Website Banner. John Monash: Engineering enterprise prior to World War 1.

[Main Index] [Projects Overview] [Bridges] [Buildings] [Tanks] [Walls] [Wharves etc] [People] [Localities] [Abbreviations] [Units & Currency] [Glossary]

Marine and Riverine Projects

On this page:
Precast Sea Walls
Port Melbourne Pier (project)

Monash and the W E Adams patent trestle wall

Monash as Patent Agent


Fig. 1. Adams 'trestles' in Gummow Forrest & Co's casting yard, Miller's Point, Sydney 1907. The vertical member was "designed as a Visintini cantilever". University of Melbourne Archives, BWP23809.
Fig. 2. Retaining wall behind the Messageries Maritimes wharf, Miller's Point, Sydney. Precast panels in place between the trestles, 1907. University of Melbourne Archives, BWP23810.
See also Figs 3 and 4 below.

In December 1906, F M Gummow sent Monash a description of a new system of wall construction, claimed as an invention by W E Adams, an engineer with the Sydney Harbour Trust. Gummow asked Monash to obtain Letters Patent on Adams's behalf in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and the USA; and possibly in Natal, Cape Colony, and Japan.

Adams's initial description was extremely wide. Walls were to be made of precast elements of plain or reinforced concrete; of various shapes, solid or hollow. A key idea was that these elements could be assembled to form 'trestles' - somewhat like buttresses. These could be solid, hollow or skeletal, and take the form of an L (Figs 1 and 2), a triangle, or some other convenient shape. The back and base of the trestle might be widened to hold back retained earth and to spread the load over the foundation. Trestles could be placed in contact side by side, or spaced at varying intervals, with the gaps filled by additional plates, as in Fig.2. Adams foresaw the application of the system to "retaining walls, dams, water channels, weirs, moles, training walls, wharves, jetties, quays, docks, reservoirs, tanks, foundations, cofferdams, basins, locks, silos, and stores, abutments, etc."

The concept offered major advantages in the construction of sea walls, because the only work conducted under water would be the preparation of the foundations. The precast trestles could then be lowered into position by crane. The idea was about to be applied by the Harbour Trust to retain fill behind a timber wharf at Miller's Point, Sydney for the Messageries Maritimes Company. Gummow Forrest & Co were contracted to precast the trestles, and their installation was to be carried out by the Trust's engineers using day labour. News of the innovation had already spread. The Engineer for the Geelong Harbor Trust, A C McKenzie, had worked for the Sydney Trust under Adams, and had learned something of the system from him. An engineer from the Melbourne Harbor Trust, holidaying in Sydney, visited Adams to seek information; and H J Labatt from the Adelaide Harbor Trust wrote asking for details.

After considering the initial proposal in January 1907, Monash advised that, although the invention had "undoubted merit and commercial value", the description was "somewhat meagre of subject matter". If Gummow and Adams wanted a patent that was not easily evaded, and would stand up to challenges in court, it would have to be confined to what was undoubtedly novel. It should be limited to reinforced concrete; should focus on the trestle concept; and should refer specifically to retaining walls. Even as Monash was drafting the specification, two further ideas came from Sydney and were incorporated.

Then, a week after the first applications had been mailed, Gummow Forrest & Co came up with a significant new idea: to extend the base plate backwards when space allowed, so that the weight of retained material pressing down on it would counteract the tendency of the wall to overturn forwards. This idea probably originated with GF&Co's design engineer, W J Baltzer, but the 'improvement' was registered under Adams's name. A second round of applications was prepared and submitted. Throughout the process, Gummow was concerned that similar ideas might have been used or patented by L G Mouchel & Partners, the British parent company of the Ferro-Concrete Company of Australasia. Even if they had not, he expected strong opposition from Mouchel, should he learn of the current applications.

The plan to apply for patents in South Africa and Japan was dropped - in the latter case, possibly because of the high cost of translation. For the other overseas patents, Monash had to work through agents in Wellington, London and New York. After some modifications to comply with bureaucratic rules of presentation, and to avoid overlapping existing patents (including one held by Mouchel), letters patent were granted in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain in 1907 and 1908.

The application to the US ran into trouble because the Patent Office there required a much more specific description of inventions than those in other countries, and seems to have paid closer attention to bureaucratic detail. The Examiner identified ten existing patents for wall construction which were thought to anticipate Adams's ideas. A process of rejection, modification and resubmission followed in which the nine claims put forward by Monash were gradually whittled down, and mostly eliminated. It was annoyingly slow, because of the time needed for mail to travel between Australia and New York, and for consultations between Monash, Gummow, and Adams. The Examiner twice complained that reinforcement was mentioned in the text, but was nowhere shown on the drawings. Monash declared this objection "stupid" and indicative of an ignorance of the subject matter, because the amount and location of reinforcement required would depend on the particular circumstances in which the idea was applied. By May 1908, Adams felt that the scope of the description had become so limited that it would have no commercial value. Some months later Monash was ready to agree, and suggested that the attempt should be abandoned. That same month, the US Examiner decided that the main remaining idea was anticipated in a patent granted to a Frenchman, M. de Montgolfier, in 1903. After that, Adams seems to have lost interest and his application lapsed in January 1909.

If Adams did pursue his US application further, there is no evidence that he did so through Monash. The experience must have reinforced Monash's disenchantment the concept of patents. He had written in 1900: "I have come to the conclusion that patents - the best of them - are not worth the paper they are written on to the patentee. I have myself, as agent, put through nearly 100 patents, and in no single instance has the patentee ever realised a sixpence - though some of the inventions were clever, good, useful and valuable … the whole question of patents is a rotten swindle, and no one knows it better than the patent agent of experience, who in a sense is as great a fraud as the fortune teller - or any other business that fattens on the foibles of humanity." Cited in Serle (edn. 1, p.151) from a letter to "Behrend", 1 May 1900.

More photographs of Miller's Point trestles


Fig. 3. "Trestle Wall Construction. Miller's Point, Sydney. Aug. 1908." University of Melbourne Archives, BWP23811.

Fig. 4. University of Melbourne Archives, BWP23857.

Further photographs of "Trestle Wall Construction. Miller's Point, Sydney. Aug. 1908" are held at UMA with Record IDs UMA/I/6417 and /6418. Two less interesting photographs, with Location Numbers BWP/23857 and /23859, show the casting yard with some trestles still in their formwork. More photographs of the Miller's Point Trestle wall may be seen through Trove and in Lewis (1988), p.79.

Monash and the precast retaining wall concept

Monash applied the idea of the L-shaped precast wall unit to his own projects, starting as early as May 1906, in a proposal for a foreshore retaining wall at Queenscliff. The leg of the L was to be 6 feet high, and the foot 4 feet long, and there was to be a triangular stiffener. When Gummow initiated the applications for patents, in December 1906, and responded to enquiries from the Melbourne, Geelong and Adelaide Harbour Trusts, Monash feared that he and Adams were attempting to move into RCMPC's territory. He was assured that this was not the case.

In April 1908, Monash proposed precast trestles for a sea wall at Sorrento [link]. The following August he visited Sydney and made notes on the cost and dimensions of the trestles at Miller's Point. These had a leg 21'-6" (6.55m) high, a base 13'-6" (4.11m) long, and a "face width" of 3'-6" (1.07m). Each trestle required 143 cubic feet of concrete (4.05m³), and 9 cwt of steel (457kg). The total cost including labour, was £17-10-0, or £5 per ft run.

Lewis records that "a section of this wall demolished in 1973 showed no sign of deterioration of either the reinforcement or the concrete". Lewis 1988, p.76.

For several years from early 1906, there was lively debate in Melbourne over the best way to improve its port facilities. One option was to build a new pier at Port Melbourne, in timber or reinforced concrete, serviced by the railways. Another was to excavate a long narrow dock from Port Melbourne almost to the Yarra River, with an option of taking it the whole way at some future date. Monash initially lobbied for a reinforced concrete pier; but in September 1908, he pushed the idea of building a mole using Adams's trestle wall system, quoting its successful application in Sydney. In July 1910, Gummow came to Melbourne to explain the system to the Inspector General of Public Works, and the next month sent him a firm proposal. This was accompanied by a report prepared by Adams, explaining his concept. In June 1911, Monash was still toying with the trestle idea, though he was more interested in obtaining a contract to build a reinforced concrete pier. The State government eventually opted for a timber pier. (See more detail below.)

Monash and the Port Melbourne Pier Project

Options for port facilities for Melbourne

The provision of port facilities for Melbourne, situated at the head of Port Phillip Bay, and on a meandering river, aroused its own peculiar conflicts of interest. In 1878, Sir John Coode recommended the improvement of access along the River Yarra (see map below), by cutting what is now the "Coode Canal" and widening and deepening other parts of the river. He also recommended construction of the Victoria Dock (top of map), not far from the central business district, to supplement berths along the river. This scheme was adopted, to the disappointment of merchants and shipping interests who had advocated a canal running directly from a point near the Port Melbourne pier through to the Yarra - an option known as "The Straight Cut".

By the early 20th Century, growth in the number, tonnage, and draught of ships calling at the port made further development necessary. The mercantile community was again strongly in favour of a "straight cut", although this time the proposal was for a broader canal lined with wharfs. The initial proposal was that it would reach 2000 feet (610m) from Port Melbourne, providing 18 berths. The connection to the Yarra could be completed some time in the future.

Hobson's Bay is a 'bay within a bay', situated at the head of Port Phillip Bay.

Map showing proposals for improving port facilities for Melbourne. The Argus 23 June 1910.

The major alternatives were: further widening and deepening of the Yarra, to give larger ships access to Victoria Dock; and/or the provision of an additional pier at Port Melbourne. All proposals involved some dredging of approach channels into the Bay.

The 1906 crisis

A crisis was reached in March 1906, when a committee of the State Cabinet, after consulting shipping companies, importers and exporters, indicated that it was favouring the construction of a 4-berth pier costing between £150,000 and £200,000 rather than the 18-berth dock, estimated to cost from £350,000 to £500,000. The announcement was made by George Swinburne, engineer and Minister for Water Supply and Agriculture. He had recently visited Auckland, NZ, where Monash's rival, the Ferro-Concrete Company of Australasia, was building reinforced concrete wharfs. The New Zealand Herald reported that he had declared himself opposed to the erection of "any more wooden wharves" - a comment underlined in Monash's clipping from the newspaper.

The State Government's Railways Department quickly came forward with detailed plans for a new pier, wider than the existing one, with a raised central platform for passengers from liners ("mail steamers"). There would be space for sheds for the temporary storage of imported goods and the accumulation of export goods, ready for loading. A travelling gantry would allow passengers access to ships without disrupting loading of goods and marshalling of rail trucks. The Department's estimate of cost was £125,000. The initiative was widely seen as a grab by the Railways to maintain a monopoly on the transport of goods to and from Spencer Street railway station, close to the CBD.

Monash was naturally interested in the pier scheme, which offered the possibility of work in reinforced concrete. He obtained from W R Rennick, of the Ways & Works Department of the Railways, details of the planned dimensions of the pier and of the axle loads of locomotives. He then consulted Gummow Forrest & Co. in Sydney, holders of the Monier licence for Australia, asking for their opinion on the probable cost. He noted that he was confident of designing the superstructure himself, but would like their advice on the question of piling. (The nature and depth of the sand at the site had not yet been investigated.) In a detailed letter to Rennick of 27 March 1906, Monash set out his proposals for a reinforced concrete railway pier and estimated its cost, assuming piles driven 25 feet (7.62m) into sand, at £35 to £38 per 100 square feet of deck (9.29m²).

This was based on a pier 110 feet (33.5m) wide, with 6 railroads and a central platform 25 feet wide. Locomotive axle loads were taken as 18 tons (18.3 tonnes) per axle at 5 foot (1.52m) centres. A uniformly distributed live load of 1 cwt per sq ft (5.36kPa) was assumed for the platform, and 2 cwt per sq ft for the rest.

Late in April, the Melbourne Harbor Trust passed a motion committing it to unilateral action in deepening the Coode Canal to 30 feet (9.14m) below low water (measured at ordinary Spring tide). According to The Age newspaper, the aim of the Harbour Trust Chairman was to "concentrate the whole of the shipping business of the port in the river, and place it under one control". This would deprive the railways of goods traffic between Port Melbourne and Spencer Street.

From July onwards, The Age mounted a strong campaign in support of the Straight Cut. This was generally favoured by the shipping companies and merchants, because it would provide more shed accommodation, easier access by road as well as rail, and would lower transport costs by reducing the distance between ship and warehouse. However, there was a suggestion that the shipping companies should contribute to the cost of the dock, and they were wary of this. The Premier of Victoria, Sir Thomas Bent, declared that he was in favour of a dock, but he seems to have kept the shippers guessing, and at one stage proposed that they make the Government an offer.

In January 1907, the Cabinet committee, consisting of Messrs Pitt, Cameron, McLeod and Swinburne, recommended a combined scheme of improving river access and building a pier at Port Melbourne. By now, the Council of the City of Port Melbourne and the local branch of the Australian Natives Association had moved to support the dock. The Harbour Trust was already at work widening the river from 132 feet to 250 (40.2m to 76.2).

The Ferguson Scheme

At this stage the State Government decided to appoint an international expert to look into the question, and gave the task to William Ferguson, Engineer of the Wellington Harbour Board in New Zealand. (This may have inspired his decision to resign his permanent position and set up as a consultant.) His report [which I have not sighted] was released in 1908, and must have proposed a comprehensive scheme including both pier and straight cut. One estimate put its total cost at £3 million.

In September 1908, there were rumours that the Premier had ordered definite plans to be drawn up for a large pier. This prompted Monash to propose, as an alternative, the construction of a mole (an earthen embankment jutting out into the sea) with the earth retained by two lines of the "trestles" patented by W E Adams and Gummow Forrest & Co. He put the idea to his friend George Kermode at the Public Works Department; but Kermode informed him that the press announcements had been premature, and nothing could be done until an Act was passed taking control of the area out of the hands of the Harbour Trust.

In October, Monash wrote to Gummow, to bring him up to date with developments. It was quite likely that the State Government of Sir Thomas Bent would fall; but if this did not happen, there would be "an early beginning with Harbour Improvements" and the first phase would be construction of a pier at Port Melbourne to the west of the existing railway pier. It was now to be 1200 feet long and 215 feet wide (366 × 65.5m). So far, the question of Ferguson's scheme had been handled in the Public Works Department by friends of Monash's, working under the Inspector-General, W Davidson. He wrote: "As you are aware, Mr Ferguson's scheme embodies reinforced concrete pile frame construction; but I have sedulously fostered among my friends opinions in favour of trestle construction, and received promises that nothing would be done without my being further consulted."

However, there was a problem. Monash had just learned that construction of the pier was being handed over to a branch of the Railway Department headed by C E Norman. "I have been further told that Mr Norman favours timber construction of the old type, but my informant thinks that this recommendation is largely founded upon a desire not to be mixed up with work which he does not understand." Monash felt that he had very little influence with the Railway Department: "J H Fraser is still a great power there, and he has a rooted animosity not only to reinforced concrete, but to my interests, sparing himself no pains to put difficulties in my way." Although he would prefer not to have business dealings with Norman and his Department, Monash declared himself bound to represent their interests, and asked Gummow for an approximate price for a mole based on the trestle system, in case Norman should approach him.

Decision for a timber Pier

In December 1908, Bent's government was defeated. The new government, led by John Murray, was sworn in in January 1909. It decided to initiate yet another inquiry, and sent Inspector-General Davidson to England to study the facilities and management of ports, and in particular to consult with Sir William Matthews on the question of improvements at Melbourne. Davidson returned in April 1910. In June, it was announced that the Straight Cut scheme had been ruled out. The existing railway pier was to be widened, and a new one built just west of it. But even this announcement did not settle the controversy. The shipping companies renewed their lobbying for a dock, and conferences were called to allow the various parties to meet with Ministers for discussions.

By now, Monash was overseas on a holiday and study tour of Europe, Britain and the USA. The Reinforced Concrete & Monier Pipe Construction Company was being run by its General Manager, John Gibson. He, Gummow, and Adams, saw the decision to build a pier as a further opportunity to push the scheme for a mole supported by trestles. (This would, as at Miller's Point, have served as the backing to conventional timber wharf structures.) In July 1910, Adams prepared an eleven-page description of his system and its use at Miller's Point in Sydney. Gummow came to Melbourne in August for consultations with Davidson. He proposed to make the mole 332 feet wide, compared with the pier's 210 feet (101m versus 65.5m), permitting more access and storage space for importers and exporters. The estimated cost would be marginally less than that for the reinforced concrete pier, but the idea did not find favour with the authorities.

For the remainder of 1910 and into 1911, controversy focussed on the location, orientation, and size of the new pier and on the facilities to be provided. It was now assumed that it would be built in timber, although there was concern about finding sufficient tree trunks for several thousand piles of the lengths needed, and in species suitable for use in a marine environment. Investigation showed that the timber would have to be gained deeper in forested areas than originally thought, and there was talk of importing timber from the Newcastle hinterland in NSW.

Initial estimates of the maximum lengths required started at 95 feet (29m), but later came down to 71 feet (22.9m).

A reinforced concrete alternative?

Doubts about the supply of timber caused attention to swing back temporarily to reinforced concrete - but not in Monash's direction. The task of preparing a design to permit a cost comparison was given to Owen Thomas, a rising consultant civil engineer, who had earlier worked for the Ferro-Concrete Company of Australasia and had extensive experience of wharf construction in New Zealand and Fiji. On 6 February 1911, Monash's chief clerk sent him an amusing account of a stray telephone call received from William Davidson:

"About 2.45 pm telephone bell rang.
'Is that 1212?'
'Who's speaking?'
'Reinforced Concrete Co.'
'Wait a moment. Inspector General Public Works wants to speak to you.'
I. G. speaks.
'Is that 1212?'
'Owen P Thomas's office?'
'Oh, wrong office.' "

As the operator of a "design-and-build" firm, Monash would not have been content merely to enter a price for construction of the pier to Thomas's design, and take on the job as a regular Contractor. He would have been confident of his ability to devise an alternative scheme that would be just as strong, but cheaper. He immediately started work, in conjunction with his assistant engineers, his calculations dating from 16 February onwards. George Kermode of the PWD supplied details of tests made by driving timber piles to reveal the mechanical properties of the underlying sand; and of axle loads from locomotives.

Monash looked briefly at the option of building a mole; but put more effort into the design of a conventional pier superstructure. He spent a great deal of time calculating the maximum effects on girders as axle loads moved across them: in those days, a routine but lengthy process. The supporting substructure seems to have caused more cogitation. Rough sketches and notes show three schemes. One was to drive groups of conventional reinforced concrete piles which (it appears) would have been encased from sea bed to deck level in 4-foot diameter reinforced concrete pipes. The others were to sink cylindrical piles, apparently formed from large-diameter reinforced concrete pipes, presumably to be filled at some stage with a reinforced core. These would have been sunk either with the aid of water jets near the toe, or within an airlock.

On Friday 9 June 1911, Monash listed the items he took home for the weekend to work on the project: Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers [London], Volumes CL and CXLII; Engineering News [NY], Vol. LVI, No. 4; blueprints and reinforced concrete design for the Ocean Wharf project, Adelaide; tracing of the main girders of the Hindmarsh Bridge [designed by Monash late in 1906]; Adams's "white print diagram" of a scheme for a mole at Port Melbourne; Adams's report of 15 July 1910 on the trestle system and its application at Miller's Point; and Monash's own office file on the Port Melbourne project "indexed and arranged".

In August, John Gibson, apparently by chance, met Arthur Timmins, who had trained as an engineering assistant with Monash & Anderson for five years up to 1900. Timmins had been told by Owen Thomas that his reinforced concrete pier would cost about 8/- per square foot, compared with 13/- for the PWD's timber design. Shortly after this, Monash made sketches showing slender reinforced concrete caissons, 30 ft × 7 ft in plan and 40 feet high, sitting on a base slab 11 feet wide. It is difficult to know whether he was checking on a feature of Thomas's proposal, or was investigating the possibility of using them to form a mole, along the lines of the Gummow-Adams proposal.

Because of the longer spans possible in reinforced concrete, Thomas's design required only 1400 reinforced concrete piles, compared with 5000 timber piles for the PWD's design.

Tenders were at last called by the Public Works Department on 26 March 1912. The advertisement specified a timber pier; but "also, alternatively" a reinforced concrete pier, presumably to Owen Thomas's design. The record in the RCMPC file on this project is sparse; but the fact that there is nothing after this date suggests that Monash did not submit a tender. The pier was built using timber piles between 1912 and 1916.