O’Connor’s Departure Ride Echoes Through 122 Years of WA History

O’Connor’s Departure Ride Echoes Through 122 Years of WA History

Golden Pipeline No1 Pump Station

We honour the legacy of Western Australia’s first Engineer-in-Chief. Join us on a historical voyage, retracing the steps of his departure, and the days that followed as we preserve and illuminate this pivotal chapter of our states history

  • 10 March 1902 – The death of a visionary!

    Making his way towards the stables of his Fremantle home around 6am on 10th March 1902, CY O’Connor could tell it would be another stifling hot day. Even so he was determined to go on his regular early morning ride despite daughter Bridget, who usually accompanied him, calling off due to feeling unwell.

    O’Connor called to his groom ‘Arthur, I want this horse early this morning. I want to catch an early train’. O’Connor was due to catch the 9am train from Perth to inspect a leaking joint at Chidlows Well in the Perth Hills.

    The Engineer-in-Chief went back into the house, reappearing about half an hour later and taking the reins of the now saddled horse. But, Lynch was to testify later, O’Connor went back into the house, saying he had forgotten something. Lynch saw him a short while later riding out of the gate.

    About the same time labourer Albert Cornwall was walking towards Fremantle from his home south of the disused Robbs Jetty. Cornwall spotted a riderless horse on the dunes and followed its tracks to the beach. Floating in the water close to the shore was the body of a man Cornwall reported later thought ‘by his clothes’ might be Western Australia’s chief engineer.

    Cornwall jumped on the horse and rode to Fremantle police station to report what he had seen. Hearing the news Police constable Richard Honner raced to Robbs Jetty and identified the body was indeed that of CY O’Connor. In a pocket were his dentures. In the water was a revolver with one of the bullets in its loaded chambers discharged.

    This much we know but to this day mystery surrounds the death of the man responsible for Fremantle Harbour and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme. Why did he kill himself? Was it planned or did he go back into the house to get son Roderick’s revolver on the spur of the moment when his daughter declined to accompany him?

    As one of O’Connor’s biographers Tony Evans writes, WA history is haunted by the image of O’Connor preparing to leave on his ride then, suddenly, dashing back into the house. Family legend has it that Bridget, who was to become Lady Lee-Steere, too was haunted until her dying day by her absence on that fateful day.

    Visit the No 1 Pump Station and Golden Pipeline webpages for more information on C Y O’Connor and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme.

  • The Argus, Melbourne.

    (Story below based on newspaper article in The Argus, Melbourne.)

    CY O’Connor’s engineering feats earned him a national reputation. News of the death of Western Australia’s Engineer-in-Chief appeared the following day (Tuesday, March 11th) in newspapers on the other side of Australia.

    An article in Melbourne’s Argus refers to the discovery of his body and states the realisation of his death being a suicide, increased feeling of sorrow. Interestingly, two issues it raised are the subject of speculation to this day.

    One mention is to O’Connor’s lack of sleep – the paper writes he ‘recently complained to some friends of insomnia’. Biographer Tony Evans researched this aspect coupled with reports of O’Connor dozing off at his desk in the middle of a conversation. Other symptoms, including occasional outbursts of temper and headaches, led Evans to suggest O’Connor was suffering from bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterised by alternating periods of intense energy and depression.

    Secondly, The Argus stated, O’Connor’s great engineering works of improvements to Fremantle Harbour and the Coolgardie water supply scheme had been severely criticised and ‘it is possible that his anxiety for their success may have affected his brain’.

  • The funeral that stopped Fremantle.

    CY O’Connor was buried the day after his tragic death. Offices were officially closed so those who wished to attend the funeral could do so. Flags on government building flew at half-mast.

    On the afternoon of Tuesday, 11th March, thousands lined the route of the cortege making its way to Fremantle Cemetery. With work stopped on the harbour and pipeline, 150 employed on the Fremantle works and the goldfields water supply scheme walked at the head of the procession.

    They were followed by a line of carriages and an estimated ‘thousand gentlemen’ to make the long procession an ‘imposing spectacle’, The West Australian reported.  Government ministers and officials and leading citizens attended but Premier George Leake, in Melbourne, could not.

    Leake was initially a harsh critic of the water supply scheme, stating in an 1898 parliamentary debate that ‘Nothing would give me greater delight than to see the thing smashed up.’  He only survived O’Connor by months, dying in June 1902, and is buried in East Perth Cemeteries.

    You can still visit the grave of C Y O’Connor at Fremantle Cemetery, in the Anglican Monumental A section, grave 0251.


  • The Inquest.

    An inquest into CY O’Connor’s death started the very afternoon of his suicide and adjourned almost immediately until the 10 am the next day.

    Twenty-year-old Roderick O’Connor was the first witness and reported finding a document in his father’s handwriting on his father’s desk. This document has been become a source of speculation for historians and others.

    Is it a suicide note? I have lost control of my thoughts.

    Could it be a draft letter of resignation? ….it’s better that it should be given to some entirely new man to do ….

    Does it prove beyond doubt that CY O’Connor had no doubts that the pipeline would work? The Coolgardie scheme is all right ….

    Was it written in its entirety early in the morning on the day of O’Connor’s death? Or was just the last line and the date 10th March 1902 added that day?

    It can be seen on Culture WA, a website that digitally displays some of WA’s most significant treasures. But does one have to see the original document to get to the truth?

    The late Professor Martyn Webb argued the original document showed O’Connor had gone back to it several times, perhaps over a number of days, using a new or perhaps newly sharpened pencil. The last line, Webb argued, showed a completely different pencil in use and was possibly the only line written that fateful day:

    Put the wing walls to Helena Weir at once, 10th March 1902

    If you visit Mundaring Weir today, you can still see one of those wing walls. When the height of the dam wall was increased 1946-51, part of one wing wall was left exposed.

  • Corruption over Caulking Machines

    CY O’Connor risked his reputation on a revolutionary new type of pipe for the pipeline to Western Australia’s rich goldfields. They were known as rivetless pipes because for each pipe two clamping devices or locking bars were used to join two half circles.

    Critics said the dam would burst, the pumping stations would be a chain of failures and the revolutionary pipes would leak.  One calculated that if only a very small percentage of the pipes leaked, no water from the weir would reach the goldfields.

    A 1900 prediction was that no water would even get to the goldfields until the year 2000. By that stage the pipeline had been delivering water for almost 100 years.

    Many people believe the original pipe was made of wood but it was only in the 1930s that wooden pipes were used to replace rusted steel pipes.

    O’Connor was accused too of corruption in respect to the machine invented to help make the joints between pipes watertight. At that time caulking -hammering in lead – was done by hand which was a time-consuming, hot, and dirty job for the men working in the trenches.  The inventors of machine to do this caulking were paid a large amount for it and awarded a contract to undertake it.

  • The Myths.

    National Trust volunteers who show visitors around No 1 Pump Station at the base of Mundaring Weir encounter many of the myths surrounding CY O’Connor and the goldfields water supply scheme. The incorrect belief that the first pipes were made of wood is one of them.

    Many visitors believe O’Connor was waiting for the water to arrive at Kalgoorlie and, when it didn’t arrive at the anticipated time, he chose to end his life. Some were taught this at school.

    The volunteers show visitors the innovative steel pipes and guide visitors to dates on the comprehensive display. Visitors can see a copy of his last note, dated 1  March 1902 and a photograph of Lord and Lady Forrest almost a year later at the 24 January 1903 opening ceremony of the scheme on Kalgoorlie’s Mount Charlotte.

    The display includes cartoons lampooning Premier John Forrest and O’Connor and the goldfields water supply scheme. While it continues to be modernised and improved, O’Connor’s major engineering work is still an integral and indispensable part of WA’s infrastructure.

    Perhaps it is the intrigue surrounding the Engineer-in-Chief’s death that has made him a legendary figure in Western Australia.  Hence a cartoon that appeared in 1897 would seem to be prophetic. It features Forrest and O’Connor, criticising Forrest for taking out a loan for the pipeline, and in the corner O’Connor’s skeleton pumps the water.

  • Utterly heroic, thoroughly inspiring and completely untrue.

    The 16 March 1902 was a Sunday – the first Sunday after the death of Western Australia’s Engineer in Chief CY O’Connor. Hence the first day The Sunday Times could address accusations that it was responsible for his suicide.

    Many Western Australians continue to blame the Sunday Times for the engineer’s death. Family legend is that the O’Connor family refused to ever purchase a copy of the newspaper that had been so critical of him.

    Frederick Vosper, the one-time editor of that paper, is frequently blamed for writing the vitriolic articles. An article on 9 February 1902 for example called O’Connor a “crocodile imposter” and accused him of corruption and mismanagement.  The truth is Frederick Vosper died of a burst appendix 14 months before CY O’Connor died and one of the wreaths on Vosper’s coffin was from O’Connor.

    On the centenary of the newspaper’s founding, the Sunday Tims place a large advertisement acknowledging their entanglement in the story of CY O’Connor.

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