William Elsdon

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William Elsdon
Born Newburn/Lemington, Northumberland England.
Died 10 March 1904(1904-03-10) (aged 74)
Melbourne, Victoria
Nationality English
Engineering career
Discipline civil engineer
Projects St Kilda railway line Victoria

William Elsdon (c. 1829 – 3 March 1904)[1][2] was an English civil engineer. He was also an architect and railway engineer who worked predominantly on early railways in Victoria, Australia.

Family life and education[edit]

William Elsdon was born c.1829 in Newburn near Lemington, Northumberland. In the 1851 census, he was recorded as a 21-year-old engine-wright, lodging at 6 Orchard Street, St Johns, Newcastle (fol 19 p. 30). His father Robert Elsdon was also an engineer living in Newburn. He was educated at local schools. He married Mary Ann Reid in 1854, at Ovingham. Mary was daughter of William Reid (born c. 1797) of Welton, who was himself a surveying engineer, who in the 1850s was superintendent of Whittle Dene Water Works near Welton, Northamptonshire.[3] They had at least one daughter, Cecilia Reid, who married Edward George, youngest son of the late Douglas T. Kilburn in East Melbourne in 1889.[4]

Training and career[edit]

In the 1850s Elsdon commenced his professional career when he was articled to the English engineering firm of Messrs Robert Stephenson & Co.

He was appointed to the Hobson's Bay Railway company in Melbourne, Australia on 1 May 1854 as their chief engineer, "upon the recommendation of George Stephenson, with whom he served his time as a civil engineer at Newcastle Upon Tyne". He replaced the original engineer, James Moore (who had been considered incompetent) in December 1854. He remained in this post for 25 years and during this time he undertook the designs for the St.Kilda branch line, including three bluestone bridges built in 1857.[5] He also carried out private practice in Melbourne designing a number of civic works including the Fitzroy Gasworks, City Abattoirs and some large public buildings. He took out a patent for the construction of rail and road carriages and improved wheel tires,' and an improvement in railway crossings, adapting them to such carriages in England on 21 September 1863,[6][7] and was elected as a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on 5 April 1870.

Elsdon also undertook the works for linking the Hobson's Bay and Melbourne Suburban Railways in 1865, through construction of a tunnel under Swanston Street, and setting the location for Melbourne's main suburban railway terminus at Flinders Street Station.[8] He also envisaged a connection with the Spencer Street station, initially supervising construction of a ground level branch line in 1879, before the Flinders Street Viaduct was built.In 1871 he took a year's absence due to over-strain in his profession, spending the time visiting England and the continent. On his return he prepared a report on the progress of railways in Europe at the request of the Victorian Government.[1]

He travelled on behalf of the Victorian Railways with Thomas Higginbotham, to England, Europe, Russia and the USA to examine railway construction in these places, and reported that more economical methods could be used to advantage. This ushered in a new phase of construction of the 'light lines', with less elaborate structures, steeper grades and tighter curves to reduce the earthworks required.[9] He was presented with an elaborate silver server set in 1869, in recognition of his contribution to railways in Victoria.

Silver presented to Elsdon on opening of Hobsons Bay line

Following the takeover of the private Hobson's Bay Railway Company by the Victorian Government railway department, Elsdon was appointed general manager and Engineer-in-Chief of the Victorian Railways on the sudden death of Thomas Higginbotham in 1880. During this time he prepared designs for the Rosedale Railway Station in Gippsland.[10] He subsequently retired in 1882 on political grounds during a period of turmoil with the former Engineer-in-Chief Robert Watson being reinstated. Elsdon then became involved in coal-mining at Newcastle, New South Wales, served on several Royal Commissions, filled the role of acting City Surveyor for the City of Melbourne for three years.

Elsdon died in Melbourne on 3 March 1904 at the age of 74.


  1. ^ a b Obituary: William Elsdon, 1830–1904, Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Volume 125, Issue 1904, pages 427–8, Thomas Telford-ICE Virtual Library
  2. ^ "Death of Mr. William Elsdon.". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 11 March 1904. p. 6. Retrieved 28 September 2013. 
  3. ^ Roots Web DUR-NBL-L Archives
  4. ^ Marriage: Kilburn-Elsdon The Argus (Melbourne) Saturday 9 March 1889 p.1
  5. ^ City of Port Phillip Heritage Review Database Railway cutting and road bridges
  6. ^ London Gazette 25 September 1863
  7. ^ John Ayres Mills, the Myth of the Standard Gauge: Rail Gauge Choice in Australia, 1850–1901. Phd. Griffiths University
  8. ^ The Brisbane Courier Thu 19 Oct 1865, p.3
  9. ^ Railway Construction, Report of a trip by Mr Elsdon, VR Commissioner for Railways and Mr. Higginbotham, Victorian Railways Engineer-in-Chief, to England, Europe, Russia and the USA, 1871
  10. ^ Victorian Heritage Register Number H1589


  • Cumming, D.A. Some Public Works Engineers in Victoria in the Nineteenth Century Technology Report No. TR-85/10. August 1985.
  • Lee, Robert. The Railways of Victoria 1854–2004 Melbourne University Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-0-522-85134-2.
  • Harrigan, Leo J. (1962). Victorian Railways to '62. Public Relations and Betterment Board. p. 274.