CHARLES YELVERTON O'CONNOR
1843 - 1902
O'Connor was Engineer in Chief for the state and was responsible for the development of Fremantle harbour and much of the state's early railway network, but it was the Kalgoorlie water pipeline that was to be his greatest success - even though he did not live to see it.
Charles was born in Gravelmount, Castletown, county Meath, Ireland on the 11th of January 1843. He was the third son of John O'Connor and his wife Mary Elizabeth.
Initially he gained his working experience articled to John Chaloner Smith, engineer on the Waterford-Kilkenny railway. He worked in railway construction in the south west of Ireland and in water-control works in the north.
Soon after graduating, O'Connor moved to New Zealand (1865) where he was responsible for the construction of roads and bridges. After 7 years he was appointed District Engineer for Canterbury and in March 1874 (one source quotes 1873) he married a Scottish woman named Susan Laetitia Ness at Holy Trinity Church in Avonside.
O'Connor's work in New Zealand was very demanding. The nature of the terrain meant that the construction of roads and bridges was no simple matter. The work he did there provided a great depth of experience that was to serve him well in his later career.
After 18 years in New Zealand he was offered the position of Under Secretary for Public Works. This meant giving up his practical engineering work and becoming an administrator. O'Connor accepted the position and moved to Wellington and was there from 1883 to 1890. In 1890 O'Connor's job was amalgamated with that of the Chief Engineer and O'Connor was offered the position of Marine Engineer, despite the fact that he was better qualified for the newly created position.
An economic down-turn in New Zealand and a change of Government left O'Connor feeling insecure about the future.
Meanwhile in far off Western Australia, the newly elected Premier John Forrest was looking for people to fill important positions in the independent colony. Initially he tried to attract H.S. Mais (former Chief Engineer of South Australia) to the position of Chief Engineer but Mais was already in private practice and did not want the problems of re-organising a new department. Mais was already making some 1,800 pounds a year and the Government salary of 1,250 was hardly going to be an inducement.
At a conference in Sydney, Forrest first heard the name O'Connor. Being very impressed with what he was told about O'Connor, Forrest offered him the position of Chief Engineer but at a salary of only 1,000 pounds. O'Connor turned this down and the offer was raised to 1,200.
By the time he left, O'Connor had spent some 26 years in New Zealand, but the final two had been filled with disappointment and frustration and it was this more than anything else that probably made up O'Connor's mind to move.
In May 1891 Charles Yelverton O'Connor was appointed Engineer in Chief for the independent colony of Western Australia. New Zealand's loss was our gain.
He was immediately 'in the deep end' when he arrived. Work had piled up and urgent requests to get the railways and Fremantle port sorted out were already filling his 'in tray' when he first sat down behind his desk.
O'Connor was the 'new boy in town' and he had a lot of responsibility and a lot of power when it came to handing out contracts for public works. There was an established 'old boys network' in Perth and a strong distrust of 'tothersiders' and anyone not from the local establishment.
O'Connor brought in staff that he knew and trusted, men who had worked for him in New Zealand. His choice was made because these were men he knew he could rely on and there was simply no one in W.A. with the experience or the qualifications to fill the positions. ( H.W. Venn - Minister for Railways - defended O'Connor's choice of staff and was to stand by the Chief Engineer for as long as he remained Minister.) O'Connor's choice of staff was seen by local interests as favouring outsiders over locals and when O'Connor started handing out contracts based on the best price, rather than on who was tendering, feathers got even more ruffled. The fact that one of the first contracts went to the Wilkie Brothers (New Zealanders) infuriated a number of people. In reality, theirs was the lowest tender, 13,000 pounds less than the nearest tender and they completed the job 9 months early.
Although John Forrest was always one of O'Connor's staunchest allies, his brother, Alexander Forrest was strongly critical of the new Chief Engineer. In one tirade directed at O'Connor, Alexander said:
'...in ten years time we may as well hand over the whole colony to this gentleman from New Zealand who will no doubt show us how to spend our money!'
Alexander went on to falsely claim (under Parliamentary privilege) that O'Connor had been dismissed in New Zealand. Later Alexander was forced to admit that O'Connor had a beneficial impact on the state's railways and they had 'greatly improved.'
Fremantle Harbour was his first major undertaking and it took five years to complete. The original proposal was for a harbour to be built some distance south of the mouth of the Swan River at Owen Anchorage. This was neither practical in the long term or even safe in the short term. Originally even John Forrest favoured this location but slowly his mind was changed as O'Connor presented the facts relating to the long term viability of the harbour. When the motion for Owen Anchorage was defeated in Parliament, John graciously accepted the advice from O'Connor and put his weight behind that project.
During the harbour project there were more claims that O'Connor was filling positions with too many New Zealanders. When this was checked (by H.W. Venn) there were found to be only 11 New Zealanders out of a work force of 173.
On May 4th 1897 the ship 'Sultan' was the first to enter the new harbour. When the harbour work was completed it came in 20,000 pounds under budget.
Few people are aware of it today, but a rock bar across the entrance to the Swan River prevented it being used as a harbour and most ships were using Albany as the main port until the rock bar was removed and a harbour facility developed at Fremantle. Over 1 million cubic feet of rock were removed from the rock bar and most of it ended up being used in the north and south moles.
O'Connor's attention was next diverted to the state of the railways in Western Australia. Prior to his arrival the 188 miles of track and rolling stock managed to operate at a loss for 9 out of 12 years. Shortly after O'Connor arrived the railways became profitable and remained so for a long time. A further 400 miles of track was laid during the next 5 years. Although he was eventually to give up administration of the railways (something he was quite grateful for, O'Connor continued to be involved in planning new routes and in maintaining existing lines.
History tells us that O'Connor first suggested the idea of a pipeline to the goldfields in 1895 (1) but opposition was so strong that it took until 1898 to get approval. Even when the project finally got under way he was subjected to public ridicule (mostly by the press - nothing has changed there!) and it was the unrelenting pressure that led to his suicide in 1902. It is now well known that the pipeline was completed the following year and the supply of fresh water guaranteed the survival of not only Kalgoorlie but many other towns along the pipeline's route.
O'Connor was not to know it at the time, but the dismissal of H. Whittal-Venn by John Forrest in 1896 was the first gathering of clouds on his horizon. He had lost an important ally and would lose more before having to face the storms ahead alone.
The scheme to build a pipeline 329 miles from Mundaring to Coolgardie was an astounding one. Mundaring sits just 340 feet above sea level while Coolgardie is 1400 feet above sea level. Water would have to pumped up hill most of the way. The project was massive both in engineering terms and in terms of what it would cost. If successful, it would undoubtedly make the engineer responsible for it world famous.
O'Connor was said to be too keen to make a name for himself and was putting the state into debt to get the project accepted and make himself rich. He was criticised for understating the rainfall in the goldfields and for not considering other ideas like dams. The fact was that the rainfall figures he presented turned out to be correct and he had considered dams but the rainfall was too low, the evaporation rate too high and the ground unsuited to holding water.
Charles submitted plans for the water scheme to a panel of experts in London in 1897, where 3 British engineers commended the scheme as 'entirely practical'. Despite this, opposition to the pipeline continued in W.A.
New claims that the pipeline was not O'Connor's idea are backed up by O'Connor himself who tried to distance himself from the popular belief that he was he originator of the idea. In view of this, the Sunday Times, that went on to hound poor O'Connor to his untimely death, writing articles about 'O'Connor's fancy project' had an awful lot to answer for.
In one libellous attack The Sunday Times wrote of O'Connor:
'this Shire Engineer from New Zealand has absolutely flourished on palm grease, this man has exhibited such gross blundering, or something worse in his management of great public works, that it is by no means exaggeration that he has robbed the taxpayers of this State out of millions'
In 1901 when John Forrest left state politics to join the Federal arena and Minister for Defence, he asked O'Connor to compile a report on a transcontinental railway line from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta, South Australia. On 19 May O'Connor presented the plans and estimates. In 1902 O'Connor went to South Australia to advise the government there on an outer harbour for Adelaide. All the while the criticism in W.A. continued.
Claims that O'Connor was corrupt or profited in any way from his office have since been proven to be total fabrications. When He died he was a poor man and but for a small life insurance policy, his family would have been destitute.
With an incredible work load, heavy responsibility and continuing pressure from his critics, O'Connor's mental health began to suffer. This brilliant professional man who had achieved so much now began to question his ability to complete the work. He had difficulty at times doing simple sums, would fall silent or switch topics during conversations and showed all the signs of falling into a deep depression. His allies, Venn and John Forrest had moved on, even his doctor - who may have been able to avert disaster - was away.
On the 8th of March 1902 a successful preliminary pumping test of six miles of the water main that ran over the most difficult part of the route was carried out. A small leak was found near Chidlow's Well and O'Connor had arranged to visit and inspect the pipe on the following Monday.
Apparently the mounting pressure and lack of support had simply become too much for O'Connor to bear. Attacked at every turn and facing one enquiry after another his spirit finally broke. He took his horse and rode along the beach near Robb's Jetty then shot himself with a pistol. The following note was found on his desk:
'The position has become impossible.
O'Connor is obviously in turmoil and this amounts to a suicide note, but even in his final words: 'Put the wing walls to Helena Weir at once' he is still concerned that the work is to carry on to completion. What a tragic loss to the state. Even worse was the fact that O'Connor's daughter Bridget, who usually accompanied him on his morning rides, had not been feeling well that fateful day and did not go with him. She blamed herself for his death for the rest of her life.
The wicked slander sheet (The Sunday Times) was unrepentant even after they hounded O'Connor to his grave, writing:
'No honourable, strong minded man is afraid of the strongest public criticism.'
At the opening of the Kalgoorlie pipe-line (24 January 1903) John Forrest is quoted as saying: 'I pay tribute to the memory of O'Connor, the great builder of this work . I am greatly saddened that he did not live to receive the honour so justly due to him.'
Not only was Charles Yelverton O'Connor's death a tragic loss to his loving family, it was surely a great blow to the state. In hindsight we can see that O'Connor always conducted himself in an honourable, professional manner. His projects were of immeasurable benefit to Western Australia and today he is honoured for his achievements. The electoral division of O'Connor was named after him.
The saddest part of this tragic tale is the fact that had he waited just ten short months, he would have seen the water reach the goldfields, he would have seen the benefits Fremantle harbour brought and he could have lived out his life with his family happy in the knowledge that he had done his new found home proud.
Two of Charles' three surviving sons became engineers and two of his four daughters married engineers.
Today if you visit the beach near the site of Rob's Jetty you will see, out in the ocean, the figure of a horse and rider. The rider is slightly turned and looking back at the shore. This is the place where O'Connor is said to had taken his life. The statue has an un-nerving haunting quality that reminds us of a tragedy that happened here so long ago. Another monument to O'Connor was constructed in Fremantle in 1912. It stands at the entrance to the Port Authority buildings and from high on a plinth, Charles looks deep in thought as he ponders what we have done in his absence. I hope he is not disappointed.
Many people now know about the tragedy of Charles Yelverton O'Connor and how his was driven to suicide by stress and press reports that were outright lies. Few know of another claim that his was 'sung' to death by Aboriginal tribes who were angry about the removal or the rock bar at Fremantle.
The rock bar restricted the flow of salt water into the Swan River and was a popular place for the Aborigines to gather and spear fish. When the bar was removed they lost access to this important food source and apparently put a curse on O'Connor. When he took his own life the Aborigines believed that their magic had worked.
Belief in spirits and magic was (and in some cases still is) very strong among the Aborigines and in their culture, being 'sung' was an effective death sentence. There are reports that those who knew this had happened to them would simply give up and go away to die.
1843 - Born in Gravelmount, Castletown, county Meath, Ireland on the 11th of January.
1865 - Moved to New Zealand.
1870 - Became county engineer.
1870 - Became district engineer for Canterbury province.
1874 - 5 March. Married Susan Laetitia Ness. (One source says 1873 but appears to be incorrect.)
1880 - Moved to Dunedin to become inspecting engineer for the South Island.
1880 - Elected to the Institution of Civil Engineers, London.
1883 - Takes the position of Under Secretary for Public Works.
1891 - Appointed Engineer in Chief for the independent colony of Western Australia.
1892 - Inauguration ceremony for the work on Fremantle harbour.
1897 - Appointed C.M.G..
1898 - Government signs approval for the goldfields pipeline.
1902 - 8th March. First pumping test on a section of pipeline is successful.
1902 - 10th March. O'Connor ends his own life.
1903 - 24th January. Water begins flowing from the pipeline in Kalgoorlie. It has done so ever since.
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