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John Whitton. From Thirty-Five Years on the New South Wales Railways: The work of the late Mr. John Whitton C. E., Engineer-in-Chief of the railways of New South Wales.

The Great Zig Zag near Lithgow was one of John Whitton’s great engineering achievements. This photo was taken around 1900. Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum. No known copyright restrictions.

John Whitton

David Matheson

3 February 2019

John Whitton was the Engineer-in-Chief of the New South Wales railways from 1857 to 1890. He designed and supervised the building of much of the state’s railway system and is known as the ‘Father of New South Wales Railways’.


Whitton was born on 21 December 1819 at Foulby, North Yorkshire, England. He was the second child of James and Elizabeth (nee Billinton) Whitton. In 1835 John Whitton became an apprentice engineer under his cousin, William Billinton. Around 1846 he commenced working under chief engineer John Hackshaw on the Manchester and Leeds Railway, which in 1847 became the Lancashire and Yorskshire Railway. He assisted in the surveying of new railways through difficult terrain. In 1848 Whitton was employed by John Fowler as assistant engineer on the construction of the East Lincolnshire Railway, and then in 1852 Fowler and Whitton commenced work on construction of the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway. Fowler was appointed Chief Engineer, and he in turn appointed Whitton as Resident Engineer. Whitton carried out most of the detailed design work, including for bridges and buildings along the line. He continued to gain further experience and in 1854 he became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in London. His reputation as an engineer was such that on the recommendation of Sir Morton Peto he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the New South Wales railways.


In July 1856 Whitton married John Fowler’s sister Elizabeth at Ecclesfield, near Sheffield, and they sailed together on the Royal Charter to Melbourne. After arriving in Sydney, Whitton’s appointment as Engineer-in-Chief was confirmed on 15 January 1857, at which time there were 23 miles (37 km) of railway open for service in New South Wales, between Sydney and Liverpool. He began the task of developing the infant railway system into one which would meet the needs of a fast growing colony. Under Whitton the major railway lines in the state were established. By the time of his retirement there were 2182 miles (3511 km) of lines in use in New South Wales. Railways had reached from Sydney to the Victorian border at Albury and the Queensland border at Wallangarra, as well as to Bourke, Mudgee, Narrabri, Hay, Cowra, Cooma and North Kiama.


Sir William Denison, the Governor of New South Wales and the most powerful man in the colony, had proposed that a network of light narrow gauge horse tramways be built from Campbelltown, Penrith and Lochinvar into the interior of the state. He argued that horse tramways would be much cheaper to build than heavy railway lines. Whitton campaigned strongly against the building of horse tramways, instead advocating heavy railways using steam power, which were ultimately accepted. Within his first year of arriving in Sydney, Whitton made his mark as the leading authority on railway matters.


In the planning and construction of railways Whitton had to contend with difficult terrain, limited resources and political opposition. Although his authority was generally respected by the Government, there was often an unwillingness to provide the finances Whitton requested, and political interests led to criticism of some of his decisions. As a result of financial contraints he was forced to build railways with  sharper curves and steeper gradients than he believed was ideal. Some of these sections have since been replaced by deviations, but others remain today.


Building the railway line across the Blue Mountains was a particular challenge. The steep terrain with numerous valleys and cliffs had made it difficult for explorers to find a passage to the west, and the tasks of constructing a railway would be even more demanding. Whitton designed two zig zags, the first use of such an arrangement on a main line in the world. One was at Lapstone, near the bottom of the climb from the east into the Blue Mountains, and one near Lithgow, which became known as the Great Zig Zag, where the line descended from the Blue Mountains towards the west. A contract for construction of the line between Clarence and Wallerawang, which included the Great Zig Zag, was awarded to Patrick Higgins for £328,284, by far the most expensive until that time in New South Wales. This section of line included three tunnels and seven viaducts. The Great Zig Zag enabled the railway to descend 687 feet (209 m) to the valley floor. It was necessary at times for surveyors to be hung by ropes to complete their work. When completed, the Great Zig Zag was widely acknowledged as an engineering marvel, attracting many sightseers, including from overseas. Both zig zags were eventually bypassed when traffic density increased.


Whitton designed many bridges, including the iron bridges over the Nepean River at Menangle and over the Murray River near Albury, as well as the sandstone viaduct across Stonequarry Creek at Picton, all of which are still used by trains. Other bridges designed by Whitton still exist, but many no longer have railway lines, such as the iron Victoria Bridge across the Nepean River at Penrith, which now carries a road, and the sandstone Knapsack Viaduct near Lapstone, which is now a walking and cycling path. Whitton designed many railway stations, using various styles to meet different needs. Stations in major towns were generally provided with large and elaborate buildings. Some of Whitton’s grand railway stations continue to serve passengers today, including Moss Vale, Goulburn, Wagga Wagga, Albury, Bathurst, Dubbo and Werris Creek.


Although the majority of Whitton’s work involved planning and supervising the building of new railway lines, he was also involved in railway operation and management. He chose designs for new locomotives and rolling stock, which were then modified to meet the operating conditions of New South Wales. The 2-4-0 23 Class and the 2-2-2 14 Class ordered by Whitton from Beyer, Peacock and Company, and the 0-6-0 17 Class ordered from Robert Stephenson and Company, proved to be successful, and subsequent locomote types incorparated many of the same features.


Not all of Whitton’s ideas were implemented. The day after he commenced work in Sydney he advocated before a select committee of the Legislative Assembly that the railways in New South Wales should be converted from standard (1435 mm) gauge to broad (1600 mm) gauge to make them compatible with the railways that had opened in Victoria and South Australia. Whitton could foresee a time in the future when the railways of different colonies within Australia would meet at the borders and different gauges would create significant problems. With only a small amount of railways open at the time it would not have been a major expense to change the gauge. Unfortunately Whitton’s advice was not accepted and the use of different gauges resulted in passengers needing to change trains and goods being transhipped at borders for many decades.


Whitton also argued that a railway should be built into the centre of the city of Sydney, proposing that a new terminal be built at the northern end of Hyde Park. The railway terminus when Whitton arrived in Sydney was in Cleveland Paddock, between the current Central and Redfern stations, which was some distance from the centre of the city. Although it was agreed that transport connections to the city centre needed to be improved, Whitton’s idea was not adopted. It was not until 1926 that a railway opened into the city centre when the line opened from Central to St James, a line that was underground, not the above ground line that Whitton had proposed.


Whitton was a man who demanded high standards. This enabled him to be successful in facilitating railway development in New South Wales. He was also described as authoritarian and severe. As a high salary earner, some people saw Whitton as a man of privilege. He was accused of corruption, but the allegations proved to be false.


John Rae was the Chief Commissioner of the New South Wales railways for seventeen years from 1861 to 1878, which was more than half of Whitton’s service in the state. Rae and Whitton became close friends and worked effectively together. Although Rae as Chief Commissioner took ultimate responsibility for decisions regarding the management of railways, he frequently sought advice from others, particularly Whitton, who had more experience and expertise in railways than himself. After Whitton’s death Rae wrote a biography about him.


Rae was succeeded in January 1878 by Charles Goodchap. Soon afterwards, a collision between two trains at Emu Plains on 30 January 1878 resulted from inadequate safeworking procedures. Goodchap had recognised the safeworking issues, and new rules had been approved but were not yet in place. The previous rules were issued by Rae, who had followed Whitton’s advice, and the reputations of both men were damaged.


Goodchap and Whitton had a long-running feud. Whitton resented Goodchap’s involvement in engineering matters, believing Goodchap had no expertise in these areas. Goodchap had different views to Whitton on many management issues. He wanted to assert his authority as Chief Commissioner, and Whitton’s responsibilities were reduced. The bitterness between them continued for many years. Goodchap retired from the railways in 1888 and Edward Eddy became Chief Commissioner of the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways. By this time Whitton’s working life was near an end.


The railways opened during Whitton’s career opened up new possibilites for trade and passenger travel, thus bringing economic prosperity for people throughout the state. He was a man of strong opinions and integrity, and this combined with his engineering expertise, enabled most of his views to prevail against criticism. Nevertheless, his influence began to decline in the latter part of his career. He took leave on 29 May 1889 and retired on 30 May 1890. John Whitton died on 20 February 1898 at Mittagong, aged 78 years. He was buried in St Thomas’s Cemetery, North Sydney. Whitton was survived by his wife Elizabeth, son Harry, and daughters Elizabeth and Annie.



Bayley, W A, Lithgow Zig Zag Railway, Locomotion Productions, Mount Victoria, 2000.

‘Biographical sketches of leading railway men past and present’, New South Wales Railway Budget, no. 158, 7 October 1905, pp. 332-333.

Gunn, J, Along parallel lines, Melbourne University Press, 1989.

Lee, R, Colonial engineer: John Whitton 1819-1898 and the building of Australia’s railways, Australian Railway Historical Society, Sydney, 2000.

New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways, Annual report of the railway Commissioners, for the year ending 30 June 1890,

     Parliament of New South Wales, 1890.

Rae, J, Thirty-Five Years on the New South Wales Railways: The work of the late Mr. John Whitton C. E., Engineer-in-Chief of the railways of

     New South Wales, Builder Printing Works, Sydney, 1898.

Singleton, C C, 'Whitton, John (1820–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 3 February 2019.


Plaque and bust on concourse of Central railway station, Sydney.



Albury railway station, near the border of New South Wales and Victoria, 3 January 2018. Albury was one of the grand stations designed by John Whitton.

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