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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ferguson, Mephan (1843–1919)

by George Parsons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Mephan Ferguson (1843-1919), manufacturer, was born on 25 July 1843 at Falkirk, Scotland, son of John Ferguson, contractor, and his wife, née Boyd. He arrived in Melbourne with his parents in 1854; after three years at Emerald Hill he moved to Ballarat, where he was indentured to John Price, a prosperous blacksmith. Seventeen years later he returned to Melbourne to establish himself as an ironfounder and railway contractor. The successful completion of one of his first large contracts, a bridge over the Yarra, enabled him to obtain much government work. He built twenty bridges on the north-eastern railway and eight on the Clifton Hill line; he manufactured and erected many footbridges, engine traverses and station verandahs, and he also fabricated the wrought-iron and cast-iron work, some 1300 tons in weight, for the Newport railway workshops. The cast-iron and wrought-iron work for the Maryborough and Seymour engine sheds came from his establishment, and he built up a large trade in bolts, nuts and buffers for the Victorian and other colonial railways.

Ferguson owed his early success to his entrepreneurial and technical skills and to the government's protectionist policy of awarding contracts to colonial firms. By 1885 he was well established. In that year, when Alfred Deakin returned from California and decided that wrought-iron pipes should replace cast-iron in the Melbourne water supply, Ferguson acted promptly. He won government contracts for the supply of wrought-iron piping, and bought the Glasgow Iron Works in West Melbourne where he established a new factory and testing works. He also imported the latest hydraulic machinery and designed a plant said to match any in the world. Ferguson had earlier bought the Carlton foundry, and now employed 300 hands. His outlay was more than covered by an output of £150,000 a year, and he soon had to establish new buildings on a ten-acre (4 ha) site at Footscray.

Ferguson continued his experiments with wrought-iron pipes, and perfected straight-riveted, longitudinal and transverse seams and, more important, pipes with spiral seams. Seventy miles (113 km) of this lighter piping was used in the Melbourne water supply by 1909, while Ferguson also supplied the pipes for many of the Victorian Water Trusts, the Chaffey brothers' irrigation scheme and similar ventures in New Zealand, Ceylon and Malaya. He also patented a locking bar or rivetless pipe which was first used by the South Australian government. He achieved world-wide attention by defeating overseas competitors for the contract to supply 360 miles (530 km) of thirty-inch (76 cm) steel main for the Kalgoorlie pipeline in Western Australia. Soon afterwards he won a large contract for the Mona Gas Co. at Tipton, South Staffordshire, despite heavy competition. He designed and manufactured his own plant at Footscray, and shipped it to England where his work was highly praised. One English journal saw it as a 'welcome landmark in the path of Imperial progress', but English contractors were not so pleased. Ferguson continued to expand his bridge and railway work, despite depression in the 1890s, and held many contracts for wrought-iron piping in the Australian colonies. The firm also developed a large general engineering trade, including marine boilers, and won contracts for various sewerage schemes. His continued emphasis on innovation and research, and his policy of reinvesting profits in the firm accounted for much of its success.

Ferguson married first, Agnes Shand, by whom he had five sons and two daughters, and second, Maggie Kennedy, by whom he had one daughter. He died at Falkirk, Royal Parade, Parkville, on 2 November 1919, leaving an estate worth £14,000. He was survived by three sons and three daughters; one son was killed in World War I. The vast industry Ferguson built declined after his death but he had shown what enterprise and research could achieve.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • H. Michell (ed), Footscray's First Fifty Years (Footscray, 1909)
  • ‘Men of today. Mephan Ferguson’, Scientific Australian, 20 Mar 1886
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Mar 1886, 3 Nov 1919
  • Victorian Engineer, 15 June 1886.

Citation details

George Parsons, 'Ferguson, Mephan (1843–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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