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Thomas Higinbotham

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Thomas Higinbotham (1819–1880), engineer and civil servant, chief engineer of Victorian Railways, Australia

1819 Born in Dublin, the third son of Henry Higinbotham, merchant, and his wife Sarah Wilson.

Educated in Dublin at Castle Dawson School and the Royal Dublin Society House

c1839 Moved to London about initially working for a firm that promoted railway companies, and often appeared before parliamentary committees on railways, then as an engineer on British railroads, where he gained high repute in his profession.

c1838 Moved to London and entered the office of Sir William Cubitt, who was mentor to several Victorian railway engineers. Subsequently he was appointed as assistant-engineer of the South Eastern Railway, between Dover and Canterbury. Afterwards Sir Wm. Cubitt, who was advising engineer to the Great Northern Railway, had him appointed as resident engineer of that railway

1851 Lodging at High Street, Huntingdon: Thomas Higinbotham (age 32 born Ireland), Civil Engineer.[1]

1853 Announcement. 'The New Bridge. We understand that at meeting of the Derry Bridge Commissioners on Thursday last, Thomas Higinbotham, Esq., brother of the Rev. R. Higinbotham, was appointed their Engineer for inspection of the borings in the river, and to report on the site of the new bridge. We believe this gentleman has long been connected with the Great Northern Railway in England, under Sir Wm. Cubitt, and is highly thought of in his profession'[2] Long report published.[3]

1854 February 7th. Elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on 7 February 1854.

1857 He moved to Melbourne, Australia, living with his eldest brother George's household in Melbourne.

1860 became engineer-in-chief of the Victorian Railways replacing the first engineer George Christian Darbyshire. He supervised the surveying and construction of all new Victorian lines and championed various rail improvements including city station locations, construction of Melbourne's outer-circle railway and adaptations to permit unbroken rail traffic between Sydney and Melbourne.

1878 He was removed from office in January 1878 by the Berry government and replaced by Robert Watson but invited by the South Australian, Tasmanian and New Zealand governments to report on their railway systems.

In March 1880 the Service government reappointed him engineer-in-chief of the Victorian railways, but the ministry soon fell and he was unhappy under its successor.

1880 September 5th. He had decided to resign but died in his sleep and was replaced as Engineer-in-Chief by William Elsdon.

He never married.


1880 Obituary [4]



1881 Obituary [5]

MR. THOMAS HIGINBOTHAM was born in Dublin, in the year 1820. He was the third son of Mr. Henry Higinbotham, a merchant of that city. He received a sound general education at Castle Dawson school, near Blackrock, and he afterwards attended the drawing and mathematical classes and lectures at the Royal Dublin Society House, Kildare Street, Dublin, where he acquired the rudiments of his professional education.

About the year 1840 he left Ireland, and entered the office, in London, of Sir William Cubitt, Past-President Inst. C.E., then in the front rank as a Civil Engineer. Shortly afterwards, the railway mania reached its height; Sir William Cubitt’s office was full to overflowing of work of all kinds, and Mr. Higinbotham had opportunities, of which he diligently availed himself, of gaining complete and accurate knowledge of the theory and of the indoor practice of railway construction, and of the proceedings before railway committees of the House of Commons.

He was subsequently appointed assistant engineer on the Ashford and Canterbury branch of the South-Eastern railway; and he again filled a similar position on another branch line in Lancashire.

Having won the approval and confidence of his superiors in these works of construction, he was next promoted to the office of resident engineer on the Huntingdon section of the Great Northern railway, of which Sir William Cubitt was the consulting engineer.

After the completion of this line Mr. Higinbotham practised in London for two or three years, and at the end of the year 1857 he emigrated to Victoria.

Shortly after arriving in Melbourne he was invited by the Government to accept the office of Chief Engineer of Roads and Bridges of the colony. Three years afterwards he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of Victorian railways, and he continued to hold that office until the month of January 1878, when, as a result of the conflict which then took place between the two Houses of the Legislature, and the political excitement which followed thereon, he, together with county court judges, police magistrates, and other officers of high rank in the public service, were all removed from their offices.

His services were sought for during the two succeeding years by the Governments of the adjoining Australasian colonies of South Australia, Tasmania, and Kew Zealand.

In March 1880 he consented, at the request of the Premier, the Hon. James Service, to resume the position of Engineer-in-Chief of Victorian railways; and he continued to hold that office until his death, which happened suddenly on the 5th of September in the same year.

In 1874 Mr. Higinbotham was commissioned by the Government of Victoria to visit Europe and America, for the purpose of studying the railway systems of the principal countries of the world, and of acquainting himself with the latest improvements, whether in construct,ion or in management, that might be found in any of them. He devoted himself zealously to the fulfilment of this mission, and the results of his inquiries, which extended over a period of a year and a half, were embodied in an exhaustive report, which was laid before Parliament.

The railways of Victoria were, at the beginning of the year 1880, 1,182 miles in length. The bulk of these lines were designed and constructed under the superintendence of Mr. Higinbotham, and they are thoroughly sound and substantial in their general character. With the exception of the trunk lines from Melbourne to Sandhurst, from Footscray to Williamstown and to Geelong, and from Geelong to Ballarat, which were designed and partly constructed before Mr. Higinbotham became Engineer-in-Chief, the average cost per mile of the Victorian railways has been £7,212. The uniform gauge of all the railway lines in Victoria is 5 feet 3 inches. Uniformity of gauge has not been adhered to in the adjacent colonies of New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania; and in Queensland, where the gauge is uniform, it is only 3 feet 6 inches. The Government of Victoria, some years ago, proposed that a narrower gauge than 5 feet 3 inches should be adopted for the new and cheaper lines which were then about to be constructed. To this proposal, which was powerfully supported by the newspaper press, Mr. Higinbotham felt it to be his duty to offer the most uncompromising opposition; his official remonstrances, and his evidence given at the bar of the Legislative Council, had the immediate effect of delaying the carrying out of the proposal; and ultimately, after the lapse of a parliamentary recess, Mr. Higinbotham had the satisfaction of finding the Government and the whole community converted to his views on a question which he regarded as of vital importance.

As the permanent head for nearly twenty years of a large department, and chiefly responsible for the prudent and economical expenditure of many millions of money borrowed on public credit for the construction of railways, Mr. Higinbotham earned and generally obtained, in a more than usual degree, the trust and confidence of the Government of Victoria. He was sensitive in regard to his rights and public obligations as a member of the profession of civil engineers, and he never shrank from what he believed to be the duty of clearly expressing and recording his professional opinion, however inconvenient or unpalatable, upon any matter coming within the scope of his official functions as the professional adviser of the Government. But in the administration of a public department he never forgot the duty of submission to the advisers of the Crown under whom he served; and it was his constant endeavour in practice to observe the duty which he conceived that he owed to his profession, and to himself as a member of a profession, as well as that which his official superiors were entitled to claim from him, As an administrator he was strict and vigilant, and at the same time just, and amongst the very many to whom his personal qualities endeared him, there were few who regretted his death more sincerely and deeply than those who served the Crown under him and with him in the public service of Victoria.

Mr. Higinbotham was elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 7th of February, 1854.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1851 Census
  2. Northern Whig - Thursday 14 July 1853
  3. Derry Journal - Wednesday 02 November 1853
  4. The Engineer 1880/12/03, p421.
  5. 1881 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries