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John Whitton (1820–1898)

by C. C. Singleton

This article was published:

John Whitton (1820-1898), engineer, was born near Wakefield, Yorkshire, England, son of James Whitton, land agent, and his wife Elizabeth, née Billington. Articled for seven years to John Billington, of Wakefield, he gained engineering and architectural experience preparing plans and tenders for railway construction and waterworks. In 1847 he was engineer for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincoln railway, and in 1852-56 supervised the building of the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton line. In 1854 he was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, and on 27 March 1856 was appointed engineer-in-chief at a salary of £1500 to lay out and superintend the construction of railways in New South Wales. With his wife Elizabeth, née Fowler, whom he had married about 1856 at Ecclesfield Church, Yorkshire, he arrived in Melbourne in the Royal Charter in December and reached Sydney on the fourteenth.

Whitton found in New South Wales 23 miles (37 km) of 4 ft 8½ ins (144 cm) gauge railway, 4 locomotives, 12 passenger carriages and 40 trucks. In January 1857 before the Legislative Assembly select committee on the sole commissioner of railways incorporation bill, he vainly advocated conversion to the 5 ft 3 ins (160 cm) gauge adopted in Victoria and South Australia, and the extension of the railway from Redfern to Hyde Park in the city. He reorganized accounting and costing and took charge of the rolling stock, line maintenance and workshop departments. He resisted Governor Denison's proposal to construct 4000 miles (6437 km) of light, narrow-gauge tramways to be worked by horses and in the 1860s was constantly hampered by the government's uncritical acceptance of the lowest tenders for railway construction.

In April 1865 allegations of fraud were made against Whitton and his brother-in-law Sir John Fowler, an engineer and inspector of railway materials bought in England by the New South Wales government; the charges were proved groundless by W. C. Mayne, agent-general for New South Wales. The 1870 select committee on railway extension chaired by (Sir) William Macleay recommended the construction of cheap narrow-gauge railways, necessitating a break of gauge within the colony, as well as at the border; estimates were prepared but Whitton, determined to sabotage the committee's recommendation, suspended all surveys and new work.

With the aid of E. C. Cracknell he overcame the engineering problems, partly caused by the government's cheese-paring, in building the Blue Mountains line; it included two great zigzags and was opened on 4 April 1876. In 1880-85 the unprecedented growth in railways, one thousand miles of new track and nine million more passengers, exposed existing inadequacies in administration and exacerbated the friction between Whitton and Commissioner C. A. Goodchap. The 1884 royal commission into railway bridges exonerated Whitton of the charges of faulty design and of using inferior materials. In 1888 Sir Henry Parkes's Government Railways Act reorganized the department and Goodchap's subsequent resignation made Whitton's position easier.

In 1886 and 1887 he had submitted drawings for a proposed suspension bridge across Sydney Harbour from Dawes Battery to Milson's Point. On 1 May 1889 the Hawkesbury River bridge was opened; it was the final link in the railway system from Brisbane through Sydney to Melbourne and Adelaide and Whitton had fought for adequate finance for it. He was a member of the Hunter River floods commission 1869-70, the Sydney, City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board 1875-77, and the Board for Opening Tenders for Public Works 1875-87; he was a New South Wales commissioner for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880.

Granted a year's leave on 29 May 1889, Whitton retired on 31 May 1890 with a pension of £675, and visited England in 1892. He had supervised the laying of 2171 miles (3494 km) of track on which no accident had occurred attributable to defective design or construction. Parkes regarded him as 'a man of such rigid and unswerving integrity, a man of such vast grasp, that however his faults may occasionally project themselves into prominence, it would be difficult to replace him by a man of equal qualifications'. Survived by his wife, one son and two daughters, he died of cardiac disease on 20 February 1898 at Mittagong, and was buried in the cemetery of St Thomas's Church of England, North Sydney. His estate was valued for probate at £10,396.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Rae, Thirty-Five Years on the New South Wales Railways (Syd, 1898)
  • Dept of Railways, The Railways of New South Wales 1855-1955 (Syd, 1955)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1859-60, 3, 239, 1892-93, 3, 77
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1887, 1890
  • New South Wales Railway and Tramway Magazine, 1 Dec 1920
  • R. L. Wettenhall, ‘Early railway management legislation in New South Wales’, Tasmanian University Law Review, July 1960
  • Town and Country Journal, 14 Sept 1878
  • Bulletin, 1 Sept 1883
  • Sydney Mail, 26 Feb 1898
  • Australasian, 5 Apr 1890
  • Old Times (Sydney), July 1903
  • I. M. Laszlo, Railway Policies and Development in Northern New South Wales 1846-1889 (M.A. thesis, University of New England, 1956)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

C. C. Singleton, 'Whitton, John (1820–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 29 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]


Wakefield, Yorkshire, England


20 February, 1898 (aged ~ 78)
Mittagong, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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