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William Christopher Bennett

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William Christopher Bennett (1824-1889)

1890 Obituary [1]

WILLIAM CHRISTOPHER BENNETT, eldest son of Ignatius Bennett, of Rathmines, Co. Dublin, was born on the 4th of July, 1824. He was articled to Mr. P. Griffin, who was then managing the completion of the boundary survey of Ireland, under Mr. (afterwards Sir Richard) Griffith, Bart. Mr. Bennett was employed on territorial and railway surveys for local works and measurement of artificers’ works until the year 1845. At this period he was employed in the field on the survey of the proposed line of railway from Limerick to Belfast, the longest line at that time projected in Ireland; and was charged with the preparation of the plans at the office in Dublin.

Early in 1846, he entered the service of the Irish Board of Works in the Drainage Commission, and was employed on surveys and works of the Kennlan Talka and Inmy districts; but in 1847 he was transferred to Mayo, when he took charge of the Castlebar and other lakes in the Mullafarry and Balla districts, under Mr. Frederick Barry, and executed some very important works in a highly satisfactory manner, eliciting on several occasions the warm approval of Colonel (afterwards Sir H. D.) Jones, with Mr. Commissioner Mulvany, who remarked in a jocular way when inspecting the works, “You will be a Commissioner, Mr. Bennett, yourself some day.” And his prediction has been fulfilled.

Mr. Barry, his chief, to whose great kindness he always attributed his advances in life, at this time became a warm friend; and on one occasion, for several months Mr. Bennett acted as District Engineer, in charge of all the drainage works in Mayo, having four or five thousand men under him when only twenty-two years of age.

On the completion of the drainage works in Mayo, he was offered by Sir C. Fox, through Messrs. Lionel Gisborne and H. C. Forde, an appointment to proceed to New Grenada to report on the navigation of the Dfagdalena River, and on its connection with the sea at Savanilla and Cartagena, where a canal had been made by Colonel G. M. Totten, Chief Engineer of the Panama Railroad. Mr. Bennett had also to report on the best means of connecting the head of the navigation with the capital Bogota. On this service, he was assisted by Captain Ellis, of the Royal Navy, and performed the duty in a manner which gave great satisfaction.

Before proceeding to South America, he visited France, and passed some time on the Rhone and Saone, so as to make himself acquainted with the mode of navigating these rivers, the boats upon which were at that time some of the largest in the world.

On his return to England from South America, he was engaged, in conjunction with Mr. Gisborne, in the preparation of plans for a proposed embankment of the Thames, preserving all the rights of the frontages. This project did not, however, go further than the depositing of the plans; at the completion of which, he went to assist Mr. Barry with his plans of the Northern and Western railways of Ireland.

At the end of 1853 Mr. Bennett again sailed with his friends, Messrs. Gisborne and Forde, for the Isthmus of Darien. While there he had charge of the surveys on the Pacific side, Mr. Forde having to remain at Panama owing to a serious illness. Mr. Bennett executed fully all the surveys and explorations entrusted to him, surveying and levelling by himself a large tract of country towards the Chuqunaque River; having no companion through that hostile country but black chainmen. He also assisted to bury some men belonging to H.M.S. “Virago,” under the command of Captain (now Admiral) Prevost, who were shot by the Indians while he was there; and afterwards accompanied Lieutenant Forsyth in the boat of the "Virago,” up the Chuqunaque River for the rescue of Lieutenant Strain, of the United States Navy, and his missing party, in which they succeeded; and for this service, Mr. Bennett received the thanks of the American Government through the Secretary of the United States Navy. He was the last man of the expedition to leave the Isthmus, but he suffered in health from exposure to the climate.

After a few months’ rest, Mr. Bennett determined on breaking new ground at the Antipodes, and left England for New Zealand in 1854, where he made only a short stay, but had the experience of an earthquake which took place at Wellington in January 1855.

He then determined to return to England, via Sydney; but, on calling on Sir Thomas L. Mitchell, then Surveyor-General there, he was induced by that gentleman to enter the survey department of New South Wales, with the view of ultimately obtaining employment on the public works of the Colony.

On the death of Sir Thomas, about nine months after Mr. Bennett’s engagement, he left the survey department, having been appointed Assistant City Engineer under Mr. Edward Bell, which position he held with that officer until December 1856, when the Sydney Municipal Council Bill was passed, which abolished the offices of the three commissioners under whom the control of the city had been previously placed.

In 1857 he obtained an appointment under Mr. John Whitton, the Engineer- in-Chief for Railways in New South Wales; and was placed in charge of the Campbelltown railway extension, where he remained until 1868, when he was selected by Captain (afterwards Colonel) Martindale, R.E., then Commissioner for Internal Communication, to superintend the repair of a large bridge at Bathurst, which had been injured by floods. Captain Martindale was so pleased at the manner in which this work was completed that he offered to recommend Mr. Bennett for the position of Engineer to the Roads Department, and he was appointed to this office (just created) from the 1st of January, 1859. He remained in this office until 1861, when he resigned with his chief, Captain Martindale; though, at that time, he was offered the commissionership of roads by the Hon. W. M. Arnold, M.L.A., then Minister for Public Works.

Mr. Bennett’s intention was to proceed to India, where he had long wished to go; but on his arrival in England, he found that he was beyond the age fixed for official appointments. He therefore arranged to return to Sydney, where he arrived in February 1862, after an absence of only twelve months.

After a short engagement, again under Mr. Whitton, in the Railway Department, he received the appointment of Commissioner and Chief Engineer to the Roads Department, which he retained until his retirement from the public service on a pension from the 1st of July, 1889.

On the 6th of June, 1868, in addition to his other onerous duties, he became an additional member of a Commission appointed on the 24th of September, 1867, to inquire into the provision for a supply of water to the city of Sydney and suburbs.” An elaborate report was made and presented to Parliament, recommending the adoption of a scheme, the first suggestion of which was made by Mr. Bennett, for bringing the water from the Cataract River, on the surface of the country; but this proposal was modified and improved on by Mr. Moriarty.

In April, 1869, he was appointed to serve on a commission “to inquire into and report respecting floods in the district of the Hunter River”; and also acted on commissions “to report on the management and supply of water to the western goldfields,” and "upon the adoption of a narrow-gauge railway to Mudgee.” The latter commission, chiefly at his instance, reported against any break of gauge, preferring to recommend the completion of the macadamization of the 80 miles of road, which was carried out and completed within two years by the Roads Department.

Many other important works of water-supply, wells and tanks on long lines of road in the interior were carried out under his supervision. Up to the end of 1888, the total length of main roads, metalled and gravelled, was nearly 6,000 miles, in addition to nearly 4,000 miles of unmetalled roads; and about 40 miles of bridges had been constructed, many of them the largest in the southern hemisphere.

Mr. Bennett was for some time a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and for two years acted as a member of its Council. He carried out and completed, shortly before his death, the grand scheme for the main sewerage of the city of Sydney and eastern suburbs, now in operation; and for nearly two years, just prior to his retiring from the Government service, he acted as a member of the Board of Sewerage and Water Supply, which department was established principally upon his suggestion and recommendation. He was a most conscientious and upright man, an energetic worker, a strict disciplinarian in his department, and fearless and impartial in the administration of his public duties.

About the month of March he had an illness, caused by failure of action of the heart, when his medical adviser urged him to give up the heavy duties he was performing; but being desirous of seeing the completion of some important works then in hand, he continued on until the month of June, at which date he became so seriously ill that he sent in his resignation, and retired on his well-earned and ample pension, while the Government, in recognition of his able services in carrying out the city and suburban sewerage works, submitted to Parliament a vote on the Supplementary Estimates for 1888 of £2,700, as a gratuity for the supervision of this gigantic work, which was readily granted. Unfortunately, he did not long survive these advantages, and from the date of his retirement was scarcely able to leave his bed.

His death took place on the 29th of September, 1889.

Being of a genial disposition, and possessing the inestimable quality of friendship, he has left many true friends to remember him, while his works will stand for generations as monuments of his ability and great labour. To Mr. Bennett is generally accorded the reputation of being one of the ablest engineers in Australia. A former colleague writes:-

"Our late chief, Mr. W. C. Bennett, . . . was a man of singular ability, prodigious energy, and untiring industry. Having been associated with him for the last nine-and-twenty years I can testify to his worth . . . The immense department which has grown up under Mr. Bonnett’s control, and the work it has done, will probably not be chronicledt ill it, like he, has broken down under the strain, increasing as it does from year to year. Both have done their work nobly and well; both deserve the honour not always accorded where most merited."

Mr. Bennett was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 19th of May, 1857, and was transferred to the class of Members on the 16th of February, 1864.

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