Personal reflections on C.Y. O’Connor: Statues & Nostalgia in Perth

Aside from family and friends there are few things I feel nostalgic about in Perth.

The stretch of beach between Ventnor St and Hale road is one. This is where I spent much of my free-time with brothers, friends and fictive kin during my school years. Another place that makes me homesick is the grounds of the University of Western Australia where I spent my undergraduate years. The other place is the stretch of coastline from South Beach in Fremantle.

I lived in Fremantle for years in an old limestone cottage where I wrote much of my honours thesis before moving to Brisbane. There were three anthropologists living on our street. It was such a lovely time. I walked my dog along the path that follows South Beach down to C.Y O’Connor beach and beyond every morning. I started out from the house and made an about turn homeward when I reached C.Y O’Connor sitting on his horse in the surf.

CY O'Connor, Horse + Rider (Tony Jones)

CY O'Connor, Horse + Rider (Tony Jones, bronze 6m tall, 1999)

This sculture is by Tony Jones and depicts Irish born Charles Yelverton O’Connor on his horse riding into the water at the place where he shot himself on 10 March 1902, leaving behind his wife Susan and seven children.

Charles O’Connor was born in 1843 in County Meath, Ireland. His education began with home schooling before attending Waterford Endowed school and being apprenticed out to a railway engineer, which was to determine the course of his life. O’Connor migrated to New Zealand when he was 21 where he held increasingly prestigious appointments, the last of which was ‘Marine engineer for the colony’ (1890). He resigned the following year to take up a position as ‘Engineer in Chief of Western Australia’. By this time he was already married with seven children. They relocated with him to Western Australia.

In W.A O’Connor set about designing Fremantle Harbour. Anyone who has spent time in Fremantle will surely hold an image and affection of the harbour in mind. I am not one to marvel and swoon over large scale infrastructure but there is something special about the port at Fremantle.


O’Connor acted against received wisdom designing the harbour. Apparently everyone advised against constructing the harbour in the mouth of the Swan River arguing that it would require constant intensive maintenance. 100 years of heavy shipping and use, however, attest to C.Y O’Connor’s unconventional approach. The harbour was completed in 1903.

It was a similar story with his second major West Australian works. O’Connor was commissioned to build the world’s longest water main pipeline from Perth to Kalgoorlie. There had been a succession of gold rushes in the late 1800’s and an associated population explosion in the central desert of Western Australia. They needed water for works and residents.

Again O’Connor faced much criticism but this time on a larger and more public scale in the media and government. A number of mainstream newspapers ran campaigns criticising not only the project but O’Connor’s character.

Charles used to ride his horse along the beach south of Fremantle every morning with his daughter Bridget, but on the 10th of March 1902 she was unwell. At the inquest held on Tuesday 11 March three jurors returned a verdict of ‘Death by his own hand through a bullet wound from a revolver at Robbs Jetty while in a state of mental derangement caused through worry and overwork’.

The statue of Charles on his horse in the surf evokes a beautiful melancholy that speaks of social isolation and weighted sadness.



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Filed under Current social issues, Incidental

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