Website Banner. John Monash: Engineering enterprise prior to World War 1.

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Research project

This research project into The Early Engineering Work of Sir John Monash Prior to World War One was conceived at Monash University by Geoff Taplin in 1994. He invited me (Alan Holgate) to join him and we obtained initial grants from the Faculties of Engineering and Arts and the Department of Civil Engineering at the Clayton Campus. These, with additional funding from the Australian Heritage Commission made it possible for Lesley Alves, an historian, to join us during the first phase of the project, when she made a major contribution and balanced our technological approach to the subject. At the end of 1996 I took early retirement, but continued to work on the project on a voluntary basis. Geoff continued as anchor within the University until January 2003 when he moved to consultants Maunsell (now AECOM Australia). Later, he delivered a series of lectures on John Monash's engineering to members of the Institution of Engineers around Australia. He is now retired but continues to teach engineering and remains involved with the project.

Major Sources

Research for this project has drawn on three major sets of archives:

All these archives are extensive. The files at UMA contain engineering calculations, specifications, and drawings, as well as business and technical correspondence and photographs. In 1996 it took five person-months to work systematically through most of the 200-odd boxes at UMA covering 1894-1914, taking notes on documents that seemed most significant on first pass. For each of our subsequent publications, and for these web pages, we returned to examine records for the relevant project in detail, as well as complementary sources such as newspapers and government archives.
Links to selected M&A and RCMPC images may be found on the Melbourne University Library digitised collections website [link].

At NLA there are some 70 boxes containing relevant material. Because most expeditions were self-funded, my research at NLA was limited to twelve weeks' work. The initial priority was to document the more 'saveable' of Monash's extant structures in the hope of obtaining heritage listing, so my approach at NLA was to dip into the files at points in time likely to yield correspondence relevant to a particular structure. Later, it became possible to adopt a more general approach; but significant gaps remain in our coverage of this material. The pace of note-taking was frenetic, often over 12-hour days, increasing the risk of misinterpretation of rapidly-scanned letters. On later expeditions a laptop made it possible to take verbatim extracts for interpretation at leisure and future reinterpretation in the light of growing understanding of the overall picture. Topics that have been skimmed over include J T N Anderson's personal consulting work; his and Monash's early work on behalf of mining and railway companies; design and construction of sewerage and drainage schemes; the design and manufacture of Monier pipes; mechanical engineering consultancy; and registration of patents. Voluminous reports relating to Monash's early arbitration cases and the Riverina dams case have not been studied. Much material concerning Monash's early experiences (Princes Bridge, etc.) is buried in lengthy personal letters to girl-friends, and from his 'Perth period' in letters to his wife, when she was not with him.

The John Thomas collection of original M&A and RCMPC drawings, acquired when the firm was liquidated about 1985, contains some 1,000 drawings. John kindly allowed us to have A3 photocopies made of most of them, the exceptions being on extended loan to other workers. The A3 copies have been lodged with Monash University Archives.

Other Sources

State Library of Victoria

Newspapers, engineering journals and maps were consulted, in print or microfilm, but mainly for information about specific projects. The Building, Mining & Engineering Journal in its various forms is a valuable resource which would have repaid a thorough search, but again it was dipped into only for reports on specific projects.

Public Record Office of Victoria

This was valuable for the records of the Public Works Department of Victoria, especially the letterbooks of Carlo Catani.

University of Melbourne Library

The Proceedings of the Victorian Institute of Engineers, Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, and Institution of Engineers Australia proved valuable, especially those of the VIE. The Australian Architectural Index database, prepared by Professor Miles Lewis and his students, provided further clues (also available here).


At the start of research, contact was naturally made with the Monash and Anderson families, then, after the website was launched, descendants of other leading participants in the enterprises contacted us to offer information and encouragement. These included Mr A. G. Lynch, who kindly allowed me to read two letterbooks relating to periods not covered by those at UMA and NLA, Percy Fairway’s grandson, and John Gibson’s great-niece, who lent me his Cutting Books. Many local historians also contributed information and photographs. These contributions are acknowledged in context within the web pages.

Field expeditions

The research team made many self-funded trips to inspect and photograph the enterprises' extant projects. These included: bridges and water tanks throughout country Victoria; buildings in Melbourne, Ballarat, Adelaide and Launceston; and the Hindmarsh river railway bridge at Victor Harbor, SA.


The project would have been inconceivable without the public spirit of Mr T. A. Lynch who donated the records of the Partnership and Company to the University of Melbourne Archives under Frank Strahan's curatorship; and of Betty Durré who lodged with the National Library Monash's personal records and those business records which he had retained in his own keeping. The research team is grateful to the staff of the University Archives and the National Library for their encouragement and invaluable cooperation, and to John Thomas for preserving and granting access to his collection of the partnership's and company's drawings.

The digital files and documents generated during our research at Monash University have been deposited with the Monash University Archives.