Ernest Macartney de Burgh was born in Dublin in 1863, in his father’s parish, writes Justin Waples. The Dublin neighbourhood he grew up in was historically known for its brickworks and marshland. Locals know it today though as Sandymount.

The son of Reverend William de Burgh and Janett Macartney, Ernest was educated at the Royal College of Science for Ireland, which later became part of University College Dublin. De Burgh went on to be awarded a diploma of civil engineering from the Council of Education of Great Britain and Ireland in 1883. 

After a short stint working with an England-based engineering firm designing and constructing railways for Ireland, he was lured to the opportunities in Australia. In the 1880s, Australia was a booming, rapidly growing country, where workers enjoyed some of the highest wages anywhere in the world, sheep were plentiful, and there was gold to be had.

De Burgh was to become one of Australia’s most prominent engineers. His witty and likeable character, together with his engineering prowess, made him an Australian engineering legend.

Image: Ernest de Burgh (1863 – 1929), Wikimedia Creative Commons.

De Burgh arrived in Melbourne in 1885 on the Royal Mail Ship ‘Orient’. He quickly bypassed what was then considered the richest city in the world and made a beeline north to Sydney. It is no wonder he high-tailed it out of Melbourne as then the city was frequently referred to as ‘Smelbourne’. Its sanitary infrastructure was haemorrhaging under the rapidly increasing population.

About 900km north, in the coastal environs of Sydney Harbour, de Burgh was to begin his civil engineering career in earnest. Getting his foot in the door with the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Public Works as a surveyor, he quickly transitioned to building bridges all over the vast young state of NSW.

Fellow Irishman William Bennett helped him initially in making his way as a civil engineer in this new land, though it was De Burgh’s competency that truly forged his career.

Truss bridges were a favoured design in the early years of the NSW Department of Public Works. He developed a unique composite truss design that took advantage of the variety of construction materials that were quickly becoming available in the state.

By taking advantage of the characteristics of the different construction materials, de Burgh was able to design stiffer and sturdier truss bridges. This enabled him to achieve longer bridge spans than his local contemporaries.

The longest timber truss span built in the state was at Lane Cove River. It spanned 50 metres, and this record was attributed to de Burgh’s creative design approach.

The bridge was opened in December 1900 and was given the name De Burghs Bridge. Of the 20 plus truss bridges De Burgh designed, five remain listed under historic conservation status in NSW.

Furthermore, his unique truss designed was adopted as one of four truss design types to be frequently used by the state government. It became formally known as the de Burgh Truss, and was also employed on lift-span bridges in the state.

Image: Wagga Wagga Bridge 1895, Ernest de Burgh, 2nd from right; NSW Government.

To quote the NSW government… "The de Burg Truss includes the greatest variety of materials found in any of the NSW timber truss bridges, with mass concrete and reinforced concrete piers, rolled steel bottom chords, cast steel washer blocks, wrought iron cross girders, cast iron anchor blocks, brass in bearings and, of course, timber, for top chords, verticals, stringers and decks. Using each material to its best advantage in this way demonstrates excellence in design and understanding".

After de Burgh's early success with building bridges, fellow Irishman William Bennett reportedly offered him a position with the roads department, which he declined. He included in a letter to Bennett in March 1887…"something may turn up in which I may be able to be of use with Government. Something that is in a hurry and needs a man to go at it in a dogged, determined sort of way. A nasty river to bridge, sewerage problem to be worked on... and if you still retain a good opinion of me and no man has a right before me why here I am."

In 1903 de Burgh expanded his civil engineering abilities and was appointed by the state as the principal assistant engineer for rivers, water supply and drainage.

After being sent to England and France to study dam construction and water resources engineering, he returned and quickly got his feet wet by securing a significant water supply for the rapidly expanding city of Sydney.

By 1913 de Burgh was awarded the position of chief engineer for water supply and sewerage, a position he held until his retirement. He certainly put his mark on the water infrastructure for the state of New South Wales.

In the Sydney region alone, he was responsible for securing 434 gigalitres (GL) of water storage through the construction of four dams for the swiftly growing population of greater Sydney. 

Image: de Burgh’s Nepean Dam, circa 1928, NSW government.

De Burgh didn’t rest on his laurels though. The fact that Australia’s national capital city, Canberra, resides where it does today, is testament to his hydrological engineering.

After the forming of the Federation of Australia in 1901, there was a need to establish a federal capital city. The rural NSW site of Canberra, which at that time was a rural sheep station, lying roughly halfway between Melbourne and Sydney, was identified as a strong candidate for the new national capital.

De Burgh was invited to participate on the Federal Capital Advisory Committee and share his expertise in evaluating the feasibility of the nominated site for the new city. He not only established a plan to secure a reliable water supply for the new national capital, he also designed the framework for the sewerage system that would serve the city.

After completing his exploration of the region’s hydrology he wrote… "it is impossible to imagine a catchment from which a purer supply of water could be obtained…There are few cities in the world where such a magnificent supply of pure water is available".

Figure: Ernest De Burg’s Sewerage Scheme for Canberra, National Archives of Australia.

Only after his report to the federal government on the viability of the region’s water supply could the solicitation for the actual architectural design of the planned city actually begin. It may be argued that if it wasn’t for de Burgh, the Australian capital city would never have been built in the region known as Canberra.  

Fellow member of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee Charles Studdy Daley once referred to de Burgh as being "a drastic critic in expression, at the same time he possessed that characteristic Irish wit and humour that removed the sting but left the logic. He was adept at dealing with politicians, and it was a delight to hear him giving advice, in a racy manner, to the ministers".

His engineering endeavours also saw him being appointed to numerous other esteemed positions and responsibilities, including being on the Sydney Harbour Bridge Advisory Board; overseeing construction of one of Australia’s most important shipyard facilities, Cockatoo Island; and he was the designer of one of Australia’s most important and strategic deep water shipping harbours, Port Kembla, NSW.

De Burgh's impressive career not only earned him high regard from the Australian engineering community, he was also awarded two Telford Premiums from the Institution of Civil Engineers London. He sadly passed away in Sydney in 1929 at the age of 66, after succumbing to tuberculosis, only two years after retiring. 

Image: de Burg’s Port Kembla Harbour, NSW, Source NSW government.

Like Robert Mallet and Michael O’Shaunessy; Ernest de Burgh was a visionary. These three engineers embodied traits that perhaps grew out of growing up in a country that was experiencing tremendous hardship and overwhelming depravations.

Those formative years of these great Irish engineers manifested within each of them tenacious resilience, amazing vision and creativity, and a healthy respect for all humankind.

Later, as these determined men became accomplished engineers, those highly admirable personal qualities they each displayed were complemented with a dogged determination to never settle for mediocrity.

The lives of millions of people around the world have greatly benefited from the skill and resolve of these prodigious Irish engineers. 

Author: Justin Waples is an infrastructure asset planning engineer and intrapreneurial programme manager pursuing sustainability and resiliency in the built environment. He is a civil environmental engineer at Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, San Francisco Bay area.


1) Antill, J.M, (2006) de Burgh, Ernest Macartney (1863-1929) Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University, accessed August 19, 2023,

2) De Burgh, Ernest Macartney (1863-1929), Encyclopedia of Australian Science and Innovation, accessed August 20, 2023,

3) Earnest Macartney de Burgh (1863-1929) Timber Truss Bridges, New South Wales Government, accessed August 24, 2023, 

4) Engineering Heritage Canberra (2009), Canberra’s Main Outfall Sewer for the Award of Engineering Heritage Marker, Engineers Australia, NSW

5) John Armstrong (1988), Shaping the Hunter, Institution of Engineers Australia, Newey and Beath Printers, Pty Ltd, NSW

6) Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 5 April 1929, p 17, Mr E. M. De Burgh, Prominent Engineer’s Death, retrieved via National Library of Australia August 17, 2023, 

7) The Timber Truss Bridge Book, New South Wales Government, accessed August 15, 2023,