Dr John Connell AM
22nd October 1913 - 16th May 2016
The following short article was first published in the
White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.707 of 3rd June 2016
The Three Johns
In the days of early European settlement of Melbourne all machinery and
equipment had to be brought in by boat from elsewhere or you had to make do
with what you could cobble together here. By the time of the gold rush there
was plenty of money flowing around and serious manufacturing was starting to
appear. However, the advanced stuff still had to come from Britain or
When James Harrison of Geelong invented the worldï¿½s first commercial
refrigeration plant, he had to go to Scotland to have parts made to
sufficient precision. His later attempt to ship refrigerated meat to England
failed due to imperfect local workmanship on his refrigeration equipment.
When a major cable tram network for Melbourne was planned, the private
owners decided on the use of the highest quality cable throughout. (Nowadays
they might have decided on quality cable to the node with cheaper unreliable
rope taking the trams the rest of the way at slower speeds.) Australia did
not have the manufacturing capability to produce cable of such quality and
length, so it was brought in from England. As the cable came in one
continuous length it had to be coiled onto a series of horse-drawn drays
which then had to proceed in unison to the destination.
Cable trams served Melbourne well for a number of decades and were gradually
intermixed with the newer electric trams. By the early 1920s, a young boy
from Brunswick would look forward to Anzac Day each year where he was
allowed to take the combination of cable tram and electric tram to the city
to watch the parade. He later told how it was not so much the parade he came
to watch ï¿½ it was to watch
General Sir John Monash taking the salute. He
would arrive early and sit on the ground in his favourite position opposite
Parliament House where he had the best view of the salute.
It was this young boy, also named John, who was to play a part in Melbourne
not being nearly so reliant on overseas engineering skills.
Come World War II and our young lad sitting on the footpath watching the
troops had now become one of them. He served in the Middle East in some of
the toughest places in New Guinea and was quickly promoted to the rank of
During the interim there had been a depression but John Monash had overseen a
state-wide electricity grid (essential for manufacturing) and had pioneered
the use of Monier reinforced concrete in Australia (essential for
The younger John had worked as a junior draftsman before the war and when he
returned he decided to continue his engineering studies at the Working Menï¿½s
College (now RMIT). When his former boss died prematurely in the late 1950s,
John put himself deep in debt in order to buy the business where he once
worked as a draftsman. This was a huge risk. Australians have little
tolerance for failure in business and there were other companies already in
that space. But he now owned a business and before long had put his own name
on it ï¿½ John Connell.
Meanwhile, another John with remarkably similar background had returned from
the war where he had been promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel, continued his
engineering studies and set up his own company. He also put his own name on
the business ï¿½ John Holland.
Australia needed a lot of infrastructure but could the locals compete with
larger companies who could bring in expertise and equipment from overseas?
From the 1960s on, John Connell and John Holland (and a few others like
them) grew their businesses and realised that in the post-war world it was
no longer a matter of business as usual where you tried to make each project
as good as the last one. Now each project had to be better than the last and
this required constant creativity, innovation and superior design. The best
of Australiaï¿½s engineering houses brought people with those skills in-house
and when that was not possible set up overseas relationships. Quality
control in the supply chain was important and so reliable partnerships were
By the 80s, certain Australian engineering firms were not only holding their
own in Australia, they were taking on international projects and punching
well above their weight. The modern engineering house was now established
where big ideas about how we live and the way we could live were being
canvassed. Some of Australiaï¿½s engineering houses had become so successful
on the world stage that they were merging or being subsumed into
multinational organisations that could take advantage of large international
projects and tap into international supply chains and partnerships. Connell
Wagner has been subsumed into Aurecon, John Holland has been bought by the
China Communications Construction Company, GHD has merged with CRA, and SKM
has become part of Jacobs. Australian engineering houses became design and
construction houses and eventually became part of the global industry rather
than small local players.
And through all of this tremendous change, John Holland and John Connell
have been major players.
if people like this can create major international companies from scratch in
a lifetime, imagine what the next generation can do.
John Holland died seven years ago at the age of 85. His company was
responsible for many major bridges around Australia and the construction of
the new Parliament House in Canberra. You can
read what we said of
his contribution in our Newsletter No 316.
John Connell died just over a week ago at the age of 103. His companies were
involved with the construction of the Melbourne Underground Loop, the
Melbourne Arts Centre and Connell Wagner had offices and projects throughout
Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Middle East and England as well as
Australia and New Zealand. He was an active board member on a number of
important Melbourne and Australian institutions.
One of Sir John Connellï¿½s last formal acts was to last month was to present
the John Connell Medal to a younger distinguished engineer, Peter Bowtell ï¿½
a handing over of the baton to another generation. You can see details at
The next generation
Perhaps we should leave the last words to John Connell:
ï¿½We are what we are because of the people who are amongst us ï¿½ I firmly
believe that the first person singular has no place in the grammar of
progress. All achievements are the result of a team effort with every part
of that team performing to his or her utmostï¿½.
Vale Dr John Connell