-1901. He was appointed co-examiner in engineering at the University of Melbourne and in 1890 was elected to the university council. In 1889 he gave evidence before the royal commission into Melbourne's sanitary conditions and provided the most detailed and comprehensive scheme for underground sewers put before the commission. Next year he became engineer in charge of the water supply branch. In 1891 he was appointed engineer-in-chief of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works which had been established to build the sewerage system urgently recommended by the royal commission. There were a few critics of his appointment, but Melbourne's engineers held a banquet to honour the local achievement.

While James Mansergh is commonly regarded as the architect of Melbourne's sewerage system, Thwaites deserves credit both for its design and construction. He modified Mansergh's preferred scheme so that what was built owed more to the plans Thwaites had earlier put before the royal comission. Construction began in 1892. It was by far the largest building project in Melbourne during the depression, providing work for several thousand men and contracts for local businesses. An innovative administrator, Thwaites managed all aspects of the work, making use of the recently introduced telephone to check on progress. He worked well with contractors who trusted him and respected his expertise. Despite problems in raising loan finance, difficulties in tunnelling, and accidents, the sewerage system quickly became operational: house connexions were made during 1897. Thwaites personally answered the many criticisms of the M.M.B.W. and of his work, appearing before parliamentary committees of inquiry in 1896 and 1900, at public meetings and in print. He gave evidence before royal commissions on tariffs and on technical education, and also maintained a massive output of memoranda and reports. Robust in build and seemingly inexhaustible, he had few interests outside his work.

Although he never travelled abroad, Thwaites had one of the best engineering libraries in Victoria and was well informed on overseas engineering practice. His knowledge of the physical and climatic characteristics of the metropolitan area amazed his colleagues. He 'had a genius for statistics' and carried out most of the M.M.B.W.'s statistical projections, in the engineering area and in relation to finance. Behind his schemes lay a firm belief in the ability of the engineer to improve the natural world for the benefit of humanity. One of his more interesting proposals was for fuller use of the Yarra River to provide water, electricity and recreational areas.

Thwaites was twice married, with Congregational forms: on 18 October 1879 in Melbourne to Elizabeth Ferres (d.1905), daughter of the government printer; on 16 December 1905 at Balwyn to Margaret Barton. There were no children. He died of uraemia and pneumonia on 19 November 1907 at San Remo. Survived by his wife, he was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works Sewerage Scheme (Melb, 1900)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1895-96, 2, (3), p 351, 1901, 2, (7), p 361
  • Building and Engineering Journal, 25 July 1891
  • Age (Melbourne), 30, 31 Jan, 20 Nov 1907
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Nov 1907.

Citation details

Tony Dingle, 'Thwaites, William (1853–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Thwaites (1853-1907), by unknown engraver, 1891

William Thwaites (1853-1907), by unknown engraver, 1891

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/09/91/16 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


13 August, 1853
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


19 November, 1907 (aged 54)
San Remo, Victoria, Australia

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