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O'Connor's Dream for Water

Video clip synopsis – In 1890 C. Y. O'Connor was recruited to work as Chief Engineer in the newly self-governing colony of Western Australia, where he formed a dynamic partnership with the colony's larger-than-life Premier, John Forrest.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 3min 1sec
Tags - Australian History, cities, colonisation, Constructing Australia, federation, identity, Kalgoorlie, national identity, nationalism, natural resources, pioneers, water, see all tags


O'Connor's Dream for Water

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About the Video Clip


O’Connor’s Dream for Water is an excerpt from the film Pipe Dreams (55 mins), the second episode of the three-part series entitled Constructing Australia, produced in 2007.

Constructing Australia
Politics, tragedy and conquest combine in stories behind the building of Australia. The Bridge, Pipe Dreams, and A Wire Through the Heart, combine rare archival images with dramatic storytelling in showcasing three landmark events that would allow Australia to mark its place in the world. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Kalgoorlie Pipeline and the Overland Telegraph line were engineering triumphs, but the human drama in constructing Australia is even more fascinating.

Pipe Dreams
From the remote coast of Western Australia, to deep within its inhospitable interior, an immense water pipeline was being constructed that would unlock countless riches and help build the nation. This is a story of personal tragedy, political rivalries, corruption and trial by media that nearly tore apart Australia at the moment of its birth.

Pipe Dreams was produced with the assistance of ScreenWest and Lottery West. Developed and produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. A Film Australia Making History Production in association with Prospero Productions.

Curriculum Focus


Historic knowledge and understanding
Historic reasoning and interpretation

In Level 6 History, students have the opportunity to

  • Consider how the past is a great narrative of people’s lives, events both trivial and major, ideas and ways of thinking.
  • Develop perspectives on our nation, our region and our world.
  • Enhance their historical skills by using a range of sources and the higher order thinking skills of reasoning and interpretation.
  • Actively engage with a number of key historical concepts.

Other Links to VELS
Physical, Personal and Social Learning
Interpersonal Development

  • working and learning in teams
  • values as social constructs
  • resolving conflicts

Personal learning

  • ethical considerations
  • manage own learning

Interdisciplinary Learning – Opportunities for enhancing

  • Communication skills
  • ICT skills
  • Higher order thinking skills
This material is an extract. Teachers and Students should consult the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority website for more information.

Background Information


The discovery of gold in Coolgardie in 1892 and Kalgoorlie in 1893 not only brought wealth to Western Australia, it brought “t’othersiders”—gold-seekers from the eastern colonies on the other side of the Nullarbor Desert—and a host of problems for Premier John Forrest.

Isolated goldfields were ripe with precious metal, but the people were dying of thirst. The state’s first Premier and leading explorer, John Forrest, had a vision to take water across the desert to the goldfields. Chief Engineer Charles Yelverton O’Connor would turn his grand plan into reality.

O’Connor was Irish born. His family were landed gentry, but young O’Connor broke with family tradition to take up the new profession of engineering. At twenty-one he migrated to New Zealand, to work surveying for roads and railways, and by 1883 O’Connor was appointed New Zealand’s under-secretary for public works.

In 1890 O’Connor was recruited to work as Chief Engineer in the newly self-governing colony of Western Australia, where he formed a dynamic partnership with the colony’s larger-than-life Premier, John Forrest.

O’Connor extended the railways, and transformed Fremantle Harbour into a major international port. However O’Connor is best remembered for the goldfields’ Coolgardie Water Scheme, the system of pipelines that made the gold centres of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie habitable. Moving water uphill in the longest pipeline at that time in the world was a work of engineering genius. O’Connor was both imaginative and meticulous, witty, good company and a devoted family man. Being scrupulously honest and fair-minded himself, he was easily wounded by the malice of others. This sensitivity, combined with the stress and exhaustion of managing the pipeline scheme, is believed to have led to O’Connor’s suicide in 1902.

At the opening of the Coolgardie Water Scheme in 1903 John Forrest said: “I pay tribute to the memory of O’Connor, the great builder of this work. I am greatly saddened that he did not live to receive the honour so justly due to him.”

Classroom Activities

  1. Research and write a biography of 500–600 words about O’Connor’s life and achievements. You may illustrate the biography as required.
    1. Write an official governmental letter from Premier Forrest in Perth to C. Y. O’Connor in New Zealand with the purpose of influencing O’Connor and his family to give up their lives there and move to Perth for him to take up the position of Chief Engineer of Western Australia.
    2. In pairs or small groups, plan a scene where O’Connor and his family discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Forrest’s offer. Rehearse and present a play reading of the scene to the class. Draw upon other members of the class to take part in the reading as required.
  2. Ensure you know what a newspaper obituary is, perhaps by reading some samples in current newspapers and discussing in class the way they have been presented, then prepare and draft an obituary in about 500 words of the life and achievements of C. Y. O’Connor. (Remember that it is highly unlikely that an obituary would discuss in detail events surrounding a suicide.)
  3. In pairs, produce a poster or website display commemorating the combined achievements of Forrest and O’Connor in connection with the massive building programs they embarked upon together, and what this has meant not only to Western Australians but to Australians in general today.
  4. You are present at Coolgardie on the day ex-Premier Forrest officially turns on the water flow of the great pipeline, 24 January 1903. Write your personal impressions and feelings as a diary entry.

Further Resources


Frank Crowley, Big John Forrest 1847–1918: A Founding Father of the Commonwealth of Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, WA, 2000

A. G. Evans, CY O’Connor: His Life and Legacy, UWA Press, 2002

Richard Evans and Alex West, Constructing Australia, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2007

Albert Gaston, Coolgardie Gold, Hesperian Press, 1984

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