At the entrance to Fremantle Harbour, south of Perth, is an imposing statue some 12 feet high, of a man who changed the face of Western Australia during a period of ten years or so at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. This is Charles Yelverton O’Connor, Engineer-in-Chief in the colony from 1891 to 1902. At the base of the statue are plaques depicting his most notable engineering achievements – Fremantle Harbour, the Darling Scarp Railway Tunnel, and the Mundaring Weir, the starting point for the world-renowned Goldfields water supply.
Adjacent to the statue is a further tribute from his Engineering peers and the Port Authority.
Revered for his genius, he is commemorated, respected and admired particularly in Western Australia, yet is practically unknown in his native Ireland, his home for 21 years, and a land that remained close to his heart for all of his life.
Born on January 11, 1843 at Gravelmount House, Castletown, County Meath, Charles Yelverton O’Connor was named after his maternal grandfather Charles O’Keefe, and his grandmother’s family, the Yelvertons of Cork and Tipperary. His father John farmed around Castletown where the family enjoyed country living in their beautifully appointed three storey residence. John, working both as a magistrate and a farmer, saw the deprivations brought about by the Famine in his locality. It is said locally that he mortgaged all he had to buy grain and food for his deprived and hungry neighbours. He seems to have run out of money as a result of his benevolence, so in 1850 he moved to a small house in County Waterford. Charles was now aged 6 but it is understood that he, together with his younger sister, stayed in Meath with an aunt, John’s sister, Mrs Martha Garnett of Summerseat, near Clonee. When Charles was older he rejoined his family in Waterford where, according to his biographer Merab Tauman, he attended Bishop Foy’s School in Catherine Street. This is disputed in a more recent work by A.G.Evans who says that he was probably educated at the Waterford Academy. In any event, at the age of 17 Charles expressed an interest in civil engineering and was articled to the engineer John Chaloner Smith who was at that time building railways in Ireland. Between 1859 and 1864, Charles was involved in the construction of various rail links, including the Nenagh Extension, and was Assistant Engineer in charge of the construction of several weirs on the River Bann in the North of Ireland. In 1898 he was to write a letter in which he stated it was here on the Bann that he had ”exceptional opportunity of realising the conditions and forces which had to be dealt with in flood time”
On Christmas Eve 1864, C.Y. O’Connor emigrated to New Zealand where immigration and gold discoveries created a demand for big engineering projects. For the next several years C.Y. as he was known, was involved in identification of routes, constructing roads, bridges and railway lines. He created routes up over steep mountains, across raging rivers and deep gorges ,opening up access to the recently discovered goldfields. One of his first projects was the Otira Gorge section of the road to the West Coast goldfields. He was also responsible for several harbour improvements on the rugged west coast, facilitating increasing coal and timber exports from New Zealand. During some twenty-five years in New Zealand he acquired a reputation as a brilliant engineer who understood the wild and challenging terrain. He also enhanced his reputation as an imaginative organiser and leader. Meanwhile, in 1847, C.Y. married Susan Laetitia Ness from Christchurch and together they had eight children, one of whom, a son, died tragically following a scalding accident in their family home. By 1883 C.Y. had become under-secretary for public works, a position he held until 1890 when he was apparently demoted in a reorganization, becoming marine engineer for all of New Zealand. Disgruntled by this, he began to look elsewhere for employment.
In 1891 C.Y. O’Connor was invited by John Forrest the first Premier of Western Australia to become Engineer in Chief for the colony and General Manager of government railways. Western Australia occupies about 1/3rd of the entire vast Australian Continent and at this time had a population of about 50,000. Forrest himself had been an explorer and surveyor. He had a grand vision for the emerging colony with its vast mineral resources,that included a major rail terminus in Perth,the development of Fremantle as the port-of-call for all overseas mail and passenger services and provision of water supplies and essential services to the emerging agricultural communities. C.Y O ‘Connor was the man who would make this vision a reality.
At Fremantle, up to then served only by a long timber jetty, O’Connor carried out meticulous research and calculations and decided that the stone bar obstruction at the mouth of the Swan River could be removed and a large sheltered deep water harbour could be created within budget. The harbour dredging began in 1892; the stone barrier was blasted, land was reclaimed to allow for the quays and warehousing. On May 4,1897 the harbour was officially opened with the SS Sultan, a 2,063 ton steamer steaming into port, marking the beginning of a new era in Western Australia. On July 23rd, 1897 the Prince of Wales, on behalf of Queen Victoria invested O’Connor with the insignia of the order of Companion of St.Michael and St.George, principally in recognition of his outstanding Fremantle Harbour construction project. Since these early days the harbour has seen some changes and has been extended but the basic structure as designed by C.Y. O’Connor remains largely unaltered to this day.
When ‘The Chief’ as he became known, took over as Engineer for the state and General Manager of Government Railways, less than 200 miles of rail was in public ownership and it was operating at a loss. Gold was being discovered in the interior and there was a great need to deliver people and all their needs to remote areas. During the five and half years that he had charge of the railways he oversaw the construction of new lines, standardized and upgraded existing ones, invested in new rolling stock, restructured the maintenance and repair depots and returned the railway to profit. It was while working at the rail maintenance sheds that he became aware of the tough working conditions and poor pay of the men here. While in New Zealand he had also been known for his concern for workers and his leadership abilities. It was said that he was patient and encouraging of new men starting out on their careers, but that while compassionate and understanding he was rigorous in his standards. One of the new young men he appointed as assistant surveyor in Western Australia in 1893 was W.H.Shields, a fellow countryman, who was tasked with identifying water availability (needed for steam locomotives) along the planned railway routes to the parched interior. The discovery of gold in particular at Coolgardie in 1892 and Kalgoorlie in 1893 led to an unprecedented influx of prospectors to these dry arid regions. At this time water was more precious than gold in the goldfields, with thousands of miners often being rationed to a small amount each day, for which they had to pay huge sums of money. Water for washing was simply not available.The problem for The Chief was to supply water to these areas that was fit for human consumption and keep the steam train infrastructure open and performing at full capacity.
C.Y came up with a brilliant and radical plan to supply water to the goldfields. His idea was to dam the River Helena at Mundaring near Perth, lift the water 390 metres over the Darling Range, and pump 5 million gallons a day overground for 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) to the goldfields. By laying the pipe along the railway line and overground, costs could be kept to a minimum and any problems such as leaks could be dealt with rapidly. His spectacular plan was met with disdain and disbelief. Mine owners and local representatives in the goldfields joined with state level politicians in heaping scorn on the plan. Most people thought it sheer madness as it would be the longest pipeline in the world and in any event, the gold might run out and there would be no need of a permanent water supply. Some newspapers were particularly scornful of the proposed cost of 2 million pounds as well as the madness of the scheme, and of O’Connor himself. However, the meticulous O’Connor discussed and shared his plans with his engineer peers in England who commended it. His own engineering credentials and the political prowess of Forrest obtained international investment funds and work commenced. In 1898 a railway line was completed connecting the main Eastern Railway line to the Mundaring Weir site on the Helena River. The dam was built in an age without modern machinery, using the strength of hundreds of men with wheelbarrows and pickaxes, who dug down some 30 metres to create the weir.
John Forrest departed Western Australian politics and became Defence Minister in the federal government. With a change of government in Western Australia, politicians continued to attack O’Connor’s scheme in Parliament at every stage of construction and with increasing hostility. In effect, he became a political football. Enquiries and Select Committees were set up about the caulking or joining of the pipes, whether or not it should be done by hand or by machine, by public workers or private sub contractors. O’Connor – fastidious, meticulous and cost conscious – a sensitive man and a man of honour was deeply troubled by the endless criticism. Newspapers were suggesting that the dam would collapse and inundate all of Perth. The Western Australian Sunday Times was particularly virulent and suggested that he was lining his own pockets from the scheme. In a very nasty article about him in the Sunday Times on February 9, 1902 it was written – ” ..and apart from any distinct charge of corruption this man has exhibited such gross blundering or something worse, in his management of great public works it is no exaggeration to say that he has robbed the taxpayer of this state of many millions of money…This crocodile imposter has been backed up in all his reckless extravagant juggling with public funds, in all his nefarious machinations behind the scenes by the kindred-souled editor of The West Australian.”
On January 22 1903, just five years after work commenced, Pumping Station Number 1 at the Mundaring Weir on the newly created Lake Helena was started up and, with the help of 7 further pumping stations along the route, two days later fresh water flowed into the reservoir at Kalgoorlie. O’Connor’s brilliant plan had worked and not only provided water for the mines and towns along the route of the pipeline and for the steam locomotives that hauled goods and supplies to the area, but also met the needs of a generation of farmers, the pioneers of a new ‘wheat belt’ between the west coast and the eastern goldfields. O’Connor had estimated a cost of 2.5 million pounds for the project and the scheme was delivered at a cost of 2.6 million. The pipeline is still in use to this day, and is one of the great heritage projects of the entire continent.
Missing from the grand opening however was the man himself, for 10 months earlier on March 10,1902 O’Connor penned the following note:
”The position has become impossible
Anxious important work to do and three commissions of enquiry to attend to
We may not have done as well as possible in the past but we will necessarily be too hampered to do well in the imminent future
I feel that my brain is suffering and I am in great fear of what effect all this worry will have on me – I have lost control of my thoughts
The Coolgardie scheme is all right and I could finish it if I got a chance and protection from misinterpretation but there’s no hope for that now and it is better that it should be given to some entirely new man to do who will be untrammeled by prior responsibility
put the wingwalls to Helena Weir at once”
He then rode his horse out to Robb Jetty in Fremantle and there rode into the sea and shot himself.
A subsequent government enquiry into the scheme exonerated him from any wrongdoing and found no basis whatsoever for political or press accusations of corruption or misdemeanour. When his will was published it showed that he had not enriched himself with his brilliant schemes – It showed assets of 298 pounds,which included two horses and a cow valued at 47 pounds, books, jewellery and furniture valued at 215 pounds and salary due to him of 36 pounds. He had liabilities of 189 pounds mostly to merchants for produce and coal.
Charles Yelverton O’Connor is buried in Fremantle Cemetery under a fine Celtic Cross. Those who knew him spoke of a character who was subtle and often aloof, but who was deeply considerate of others, who was fun-loving and witty, gentle and amiable. According to his daughter Kate, ”he was devoted to Ireland and carried Ireland with him everywhere and he was acutely sensitive to the unhappy state of Ireland and the distress of many of his countrymen.” She said he helped many a young Irish lad start a new life in the colonies and always had Irish boys from farms in Ireland to look after his horses, and they lived-in, as part of the family.
A genial, generous giant of a man, sometimes difficult, but whose legacies of the Goldfields Water Supply and Fremantle Harbour in particular stand testament to his brilliance.
One wonders what other ingenious schemes C.Y. O’Connor might have designed had he not been hounded and libeled by press and politicians alike. And isn’t it a shame that the Irish man who conceived and largely implemented one of the world’s greatest engineering projects is relatively unknown in Ireland?
References/Further readingThere are some excellent photographs of the construction of the Pipeline at the website of the National Trust of Australia, Education and Learning site at http://www.valuingheritage.com.au/learningfederation/the_pipes.html The Chief C.Y. O’Connor (1978) Tauman, Mereb, University of Western Australia Press C.Y. O’Connor : his life and legacy. (2001) Evans, A.G., University of Western Australia Press. Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand accessed at tp://www.teara.govt.nz The Australian Dictionary of Biography accessed at http://adb.anu.edu.au/ National Trust of Australia National Library of Australia Trove Newspaper Archive accessed at http://trove.nla.gov.au State Library of Western Australia