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Engineer-in-Chief to the New South Wales Government Railways

Some notes on his life and career

John Whitton was born at Foulby, Nr. Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1819. His father was James Whitton, land agent, and his mother Elizabeth Billington. He married c.1856 Elizabeth Fowler, a sister of Sir John Fowler, amongst whose appointments was consulting engineer to the New South Wales Government. He died in February 1898, at his house, Montrose, in St. Leonards, Sydney, NSW, aged 80, and was buried in St. Thomas' Cemetery, North Sydney, NSW. He was survived by his wife, a son and two daughters. His son died in 1901, leaving no heirs.

He was articled to John Billlington (his maternal uncle) for seven years where he gained engineering and architectural experience in preparing plans and tenders for railway construction and waterworks. From 1846-48 he worked for John Hawkshaw, railway engineer, on a number of railway constructions. In 1848 he was engineer, under John Fowler, for the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincoln railway, and from 1852-56 he was Resident Engineer to the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway. He succeeded Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was then involved with building the Great Western Railway.

John Whitton arrived in Sydney, New South Wales, in December 1856 with his wife Elizabeth.He was appointed Engineer-in-Chief to the New South Wales Government Railways at a salary of 1500 pounds a year. When he arrived in Sydney there were 21 miles (34 km) of completed railway. When he retired in 1889; more than 2199 miles (3538 km) were were in use in NSW. He is the acknowledged "Father of the New South Wales Railways".

John Whitton had to resolve a number of contradictory options. One of the first was over horse drawn tramways, favoured by the Governor, Sir William Denison. Whitton opposed this because it would be impossible to work the volume of freight envisaged.

Whitton was a strong supporter of a uniform gauge for all Australian railways, even to the extent at one time of advocating that NSW railways convert to the 5'3" gauge adopted by Victoria and South Australia. New South Wales had originally legislated for 5'3" gauge but changed soon after, in 1853, to 4' 8.5", on advice that the larger gauge gave no advantage and was more expensive to build. He succeeded in keeping all NSW railways to the same gauge.

Amongst his early achievements was instituting a system of account keeping for the locomotive and carriage branches, track maintenance and workshops.

Early railway locomotive were wood fired, which caused damages to passengers clothes and property along the lines. Whitton had alterations made to the locomotives to allow them to burn coal.

There were disagreements over rail and its supply. Most of this was sourced through Sir John Fowler, who acted as Inspector of the railway materials obtained from England. Whitton was accused of favouring his brother-in-law, but was cleared of any impropriety. After Sir John retired tenders were accepted from another company and were found to be of very inferior quality as they had not been manufactured to the specifications laid down. Another rail controversy was over iron and steel rails. In 1880 it was proposed to source iron rail from Lithgow at £10 5s a ton, instead of buying steel ones from England at £7 a ton. Whitton proved that even if the steel cost the same as iron they would be cheaper in the long run as they lasted 6 times longer.

Whitton had a preference for flat grades and gentle curves and made allowance for future duplication. He was often thwarted in these aims as governments were loath to provide for anything more than the minimum. Later much more expensive gradient improvements and duplications were built. They were more concerned with short term costs rather than long term benefits.

Initially iron for bridges had to be imported, which was expensive and the New South Wales Government had resolved that bridges should be of timber. Whitton had to fight for the use of iron every time it was used. Iron bridges proved to be correct when timber needed early replacement. In the Blue Mountains Whitton had to build many viaducts, bridges and other works such as culverts; he used readily available sandstone . For this reason many of these works have survived. For example the Stonequarry Bridge at Picton, with a double track sandstone 5 arch viaduct cost £10,438 not much more that 1/10th the price of the slightly longer iron bridge nearby at Menangle.

When the time came to descend the western escarpment of the Blue Mountains there was a proposal to build a tunnel at least two miles long. This would have required 10 million bricks to line it, an impossible task at the time. There was a financial crisis in 1866, which was solved by loan of 850,000 pounds from London.

During the early part of John Whitton's career in New South Wales he served under the Commissioner of Railways, John Rae, 1861-1870. John Rae was an unusually talented man who also wrote poetry and painted watercolours. One of his paintings is a picture of the Zig Zag Railway soon after it was finished showing Nos. 1 and 3 Viaducts with their surroundings totally bare of vegetation.

John Whitton was succeeded by Henry Deane, builder of the Wolgan Valley Railway, the Zig Zag Railway's closest neighbour.

When you consider the conditions of the period it is not surprising that John Whitton comes over in correspondence and commentaries as a very determined, if not difficult, man. To quote from 'Along Parallel Lines' page 113 (see Bibliography), "If his management style was uncompromising and often harsh, it is to his credit that he was as dour and as abrupt with his superiors as he was with those under him".

John Rae said of him: "I always regarded him as of superior intelligence and matured judgment, and looked up to him as my guide, philosopher and friend, through some 20 years of almost daily communication with him, and never was deceived in the high opinion I had formed of his character. He had a vigorous understanding and was rather conservative in his views. He never courted popularity, and the stern justice of his decisions may have given offence to some persons; but he as a great favourite with all who acted with, or under him, in the railway department, and was most admired by those who knew him best".

Mr. Thomas Mort, philanthropist and benefactor, "Congratulated the colony in having an engineer at the head of its Railway Department, who has not permitted his judgment to be interfered with by any external pressure, or popular attempt to mislead".

John Whitton has rightly been described as "The father of our railway system".

Zig Zag Railway is indebted to Dr. Robert Lee of UWS Macarthur for his help in compiling this page.

Short History | Lineside Guide | John Whitton | Zig Zag Railway Builders | Zig Zag Reserve | Zig Zag Railways Worldwide | Bushfire 1997 | Timeline | Bibliography

Updated 16 November 2008