James Hyndes Gillies

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James Hyndes Gillies (11 November 1861 – 26 September 1942) was the pioneer of Hydroelectricity in Tasmania and a metallurgist who patented a method for the electrolytic extraction of zinc. He was granted approval in 1909 by the Tasmanian parliament to construct and operate the Great Lake Scheme (which became known as Waddamana Power Stations) in the central highlands of Tasmania, which served the state reliably until 1960. The genesis of the scheme was an observation by mathematics professor Alexander McAulay and Harold Bisdee, a midlands land owner. The two had identified that two rivers, the Ouse and Shannon, flowed close to each other and yet significantly, at several hundred feet difference in altitude, making the land features ideal for channelling large volumes of water from the Shannon downhill to power turbines and generate electricity. The idea still required a bulk user with a large requirement for power to justify the cost and effort to bring it to life, which Gillies became.[1]

Early Life

Gillies parents had migrated from the Isle of Skye and had a traditional Presbyterian upbringing on a farm in Maitland NSW. He had thoughts of becoming a minister, however his early pursuits experimenting with farm machinery suggested otherwise: one exploration where he super-charged a steam engine blew up the family barn. At 24, Gillies married Annie Griffiths and after a number of years working in real estate in Eastern Sydney, Gillies qualified as a metallurgist from the NSW School of Mines and he, Annie with their four children, moved inland to mining towns in NSW.

It was during his career as a metallurgist that Gillies invented a method of reclaiming complex ores leftover in the tailings from the mining of zinc, lead, manganese, silver and gold. The mines of Broken Hill were surrounded by millions of tonnes of these tailings which contained a large proportion of zinc. Existing technologies of the time were rudimentary, relying on heating and hammering, which left much of the valuable minerals behind. In his mid-forties, Gillies took out a series of patents in America, Europe, Mexico and and Australasia over an electrolytic process for the treatment of complex zinciferous ores[2]. Gillies' process involved first crushing complex zinc-lead ore into coarse screenings, roasting it, fuming off the zinc and lead as oxides, dissolving the zinc oxides in sulphuric acid, filtering the solution to remove lead sulphate, arsenic, antimony and cadmium, then passing an electric current through the remaining solution to cause deposition of pure metallic zinc on the cathode.[3] Gillies’ first-born son Percy McPherson Gillies and another chemist called Val Corstorphan finessed the process and set up a small plant in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond. A syndicate of backers to the process later became known as the Complex Ores Company. The missing link to enable extraction of the zinc was undoubtably, abundant electricity. Gillies had calculated it would take as much as would power two dozen single bar heaters for an hour to produce a fist sized piece of zinc.

Tasmania in 1850

In 1850, Hobart was the second-largest city in Australia, but by 1891, the colony had entered a recession with several of the mines that had been lucrative having proven short-lived.[4]. More and more of Tasmania’s people were lured to the mainland and New Zealand on the promise of gold rushes, farming opportunities and factory work. Federation of Australia had introduced free interstate trade, meaning cheaper Victorian goods were unleashed into the Tasmanian market, squeezing many industries into closure. The remaining Primary industries were export apples and pears, timber and potatoes. Remaining secondary industries consisted only of jam and preserved fruit. The Tasmanian government was unable to raise money and consequently, the appetite for high-risk public works projects such as a hydro-electric scheme in a remote location was constrained. Just as the coal mines of Europe that powered steam engines were lifting societies into prosperity, so it was believed that the harnessing of water for electricity could be a pathway out of this economic and industrial stagnation. Supporting this idea in theory versus being prepared to fund and carry the risk of a major public works project were two totally different things, however, and Tasmania at the turn of the century was experiencing frequent changes of government and narrow majorities for the governments that were elected[1]

Early Electricity Generation

In principle, hydro-electricity is the transfer of kinetic energy from water into mechanical energy via turning turbines and then into electrical energy via a shaft connected to a generator containing banks of magnets rotating rapidly inside a conductor coil. In 1883, a German-born Manager of the Mount Bischoff Mining Company called Henry Kayser, after much trial, managed to power electric lights at the Mount Bischoff site in Tasmania’s west. By 1895 and after two teams of tunnellers took 16 months to blast and drill through a hillside, Launceston, Tasmania was the recipient of electric arc street lights which were powered by Launceston City Council’s Duck Reach Power Station, harnessing water off the South Esk River. Creating electricity locally and transporting it distances posed a different set of challenges though, converting direct current to high voltage to enable transport of power over long distances and avoid loss of energy through friction and heat was a worldwide issue. In 1886, American manufacturer George Westinghouse developed a generator capable of producing alternating current and a transformer capable of varying the voltage of the power to high voltages such as 22,000 volts, which overcame this problem. In 1893, List of Niagara Falls hydroelectric generating plants scheme was successfully completed at Niagara Falls with the power being transported 22 miles away to Buffalo, New York. Slowly, the emergence of global technologies came together to set the scene for Tasmania’s to have its turn as a great hydro-electricity producer.[1]

The Great Lake Scheme

In 1905 Professor Alexander McAulay had published an article in Hobart The Mercury newspaper presenting the idea of a highlands power scheme and in 1908 Gillies arrived in the state in search of a way to produce large amounts of power for his zinc process. Networking brought the two men together and Gillies own investigations of the state eventually lead him to crystallise his own certainty on the validity of the professor’s calculations and geography of the proposed site. Gillies documented the scheme and presented two options for a Great Lake Scheme to the Government of the time, option A was for a government scheme and option B was for a private scheme. Gillies and his team argued vehemently for option A, their rationale being that "power resources should be the common property of the whole people and be used for the development of the State generally".[5] The Government was unmoved and all too aware of the state’s lack of money and their own electoral vulnerability, insisting instead on Option B. Gillies faced much local opposition. His motivations were questioned, he was attacked as a monopolist, the project undermined by many both within the government and in the private sector. Local businessmen attacked Gillies publicly, aiming to weaken his resolve and enable the opportunity for a takeover. Professor McAulay's wife Ida described the situation as follows:

"Big business began to show its claws. There was a campaign to belittle [Gillies] and his process. All sorts of obstacles were put in the way of his obtaining the right to use the water for his scheme. Now that the project had been put forward there were men with powerful interests in Tasmania and on the mainland who realized that here was something big about to slip from their grasp. A newcomer, ‘an upstart’ as they named him, could not be allowed to carry off such a plum"[6]

Several months and much consternation ensued before the Complex Ores Act of 1909 was finally passed on 16 December 1909. The negotiations had been so brutal that many had expected Gillies to give up during the process. Several conditions had been wrenched back and forth between The Complex Ores Company and the Government. The Complex Ores Company owning the license to the scheme before the Government would be able to buy it back had been reduced from 21 years (the standard duration of similar legislation involving a private company and such a utility throughout the British Empire at the time) to 5 years by the Government. Gillies haggled the tenure back to 10 years but the contract provided he had 4 years to complete the scheme or the Government would have the right to buy it back. Imbedded in the legislation was also that any interruption to continuous operation would trigger forfeiture of all concessions and the requirement that Gillies was obligated to build a metallurgical works for the treatment of zinciferous ores. Gillies opposed this, saying it would scare investors and hamper his efforts to raise capital, but these conditions were insisted upon. Professor McAuley wrote to Gillies from his holiday home near the site of the scheme “a good case which is almost universally disbelieved in requires a remarkable man to turn the erroneous opinion, and this you have done”[5]

Feasibility studies performed by two Engineering firms confirmed the validity of the scheme but wanted it enlarged, increasing the cost which would need to be offset by revenue collected from electricity generated. Gillies reacted by approaching local government and shoring up contracts to supply street lighting to suburban areas, however his efforts to ensure customers for the power resulting from the scheme only arose suspicion from public and private sector that the Complex Ores Company had no intention of setting up a metallurgical works but rather, wanted to monopolise the market and control the power utility for its own purposes. Gillies retorted these critics by saying “We are going to use all the concessions under the Act in the fullest possible way, consistent with fair profit, to make Tasmania a great manufacturing state’.[5] To demonstrate this, it was announced that prospective power-using industries would be offered power at cost in return for shares.

The Complex Ores Company’s subsidiary Hydro-Electric Power and Metallurgical Company, Limited (HEPMCo), was formed in February 1911. Gillies sat on the board as Managing Director, Francis James Davies (a Melbourne Architect) as Chairman and John Ditchburn as secretary. Three Tasmanians were included: Civil Engineer Goerge Brettingham-Moore, Norman Ewing MHR, a barrister and politician and Tasmanian businessman Henry Jones, the man credited by the Daily Post with having led a vicious public campaign against Parliamentary approval of Gillies' scheme. Jones and Gillies butted heads from the outset: Jones insisted Gillies to travel to London to raise finance, whereas Gillies had argued domestic investors would be more familiar with the scheme, responsive and ready to open their wallets. Time proved this true, with British investors, though impressed by the engineering and conceptually open to the readiness of Tasmania’s consumers for the new technology, were put off by the restrictive conditions of the Complex Ores Bill.

Gillies pivoted to negate the issue by obtaining legal advice that the inclusion of a Calcium Carbide works would still comply with the enabling Act and this change of tack successfully allayed the investors’ concerns, as at the time there was no Tasmanian manufacturer of Calcium Carbide. Henry Jones arrived in London with the apparent intention of assisting with Gillies capital raising efforts. He then returned to Hobart in November 1911 to try and gain financial control of the project by offering to underwrite the financial risk and take over the construction. On hearing of this, the Melbourne board members were unimpressed and Jones eventually resigned from the board of HEPMCo.

The Complex Ores Act of 1909 had been passed in December 1909 giving Gillies four years to deliver stage one of the project or risk triggering contractual clauses. Securing finance had now taken up one and a half years which meant physical construction works on the scheme would now be forced to continue through the bitter Tasmanian highlands winters.[1]

Commencement of Works

Works began with the surveying of the 64 mile transmission line from Waddamana to Hobart in order for the necessary wayleaves through private properties to be acquired. Chief Engineer to the project John Butters, aged only 26 at the time, was dispatched to the United States to place orders for turbines, alternators, switch gear, transformers and transmission line. Delivery for the steel and cables was expected by February 1912 and the machinery for the power station, March 1912. In June 1912, HEPMCo contracted a Melbourne firm to build AC and DC distribution systems along the main roads leading to Hobart. In the meantime, the world’s leading electricity system designers Merz & McLellan had been appointed consulting engineers and had requested amendments to the scheme, increasing all of the following: the height of the dam, the capacity of the canal to the penstock lagoon and pipeline, the voltage, plus switching the intended mix of timber poles and steel towers to solely steel towers which were to be higher than those that had been planned. These augmentations of the scheme triggered new equipment being required from British Westinghouse in the UK, hydraulic pipes from Jens Orten-Boving in Norway, with more money needed to then pay for all this[1]. Gillies was still in London at the time and was asked to again approach investors and raise more capital.

Gillies returned from London on 3rd June 1912 where he had secured funding from existing investors but had little luck attracting new investors. He was critical in a press interview of members of Elliott Lewis (politician) Nationalist-led Government who, despite having travelled to London for the Coronation of George V and mingled with influential VIPS, had not publicly promoted the project. He is recorded to have said at the time:

"I was very much disappointed at Coronation time with the attitude of the former Tasmanian Government … towards the hydro-electric scheme. … Little or no reference was made to the power scheme by visiting members of the Government and by leading Tasmanian public men in speeches or even in addresses on the resources of the State delivered in London, while minor matters were dealt with fully. This fact was freely commented on by the financiers with whom I was dealing"[5]

In the same address, Gillies' frustration at the lack of financial and moral support by Tasmanian society at large was thinly veiled:

"Personally I consider this scheme semi-national, and trust the people of Tasmania will regard it in the same light , and that they will turn their minds to industrial enterprises that, with cheap power, can be successfully undertaken. At any rate, whether they do this or not, I hope their earnest and hearty support will be given to the Hydro-Electric Company, which is certain to do great things, not only for Hobart, but for the whole state."[5]

The HEPMCo’s first important job was the construction of an access road winding 6 miles up through the steep hillside from Waddamana Power Stations|Waddamana to higher ground. Construction of the road was achieved by men swinging picks, wheeling barrows and horses dragging carts. Rates of pay for the workers were aimed to compensate for the harsh conditions, though this proved a flimsy incentive and the turnover was high. Workers were expected to clothe themselves, supply their own tools and cook their own meals. At the peak of construction, the scheme had 450 men working under 20 gangers and foremen. Despite the conditions, progress was being made with a wooden tramway, roads, sawmills, a lime kiln, brickworks, carpenters’ shops and blacksmiths’ shops all having been built. The winter of 1912 being one of the harshest on record meant that work became nigh on impossible due to frost and snowstorms, with rocks in many places being covered with six inches of ice. The sun didn't reach the worksite at all during the day and the Ouse river was frozen a foot deep six feet from each bank. The site was described as an ‘arctic gulag’ and this was no exaggeration.[1]

On his return from London, Gillies promptly visited the site and telegrammed fellow board members in Melbourne the following:

"Owing to local weather conditions recommend stop all work on canal concentrate best labour on finishing dam, powerhouse and pipeline foundations to enable machinery to be erected as it arrives in accordance with contracts"

The following comments were made by visiting Constructional Engineer from British Westinghouse, Mr J.W Fraser:

"I have only been here for a couple of months, but I have had a fairly good look over the proposition, and am more interested than ever in this work. Excellent work has been done under severe conditions. Very few power schemes in the world have had such severe conditions to work under – you have had the most severe winter for years. Transportation, from the rail head, as well as the digging of the canal, have been very difficult, and I think the men who have carried out this work so successfully deserve much credit. Now that the weather has cleared up it will be possible to proceed more clearly"[5]

By the end of the 1912 winter, rumours swirled on the project failing and casting doubt on the HEPMCo’s financial viability. Fabricated reports were published that out of 220 men, only 10 remained. The truth was 240 had been hired and 40 had been laid off as a section of work reached completion. Head Engineer Butters and Gillies both took every possible opportunity to calm the public.[1]

The crisis of confidence was challenged by Gillies in an address to the Hobart Chamber of Commerce on 30th November 1912, where he described his visit to Trolhatten Falls in Sweden, where a 40,000 horsepower hydro-electric scheme had transformed a sleepy village into a booming industrial hub. He also expressed it was regrettable that so few in the Hobart business community were financially interested in the company because it was having a depressing effect on European investors.

An urgent cable seeking support from British Financiers was sent to London by the influential High (later Sir Hugh) Denison, who was a major shareholder in HEPMCo. With HEPMCo in a precarious position, Henry Jones and Norman Ewing made another takeover bid at a Melbourne Board meeting in November 1912. This failed when their backers pulled out, but the suggestion was then made to sell the scheme to the Tasmanian government. Ewing then issued an ‘unauthorised and extraordinary’ directive to Butters:

"Please discharge all men forthwith, except those absolutely necessary for the protection of the Company’s property, and if possible to one or two. Draw cheques for men as discharged, but do not draw any cheques for salaries as distinguished from wages".[5]

A select Committee from the Government headed by a long term opponent of the scheme took evidence from several directors, including Ewing and Gillies. Gillies as Managing Director and Davies as chairman, insisted that the company was still working to shore up more capital and had no need or intention to “approach the Government for the purpose of disposing of its rights and assets” at this stage. They survived the attempted coup with Ewing then resigning immediately both from the board and his firm resigning as the Company’s solicitors. Gillies then called upon the then Premier John Evans (who had backed the original Complex Ores Bill) for an 18 month extension. Evans pointed out to the parliament that the stringency of the money market, the harshness of the previous winter and the augmentations to the design of the scheme had all contributed to delays and were outside the control of the company. Further, the company had spent more than £100,000 in Tasmania and on equipment already delivered or currently en-route and more than proven their commitment to the state. The proposed extension was met with opposition by Labour Leader John Earle (Australian politician)|John Earle and his deputy Joe Lyons, who took umbrage with the Company’s plan to build a carbide works instead of the original zinc works.[1]

Gillies remarked in response to the issue of the newly elected Labour government being reluctant to grant an extension and calls from detractors for the calling of a forfeiture of the scheme by HEPMCo for a technical breach of contract:

" As soon as our finances are in order we shall push on with the construction of the hydro-electric works and preparation for works and starting works at North West Bay. We intend to start carbide works at once, and also works for the treatment of zinciferous ores. It was to obtain power for this process that I originally came to Tasmania, and there has nothing happened in the meantime to alter the Complex Ores Company’s belief that in it they had the solution of one of the greatest present day problems in the treatment of minerals. I cannot understand the attitude of the Labour Party in this matter of the extension of time … I believe that they have gathered the idea from somewhere that the scheme must fall, like a ripe plum, into the maw of the State…"[5]

The arrival of 1913 turned the tide with a change in Government. In April, a 12 month extension was granted and passed through the lower house with the support of the speaker, John Evans (Australian politician), who had supported the Complex Ores Act in 1909. £150,000 in extra capital was recommended as a figure to complete the Great Lake Scheme and build a carbide works and notice of this was cabled to London with also news of a powerful new board for HEPMCo.[1]

Government Takeover

The telegraph from HEPMCo’s head office in Melbourne landed into a scene of rising financial panic in London, where the emerging tensions that would ultimately result in the 1914-1918 World War I were building, meaning appetite for investment was almost non-existent. Gillies sourced £50,000 in Australia and selling the newly completed Hobart reticulation system to Hobart Gas Company. These cash injections enabled the company to employ a skeleton workforce to continue works but not the all-out assault that full funding would have allowed. Gillies asked the Government for a £25,000 capital advance to enable installation of the generating equipment before the 1914 winter set in. Another plan presented was that the Government buy the scheme in its entirety, at cost plus 5%.

These proposals presented the then Liberal Government with challenges. It held a delicate majority and yet the Labour Party was strongly opposed to any extension of time or financial assistance. Criticism of the scheme had long ago invaded the hearts and minds of the Parliament. A final 6 month extension was granted, bringing completion to July 1915, but no money was granted. The Labour party began manoeuvring to buy the scheme and the then-Premier Albert Solomon arranged for Evan Parry, the chief electrical engineer of New Zealand’s Public Works Department, to compile a report on the scheme and its ultimate viability.

Tasmanian businessmen including Sir Hugh Denison and Henry Jones were moving to take control of the company and their proposal included one condition that Denison was sickened to pass on: that Gillies should resign from the board. The directors of the Complex Ores Company rejected the offer but by now, work on the scheme was at an absolute standstill. This coincided with Evan Parry’s report being made available to the Government and it complimented the design, quality of work, low prices paid for equipment and the unit cost at which it would deliver power, once completed. The report recommended the Tasmanian Government take over the scheme.

Two days after this the Solomon government was defeated and the Labour party returned to Government. Moves were quickly made to itemize and document the assets of HEPMCo and the Hydro Electric Power and Metallurgical Company Purchase Bill was introduced to the Tasmanian parliament on 3 July 1914 and again after considerable negotiation, passed on 24th July 1914. The obligation for metallurgical and carbide works had been struck out, meaning the scheme had lost a major customer. Nonetheless, there would be no doubt construction would be completed now.[1]

Gillies Later Life

The Carbide works was ultimately closed due to declining use and other factors and by 1925, Gillies was 65 had no pension and no assets. He left Tasmania, moving to Sydney where he continued to work on various inventions, taking out patents for improved car lighting, sound-proofing with diatomaceous earth and for a new type of refrigeration using dry ice. This is in contrast to Henry Jones and John Butters, both of whom went on to be Knighted. The Gillies Pension Bill was introduced into parliament in 1925 by a Labour Government to provide a pension for Gillies, which recognised that he had been overcome by overwhelming economic forces whilst at the same time had initiated an economic revolution in Tasmania. The pension amount was three hundred pounds per year.

When the bill was introduced into the House of Assembly, there was agreement on both sides that the State was in debt to Gillies for his great contribution to its advancement. The Bill passed all stages in the House of Assembly without opposition, was however, jrejected in the Legislative council on three occasions, one without even debating it. Albert Ogilvie who as Attorney General introduced the first Bill, became Premier in 1934. In 1935 he introduced a similar bill which went through both houses quietly, ten years after it was first introduced.

The Premier, Joseph Lyons, wrote to tell Gillies of its decision. Gillies replied:

"You will realise that in this matter I am in a delicate position.......It comes to this, that in my fifteen years work in Tasmania has proved not of benefit to my backers, but of incalculable benefit to the people. It has added immensely to the capital value of Hobart and enriched many other parts of the State; should the government and parliament and the people feel under an obligation to recognise my services to the State - services which were given loyally for my Company - I shall feel honoured by whatsoever mark of appreciation they may give me. While saying this, I must add that the best reward I could have received would have been to see my Company continue in possession of its works and prosper, as we must have been, if we could have held on another year or so."

Gillies' acceptance made no reference to his opponents or the difficulties he tried to overcome. His son Albert is quoted as saying "James Gillies, now in his seventy second year, did not regard it in any sense as just a belated payment of a debt. He was too big a man to nurse a private grievance of injustice. To him and his wife and his family, its value was in the recognition that no greater honour can come to any man than the thanks of the Parliament on behalf of the people".[5]


Gillies died on 26 September 1942 aged seventy nine at South Camberwell, Melbourne, and was cremated, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Lupton, Roger (2000). Lifeblood. Edgecliff NSW: Focus Publishing Pty Ltd. pp. Chapters 1 and 2. ISBN 1-875359338.
  2. Biography - James Hyndes Gillies - Australian Dictionary of Biography (anu.edu.au)
  3. Gillies, PM. "The Electrolytic Treatment of Complex Zinciferous Ores' (a paper delivered to the Royal Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria on 27 July 1917)". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. Economy of Tasmania 1850-1930 - Cultural Artefact - Companion to Tasmanian History (utas.edu.au)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Gillies, AJ (1984). Tasmania's Struggle for Power. Tasmania: Michael Francis Lillas and Christine Anne Lillas. pp. 12–76. ISBN 0959817654.
  6. Ida McAulay Jnr, Kanna Leena, State Archives of Tasmania

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