William Thwaites: the engineer who changed Melbourne
by Rob La Nauze
When William Thwaites died in 1907, the cortege extended for more than a mile and The Argus was moved to comment that "seldom in recent years has there been a larger gathering at a funeral in Melbourne or one more representative of the various interests and institutions in the city".
Yet Thwaites, the first Engineer-in-Chief for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, was quickly forgotten after his untimely death. Thwaites had been nearing completion of the Melbourne sewerage system, at the time the greatest civil engineering project ever undertaken in Victoria, but after his funeral not even the clanking of 100,000 cisterns aroused the grateful citizens of Greater Melbourne to permanently acknowledge their own engineering hero.
Thwaites’s parents, Thomas Henry Thwaites and Eliza Raven, were 15 and 9 years old when they arrived in the colony in the decade after its foundation in 1835. The Thwaites and the Raven families had left behind the deprivations of London, increasing religious dissent and the Chartist uprisings—all of which had a significant impact on their political and religious disposition in the colony.
William Thwaites, C.E., M.A., M.C.E. Probably taken in conjunction with conferring of Master of Civil Engineering degree, University of Melbourne,
11 May 1901
In their new country, they sought a more egalitarian society and preferred the non-hierarchical tenets of the Independent Church. Fresh impetus was given to their beliefs with the arrival of large numbers of gold-seeking immigrants returning from the goldfields to Melbourne. While some miners spent their money as sensationally as they found it, many of the new arrivals, imbued with Chartist ideals, saw Victoria as an opportunity of a different kind. Invigorated, if not enriched, by the gold-rush, they seized the opportunity to create a fairer social order. The small capitalists, businessmen, manufacturers and small landowners gave birth to a form of ‘radical liberalism’ which sought equality, opportunity and change.
William was born into this milieu on the 13 August 1853 in a house in Stephen Street, now Exhibition Street, Melbourne. Given the frequency with which the Thwaites wrote in their correspondences about ill-health and the absence of mention in the case of William, one can conclude that William was a healthy, robust child. Around 1858, William’s family moved to his grandparents’ place above the family cabinet-making business at 64 Little Collins Street East. Thomas Henry Thwaites eventually took over the cabinet-making business whose high-quality furniture is still highly prized to-day.
Born into the gold-rush decade, William and his two sisters, Louisa and Elizabeth Mary were forced to look both ways at once - backwards to the old world, its standards and values, and forwards to the new society where their futures lay. They were not constrained by a pre-determined social hierarchy and their religious affiliation encouraged inquiry and debate - a critical advantage when growing up in an era of social and technological change.
Thwaites commenced his education at the Victorian Grammar School run by the Independent Church. He then attended the National Model School in Spring Street. Thwaites had an outstanding record at school, matriculating in 1869 and proceeding to Engineering and Arts at the University of Melbourne. He was awarded the first Argus scholarship and graduated with distinction.
Thwaites was one of the first engineers whose education was provided totally within the Colony of Victoria. With the emergence in the late 1870s of University-trained engineers, the colonists gradually came to appreciate their contribution to colonial society. Patronage and apprenticeship was giving way to the professional engineer.
In assisting this transition, William Thwaites played a leading role not only in the single-minded application of the latest engineering knowledge to Victorian infrastructure but also in assisting in the development of a professional ethos and training through his role on the University Council and the Council of the Working Men's College.
Thwaites’s professional career started as a pupil draughtsman in the Victorian Railway Department, overseen by the influential Thomas Higinbotham. He then worked for the South Australian Railway Department. During this time, he married Elizabeth Ferres, the daughter of the Victorian Government Printer. Their marriage was a happy union and though Thwaites died childless, they had adopted a daughter Elsie May in 1886.
William and Elizabeth (née Ferres) Thwaites: Christmas Day 1885
On returning to Melbourne in 1879, Thwaites joined the Public Works Department where he made his first lasting impact on Melbourne, which at the time was suffering from severe drought. In 1881, Thwaites discovered and surveyed the northerly-flowing Wallaby Creek system and supervised its diversion to the south side of the Great Divide into the Yan Yean catchment - such was Melbourne’s need for water that work on surveying and clearing for the Thwaites-designed aqueduct commenced immediately. Thwaites went on to design the Toorourrong Reservoir and clear water channel that still, to-day, feeds into Yan Yean reservoir.
Wallaby Creek Channel with Channel Cleaner
In early 1883, Thwaites was promoted to Engineer of Roads, Bridges and Reclamation. Undoubtably, his more important contributions during this period were in the area of swamp clearage, not only in Melbourne but also in country Victoria. Thwaites was principally responsible for reclamation projects which drained swamps for farming land at Condah, Kooweerup and Moe. He was also responsible for swamp drainage schemes in Port Melbourne, South Melbourne, Elwood, North Melbourne and Flemington.
The motivation for filling the suburban wetlands was the removal of what was euphemistically known as ‘nuisances’; the swamps were the natural drainage points for the polluted streets and watercourses. Some politicians and businessmen had other incentives - they were the land speculators. Although many of their intrigues were hidden at the time, the manipulation of public expenditure towards personal gain cannot have made the job of a conscientious public servant such as Thwaites any easier.
During the 1880’s, river ‘improvements’ removed the Falls (opposite Market/Queen Street) and the Yarra became tidal up to Dight’s Falls, some 5 kilometres further inland. The Yarra was used to water the city’s famous Botanic Gardens and, as a consequence, its newly acquired saltiness seriously threatened the Garden’s survival. After much inaction, with plants withering, the gardens were saved when Government at last implemented Thwaites’s scheme to pump fresh water from Dight’s Falls to the gardens - a system which lasted well into the twentieth century.
In 1889, as the citizens sank into a mire of waste and the incidence of infectious diseases rose alarmingly, Thwaites presented a detailed plan for Melbourne’s drainage to a Royal Commission on Sanitation.
This was not an abstract proposal but a remarkably detailed scheme allowing for the topography of Melbourne and using information that Thwaites had amassed across the metropolis on rainfall and other design parameters gleaned from his up-to-date and extensive private library.
However, a colonial solution was unacceptable: prevailing orthodoxy required a British engineer to evaluate Melbourne’s sewerage needs and recommend their solution. Consequently, an English expert, James Mansergh, was engaged and his recommendations were the starting point for action in 1891 by the newly formed Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.
Thwaites was chosen for the position of Engineer-in-Chief of the MMBW, despite the reticence of some Members of the Board to endorse locally trained engineers and the general pervasive undercurrent that ‘home’ engineers where somehow superior. However, the choice of Thwaites was inspired. Dedicated, hard working and a master of facts and figures, he was the right choice for the over-due and monumental task of planning and constructing the sewerage system for Melbourne.
Section of official party at the Turning of the First Sod on the banks of the Werribee River, on 19 May 1892, by His Excellency, Lord Hopetoun, to his left FitzGibbon is holding a cane and Thwaites looks over FitzGibbon's left shoulder
Thwaites immediately analysed the schemes that had been submitted by Mansergh and proceeded to convince the MMBW to abandon Mansergh’s recommended scheme and to adopt an alternative, simpler scheme that in all essential aspects was identical to the scheme he had proposed to the 1889 Sanitary Commission. There were compelling technical reasons to do this. Thwaites’s changes not only led to lower capital and operating costs but also removed a design fault in Mansergh’s scheme that would have led to embarrassing blockages.
Thwaites’s role was made harder by machinations amongst Municipal representatives on the Board as well as through disagreements between the Board and the Victorian Government.
As the land-booming period came to an end and Victoria’s economy plummeted, the MMBW came under pressure to curtail its plans. Yet Thwaites and his Chairman Edmund FitzGibbon, both dedicated to improving Melbourne, stood firm.
Despite difficulties in raising loans, major construction challenges and personal attacks from within the Board, Thwaites approached the task with passion. Steadily the scheme progressed with the thorough, unflagging Thwaites leading all aspects of the work.
Iron tube crossing River Yarra showing the tube placed in position for lowering, just before the break took place, 25 April 1897. Thwaites centre foreground facing camera with top hat
He gained the support of the Government, the Board and many contractors who respected his objectivity, integrity and fairness. His written output was prolific; in addition, Thwaites gave innumerable public lectures on the scheme as it progressed from suburb to suburb across the metropolis. He answered his critics in person and appeared, usually at some length, at parliamentary inquiries and Royal Commissions that arose during the first decade of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.
Thwaites and his team were also responsible for all the detailed designs. Meticulous plans were drawn up by his staff and signed off by Thwaites for various standard combinations of connections to domestic and commercial properties.
The actual task of connecting the dwellings and the buildings of the metropolis was immense. By insisting that construction met strict standards throughout, Thwaites was able to ensure the integrity of the system as a whole. He adopted the same quality-control strategy in the procurement of materials, including stoneware and earthenware pipes, pans, bricks, flushing cisterns, traps and gullies. Even complete weatherboard buildings were purchased for water-closets.
Thwaites and his assistant, Calder Oliver, had made sure that standards for cement, stone, bricks, sand, stoneware pipes, and metals were adhered to and the Board in many cases purchased raw materials of known quality to supply the manufacturers of the pipes.
Men working on No. 6 Section, North Yarra Main, showing timbering in excavation area and brick lining in background
By 1907 nearly 940 miles of reticulation sewers and 100 miles of main and branch sewers had been laid servicing 91,272 homes and 19 public conveniences and 44 public urinals. Connected to the sewerage system were 102,260 water closets, 70,719 baths, 52,284 sinks, 44,003 and 69 sets of wash troughs, 21,460 lavatories, 9835 stables, 6508 urinals, 2,776 polluted areas and paved yards, 1589 cellars, 839 slop hoppers, 199 latrines and 168 dairies.
However, before the MMBW could collate this information, William Thwaites was ‘seized with illness’, contracted pneumonia and, no doubt exhausted from years of meticulous and sustained effort, had slipped into a coma and died on 19 November 1907.
Assessment of William Thwaites’s contribution has inevitably centred on his undeniable role in guiding the construction of the Melbourne sewerage scheme that served the citizens well beyond the initiators’ wildest expectations. The system operated unchanged and relatively trouble-free until the 1960s, more than 20 years beyond its design life.
Dedicated, hard working and a master of facts and figures, Thwaites was a brilliant choice for the position of Engineer-in-Chief. However, in making the changes to Mansergh’s recommended scheme so as to ensure an operable system, Melbournians have much to thank William Thwaites for. As such he can rightfully be named as the designer of the Melbourne sewerage scheme. But Melbournians owe him a deeper debt in the role he played in saving the Botanic Gardens, in swamp clearing and securing its water supply.
Dingle A and Doyle H, Yan Yean: A history of Melbourne’s early water supply, Public Records Office Victoria, 2003
Dingle A and Rasmussen C, Vital Connection: Melbourne and its Board of Works 1891-1991, Penguin Books, 1991.
Dunstan, D, Governing the Metropolis: Melbourne 1850-1891, Melbourne University Press, 1984
Acknowledgement: The support of Melbourne Water is gratefully acknowledged.
After obtaining a PhD from the University of Melbourne, Robert La Nauze undertook post-doctoral research at the University of Cambridge. Returning to Australia in 1979 he joined the CSIRO rising to Chief of the Minerals Division. La Nauze has published extensively on specialist engineering subjects. Now, well into his second career, he is an exhibiting contemporary landscape artist. He was President of the Australian Guild of Realist Artists from 2006 to 2009. His interest in William Thwaites arose from Thwaites' documents left to his wife. His biography on William Thwaites will be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in April 2011.