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John Arthur Wright (1841–1920)

by Pat Bunny

This article was published:

John Arthur Wright (1841-1920), engineer and railway commissioner, was born on 25 November 1841 at Dover, Kent, England, son of John Wright, civil engineer, and his wife Mary Boylan, née Holahan. Educated at Queen Elizabeth School, Cranbrook, and at Clapham Grammar School, he was articled to Joseph Cubitt. Completing his indentures, Wright embarked on an engineering practice in Wales and then worked in Russia, Spain and France, mainly on railway and bridge construction projects. On 28 January 1870 he married Katherine Whitington at the parish church, Tuxford, Nottinghamshire.

Declining the post of engineer-in-chief in Brazil, in 1885 he was appointed director of public works, engineer-in-chief and commissioner of railways in Western Australia; he arrived in the Penola with his wife, children and servants in June. His appointment as commissioner carried with it a seat on the Executive Council in which he served from July 1885 to December 1890. Throughout his extended term of four and a half years he was responsible for an extensive construction programme which included the Great Southern Railway and work at the mouth of the Swan River (later Fremantle harbour). Wright retired on 31 December 1889 with a reputation for ability, energy and thoroughness. Following the introduction of responsible government in 1890, he was nominated to the Legislative Council; a member of that House from December 1890 to June 1894, he was a Western Australian representative at the National Australasian Convention in Sydney in 1891.

Having moved to Albany, Wright was associated with a printing firm which first published the Albany Observer in May 1890. In that year he was appointed manager of the West Australian Land Co. which, in return for large land grants, had contracted with the government in 1884 to construct and maintain a railway from Beverley to Albany and to introduce migrants. In 1897 the company sold its assets to the state. Wright had been retained in 1890 by the government as a consulting engineer; he took a further part in the construction of the G.S.R. and named the railway townships of Cranbrook and Tenterden after places in the county of his birth.

From 1896 he was acting resident magistrate at Albany and permanent resident magistrate in 1899-1908. Although, as commissioner, he had aroused hostility in Albany (being burnt in effigy during the citizens' acrimonious level-crossing dispute with the land company), he was a popular magistrate. Wright and his family participated in local functions and the residency became the focal point of the town's social life. A prominent Freemason, he was president of the Albany Turf Club and inaugurated its race week which grew into a traditional event. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died on 24 February 1920 at Albany and was buried in the local cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • D. S. Garden, Albany (Melb, 1977)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13 June 1885
  • Possum, 19 Nov 1887
  • West Australian, 1 Nov, 20 Dec 1889
  • Inquirer, 6 Nov 1889
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Pat Bunny, 'Wright, John Arthur (1841–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 April 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

Life Summary [details]


25 November, 1841
Dover, Kent, England


24 February, 1920 (aged 78)
Albany, Western Australia, Australia

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