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

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Marine and Riverine Projects:
Pile Breakwater for Glenelg, South Australia.

Winning the contract

In 1907, the Public Works Department of South Australia formulated plans for a breakwater to protect pleasure craft and small steamers moored at Glenelg, a beachside suburb of Adelaide facing the stormy waters of Gulf St Vincent. It was to describe an arc 1200 feet long, about 1500 feet from the beach, out from the existing jetty. The cost of a solid breakwater was considered unjustifiable, so the PWD proposed to drive a line of piles (like slender columns) vertically into the sea bed, to reduce the magnitude of the waves passing through. The tops of the piles would be connected by a cross-beam, and behind every third pile there would be a sloping pile acting as a prop.

1. Schematic arrangement of piles, cross-beam and props. Spacer. 2. Plan of shore, jetty and breakwater.

1. Schematic drawing of portion of proposed breakwater showing basic idea.
2. Plan of existing jetty at Glenelg and line of proposed breakwater.

In January 1908, the PWD's Engineer-in-Chief, A B Moncrieff, asked the South Australian Reinforced Concrete Company (SARC) to quote for construction of the breakwater, on the basis of its experience with concrete piles for the Hindmarsh River Bridge. The Mayor of Glenelg, who was in contact with the State Premier, strongly supported the use of reinforced concrete on the grounds that it would last longer than timber in the marine environment.

Monash's role was as Engineer to SARC. With the Company well established since its foundation in October 1906, and its Resident Engineer, W W Harvey settled in since April 1907, Monash visited Adelaide at irregular intervals when key decisions or sensitive negotiations were required; but in general he supplied professional advice to Harvey by mail from Melbourne.

Monash recommended modifications to the PWD design. He enlarged the joints between the pile tops and the cross-beam, increased the bending strength of the piles to resist stresses during handling, and quoted £14,472. Moncrieff accepted by letter but, following a complaint from a general contractor, was instructed by the Commissioner of the PWD to call public tenders. SARC won the contest at the price originally quoted.

Work commences

After some delay in leasing a site in Glenelg and obtaining reinforcing steel from Victoria, manufacture of piles commenced. This was critical to progress, because the concrete had to mature for 30 days before the piles could be used.

At the time it was hard to find competent foremen for routine reinforced concrete work. It was even more difficult to find someone with both pile-driving and offshore experience. Monash was therefore pleased to hear from an old acquaintance looking for work. This was someone he held in high regard, with experience of bridge foundations and as a captain of dredges.

Photo: University of Melbourne Archives, BWP/23731.

The search for suitable plant - a jib crane and a rig capable of handling and driving the heavy concrete piles - ranged interstate. In the meantime, work began on erecting a wooden platform, or 'stage', in the sea to support the rig. The timber piles for this structure were driven using a smaller piling rig mounted on a barge. The task proved difficult and hazardous because of high waves and repeated storms. The elderly foreman was unable to cope with the danger and responsibility, and developed nervous exhaustion. He stepped down a level, and an interstate search went on for someone to take the lead. A series of prospective foremen were appointed, each resigning after a brief encounter with conditions on the site. SARC's regular foremen, handling construction of city buildings and CSR's wharf at Glanville, took time off these projects to keep things moving at Glenelg.

The ceremony

Just before arrangements for transporting and driving the reinforced concrete piles were properly in place, the authorities seized an opportunity to ask the Governor-General of Australia, the Earl of Dudley, to 'drive' the first pile with due ceremony. The date was fixed as 13 March 1909, a Saturday. Monash protested, but was told that the chance could not be missed. The 12th was calm, but on 13th there were strong winds and choppy waves. A concrete pile was hurried down to the beach and onto the barge in the morning but, as it was being positioned in the rig, the barge jolted in the rough water, a crane hook snapped, and the pile disappeared beneath the waves. There was insufficient time to bring another from the casting yard, so a timber pile was substituted to allow the ritual to take place. Officials were concerned for the safety of the Earl as he transferred from launch to stage and back, and the wind disrupted the subsequent speeches.

State Library of South Australia Images Nos. PRG 280/1/11/42, PRG 280/1/11/43, PRG 280/1/11/44, and PRG 280/1/11/503 give an idea of conditions during the ceremony.

The event was reported in The Advertiser of 15 March 1909, p.6. (Trove) and The Register of the same day (Trove). Bakewell pointed out that The Register had wrongly attributed the design of the breakwater to Monash, rather than to the Engineer of SA, Moncrieff.

Work continues

Moncrieff blamed SARC for the near fiasco, criticised their safety provisions, and told them they had better get their site management sorted out. With SARC's reputation at stake, Monash invited a firm of expert pile-drivers from Melbourne to take over as subcontractors. Unfortunately, the principals were also elderly, and after inspecting the site in blustery weather, they decided they could earn their living much easier in Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay. While these negotiations were in progress an excellent head foreman was at last found, but he resigned within a week to become Assistant City Engineer of Adelaide.

Despite these setbacks, by April a timber platform had been erected near the end of the jetty to support the jib crane, and a small section of temporary timber stage had at last been completed. The heavy piling rig, with its steam winch and boiler were now in position to drive the first permanent piles. Then, in April, Glenelg was hit by a heavy storm that sank boats and caused damage over a wide area. The winch and boiler were washed off the temporary stage. To recover them it was necessary to find a diver's suit, but these were in short supply. After a search, a second hand set was located in Melbourne and purchased. The equipment was recovered from the sea bed, and salt and sand cleaned out of the engine.


The gang struggled on in the face of more rough weather, and at last succeeded in driving four permanent piles. These formed part of a circle intended to support a metal light-tower to mark the end of the breakwater. For several days, the slender piles stood like spears thrust into the sea bed. They projected 25 feet above the sand, with their tops several feet above water. Two of them were lashed to the timber stage. On 13 June they were hit by a storm that Monash described as "not very severe" - though eight-foot waves were reported in an average water depth of 16 feet. One pile cracked at several locations and broke off at the sea bed to lean in a curve against the stage. The other piles were badly cracked.

Not surprisingly, the engineers of the Public Works Department held SARC responsible for the disaster. The piles must have been badly manufactured, or damaged whilst being driven. (It had been necessary to drive them through a 'crust' of limestone lying a few feet below the sea bed.) The PWD quite reasonably maintained that SARC should have provided better support to the driven piles to hold them steady until the cross beam could be cast and the raking piles inserted as props. Monash and his colleagues countered that all work had been done in accordance with the Specification and under the supervision of government inspectors and engineers, who had accepted it.

About this time, A B Moncrieff moved across to become Railways Commissioner, and Graham Stewart took over as Engineer-in-Chief of the Public Works Department.

Doubts about the design

The dispute inspired Monash and his assistants to search for the latest methods of calculating forces exerted by waves on piles. (It was only ten years since reinforced concrete piles had first been used on a commercial scale in building foundations.) Papers were located in overseas journals and Monash and his assistants in Melbourne and Adelaide made several attempts to formulate a theory. One of these assumed that the force required to deflect a surging wave was similar to that required to deflect water round a bend in a pipe, for which established formulas were available. However, it was realised that even without considering dynamic effects, a difference of several feet in water levels on opposite faces of piles projecting from the sea bed, as in this case, would induce bending stresses well beyond the capacity of the piles as designed and manufactured.

Monash was thus convinced, not only that the piles were vulnerable during construction, but that they would remain so even when the structure had been completed. He concluded that there was no point in proceeding further with the project, and suggested some sort of agreement with the Government that would allow SARC to pull out of the contract, with costs incurred so far being split between the two parties. The 280-odd piles already manufactured, and lying in the yard at Glenelg, could be used to support wharves and bridges in the Adelaide area.

Settlement and withdrawal

The PWD engineers were reluctant to admit that the design was theirs, let alone that it was inadequate. Their professional reputations were at stake. The new Engineer-in-Chief insisted that SARC continue to drive piles as the contract required. Monash engaged in a lengthy correspondence, through SARC's General Manager, protesting that further work would be futile and a waste of public money. Without actually refusing to continue work, he managed to delay proceedings. Eventually, Stewart wrote declaring that the PWD had checked its design and that the piles were sufficiently strong. Monash was delighted, as it placed SARC in a strong negotiating position.

To show that the piles had the bending strength predicted by RCMPC and approved by the PWD, Monash had a specimen tested to failure in bending. (Photo: UMA, Record ID UMA/I/6198.)

Much delaying, negotiating and politicking was to follow over the next 18 months. Questions were asked in Parliament, and in September 1909 the PWD referred the matter to legal Counsel. SARC was obliged to follow suit. Ideas for a settlement had been moving toward the possibility that the piles made for Glenelg could be used for a wharf in the Port Adelaide River, probably in reconstruction of the Ocean Steamers Wharf. The PWD would prepare a design for this, calling on SARC's know-how gained with the Glanville wharf, just upstream. The project hinged on a Bill before Parliament to allow the Government to repurchase wharves currently owned by private enterprise. Believing they would be given the contract for the Ocean Steamers wharf, SARC management handed over the Glanville drawings, and promised that Monash would put his knowledge at Stewart's disposal.

However, having completed its design and received a quote from SARC, the PWD decided to call tenders. Unsure whether he would be able to use the Glenelg piles, Monash altered his quote to allow for the manufacture of new ones. At about the same time, the Wharves Repurchase Bill stalled in Parliament. In December 1910, desperate to extricate themselves, SARC management in consultation with Monash signed an agreement that made no mention of the Ocean Steamers proposal. The PWD was to take over the piles and other materials accumulated at Glenelg. SARC was required to remove all work done, including the damaged concrete piles and temporary stage, plus all plant and gear. It retained all progress payments made, and two thirds of its deposit was returned. Monash estimated the net loss to the firm at about £1000. Soon after the settlement was signed, the PWD announced that SARC's tender for Ocean Steamers Wharf had been unsuccessful. The task of cleaning up and withdrawal from Glenelg was completed by June 1911.


When word of the settlement became public in January 1911, long-standing alternative schemes were revived. One was simply to build a larger breakwater in timber. Another was to create a protected harbour by clearing the swampy mouth of nearby Patawalonga Creek. However, nothing was done until 1914, when Monash's competitors, Stone & Siddeley, won a contract to build a breakwater based on concrete caissons - rectangular tanks sunk at regular intervals and filled with sand. Their initial work was destroyed by a storm in 1915. The contract was renegotiated in 1916 with a revised and expanded layout. Good progress was made until a further series of storms, and a partial collapse, forced the firm into bankruptcy in 1917.

The MLSSA Newsletter for July 2002 states that Stone & Siddeley sued the Government for supplying faulty data. There is more on Stone & Siddeley's campaign in Lewis 1988 (text pp.76-8 and photographs pp.80-1).

Historic images of work on this project are held in the University of Melbourne Archives with Location Numbers BWP/23726 to /23735.