Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Henry Warren (1852–1926)

by Arthur Corbett

This article was published:

William Henry Warren (1852-1926), engineer and educationist, was born on 2 February 1852 at Bristol, Somerset, England, son of William Henry Warren, railway guard, and his wife Catherine Ann, née Abrahams. Educated at Rev. Trevelyan's school, in 1865-72 he was an apprentice in the London and North-Western Railway locomotive works, Wolverton. A student at the Royal College of Science for Ireland, Dublin, in 1872-73, he was awarded a (Sir Joseph) Whitworth scholarship in 1873. He obtained further practical experience in engineering construction in 1874-81, and studied at Owens College, Manchester, where he absorbed the German idea of investigation by experiment. He was admitted to the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, in 1877. On 27 July 1875 at St Pancras, London, he married Albertine King with Church of England rites.

In 1881 Warren migrated to Sydney where on 9 May he began work in the roads and bridges branch of the Department of Public Works; he taught applied mechanics at Sydney Technical College in the evenings. Next year he was appointed lecturer in engineering in the Department of Physics at the University of Sydney with salary of £500; in 1884 he became professor of engineering and in 1890 (J. H.) Challis professor with salary of £900.

Supported by W. C. Kernot in Melbourne, Warren worked to gain recognition for the place of engineering in universities. Popular, but not an outstanding lecturer, he required students to work from technical papers and textbooks, developing their abilities by personal guidance and example. At Sydney he built up a great engineering school. In 1900 senate approved the first four-year engineering course, and later introduced a requirement of practical experience during the third year. By 1910 courses in the three major branches of engineering were established in a form that remained essentially unchanged until the 1950s. He had visited England and the United States of America in 1895 and met Sir Peter Russell whose gifts to the university led to the foundation of the school of engineering named after him, with facilities unmatched in Australia. In 1908 Warren became dean of the faculty of science and later of engineering, and chairman of the professorial board.

Warren published Australian Timbers (1892) and an important textbook, Engineering Construction in Iron, Steel and Timber (1894, 2nd ed 1910). In 1921 a third edition included a second volume, Engineering Construction in Masonry and Concrete. In 1911 he published The … Properties of New South Wales Hardwood Timbers. He also contributed over fifty papers to learned societies including the Royal Society of New South Wales, to which he had been elected in 1883 and of which he was sometime honorary secretary, and president in 1892 and 1902. As president of section J of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1887, his published address was a history of civil engineering in New South Wales.

For many years Warren was consulting engineer to the New South Wales government. Other designs included the suspension bridge at Northbridge. He served on royal commissions into railway bridges (1885-86) and Baldwin locomotives (1892-93) and for the Adelaide (1887) and Melbourne (1888) exhibitions. In 1901-03 he was on the Sydney harbour bridge advisory board. He was also on the council of an international society for the testing of materials, and was associated with the 1910 report on dams for irrigation for the Indian government, and the 1912 report on the Aswan dam for the Egyptian government.

At a time when little was known in Britain of reinforced concrete, Warren developed the theory in papers to the local Royal Society in 1902, 1904 and 1905, and taught European and American methods of design and construction. In World War I Warren was associated with the manufacture of munitions, the calibration of testing machines and the certification of steel. In 1916 he became chairman of a committee responsible for the New South Wales Aviation School at Richmond and he tested Australian timber for aeroplane construction.

The acknowledged leader of his profession, with a reputation extending beyond Australia, in 1919 Warren was the unanimous choice as first president of the new Institution of Engineers, Australia. His retiring address next year stressed restrictions on the use of the word 'engineer', registration of engineers with the institution as a qualifying body, a code of ethics and the engineer's duty to his profession. He emphasized that the University of Sydney's courses, more like those of the United States of America than those of Britain, met Australia's needs. Possessing clear insight, depth of knowledge, wide experience and mental ability, he had the gift of delegating work and authority. One of his major achievements was to convince the engineering industry by his personal example that graduate engineers were a sound investment.

A member of the Union Club from 1913, a keen golfer and the owner of prize-winning bulldogs, Warren was also passionately fond of music and had a fine tenor voice, trained by an Italian master. He was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and honorary LL.D., University of Glasgow, 1913. Survived by two sons, he died of chronic myocarditis in his home at Elizabeth Bay on 9 January 1926 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £48,474. A portrait of him by J. S. Watkins is held by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Corbett, The Institution of Engineers, Australia: A History of the First Fifty Years, 1919-1969 (Syd, 1973)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1903, 6, 913-980
  • Institution of Engineers (Australia), Transactions, 7 (1926)
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, (1926)
  • A. H. Corbett, ‘The first hundred years of Australian engineering education, 1861-1961’, Inst of Engineers (Australia), Journal, 33 (1961)
  • Sydney Mail, 23 Aug 1890
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Jan 1926
  • Warren papers (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Arthur Corbett, 'Warren, William Henry (1852–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 28 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

Life Summary [details]


2 February, 1852
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


9 January, 1926 (aged 73)
Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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