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Whitton, John (1820–1898)

Yesterday intelligence was received of the death of Mr John Whitton, at Mittagong, at the age of 79. Mr Whitton left Sydney on Thursday last, although then unwell, for Mittagong, and on Friday he was so ill that his medical adviser was sent for from Sydney. To the inquiries of the Railway Commissioners an intimation was sent on Friday last that he was slightly better, but yesterday news was received by Mr McLachlan, Secretary for Railways, that he had passed away. The Railway Commissioners were naturally concerned at Mr Whitton's death, as he was a man held by them in the very highest esteem. His death removes another of the great chiefs who have been instrumental in founding and building up the railway system of New South Wales, he being the third within a comparatively short time to pass away. First came the death of Mr. Goodchap, then followed the late Chief Commissioner, Mr Eddy, and now Mr Whitton has passed over to the majority.

Mr John Whitton was born at Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1819. After many years' experience on the English railways he was appointed, on the recommendation of the President of the Board of Trade, Engineer-in-Chief of the New South Wales railways in March, 1856, and subsequently had sole charge of the construction of railways, and also of railway surveys in the colony, and for many years he was also in charge of the locomotive and permanent way branches. In 1890 Mr Whitton retired, and was allotted a special pension in view of his lengthened and exceptional services. The amount was, however, considerably reduced by the Assembly on account of its unprecedented nature, which, it was feared, might give rise to similar claims in the case of other officers in the future.

Although he was not associated with the existing lines after the present Commissioners were appointed, they had a great deal to do with Mr. Whitton soon after the appointment of the present board, and the late Chief Commissioner, Mr Eddy, and Mr Whitton were close friends, Mr Eddy shortly after his appointment, seeking Mr Whitton's advice on many occasions. Mr Whitton was held in very high respect throughout the railway service, more particularly amongst those who had been associated with him, and though he was a man who never sought for popularity the evidence of his kindly disposition was shown in the esteem in which he was held by those who were subordinate to and most closely associated with him. The colony has a great deal to thank Mr Whitton for in laying the basis on sound lines of the railways of New South Wales. He was connected with them from their initiation, and had many a hard fight to carry out his ideas in regard to standard gauge lines. He was always looked upon as very conservative, but his conservatism, in the opinion of leading railway officers, was one of the best things that could have happened, as in the early days a number of wild ideas prevailed as to the kind of lines that should be made, and he had notably to fight great opposition in regard to the break of gauge, a strong agitation having at one time set in for a break of gauge at Goulburn and Bathurst, and the construction of light narrow-gauge railways or horse tramways from these points. Mr Whitton was wise enough to look ahead and foresee the great business that the trunk lines would eventually carry, and in spite of all opposition he was successful in having all the rail lines laid to the standard gauge and in substantially the way they exist to-day. It is difficult to judge accurately of his methods, but those best able to form an opinion say that in view of the times and the peculiar difficulties in regard to labour in the colony at the time his system of construction was undoubtedly the best, even though it has been found necessary by the Railway Commissioners in later days to make certain improvements in regard to the running ways.

He was a man of the strictest integrity and of great firmness of character, and he successfully resisted all 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. An instance of his firmness is related by one of the railway officers in regard to the appointment of two construction officers. The Minister controlling his department in a minute directed the appointment of two officers, and even fixed their salaries and duties. On the minute going before Mr Whitton, who was then Engineer-in-Chief, he peremptorily informed the Minister that he declined to carry out the instructions, as he considered the men whom the Minister wished to appoint were not required. On the matter coming before the Government Mr Whitton's action was upheld. This is an instance of resistance of political influence at a time when it might have wrought much harm, and this resistance is one of the causes which assisted materially in the successful management and operation of the New South Wales railways even before the appointment of the present non-political board.

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'Whitton, John (1820–1898)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/whitton-john-4844/text24652, accessed 21 September 2017.

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