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From the Significant to the Indispensible: The Working Lives of Seventeen Figures in the History of the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works

by Carolyn Rasmussen

The Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was formed in 1891 to build and manage a sewerage system for Melbourne and take over the existing water supply. Over time the Victorian State Government added a range of new responsibilities including drainage and, for a time, planning and major freeways.  From the very outset, the Board employed a veritable army of people to fund, build, maintain and administer a huge network of dams, forest reserves, pumping stations, pipes, drains, treatment plants, waterways and parks – even, for a time, a herd of thoroughbred cattle.

Ray Marginson, then Chairman of the Melbourne Board of Works, wrote in his foreword to the Board’s history, Vital Connections, published in 1991: ‘My one regret about this history is that it has not been possible to include more about the people who actually did the work. We hope that a further volume … will be published in the future’.

That volume did not eventuate but the mini biographies below, developed with the generous support of Melbourne Water, are a gesture towards telling the story of the organisation through the work of a small selection of people who have served the Board and Melbournians over the years.


1. James Blackburn (1803-1854)
Melbourne City Surveyor, 1850-51-4
Consulting Engineer, Commission of Sewers and Water Supply (Yan Yean Dam Project), 1853-54

The forgery of £600 that brought James Blackburn unwillingly to Hobart in 1833 was soon forgiven once his talents as a surveyor, engineer and architect became apparent. His move to Melbourne in 1849 brought immediate benefits to that city too, in the form of a company to supply cleaner, less expensive water from the Yarra.

Before Blackburn’s intervention, it was not uncommon for people to receive water with the consistency of weak jelly. The Yarra River, from which the water was drawn, was seriously polluted. Several years before the huge influx of gold-seekers Melbourne had already exhausted all readily accessible sources of water.

There was no shortage of ideas circulating as to how best provide Melbourne with a modern, reticulated water supply. The confident and experienced Blackburn seemed just the man to appraise them all.

Blackburn’s report in 1851 changed the parameters of the discussion about Melbourne’s water needs. He took account of the variable climate and argued the merits of a gravitational system harvesting the catchment of the Plenty River. A reservoir at Yan Yean would provide continuous high pressure water to every home.

The two other men in the colony most expert in these matters remained sceptical, but given a chance to make an independent assessment, they willingly attested to Blackburn’s ‘care, industry and engineering talent’. The few modifications to his plans were made in this spirit.

Blackburn imagined a city of 70,000 supplied with a generous 40 gallons (182 litres) per person a day. This allowed, not only for drinking and washing, but to flush sewers and drains, and to ‘water and cleanse the streets; to supply fountains; and to irrigate gardens’ to alleviate Melbourne’s hot, dusty, smelly summers – and deal better with the ever-present risk of fires. Not the cheapest system to build, its low-operating costs were a gift to the future.

The population of Melbourne had passed 100,000 by the time the water was turned on. It doubled again in the next decade. That the Yan Yean system accommodated such unprecedented growth is testament to Blackburn’s expertise, vision and skilled advocacy.

The man himself did not live to enjoy the honour that was his due. He fell victim to the water-borne scourge of typhoid just months after work began on the Yan Yean Dam.[1]

2. Mathew Bullock Jackson (1825-?)
Chief Engineer, Commission of Sewers and Water Supply, 1853-1861

A century and a half after water first flowed into Melbourne, the Yan Yean dam stands as eloquent witness to the efforts of Mathew Bullock Jackson. Yet the man was hounded from Melbourne in a state of mental collapse – a scapegoat for the financial pressures and political rivalries that have long bedevilled Melbourne’s water and sewerage authorities.

A young engineer who had served an apprenticeship with the famous civil engineering company of Robert Stephenson, Jackson had some varied experience with hydraulic engineering before arriving in the colony. In June 1853 he was selected from among seventeen local applicants to build the Yan Yean scheme with James Blackburn on hand as Consulting Engineer until his untimely death from typhoid in March 1854.

Jackson made a number of critical alterations to Blackburn’s original scheme. Not only to accommodate Melbourne’s exploding population in the wake of the gold discoveries, but also to accommodate insistent pressures to reduce the escalating costs. Then he set about building one of the longest embankments in the world to impound one of the world’s largest reservoirs at the time.

Water first flowed into Melbourne on 31 December 1857. It was indeed, a ‘great hydraulic conquest’ – one that eventually earned Jackson a place in the Pantheon of ‘early Victorian water engineers’.

Jackson’s preference that the project be handled by a large English engineering firm was over-ridden. So he set about breaking down the undertaking into a host of small, local contracts. It seems he drove the contractors and suppliers hard. His exacting standards were necessary, but not always appreciated. Neither was his job made any easier by the ‘jobbery’ that surrounded the whole project. Then there was the bevy of critical armchair experts, ready to harangue anyone who would listen. Perhaps because the design of earth dams and pressure valves at this time was still largely experimental, Jackson’s own confidence clearly slipped as the project progressed.

Jackson made some errors, but most of the problems with discolouration and pressure that brought him opprobrium were a consequence of reluctant design changes, or matters outside his control. They were soon enough rectified. Thereafter Melbourne enjoyed the benefits of a pure water supply delivered from a reservoir that soon became an ‘Excursionists’ Delight’ as well.[2]

3. William Davidson (1844-1920)
Superintending Engineer of Water Supply 1878-1888 (PWD?)
Inspector General, Public Works Department, 1889-1912

On the morning of the 16 March 1878 the swollen, debris-laden waters of the Plenty River swept away 80 metres of the single aqueduct supplying water to Melbourne. William Davidson immediately suggested a temporary wooden flume. Driven by his skill and enthusiasm, the team worked day and night to restore water to Melbourne in just three days.

The hero of the emergency, William Davidson, was promoted and charged with extending and diversifying the city’s water supply system. Under his direction all potential sources of water for Yan Yean were harvested, and the vital closed-catchment policy implemented. Then he turned his attention to the Watts River near Healesville. This scheme, initially a ‘diversion weir’ (later the Maroondah Dam), began supplying water to Melbourne just one month before the MMBW’s first meeting in 1891.

By this time Davidson was Inspector General of Public Works. Along the way he had groomed the young William Thwaites, soon to begin building Melbourne’s long-awaited sewerage system and relieve Davidson of his responsibilities for Melbourne’s water supply.

The ‘keen, bright boy with a receptive mind and plenty of push’ who, at the age of 14 had set off to work his way from Liverpool to Melbourne to join his uncle, had come a long way. Davidson was conscious of his unorthodox route to senior office. ‘A man could not do in England what I have done in Victoria. I have learnt my profession by degrees, and I have been paid for learning it’. That learning had served Melbourne, and indeed, Victoria well.[3]

4. Edmund G. FitzGibbon, CMG (1825-1905)
First Chairman of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, 1891-1905

Edmund FitzGibbon was not a man to admit to mistakes. It was just as well, then, that he was a tenacious campaigner and an exceptionally talented administrator.

As Town Clerk of the City of Melbourne since 1856, FitzGibbon had played a major role in the fraught, drawn-out process that led to the creation of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. Once the decision had been taken to build an underground sewerage system for Melbourne, it was FitzGibbon who marshalled and orchestrated the campaign to ensure that the authority that carried out this work remained in the hands of municipal councillors, and that the State Government ceded control of the Yan Yean water supply system to it as well.

On his appointment as chairman of the newly created Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in June 1891, the sixty-four-year-old FitzGibbon brought a wealth of administrative experience and legal expertise to the task. He knew better than most the size of the challenges, both financial and political, that lay ahead. Few could have imagined just how magnified these challenges would become in the disastrous decade of depression and drought that lay ahead.

Under the circumstances, the difficulty of the capital raising task faced by FitzGibbon dwarfed any engineering challenges. He garnered £500,000 locally to get work started, but his trip to London yielded only half the £2 million required on very poor terms. Almost immediately it was locked up in the bank crash of 1894. FitzGibbon then had to manage the politically unpalatable option of raising rates in advance of connecting households to the sewer.

FitzGibbon’s creative energy overwhelmed every obstacle. The sewerage works were scarcely delayed, unemployment in Melbourne was significantly eased by the construction work, and his success in raising the required capital in Melbourne hastened the evolution of a local bond market. This, in turn, enhanced the power and functions of the infant Melbourne Stock Exchange.

For all that, FitzGibbon was a vain, pompous man, easy to lampoon. In 1898, David Syme of the Age embarked on the first of many campaigns against the MMBW as an unrepresentative, secretive, mismanaged and expensive body that should be dismantled and its functions returned to State Parliament.

FitzGibbon was dogged in defence of himself and the MMBW till his death in December 1905. He also ruled the often fractious municipal commissioners with an iron hand. Anything less and the MMBW might not have survived. In that event, Melbourne would have waited much longer for its sewerage system, and suffered an even less reliable water supply.[4]

5. William Thwaites, CE, BA, MA, MCE (1853-1907)
First engineer-in-chief of the MMBW, 1891-1907

William Thwaites, a vigorous, prodigiously hard-working man, liked to keep tight personal control over the army of local contractors and suppliers of pipes, bricks, cement and plumbing equipment, as well as the burgeoning lists of Board employees (2,013 by 1899), who built Melbourne’s sewerage system between 1892 and 1897. It added to his workload, but it guaranteed a consistency of standards that has stood Melbourne in good stead to the present day.

Among the most brilliant of Australia’s first generation of home-grown, university-educated engineers, Thwaites had devised the best local plan for Melbourne’s sewerage system in his spare time while employed as Victoria’s engineer for roads, bridges and reclamation works. His role in adding the waters of Wallaby and Silvery Creek to the Yan Yean system, and subsequent design of the Toorourong Reservoir, were heralded as saving Melbourne from an otherwise inevitable ‘water famine’ in the 1880s.

In colonial Victoria any design for the sewerage system needed the imprimatur of a British consulting engineer to ensure its implementation. Subsequently, Thwaites made modifications of such significance to the plan of James Mansergh that he was acknowledged at the time as the designer, as well as the builder, of the system.

The confident, innovative Thwaites possessed ‘a genius for statistics’, and ‘a marvellous grasp of what was going on in the rest of the world’. He also brought to his role at the Board a talent for tactful management of colleagues, workers, politicians and the wider public. Such a talent proved critical in bringing the project to completion in the midst of a severe depression, and an unpredictable, often hostile political environment.

By 1897, when the first building was connected to the sewers, Thwaites had overseen construction of the 56 km network of huge mains that drained Melbourne’s sewage to the Spotswood Pumping station. There, massive steam pumps forced it up the rising main to Brooklyn, from which point gravity would take it the rest of its journey along the outfall sewer to the treatment farm at Werribee. A truly heroic effort from a man just reaching his mid 40s, it ensured that while Melbourne was losing its ‘marvellous’ tag, it had at least, also lost its infamous ‘Smellbourne’ tag.[5]

6. A. Greenwood 1868-?
Engine Driver, Spotswood Pumping Station, 1897-1915
Meter Reader 1915-1933

Greenwood began work at the Spotswood Pumping Station in a mood of elation, tempered with trepidation. Elation, because after the uncertainties of life in the wake of the 1890 Seaman’s Strike and the Great Depression, this was the first promise of a secure job for a man with a wife and baby son. Trepidation, because the machinery he was about to operate ‘had never been erected south of the Equator’.

Greenwood joined William Thwaites, his team of engineers and three fellow engine-drivers in the ‘usual anxious period’ of ‘breaking in the plant’. Much ‘loosening here, and tightening there’, and ‘many varied adjustments’ had to be made before the big pump at Spotswood began its work of heaving the sewage up the rising main to Brooklyn.

Continuous shift work in the ‘Land of Promise’ was the good-humoured Greenwood’s lot for the next ‘17 years and nine months’. Then, ‘by the kindly interest and consideration’ of Chairman, W. J. Carre Ridell, he was transferred to the Meter Branch.

Ensuring the flow of revenue was no less critical to the Board than keeping the engines running. For Greenwood, though it was a welcome opportunity to get out and about. ‘Meter Reading’ he observed, gave him ‘wonderful insight into the complexities of humanity’.

The familiar figure of the meter reader was the human face of the Board. Greenwood’s transition to this less onerous role was a measure of the Board’s commitment to its long-serving staff.[6]

7. Miss A. L. Arnott (and the Head Office Typists)
Typiste, Typist-in-charge, Secretary’s Branch, December 1912-December 1936

For the first two decades of its history, the secretarial work of the Board was done by men. The employment of Miss Arnott in late 1912 on a half-time basis was a daring experiment.

‘If it were not for her tact and efficiency’, declared one senior officer when she resigned to marry, ‘the present staff of lady typists might never have existed’. In fact, over the ensuing 24 years Miss Arnott became ‘as nearly indispensable as an officer could be’. Nothing had been of ‘such a confidential a nature’ that it could not be ‘entrusted to her with the utmost confidence’.

As the work expanded so did the number of female typists and the male staff gradually moved to other work. Among the six to eight women that were soon required was Miss E. Thirwall, who arrived in April 1926 for a few weeks temporary placement. A little over ten years later she would succeed to Miss Arnott’s senior position. She was still there in 1951.

The Board’s exacting standards, together with its public service role, encouraged a strong sense of camaraderie among the woman, and a productive friendly rivalry. A glimpse of those standards emerged when three of the typists in the Secretary’s branch in 1935 (Miss M. Bergin, Miss D. Harris and Miss H. Welsh) finished in the top 50 of 880 entrants in a speed typing contest organised by the short-lived Melbourne paper The Star. Miss Alice Vincent did even better. She won the major prize in the ‘Open section’.

Turnover in the typing pool was high. Four years later only one of these women was still with the Board. This was not simply because resignation was required on marriage. Some, like Miss Peggy Ryan in 1939, left to extend their career options in areas such as nursing.

By then, or very soon after, there were women scattered more widely through the Board in telephonist, clerical, drafting, and even scientific roles. Indeed, as E. J. Fitzmaurice observed in an editorial in the MMBW Federation Journal in October 1942, ‘Despite men’s prejudice and their persistent opposition, women have penetrated into every part of business life’.[7]

8. Edgar G. Ritchie, M.Inst.C.E., M.I.E. Aust. (1871-1956)
Engineering Draughtsman, 1891-1896
Assistant to the Assistant Engineer of Water Supply 1896-1907
Engineer of Water Supply, 1908-1936

‘The water supply engineer’, declared E. G. Ritchie in 1945, ‘must take a liberal view of future obligations.’ ‘If in 50 to 60 year’s time ... the sewerage provision is found to be insufficient, something else can be done temporarily’. ‘No alternative exists for the water supply man if he has made too scanty a provision in watersheds and reservoirs.’ It was a lesson the retired engineer had learned well, and applied with force and vision in his forty five years with the Board.

Ritchie transferred to the Board from the Water Supply Department as a young engineering draughtsman in 1891. He happily moved back to concentrate on water supply in 1896. In the meantime, he furthered his engineering education part-time at the Working Men’s College. He succeeded to the position of Engineer of Water Supply in 1908, just as water supply issues began to dominate the Board’s activities.

It was fortunate that a man of Ritchie’s force and vision emerged so soon after the untimely death of the commanding William Thwaites, for Melbourne was in the grip of one of its periodic severe droughts. This moment of ‘great anxiety ... and excessive heat’ provided the necessary impetus to add a third source to the water supply. By 1914, just as the next drought began to sear Melbourne, the aqueduct bringing water from the O’Shannassy River was completed.

Reputed to ‘work out water supply problems in his sleep’, Ritchie was ‘never seen without a well-filled attaché case under his arm’, except perhaps when he was fly-fishing on the O’Shannassy Dam. An ‘able and forceful’ man tempered by a kindly and dignified’ disposition, his advice was sought throughout Australia. The commissioners of the MMBW believed they could ‘stake your life on his decisions and be safe’.

As Melbourne’s suburbs expanded after the war, and drought again tested demand, Ritchie directed a huge works program that included the Maroondah, O’Shannassy and Silvan dams, their associated aqueducts, an extended network of 12 service reservoirs, and large mains to improve pressure and reliability of supply.

Ritchie insisted that Melbourne’s regular cycle of droughts required large storage dams. An extensive overseas trip confirmed his view that if Melbourne was to gain maximum value and length of service from these expensive structures, then logging in their catchments must cease. This placed the Board at loggerheads, not only with water users in Melbourne’s rural hinterland, but the powerful logging industry. Undaunted, Ritchie was determined to leave Melbourne the legacy of the Baw Baw plateau and the catchments of the Thomson and Aberfeldy rivers set aside exclusively for water supply purposes.

Ritchie was as much a planner as an engineer. For him, the Board’s role as a provider of basic infrastructure offered a chance to shape the future, not simply respond to existing demand. The assumptions underlying his 1922 plan for extending Melbourne’s water supply, including his population projections and anticipation of rapid industrial expansion, have proved remarkably accurate. Such a vision also laid the foundations for the major extension in Board powers after World War II.[8]

9. John R. Kennedy (1881- ?)
Clerical Officer, House Connections Branch, 1897-1947

‘Have you seen Mr Kennedy?,’ was the usual response when someone inside or outside the MMBW had a problem with house connections. ‘If anything went wrong, well, Jack fixed it, and although most of his time for many years had been spent indoors, everyone in all the depots knew Jack Kennedy’. Though they may not have known him by name, much the same was true for the general public. Kennedy had a ‘peculiar knack or touch to put everything right’, setting an example even for the designers.

Jack Kennedy joined the ‘H.C. Branch’ in April 1897, just months before the first building – the ‘All England Eleven’ hotel in Port Melbourne – was connected to Melbourne’s new sewerage system on 17 August. At that stage the H.C. Branch was also in Port Melbourne.

Apart from a few years in the Meter Branch, Kennedy followed the H.C. Branch around a series of suburban locations till it finally settled at 110 Spencer St, Melbourne. There he remained until he retired in December 1946 - just short of fifty years’ service. It was the longest period of continuous service by anyone up to that time.

The House Connections Branch was effectively the ‘front-line’ of the MMBW. Here plans were approved and inspections authorised for every single premises to be correctly connected to the sewer in a timely fashion. It was ‘a nerve-wracking and difficult job to listen to and satisfy the public’s complaints’. Staff, it was commonly said, needed the ‘wisdom of Solomon to tide over and deal with’ them. Jack Kennedy famously had plenty of that.

Some of that wisdom derived from a strategic sense of the value of ready access to information. Kennedy took the initiative to collate into one book all the scattered instructions, decisions, rulings and regulations from the Engineer-of-sewerage, Board committees and other sources. ‘Known in the Branch as “the Bible”’, it would, according to his colleagues, ‘ever remain a monument of Jack’s energy and zeal’.

Kennedy was quick to discount mere popularity as ‘an empty bubble’. His parting advice to his fellow workers: ‘be a human being, not an official all the time’, summed up his own sense of his greatest achievement.[9]

10. Alexander E. Kelso, MM, MCE, AMIAust, AMICE (Lond.) (1894-1943)
Resident engineer during construction of O’Shannassy and Silvan Dams, 1923-29
Senior Construction Engineer, sewerage branch, 1930.
Assistant Engineer of Sewerage, 1931-33
Assistant Engineer of Water Supply, 1934-36
Chief Engineer of Water Supply, 1936-43

A. E. (Joe) Kelso told Judge Stretton at the Royal Commission into the 1939 Bush Fires that ‘the type of organisation’ required to fight such fires ‘would be such as you would use if this country were invaded by an enemy – real centralised organisation’.

Kelso was a man who knew something about such things. A brilliant student, he interrupted his engineering studies to enlist in 1916. His war service was distinguished by courage under fire while carrying out strategic engineering work. In the coming war, his defence organisation skills would be co-opted, first as chief engineer to the United States army stationed in Australia, then as technical adviser to the Australian Minister for the Army and a member of the Business Advisory Panel.

Kelso also had a close association with forests. From 1923 to 1929 he was resident engineer supervising the construction of the O’Shannassy and Silvan Dams. There he learnt that ‘to endanger the Mountain Ash forests on the watersheds is to actually endanger the supply of water’.

In his appearances before the Royal Commission Kelso’s ‘forensic skill and logical toughness in dealing with complex issues of law and fact’ was on full display. The case he made for the Board’s cherished, but fragile, closed-catchment policy, contributed significantly to its defence against other vested interests in the short-term, and its extension in the decades ahead.

Kelso had begun his working life with the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission. Then he worked on the Hume Weir, and with the Victorian Country Roads Board, before joining the MMBW in 1923. The cost savings he achieved as resident engineer on the Silvan Dam project impressed his superiors. By 1931 he was back at head office as assistant engineer of sewerage, but water supply was his forte. Appointed deputy to E. G. Ritchie in 1934, he succeeded him two years later as Engineer for Water Supply.

In the summer of 1939 against a backdrop of drought, fires and water restrictions, Kelso unveiled his plans for the Upper Yarra Dam. It would double the Board’s storage capacity. He recommended a compacted earth and rock-fill construction. Less expensive than masonry dams like Maroondah and Silvan, it was also more suitable to the high, mountainous site.

Kelso travelled to the United States in 1940 to deepen his knowledge. When Dr J. L. Savage, chief designing engineer of the United States Bureau of Reclamation, visited the site in 1941, he confirmed all Kelso’s decisions and designs. But by then the war emergency was more acute than water supply, so work stopped and Kelso was lent to the Department of Army.

Kelso did not live to see his dam built. He died suddenly in January 1943, aged 48. His legacy to the people of Melbourne was the well-laid foundations of the Upper Yarra Dam scheme. Work could re-commence immediately men and materials became available.[10]

11. Steven T. O’Brien (1874- ?)
Inspector of Meters, Northcote Yard, 6 April 1897-1 April 1939

O’Brien was a staff of one when he began working at the Board in April 1897. After all, there were as yet no meters to be inspected. On retirement, he left behind a staff of 32 in ‘the most up-to-date meter workshop in the Southern Hemisphere’ – a model copied by engineers in several other states.

In the early days plumbers repaired and tested meters themselves. The abnormally high number of rejects delayed installation and caused problems for the Board. The reliability and accuracy of meters was vital to the Board’s revenue and good public relations. Once in charge of the department, O’Brien brought all the work under close supervision at the Meter Room in the Northcote Yard. He tested the first meter himself.

The plumbers protested ‘too much humbug’, but O’Brien ‘stood four-square to his requirements till gradually the critics were won over by his fairness and insistence’. When the time came for a changeover to a new pattern, his ideas, such as standardisation and interchangeability of meters, were given ‘full play’.

A kindly man, moderate but persistent, O’Brien also worked assiduously to improve employment conditions for staff. As a foundation member of the MMBW Officers’ Federation from 1921, he took particular interest in the day labourers, and ‘every matter under discussion was tested by him as to its effect on the lower-paid men’.

O’Brien retired disappointed that a Staff Appeals Board had yet to be established, but pleased that his successor, Harold Stewart, had been trained by him personally.[11]

12. Jackie Lewis (1897-1956)
Forest Ranger, O’Shannassy Watershed, c 1924-1956

It is hardly surprising that Jackie Lewis was convinced he would die in a bushfire. He fought his first one in 1910. Too often, after that, as a patrolman in the fire-prone Mountain Ash forests around Warburton and Woods Point, he saw ‘the dreaded white smoke clouds, billowing over the tree-tops, and rushed to fight a good many more. In the end he only lost an eye to them – when a blazing tree fell near him in the 1939 fires.

Lewis learnt his fire lessons well. Trapped with a group of fifty men in the 1942 fires, he threatened to use his axe on anyone who tried to dash through the flames in the hope of reaching safety. They stayed put - and survived.

Mostly, he didn’t have so much company. The legendary ‘Iron Man’ of the Victorian bush enjoyed the solitary nature of his work. As champion long distance runner selected for the 1926 Australian Olympic team, few could keep up with him anyway. In his spare time in winter he coached the Warburton football team, and went skiing.

It was Jackie’s intrepid, solo five-week April 1931 trek through some of Victoria’s densest forest in search of the missing aircraft Southern Cloud, that first earned him hero status. On the way back he hurtled down a 12 metre precipice. He had no choice but put three stitches in a gaping leg wound himself. He stayed awake all night fending off howling dingoes, before dragging himself for hours the next day to the road. He was back at work in a matter of days.

Searching for people hopelessly lost in dense bush was all part of the Board’s service to the community. Lewis rescued over 70. He never carried a compass himself. Once when called on to help find a party of tourists lost near Mt Donna Buang, he told police where they would be even before they set out.

The bushfires didn’t get Lewis, but he died of a heart attack before he could achieve his retirement ambition. The book based on the diary in which he noted every trip, and especially the wild flowers of the area, on which he had become an authority, remained unwritten. If it was anything like the article he wrote on ‘My Job in the Big Bush’ for the Herald in January 1933, it would have been well worth reading.

In 1963, the Warburton Advancement League raised funds to erect memorial gates at the main entrance to the Camping Park at Warburton in memory of Jackie Lewis.[12]

13. E. J. Fitzmaurice, ACIA, AAIS (c. 1888-?)
1906-1953 various cost and auditing roles in Treasurer’s Branch
Joint Founder of the MMBW Employees’ Federation, 1920
Secretary, 1923-31, President 1933 & 1939-41
MMBW Federation Journal, 1932-4, 1942-3
Personnel, Industrial and Welfare Officer, 1943-1953

E. J. Fitzmaurice believed that employees of an institution that enjoyed ‘the goodwill of the public’ would not only receive ‘more liberal privileges and higher salaries, they would also be ‘entrusted with an ever-widening sphere of responsibilities’. So it was that the body formed to advance the employment conditions of MMBW workers could also vigorously defend the Board against attacks from politicians and the press.

Fitzmaurice joined the Treasurer’s branch in 1906 as a matriculated clerk. In the usual manner for the time, he obtained further accounting, auditing and management qualifications while working full-time. He also studied Economics, business management and industrial relations.

Most of the clerical and professional staff at the Board were not covered by wages boards or awards, neither were their interests represented by unions. In 1920, Fitzmaurice turned his skills as a champion debater (he was a member of the Australian ANA Champion team in 1911) to persuading his sometimes fractious and antagonistic fellow employees to unite into one federation. Then he took those same skills into negotiating improved wages and conditions for his fellow employees for the next 33 years.

During his period as secretary of the MMBW Employees’ Federation Fitzmaurice drafted the first classification and superannuation schemes. Then in 1932-34 he was inaugural editor of the quality, long-running Federation journal. He continued to write occasional editorials and briefly resumed the role of editor during the war years.

The position of Treasurer of the Board was Fitzmaurice’s by virtue of ability and seniority in 1943. Chairman J. C. Jessop, who shared his concern for harmonious industrial relations and recognised Fitzmaurice’s creative role in shaping the Board’s esprit de corps, had other ideas. He created for Fitzmaurice a new role of Personnel, Industrial and Welfare Officer. One of the first fruits of that role was a long-service leave scheme.

An outgoing man, with a good ‘feel for people’, and ‘a strong sense of right and wrong’, Fitzmaurice played a singular role in advancing MMBW employee interests, while supporting the senior management.[13]

14. Edwin. F. Borrie, M.C., M.C.E., M.I.E. Aust. (1894-1968)
Engineer for Main Drainage. 1924-29
Engineer of Sewerage, 1929-1949
Chief Planner, 1950-1959

‘A city’, declared engineer turned urban planner, E. F. Borrie in 1953, ‘must be efficient to prosper’, and that efficiency could only come with planned, controlled development. It was music to the ears of Melbournians in the 1950s struggling to live and work in a city of outgrown or non-existent services. Perhaps this time, a planning scheme might do more than gather dust.

E. F. Borrie joined the MMBW in 1924 with an impressive academic and war record, and useful experience with the Tasmanian Hydro-electric Department and the Victorian State Electricity Commission. His task was to set up a section to manage a new department of Main Drains.

From 1929 Borrie took charge of the sewerage division. He directed the amplification of the sewerage system well beyond the original scheme. An experimental activated sludge treatment plant at Braeside, serving around 16,000 homes initially, allowed comparative studies on which to base decisions for the further amplification of the system in the face of Melbourne’s lop-sided development to the south and east.

With Ritchie’s retirement in 1936, Borrie was the Board’s most senior engineer, and during a long study trip abroad the following year to study sewerage systems, he also turned his attention to urban planning. Unfortunately his 1944 report on The Future Population of Melbourne seriously under-estimated the city’s likely growth, but there was little he or the Board could have done in the ten years after the war to keep up with the housing boom anyway.

The sewerage system was under acute strain, but water supply continued to dominate the Board’s activities and budget. When the prospect of preparing a town planning scheme for Melbourne presented itself, the ambitious Borrie became more interested in preventing future problems than solving the current ones.

As the Board’s first Chief Planner from 1950, Borrie co-ordinated a team that included an architect, an economist, a surveyor and a sociologist to prepare a master plan to guide the future development of Melbourne.

Undoubtedly Borrie’s crowning achievement, the ‘Blue-print for Melbourne’ was unveiled to great acclaim in November 1953. Thirty thousand flocked to see the display in the Melbourne Town Hall. It was a public relations coup that ensured the controversial plan would win parliamentary assent. Henceforth, services such as water and roads should precede rather than follow the houses; space should be set aside for parks and schools; special areas should designated for factories and shopping areas.

Though the laws underpinning the plan were weak, the principle of regulated development was firmly in place. The Board was confirmed in its new planning powers. In the five years left to him before retirement Borrie consolidated and developed the new department.[14]

15. J. Cecil Jessop (1892-1968)
Chairman, MMBW, 1940-1955

Immediately he was elected chairman in 1940, J. C. Jessop declared his intention to ‘adopt a frank policy with the public’. He would ‘encourage greater public interest in the Board’s work’ and ‘welcome proposals from outside sources for improving service to the community’. A gifted publicist, he proved equal to the pledge. At no time in its history was the Board held in higher esteem, or enjoyed a better relationship with all arms of government, than during his term of office. Jessop’s leadership was characterised by skill, enthusiasm and a talent for team-building.

In the breathing space created by the war, Jessop squirreled away reserves, encouraged planning, and improved staff morale. He took advantage of the findings of the Royal Commission into the 1939 bushfires to campaign tirelessly for a closed catchment policy.

Once the war was over the Board stepped up to the front line of post-war reconstruction. Not only did it face an accumulated lag in service provision, but the population was soon exploding as the birth-rate soared and boatloads of immigrants stepped ashore at Station Pier.

In the face of intense competition for plant, materials and labour, and scarcely adequate capital allocations, Jessop steered the Board through a period of major undertakings including the construction of the Upper Yarra Dam and the provision of water to 13,000 new houses and sewerage to 9,000 every year from 1947 to 1955.

An unpretentious man, who collected up colleagues in his car for the trip to work from Greensborough each day, and regularly ate his cut lunch in the staff canteen, Jessop consciously cultivated harmonious work-place relations both inside and outside the board.

Jessop also endorsed the modernisation of the Board’s business and management practices. Among the most significant change was the replacement of the water supply and sewerage branches with three ‘operative’ division of Design, Construction and Maintenance, and two ‘service’ divisions (Scientific and Surveys), under the re-established position of engineer-in-chief.

As the Board struggled to meet Melbourne’s accelerating infrastructure demands, the wisdom of planning at last made itself felt in the Victorian parliament. The final measure of the Board’s standing in the community under Jessop, as well as the quality of its engineering expertise, was the extension of its powers to encompass planning in 1949, and then, from 1956, the construction and maintenance of metropolitan highways and bridges, the improvement and protection of foreshores, and the establishment of major parks.[15]

16. Allan G. Robertson, OBE, OAM, BE., FIE Aust. CPEng. (1916-2009)
Served 1939-1976 (excluding war service 1940-46)
Resident/Project engineer Yarra-Silvan Conduit and Upper Yarra Dam, 1946-57
Senior Projects Engineer, 1957-60
Chief Construction Engineer, 1960-66
Engineer-in-chief, 1967-1976

Allan Robertson found it a bit hard sitting at a desk all day after six years war service. Fortunately the Board had just the right job for a former field company commander - getting men and machinery back to work on the stalled Upper Yarra project which comprised the Upper Yarra Silvan Conduit (YSC) followed by the construction of the Dam itself.

It was indeed ‘A big job in the hills’. For some ten years, Robertson managed hundreds of men in engineering and construction teams to divert the river through a large diversion tunnel, prospect the hills and flats for the right earth and rock for constructing the dam, create the township, workshops etc and build the 293 foot high dam working two production and one maintenance shifts a day. In the early stages they also scoured all the ‘hardware stores along the Yarra Valley’ as well. Robertson recalled spending his ‘Saturdays going through [them] picking up hammers and spanners ...’.

High up in the Yarra Valley Robertson honed the engineering skills and leadership philosophy that would see him engineer-in-chief by 1967: treat everyone with respect; keep the team informed about your objectives; demonstrate that safety matters.

Completed in 1957, the new dam tripled Melbourne’s storage capacity, but by the mid 1960s Melbourne’s services were again stretched beyond capacity, and pollution was mounting. The engineering challenge was substantial, but it was dwarfed by the funding challenge. There were parallels with the 1880s and 1890s: the achievements of Robertson and chairman Alan Croxford in this period are commensurate with those of FitzGibbon and Thwaites.

It was not so hard to galvanise action on water supply. Nature lent a hand with two bad droughts in rapid succession between 1967 and 1973. By the time Robertson retired in 1976 Melbourne was served by two new dams at Greenvale and Cardinia Creek; water from the first stage of the Thomson River project was flowing into the system; and the Sugarloaf Reservoir Project was underway.

The consequences of the backlog in sewerage connections had lain hidden for decades. Only when seepage from thousands of septic tanks began to foul the Yarra and Port Phillip Bay did community pressure overcome the resistance to rate rises, and capital expenditure by state and federal governments. ‘The anti-pollution protest is music to our ears’, declared Robertson in 1972. Finally, the public and the politicians ‘realised that Melbourne without a clean and healthy Yarra and a clean and Healthy Bay wouldn’t be Melbourne’.

An activated sludge treatment plant had been under consideration by Board engineers since the mid 1920s. Even in the face of Melbourne’s post-war expansion, progress on the amplification of the sewerage system had been painfully slow. Serious work on the south-eastern system did not begin till 1966.

Robertson set his specialist teams to tunnel the South-Eastern Trunk Sewer and the effluent outfall while, consultants and the contractors were engaged to develop the detailed design and build and the South-Eastern Purification (now Eastern Treatment) Plant at Carrum. The plant was formally commissioned in September 1975.

Seeping sewage and trade waste was not the only source of pollution. Under Robertson’s watch the big clean-up of Melbourne’s waterways began with the likes of dragging 13 car bodies and other nasties from Darebin Creek after one weekend.

Robertson would have been ‘quite happy to stay in construction’, but when he ‘saw what had to be done’, he was ‘happy to get on with it’, though he ‘didn’t like some of the political machinations’.

True to his view that leaders ‘don’t need to be too far in front’, and because he never lost his enthusiasm for construction, Robertson generally managed to spend one day a week ‘in the field’. And it was quite a ‘field’ – stretching from Wallaby Creek in the north, to Cape Schanck in the south, beyond Werribee to the west and the Thomson Dam to the east. Scattered across that field were over 6,000 people, not counting contractors.

A tall, strong-looking man, disinclined to speak ill of anyone, ‘Robbie’ earned respect wherever he went. His judicious, professional relations with the chairman and the commissioners, his confidence in the expertise of his workforce, and his respect for informed public opinion, ensured smooth project development.

Robertson was rightly proud at his retirement in 1976 that Melbourne was ‘the envy of many cities overseas’.[16]

17. Alan H. Croxford, LLB 1922-85
Chairman, 1966-1982

‘Big Al’ liked to be photographed with the workers on the many engineering projects undertaken by the MMBW during his years as chairman. They enjoyed his attention. He always addressed them by their first names. And, it was said, he never got them wrong.

Alan Croxford had hesitated before abandoning a successful career as a barrister to manage the huge, complex Board of Works. Arguably the next most powerful body in the State after the Government, it was still struggling with a significant infrastructure backlog after ten years of lacklustre leadership. The population of Melbourne was predicted to double in the next two decades. The Board was badly in need of aggressive, strategic leadership to raise capital, modernise its organisation and accelerate the works program.

Croxford was just the man to provide that – along with keen analytical and organisational skills. The Board found his decisiveness inspiring. Staff especially appreciated his willingness to defend the organisation vigorously when attacked publicly. The Board had rarely enjoyed good public relations. Out in the public arena, as rates rose and problems emerged, Croxford’s imposing figure, his bold, authoritarian, somewhat abrasive style - and the opulence of his office on the 22nd floor of the new building in Spencer Street, lent itself easily to popular portrayal of him as ‘Lord of Works’ ‘Baron of the Board and ‘text-book emperor’.

Croxford was unperturbed. Like the Board’s foundation chairman, Edmund FitzGibbon, Croxford was not a man to admit mistakes. The comparison does not end there. Croxford ran the board with an iron hand. He kept decision-making behind closed doors. He had no time for journalists or ‘nitpickers’. ‘We get on with the job’, he said. It was certainly a big job.

The onset of serious drought soon after his appointment, strengthened Croxford’s hand in matters of water supply. When he retired in 1982 the Thomson Dam, the last stage of the massive augmentation program commenced under his watch, was close to completion. It was reasonable to claim, then, that Melbourne was drought-proofed.

The sewerage backlog, and the pollution of Melbourne’s water courses and Port Phillip Bay as a result, presented a tougher problem. In an increasingly tightly regulated capital market, Croxford managed to cajole unprecedented levels of finance from both state and federal governments to develop and extend the South-Eastern sewerage system. He, also, with the backing of premier Rupert Hamer, faced down the housing estate developers, and had enshrined in legislation that sewers be connected before occupation. When Croxford retired the backlog had been reduced by 75%. Most of Melbourne’ waterways were running clean again – transformed into centre pieces in the city’s ‘green wedges’.

At the very beginning of his first term, Croxford had declared ‘We need more parks’. The removal of the major roads and foreshores responsibility from the Board in 1974, though regretted, eased some of the political and financial pressures. The development of a system of metropolitan parks in concert with a more broadly-based, dynamic, but enforceable planning scheme, was the most significant achievement of the second half of Croxford’s reign.

Controversy eddied constantly about Croxford. It frequently overshadowed his vision and drive, and his singular commitment to maximising the Board’s provision of services of the highest quality at the best possible rate. His last act as chairman was to announce plans for the fourth and fifth of the proposed metropolitan parks. When he died only three years after his retirement at 60, the parks were fittingly deemed his best memorial.

Croxford observed sardonically at his retirement that he was to be replaced by two men in the restructured Board. The massive workload he undertook clearly took a toll on his health. Despite by-pass surgery in 1978, he died just three years after retirement aged 63.[17]

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'From the Significant to the Indispensible: The Working Lives of Seventeen Figures in the History of the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, originally published 1 April 2016, accessed 24 June 2024.

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