Charles Yelverton O’Connor was an engineer who emigrated to Australia and worked on such projects as Freemantle Harbour and the Goldfield’s Water Supply.
O’Connor was born at Gravelmount, Castletown on 11 January 1843, third and youngest son and fourth child of John O’Connor, farmer and company secretary and Elizabeth (nee O’Keefe). He was educated at home by his aunt initially. In 1850 the family moved to Waterford, where Charles was educated at the Waterford Endowed School. He was apprenticed to John Chaloner Smith, a railway engineer to the Waterford-Kilkenny line, and gained experience in constructing railways in the south and west of Ireland, and water-control works in the north. At the age of twenty one O’Connor emigrated to New Zealand. In 1866 he was appointed assistant engineer in Canterbury Province and following steady promotion he became Under-Secretary of Public Works in New Zealand in 1883. He married Susan Letitia Ness and they raised a family of seven. One of O’Connor’s infant sons died in a tragic accident in New Zealand when a pot of scolding water fell from the stove. In 1890 was appointed marine engineer for the whole of the colony.
In April 1891 John Forrest, premier of Western Australia, offered O’Connor the position of engineer-in-chief. In reply to his inquiry as to whether his responsibilities would cover railways or harbours or roads, Forrest cabled ‘Everything’. In April 1891 O’Connor took up the position of Engineer-in-Chief of Western Australia. He was responsible for the construction of Freemantle Harbour and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme. O’Connor proposed the development of the harbour at the entrance to the Swan river despite opposing expert opinion. Work began on the new harbour in 1892 with the first overseas passenger ship berthing in 1897 and the works being completed in 1903. That same Fremantle Harbour is still in use today, over one hundred years later, though it has had an extension or two since then. The critics were wrong, the harbour did not silted up, and Fremantle is the major port in Western Australia. In 1897 O’Connor was invited to London where he was made a companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by Queen Victoria.
O’Connor was engineer-in-chief of the railways, and new lines had to be built. The number of miles of railway was trebled in the first five years he was in office.
O’Connor constructed the Goldfields Water supply system which carried water 330 miles from Perth to Kalgoorlie. A gold rush in the barren desert area of central; Western Australia caused a population explosion, necessitating a water supply be provided. O’Connor’s proposals were attacked by the press and many Members of Parliament. He was accused of corruption
The attacks in the press resulted in O’Connor committing suicide. O’Connor took his own life on 10 March 1902 by shooting himself, while riding his horse into the ocean at a beach south of Fremantle. The beach where O’Connor died was named after him and a statue of O’Connor and his horse was erected in the water there. Less than a year later the Goldfields Water Supply was commissioned. The system functioned perfectly and continued for some sixty six years before the steam driven engines and pumps were replaced with more modern electrically powered centrifugal pumps. The lake created by Mundaring Weir in the hills near Perth, Western Australia is known as Lake O’Connor.
The best book on his life is Merab Tauman, The Chief, C. Y. O’Connor, 1843-1902 (Perth, 1978).