Charles Yelverton O’Connor (1843-1902)

Irish-trained civil engineers played a major role in the early history of railway and port construction in Australia and New Zealand.  One of these who had huge impact was Charles Yelverton O’Connor (1843-1902), son of a small Meath landowner whose training and apprenticeship had been on Waterford & Limerick Railway.  He emigrated to New Zealand in 1865 and became one of the most successful public engineers on South Island before being lured to Western Australia in 1891. He had already built up an international reputation.
In the Perth region he oversaw major railway projects and was associated with two highly controversial infrastructural projects – the design and construction of a deep-sea port at Freemantle, and of a water supply for new goldfields some 300 miles into the outback.  Water was key to the exploitation of the vast riches of Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie and neighbouring mines, and despite much political and business opposition the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme came to be recognized as technically elegant and a triumph of ingenuity. The water scheme ran for 328 miles eastwards from a reservoir near Perth and became the longest water-pipeline in the world.  However before its completion O’Connor, overwhelmed by press attacks on his probity, rode into the ocean and shot himself.  He became a posthumous hero, lauded as one of the founders of modern Western Australia; a lake was named in his honour, a great public statue was erected in Freemantle,  and there have been at least six biographies.

Further reading: A. G. Evans, C.Y. O'Connor: His life and legacy (Crawley, W. A.: University of Western Australia Press, 2001); Merab Tauman, The chief: C.Y. O'Connor (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1978); Alexandra Hasluck, C.Y. O'Connor (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1965); DIB.


Picture: Charles Yelverton O'Connor (1843 - 1902), by unknown photographer, 1890s, courtesy of State Library of Western Australia. 003356D