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Forgie, Robert Clegg (1917–2002)

by Nicole Forgie

Clegg Forgie, who has died at 85, was the great-great-grandson of John Alford, pioneer settler and explorer after whom the Sydney suburb of Alfords Point is named. His great-grandmother, Mary Alford, born in Sydney in 1804, became the wife of the renowned colonial architect John Verge, who built some of this state's finest houses, including Camden Park for John Macarthur and Elizabeth Bay House for the colonial secretary Alexander Macleay.

Clegg himself was a man with extraordinary technical talent and practical ability. Born in Sydney during World War I and raised during the Great Depression, Clegg grew up with a tremendous sense of allegiance to his country and an unquestioning belief in his duty to serve his community. He studied successfully to become a civil engineer and combined his technical talents and strong beliefs in a way that benefited both his local community and the Australian public at large.

At just 24 he was appointed to the post of civil engineer for the vast Bogan Shire at Nyngan, in the west of NSW. One year later, on the outbreak of WWII, he was seconded to the Federal Allied Works Council to build fighter airstrips at Trangie, Orange (Millthorpe) and Schofields in Sydney. His skilful and efficient execution of these crucial projects drew him much acclaim. It was the mark of the man that what he required of his men he also asked of himself. He learnt to operate all equipment and was greatly respected for this hands-on approach and for his humanity towards his fellows.

When the war ended, Clegg was again co-opted to assist the public works department in constructing the Moorebank base ordinance depot, after which he returned to full-time duties as shire engineer. In his 14,000 square kilometre outback shire there were 1600km of so-called "roads", yet only about 160km were actually formed roads. There were many farmers and graziers who had access to their properties only via near impassable bush tracks.

Forgie decided to rectify this situation and by the time he retired there were 1280km of formed roads and every property had a road to its gate.

The west of NSW is an area routinely subjected to extremes of weather and in 1955 there was a flood crisis. After 275 millimtres of rain in 36 hours, Nyngan was threatened with inundation by the Bogan River. The river height reporting system had indicated that massive floods were headed for the town. An aircraft was made available and Clegg carried out an aerial survey of the spreading flood upstream. He calculated the time available before the flood would reach the town, then designed a rescue plan. He directed the urgent construction of a system of precise levees and as the waters rose he instigated what was to become a mammoth effort. Council workers and townsfolk used bulldozers, rollers, trucks and sandbags to push the levees into place. In just four days and nights of hard work the town was saved from the flood, the biggest in Nyngan's history at the time.

Clegg Forgie was a progressive thinker and an industrial modernist who had been fascinated with all things technical from an early age. As a youth, and throughout his life, he studied buildings, roads, railways, bridges and anything to do with transport and industry in Australia and overseas. As a lad he had studied the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and attended its official opening. He regularly visited and studied projects under construction, particularly engineering marvels such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, the Ord River project in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and the road and rail developments in the Hamersley Range.

As a result of his research and his forward-thinking approach, Clegg pioneered unique road building techniques for the outback. He constantly used his newfound knowledge to improve his shire and always shared it with fellow engineers. Technical journals published his papers. As one of the most highly regarded country roads builders in Australia, Clegg was appointed to the Australian Roads Research Board, a national body which met regularly to formulate policy and methods for road construction. Clegg was also asked to join the Federal Inland Development Organisation's committee to build the Alice Springs to Darwin highway. In 1976, he was made a fellow of the Institute of Engineers in recognition of his contribution to his profession.

Clegg was also keenly interested in aircraft and aviation. When just a boy, he had climbed onto the roof of his house to watch Charles Kingsford Smith land the Southern Cross on the grass fields at Mascot, after that historic first flight across the Pacific from America to Australia. This had quite an impact on Clegg, and he was always extremely proud not only of his wartime service but that his civic projects included the construction of Nyngan's first airstrip, built for use by Butler Air Transport's DC2s and DC3s, and which gave Nyngan its first commercial air service to Sydney in 1946.

His love of aviation and of travel took Clegg and his wife, Grace, around the world many times, making many lifelong friends. At home, he and Grace were hosts to countless visitors from overseas and acted as host parents to exchange students from across the globe.

Clegg also served his communities through service organisations such as Rotary International, to which he contributed for 32 years. Through Rotary, he helped to raise funds and to construct the Orange Rotary Park. He also went to Papua New Guinea as a volunteer to oversee the construction of the Wasu Wharf. He became district governor of Rotary and a Paul Harris fellow. He served on the Far West Children's Health Scheme, as well as on church and school committees, the historical society, and the arts council. He was a dedicated member of the Masonic fellowship, and of Probus. He supported many charities and donated prizes and medals to encourage children to achieve in their chosen fields. He was a founding contributor, patron or fellow to institutions such as the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, the Orange Regional Art Gallery and the Australian Naval Aviation Museum at Nowra.

Clegg lived through what we might now look back upon as a "golden age" during which transport, technology, construction, industry and aviation progressed at a rate never before seen. From the Southern Cross to the space shuttle, Clegg bore witness to some of mankind's greatest achievements and contributed, with consistency and dedication, to the success of a country that he loved.

He is survived by his wife Grace, with whom he shared 62 years of marriage, by three of his four children, and by eight grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 February 2003

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Citation details

Nicole Forgie, 'Forgie, Robert Clegg (1917–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/forgie-robert-clegg-15563/text26775, accessed 23 September 2019.

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