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Robert Watson (1822-1891)

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Robert Watson (1822-1891), chief engineer of Victorian Railways, Australia

1851 Living at Dartington Farm, Dartington, Devon: Humphrey Watson (age 71 born Dartington), Farmer of 330 acres employing 15 men. With his wife Harriett Watson (age 60 born Woodlane) and their children; Elizabeth Watson (age 32 born Dartington), wife of master mariner and her daughter Rosa E. Watson (age 1 Month born Dartington); Henry H. Watson (age 30 born Dartington), employed on farm; Robert Watson (age 28 born Dartington), Land Surveyor; George H. Watson (age 26 born Dartington),employed on farm; and Sarah H. Watson (age 16 born Dartington), employed at home. Several servants.[1]

1854 November. Watson left England travelling to Melbourne, Victoria


1891 Obituary [2]

ROBERT WATSON was born at Dartington, near Totnes, Devonshire, on the 21st of November, 1822.

He was educated first at local schools, and subsequently at the Exeter Diocesan College.

He then became articled pupil to the late Henry Symons, of Plymouth, and was connected with the construction of the South Devon Railway, and was also engaged, under the late William Froude, on the Plymouth and Tavistock and the North Devon Railways.

Between 1849 and 1861 he spent a year with an architect in London, and a year with a mechanical engineer, during which time he was connected with the erection of the Hanwell and the Warwick Lunatic Asylums.

In 1852 he joined the staff of Locke and Errington, with whom he was engaged on the Shrewsbury and Aberystwith and the Direct Portsmouth lines.

In November, 1854, he proceeded to Victoria, and on his arrival in Melbourne, almost immediately joined Mr. Darbyshire, Engineer of Construction, then District Surveyor under Government at Williamstown. There was at that time no Railway Department. The surveys were under the control of the Surveyor-General, Captain (now Sir Andrew) Clarke, and Mr. G. C. Darbyshire.

His first work was to lay out the main road from Melbourne to Ballarat, with instructions to examine the country, having in view railway construction at some future time. The levels over this road were the first taken far into the country. The datum was an assumed low-water mark in Hobson's Bay, and the levels for the whole railway system of the colony have been reduced to it.

On the completion of this preliminary work, the railway surveys were commenced, and Mr. Watson at once occupied a prominent position in connection with them. The Geelong and Ballarat Railway, the direct Ballarat line, the Echuca line, the North Eastern and branches, the Gippsland line and branches, many of the lines to the Western District-in fact, all the principal railways of the colony-were surveyed under his direction, and it is a somewhat remarkable fact that the line from Bacchus Marsh to Ballan, now under construction, follows literally the route marked by him about thirty years ago, notably in the difficult part immediately after leaving Bacchus Marsh, where there is an abrupt ascent of 300 feet in a distance of less than a mile.

Mr. Watson, as Resident Engineer, superintended the construction of the Geelong and Ballarat Railway, the Sandhurst and Echuca, the North-Eastern and branches, the Gippsland and branches, and many others.

Having carried out these works in a satisfactory manner, he was granted twelve months’ leave of absence on account of ill health, and visited Europe, accompanied by his wife, who unfortunately died in England. On the expiration of his leave he returned to Melbourne and resumed work in the Railway Department.

In 1878, when political emergency deprived the Government of the services of Mr. Thomas Higinbotham, Mr. Watson became Engineer-in-Chief.

In 1880 a new Ministry expressed a wish to redress what had been regarded as a great injustice and wrong, by re-instating Mr. Thomas Higinbotham as Engineer-in-Chief. Mr. Watson was offered the position of Senior Resident Engineer, without any alteration in the salary he had been receiving, and his position was to be only temporary, as changes were contemplated which would make it possible for him to resume the office of Engineer-in-Chief. However, he elected to retire, and Mr. Higinbotham was re-instated. Shortly after other changes took place, and Mr. Watson was asked whether or not, in the event of Mr. Higinbotham’s resigning, he would be willing to resume the position of Engineer-in-Chief. These overtures he unhesitatingly rejected as unjust and unfair towards Mr. Higinbotham.

Mr. Watson then went on a difficult expedition for the Queensland Government. He explored the country from the East Coast to the Gulf of Carpentaria, with a view to the construction of a railway, and received the highest praise for the manner in which he carried out the enterprise.

Unhappily, Mr. Higinbotham died suddenly, a few months after his re-instatement, and another Engineer-in-Chief was appointed in his place. Mr. Watson was asked in 1882 to return to his former position, which he held up to the time of his death.

To Mr. Watson is due the credit of introducing cheaply constructed railways, and timber bridges, altogether lighter and less costly than those employed in English practice.

He died on the 7th of April, 1891, at the Melbourne Club, of Bright’s disease and congestion of the lungs.

He was elected a Member of the Institution on the 1st of December, 1868.


1891 Obituary [3]




See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1851 Census
  2. 1891 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  3. The Engineer 1891/05/15, p391.