John Whitton (1819-1898), railway engineer, was the Engineer-in-Charge for the New South Wales Government Railways, serving between 1856 and 1899, considered the Father of New South Wales Railways. Under his supervision, it is estimated that 2,171 miles (3,494 km) of railway around New South Wales and Victoria were completed. Whitton was responsible for the construction of the Blue Mountains railway line and parts of the Main Western railway line, in particular the Great Zig Zag near Lithgow, and much of the Great Southern line.
1819 December 21st. Born in Wakefield the son of John Whitton, Land Agent, and his wife Elizabeth Billinton
Articled for seven years to William Billinton
1847 Engineer for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincoln railway line
1852-56 Supervised the building of the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton line
1856 March 27th. Appointed engineer-in-chief of railways in New South Wales
1856 December. Whitton arrived in Sydney and appointed as Engineer-in-Charge, he found the Colony with 23 miles of 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge railway, four locomotives, 12 passenger carriages and 40 trucks - the Sydney Railway. An advocate of the 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge adopted by Victoria and South Australia railways, Whitton set about extending the railway into the city and resisted pushes for 4,000 miles (6,400 km) of cheaper, light tramways, such as horse drawn lines with wooden rails, proposed by Governor William Denison. Whitton strongly opposed the government's uncritical acceptance of the lowest tenders for railway construction.
Whitton did however introduce cheaper so-called pioneer lines for use in easier terrain once the mountains had been crossed. Money was saved by building for lower speeds and the lightest of axle-loads, with ash ballast, no fencing, etc. These pioneer lines retained the same gauge as the main system.
Whitton was accused of fraud, along with his brother-in-law, Sir John Fowler, and the charges were proved groundless. Following a select committee on railway extension that recommended the construction of cheap narrow-gauge railways, necessitating a break of gauge within the Colony, as well as at the border; estimates were prepared but Whitton, determined to sabotage the committee's recommendation, suspended all surveys and new work. Whitton overcame the engineering problems and in 1876 completed the Blue Mountains line that included two zigzags.
In 1880-85 the unprecedented growth in railways, 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of new track and nine million more passengers, exposed existing inadequacies in administration of railways. A royal commission into railway bridges exonerated Whitton of the charges of faulty design and of using inferior materials.
In 1888 Sir Henry Parkes's Government Railways Act reorganized the department and made Whitton's position easier.
In 1886 and 1887 Whitton submitted drawings for a proposed suspension bridge across Sydney Harbour from Dawes Point Battery to Milson's Point. On 1 May 1889 the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge was opened; it was the final link in the railway system from Brisbane through Sydney to Melbourne and Adelaide and Whitton had fought for adequate finance for it.
He was a member of the Hunter River floods commission 1869-70, the Sydney, City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board 1875-77, and the Board for Opening Tenders for Public Works 1875-87; he was a New South Wales commissioner for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880.
Granted a year's leave on 29 May 1889, Whitton retired on 31 May 1890 with a pension of £675, and visited England in 1892. He had supervised the laying of 2,171 miles (3,494 km) of track on which no accident had occurred attributable to defective design or construction. Parkes regarded him as 'a man of such rigid and unswerving integrity, a man of such vast grasp, that however his faults may occasionally project themselves into prominence, it would be difficult to replace him by a man of equal qualifications'.
In international references Whitton is recognised as one of approximately twenty of the greatest railway civil engineers in the first century of world railway construction.
Whitton's works in both New South Wales and Victoria are extensive and include railway stations, railway bridges, viaducts, railway yards, and other infrastructure where he has designed projects and/or they have completed under supervision. 25 items of his work are listed on the NSW Heritage Register as significant. An additional 37 other works are listed as significant in various local government areas.
1898 February 20th. Died at Mittagong, and was buried in the cemetery of St Thomas's Church of England, North Sydney. His estate was valued for probate at £10,396. He was survived by his wife, one son and two daughters.
1898 Obituary 
JOHN WHITTON was born at Foulby, near Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1819.
In the early days of railway enterprise he was busily engaged for several years assisting Mr. Billington in taking surveys and levels and in the preparation of Parliamentary plans, in connection not only with some important railway schemes but also with a proposed ship canal from Liverpool to Manchester, which he designed and of the surveys for which he had sole charge.
About the year 1846 he was engaged under Sir John Hawkshaw on Parliamentary surveys and on railway work in Lancashire.
In 1848 and 1849 he acted as an Assistant Engineer on the construction of the East Lincolnshire Railways under Mr. (now Sir John) Fowler, and was subsequently engaged under that gentleman in completing the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway, and on railway construction in Yorkshire and elsewhere between 1851 and 1856.
Mr. Whitton's energies were now afforded a wider scope. In March, 1856, on the recommendation of the President of the Board of Trade, he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the New South Wales Government Railways. Subsequently he had sole charge of the construction of railways, and also of railway surveys, in that Colony; and for many years he was, in addition, responsible for the locomotive and permanent way departments. The colony was fortunate in having at the early stage of railway construction a man of sound professional training and great rectitude of character, independence and foresight.
In no instance did he render greater service than by opposing the agitation for break of gauge at Goulburn and Bathurst. At that time certain critics of railway construction thought it would suffice to stop the trunk lines at those points on the Southern and Western roads and continue construction on the system of light railways. Mr. Whitton withstood those representations and secured for the colony a uniform gauge, a service which probably involved more direct and indirect gain to the community than can now readily be realized. He was a man of the strictest integrity and of great firmness, and he successfully resisted political pressure, insisting on controlling the lines in what he deemed the best way, even though his opinion clashed with that of the Government of the day.
On his arrival in Sydney in 1856 there were only 22 miles of railways in existence in New South Wales. On his retirement in 1890 he left over 2,000 miles of lines opened for traffic. The mere mileage, however, does not convey an adequate conception of his work, for the construction of the first 500 or 600 miles of the New South Wales Railways, including, as they did, very heavy works on the Great Western line over the Blue Mountains and on the first portions of the Great Southern line, took many years to effect and cost as much as £70,000 to £80,000 per mile, of single line track.
Mr. Whitton died at Mittagong, near Sydney, on the 20th of February, 1898, at the age of 79. His connection with the Institution was one of nearly 44 years' standing, he having been elected a Member on the 2nd of May, 1854.
Sources of Information
- London Evening Standard - Friday 25 July 1856
- Sydney Morning Herald 30th December 1856
- 1898 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries