Hickson’s motor ways

Walsh Bay’s main street, Hickson Road, is named after Irish civil engineer Robert Rowan Purdon Hickson (1842–1923), who led major 19th century public works programs to modernise Sydney for a new era of steam engines and cars.

Robert Hickson and family in their Model T Ford, 1910s.

Born in County Kerry and educated at a college in Dublin, he was apprenticed to Ireland’s engineer-in-chief for public works before becoming resident engineer and harbourmaster at Carlingford (Ireland), then managing engineer of the harbour dredging department at Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire, England.

In 1876, Hickson migrated to Australia with his wife Sophia and young children. He worked first on harbour improvements in Adelaide, but when his department was abolished a decade later, he took his family (five sons and two daughters) to Newcastle. He won a job with the New South Wales Department of Public Works, as an assistant engineer supervising water supply in the Hunter district and all river and harbour works north to the Queensland border.

In Newcastle he befriended his future collaborator on developments at Walsh Bay—Henry Deane Walsh, a fellow Irishman and another engineer expert in hydraulics and fluid mechanics.

After Hickson moved to Sydney in 1888, as acting engineer-in-chief of NSW Public Works, he was appointed to the Board of Water Supply and Sewerage and became Commissioner for Roads. He was confirmed as the Public Works engineer-in-chief in 1895 and then was its under-secretary from 1896 to 1901.

After bubonic plague was declared in central Sydney in 1901, Hickson was appointed chairman of a new board to advise the state government on resuming all properties in the area. Then the government appointed him to chair a new Sydney Harbour Trust, charged with rebuilding Sydney’s wharves from Woolloomooloo through Darling Harbour to Balmain.

Under Hickson, the trust summoned Walsh from Newcastle to serve as its engineer-in-chief. These two Irish water, sewerage and road experts collaborated on ambitious plans to modernise Sydney’s port facilities to include new ‘rat-proof’ sea walls, many new finger wharves and warehouses, diversion of sewers to avoid water pollution, and construction of wide, new roads to support freight transport.

Hickson gave his name to Sydney’s widest new road of the early 20th century, which curls around the headland from west Circular Quay to pass by the city’s gasworks and meet Sussex Street, on the east side of Darling Harbour. This avenue replaced and extended an earlier ‘Wharf Road’ but was substantially built on newly reclaimed land between Dawes Point and Millers Point: today’s Walsh Bay.

Retired engineer Robert Hickson (right) and his son George with a Public Works vehicle in Perth c1915 (SLWA).

When Hickson Road was built, most of Sydney’s freight was transported by horses and carts. But in 1908, Detroit entrepreneur Henry Ford launched the first car designed to sell to a global market of middle-class users: The Model T Ford. Hickson was one of the first men in Sydney to own a Model T, and would have realised that affordable cars would generate vastly more road traffic than horses.

Hickson received the Imperial Service Order in 1910 and retired from the Sydney Harbour Trust in 1912. A year later, the trust published Walsh’s immaculately illustrated ‘birdseye map’ of its Darling Harbour wharfage scheme (after Pier 1, Walsh Bay, and some other wharves had been built).

The Sydney Harbour Trust’s general wharfage scheme west of Dawes Pojnt, 1913.

More details

J.M. Antill, 1972, ‘Hickson, Robert Rowan Purdon (1842–1923)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 4, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.