Charles Yelverton O'Connor
True courage. Determination. Persistence. Visionary. Brilliant. Compassionate. A family man. Yet in the end could not cope with the bitter criticisms of smaller men
A refugee from the Irish potato famine, he was born in Castletown, County Meath, in Ireland in January 1843. He trained as a surveyor with the local railway company, and was very good at what he did. Charles Yelverton O'Connor left Ireland forever at the age of twenty one and set off for New Zealand, where he quickly found employment with the government - first in a surveying team on the North Island, and then as Assistant Engineer in the province of Canterbury on the South Island.
His work was on the wild and rugged west coast of New Zealand's South Island, where he built water supply solutions for the mines. He loved the work, and would work long hours in some pretty tough conditions. When he built a road over the Southern Alps, not only was he working in some very steep and rugged territory, but the rainfall was phenomenal – 120 inches or about 3 metres per year! But the road got built! He was at this stage in his mid twenties.
Harbours feature in his work. He had to prevent some harbours on the west coast of New Zealand from silting up. He achieved this by building massive breakwaters to protect them from the seas coming in from the west. The ports of Westport and Greymouth were developed by him.
By 1883 he had been appointed New Zealand's under-secretary for public works. But this was desk job, and it bored and frustrated him. So when the Premier of Western Australia, John Forrest, wrote to him and asked him to become Chief Engineer for the colony, he was ready. After some argy bargy about the salary, CY O'Connor left New Zealand in 1891, with his family. The New Zealand government did not even pay him all of the retirement allowance that he was due after twenty five years of service!
John Forrest, like all good leaders, knew that when he needed someone to do a job he needed to get the best, and that he had to be prepared to pay him well. He paid – the West Australian Government, actually – O'Connor 1200 pounds per year. The best the Kiwis could offer him was 750 pounds per year! But Forrest had found his man and his man made a profound difference to the future of Western Australia.
O'Connor's influence on Western Australia lies in three main area - railways, harbours, and water. He showed his power for independent thinking, and the courage to follow up on his beliefs, in all three.