Fremantle Stuff > people > Charles Yelverton O'Connor (1843-1902).
See also C.Y. O'Connor monuments.
C.Y. O'Connor was born in Gravelmount, County Meath, Ireland, as the potato famine was about to strike. His family moved to Waterford where he completed his schooling. He was then articled to a professional engineer.
Economic conditions in Ireland remained poor, prompting O'Connor to move to New Zealand in 1865. Over the next 16 years he supervised almost every sort of engineering project. He was marine engineer for New Zealand when the WA Premier, John Forrest, heard of this brilliant builder of harbours and railways. He offered O'Connor a job. O'Connor asked with what projects he would be involved. Forrest cabled back: 'Railways, harbours, everything'.
It was an offer O'Connor couldn't refuse. He arrived in 1891 with his family and was given his first job as Engineer-in-Chief of the Public Works Department – to build a new harbour at the mouth of the Swan.
He argued successfully against earlier designs, and advocated blasting away the bar across the mouth of the Swan to create an inner harbour.
Construction began in 1892 and the new Fremantle port was completed in 1897.
O'Connor's office overlooking the harbour works (see Harbour Trust building)
O'Connor received a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George the same year. For five years he was also engineer-in-charge and acting general manager of the government railways. During his time the railways were extended, re-engineered, and became profitable.
O'Connor had already been thinking about how to get water 560 kilometres uphill to the eastern goldfields. His solution was 'simple and elegant' but he was brutally criticised in parliament, and also particularly by The Sunday Times. The massive project was nearing completion when the engineer cracked. He rode his horse into the sea near Robb Jetty on 10 March 1902 and shot himself. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and four sons. His devoted Public Works Department staff paid for the imposing granite Celtic cross marking his grave.
By the end of 1902 the pipeline was completed as planned, for the estimated cost. On 24 January 1903, amid much celebration, John Forrest turned on the water at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, praising O'Connor: 'The great builder of this work … to bring happiness and comfort to the people of the goldfields for all time'.
O'Connor's pipeline was entered onto the National Heritage List in 2011.
Text [probably written by Ron Davidson] and top photo MCB.
Missing from the grand opening however was the man himself, for ten months earlier, 10 March 1902, O’Connor wrote:
”The position has become impossible
Anxious important work to do and three commissions of enquiry to attend to
We may not have done as well as possible in the past but we will necessarily be too hampered to do well in the imminent future
I feel that my brain is suffering and I am in great fear of what effect all this worry will have on me -1 have lost control of my thoughts
The Coolgardie scheme is all right and I could finish it if I got a chance and protection from misinterpretation but there’s no hope for that now and it is better that it should be given to some entirely new man to do who will be untrammeled by prior responsibility
put the wingwalls to Helena Weir at once”
He then rode his horse out to Robb Jetty in Fremantle and there rode into the sea and shot himself.
Fremantle Library Local History Collection photo #2048C, 1961. C.Y. O'Connor occupied this house when he came to WA in 1891 and later from 1898 to 1900. The house had 15 or 16 rooms. Originally the home of Dr H.C. Barnett, it was demolished c. 1963. Photo taken 26 January 1961.
(According to biographer Tony Evans - see below - the family lived in Park Bungalow 1891-2 and 1896-1900.)
The ADB article mentions its name, Park Bungalow, which indicates that it would have had views at the rear over Fremantle Park, to the east. The site was occupied by a child-minding centre until 2020. There is now no slope on the block, so it might have been levelled when the house was removed.
O'Connor settled in Fremantle at Park Bungalow in Quarry Street, overlooking the river. In 1900 the family moved to Beach Street; most of them easily adapted to the West. ADB.
That the house in the photo is Park Bungalow is supported by its appearance in Patricia Brown's book in a painting reproduced (in b/w) on page 28, with this caption: '"Park Bungalow", C.Y. O'Connor's home in Fremantle from 1891 to 99, since demolished'. John Dowson, from whom I got the photo above, says that it's in Parliament House Perth.
Clip from a 1904 map (of harbour works) showing the house in Quarry Street the O'Connor family had occupied, with the empty space of Fremantle Park to its southeast, and with the indication of a 'steep cliff' on its western side. (The street shown as Edward Street is now Parry Street.)
The house she [Aileen O'Connor] prepared for the family was the first of the O'Connors' three homes at Fremantle. Later, their second home for several years was a house rented from the H.C. Barnett Trust, 'Park Bungalow', 15 Quarry St, extended to some fourteen or fifteen rooms to accommodate the large O'Connor household. High above the river mouth, overlooking the developing harbour, the garden of Park Bungalow at the rear abutted a small park. During his final year the famly rented a twelve- or fourteen-room house built in Beach Road for W.S. Pearse. This home was nearer the river than Park Bungalow but still well within sight of the changing harbour scene. Tauman: 244.
Tauman makes no suggestion about the location of the first home, and I suggest this may be because she has the record wrong. Read on.
Tony Evans, researching and writing five years later, was able to be more precise.
For the first year in Fremantle , the family leased 'Park Bungalow', 7 Quarry Street, then owned by the Colonial Surgeon, Dr H.C. Barnett. When Dr Barnett returned to occupy his house in January 1893, the O'Connors rented, for a few months only, 'Yeldam [Yeldham] House', Lot 300 in Cantonment Street. Afterwards they leased 'Plympton House', a short distance away in Beach Street, overlooking the Swan River (now the harbour). The family would move back into 'Park Bungalow' in 1896 for four years, then return to 'Plympton House' in 1900. ... 'Park Bungalow', dating from the early 1870s, was built of local limestone on raised ground overlooking Fremantle Park and within sight of the present-day Fremantle Arts Centre (then the asylum). It had high ceilings, a library, dining room, music room and drawing room, bedrooms and a wine cellar. A housekeeper's quarters were located on a lower level. What would have been an important consideration for O'Connor was the provision of stabling for horses, a feature also of 'Plympton House'. Both 'Park Bungalow' and 'Plympton House' would have been substantial residences for those times, fitting homes for someone in O'Connor's position.
Evans's two references for those two paragraphs are firstly to 'Fremantle Rate Books', and secondly to this:
Maureen F. Coghlan, 'Monuments in Stone', dissertation, Claremont Teachers College, 1958, BLP – about which Evans has this to say.
Sadly, 'Park Bungalow', which could have become a Fremantle museum to C.Y. O'Connor, was demolished in the early 1960s. A good impression of the style and atmosphere of the interior of 'Park Bungalow' can be gained from a visit to 'Samson House' in Ellen Street, diagonally opposite across the park. Owned by National Trust and open to the public on Sunday, it was built around the same period. The O'Connors were frequent guests of the then owners, Michael and Mary Samson.
Michael Samson was Mayor of Fremantle, and had Samson House built in 1888-89 by John Hurst to Talbot Hobbs's design.
Children of the marriage of Charles Yelverton O'Connor and Susan Letitia (nee Ness): Aileen (b. 4 March 1874), Frank (b. 1875), Kathleen Letitia (14Sep1876-24Aug1968 - Kate O'Connor, the painter), Eva Dronghaia Odierna (b. 1878?), Charles Goring Yelverton (1879-1880), Roderick, Murtagh, Bridget (Biddy) Yelverton, who married a Lee Steere, and was admitted to OBE.
Brown, Patricia M 1996, The Merchant Princes of Fremantle: The Rise and Decline of a Colonial Elite 1870-1900, UWAP.
Coghlan, Maureen F. 1958, Monuments in Stone, dissertation, Claremont Teachers College, BLP. [partly about one O'Connor dwelling]
Evans, A.G. 2001, C. Y. O'Connor: His Life and Times, UWAP.
Hasluck, Alexandra 1965, C. Y. O'Connor, OUP.
Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.
Keane, S.B. 1981, 'Pietro G. Porcelli, sculptor, 1872-1943', Early Days, Volume 8, Part 5: 9-28.
Tauman, Merab 1978, The Chief: C. Y. O'Connor, 1843-1902, UWAP.
Tauman, Merab Harris 1988, bio in ADB.
Top photo from Battye 1912-13.
Garry Gillard | New: 2 January, 2015 | Now: 11 March, 2021