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Joseph Timms (1859–1929)

by Rosemary Noble

Joseph Timms (1857–1929) railway contractor, timber miller and grazier was born at Creswick, Victoria. He was one of ten children of Thomas Timms, Ballarat goldfield pioneer and later sawmiller of Traralgon, and Jane, née Dugmore, born in Perth, Tasmania, and later a licensed hotel keeper in Broken Hill, New South Wales.

Timms married Agnes Macnamara in 1884 and had a son Joseph Thomas in 1885. However, Agnes died in 1887 and Joseph then married Isabella Macmullan in 1891 at Molong, NSW. He had three sons, Charles Stanley, Bruce and Roy and one daughter, Sylvia with Isabella.

Timms was an entrepreneur throughout his life, always seeking to turn a profit from opportunities that arose. He received little education and from an early age worked on the railways, first by carrying water to the navvies then later as horse boss on the Broken Hill railway. His love of horses was maintained throughout his life. By 1888 he was working as foreman for C & E Millar railway contractors on the Darwin to Pine Creek railway but was also licensee of the Pioneer Hotel in Burrundie and won the contract to supply Millars with rice to feed the Chinese involved in building the railway as well as gaining the contract to supply the Eveleen mail.

In the 1890s he moved to Western Australia and joined up with Henry Teesdale Smith to become Smith and Timms railway contractors and sawmillers, where they won several contracts to build railways including the Boyanup to Busselton Line (1893) York to Greenhills line (1897) and Kalgoorlie to Menzies line (1898). Timms bought Riverview, built by William Brookman, following Brookman’s bankruptcy in 1902, but sold it in October 1904.

By 1900 he had bought the St Hubert’s estate and Chateau Yering estates in Victoria. However, he was still building with Teasdale Smith railways in West Australia such as the Malcollm Laverton railway in 1903 but from 1909 his contracting business was mainly conducted from Adelaide, following the death of his wife, Isabella, in 1906. Still with Teasdale Smith he built the electric tramway system in Adelaide and further railway lines in South Australia.

However, they contracted for the Port Hedland to Marble Bar railway but this was a troubled line because of the heat and lack of labour and they were unable to finish it, leaving it to be completed by the WA government public works department. A further contract was Gloucester–Taree section of the NSW North-West coastline but once again they were unable to complete it and soon after Smith and Timms dissolved their partnership.

In 1914 Timms sold part of the St Hubert’s estate and in 1916 bought Nelyambo in the Darling district of NSW, a station of over 1,000,000 acres. His sheep business became a major part of his business interests and at one time sold 100,000 sheep to a single buyer but he was also heavily involved in horse racing and successfully owned a large stable of horses, which he finally sold in 1919.

He remained as a contractor building the Baroota reservoir in 1919. He also went into business with Sir Sidney Kidman both as contractors and pastoralists. There followed some bad investments such as the Eastern Trading Company, of which he was a director, which intended to log in Borneo, but failed to make a profit and in 1924 he contracted to build a thousand homes in Adelaide (the Colonel Light Gardens estate) but was in financial difficulties by March 1925 and the contract was taken from him. A royal commission to discover why the contract failed reported in October 1925. No blame was attached to Timms and it was apparent that the government was behind him but the bank was unable to extend credit.

Latterly he was engaged to work for contractors on the Rubicon hydro-electric works north of Melbourne, but ill health forced him to retire in November 1926.

Timms had been one of the greatest railway contractors in Australia, responsible for 3000 miles of railway and tramways, employing up to 3000 men. In December 1912 he, with Teesdale Smith, achieved the record for the greatest amount of railway and tramway track laid in Australia. He was credited with taking on jobs that others declined and bringing production line techniques to engineering projects, resulting in lower costs and faster delivery. He was also credited with dealing fairly with his workers, having himself been a navvy.

Timms died at Hawthorn, Victoria on September 26th 1929. His son Bruce had died in 1924 of gas poisoning from the western front. His brother, Charles Dugmore Timms, carried on the contracting business and built further railways, including the old Ghan and bridges, such as the floating bridge across the Derwent in Hobart.

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Citation details

Rosemary Noble, 'Timms, Joseph (1859–1929)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

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