The Newell Highway – Named after a pioneer road man

Taken from "Main Roads" Vol. 43 No. 2, December 1977

The Newell Highway , State Highway No. 17, is an extremely busy and important one. A glance at a map of New South Wales shows that it is one of those routes that are very basic to the road network, traversing the State virtually from one border to another.

In the case of the Newell, it is from south to north – from the Victorian border near Tocumwal to the Queensland border at Goondiwindi, except for section of the Mid-Western Highway from West Wyalong to Marsden and section of the Oxley Highway from Gilgandra to Coonabarabran. Lying west of the Great Dividing Range , it avoids the traffic problems of the crowded coastal corridor and is the longest highway in the State – extending a distance of 1,060km.

It is hardly coincidental that the man after whom this highway was named, Hugh Hamilton Newell, was in a very real sense basic to the foundation of the Department of Main Roads as we known it today.

The forerunner and prototype of the Department – the Main Roads Board – first saw the light of constitutional day in 1925 as a result of legislation initiated by the Fuller Coalition Nationalist Government. Newell was one of three original members of this Board, being appointed to the position on 9 March, 1925 , when he was 46 years old. The political historian, Professor Don Aitkin, looking back from a little later in Newell’s career, describes him as:

“…the one genuine road man on the Board and the man responsible for the Board’s rapid expansion since 1925”.

Hugh Newell was born in Belfast , Ireland , on 29 April, 1878 , and spent his early childhood in the United States of America . His family then moved to New South Wales and his education was completed at Newtown Superior Public School and Fort Street Model School .

Newell was always a “road man”. He began his training as a road-builder in 1894 when, just before his sixteenth birthday, he joined the Department of Public Works as an engineering cadet. After an initial period in the Roads and Bridges Section at Head Office, he transferred to field duties in 1897 and filled the positions of Field Assistant and District Engineer in a number of country centres, including Tenterfield, Newcastle and Bathurst . Newell was married in 1903, and returned to Head Office in 1917 to take charge of a section dealing with National Works and Local Government.

By 1924 he was District Engineer, Wollongong , and Manager of Port Kembla Electricity Power Supply and Harbour Works. Over the intervening period of thirty years he had become not only a first-rate, practical road man but also a skilful administrator.

Newell, with the other two members of the newly-formed Main Roads Board (John Garlick, President, and Tom Upton) began in 1925 to chart a course that was soon to make the Board the principal road-building authority in the state.

Colonel M.F. (late Sir Michael) Bruxner – after whom State Highway No. 16 has been named – was Minister for Local Government in the Bavin-Buttenshaw Government, which came into office in October, 1927. Bruxner was a great advocate of improved transport generally and had long known and admired the talents and character of Hugh Newell, having met Newell before World War 1 when he was working in the Tenterfield district.

Newell shared Bruxner’s love for the country and concern to improve conditions for those who lived there, while Bruxner shared Newell’s concern for better roads.

Bruxner set about the task of formulating a detailed policy for undertaking a concerted programme of improvements to the State’s roads. The numbers of cars using the roads had increased enormously – and underlined the need for urgent action. In 1923 there were approximately 71,000 motor vehicles registered in New South Wales and by 1928 this had risen to 210,000. Consequently, roads needed to be better designed, better built and better maintained.

It was deemed desirable to assign priorities for such works on the basis of a hierarchy of roads. The plan that Bruxner presented to the annual conference of the Shires Association on 22 May, 1928 , classified the State’s main roads into State Highways, Trunk Roads and Ordinary Main Roads. But, as Professor Aitkin says:

The main roads classification was not conceived solely nor even largely by Bruxner. He was not an inventor, not an original thinker…The details of the system were worked out by Bruxner and Newell one Saturday afternoon, on hands on knees on the map-bestrewn floor of the living-room in Bruxner’s Rose Bay house.”

It was typical of both of these men to see and attack problems quickly, and they acted with such speed that within seven months of Bruxner becoming Minister, his main roads policy had thus been developed and announced. Its legislative enactment followed a year later in 1929 with the passage of Main Roads (Amendment) Act in April, 1929.

From January, 1928, until August, 1930, Mr Newell was Deputy President of the Board while Mr Garlick took up a temporary appointment as a Civic Commissioner and later as Chief Civic Commissioner of the Corporation of the City of Sydney (which took over the administrative affairs of the Municipal Council).

A change of Government in November, 1930, saw the Hon. J. T. lang elected as Premier and Colonial Treasurer. Other changes were not long in coming and in December, 1931, legislation was passed altering the personnel of the Main Roads Board. Mr Garlick (whose seven year term as President was due to expire in January, 1932) was not re-appointed as a member but both appointments were only for one year – or less if changed by other legislation.

In March, 1932, with the passage of the Ministry of Transport Act, a major change in organisation was introduced with the setting up of a Department of Transport. The Main Roads Board ceased to exist and its powers and functions were transferred to a new corporate body – the Board of Transport Commissioners of New South Wales. There was a Transport Commissioner (Mr C. J. Goode) and seven commissioners responsible for a separate branch of the new Department. All main roads matters became a responsibility of the Way and Works Branch (which also controlled the construction and maintenance of railways and tramways) and were under the charge of Mr A. C. Fewtrell. Mr Newell was appointed as Transport Commissioner in charge of the Highway and Roads Transportation Branch and was responsible for “the registration, licensing and operations of aircraft and highway and road vehicles and traffic matters”.

Following the dismissal of the Premier, Mr Lang, by the Governor, Sir Philip Game, on Friday, 13 May, 1932, a Liberal-Country Party Coalition under the Hon. B. S. B. Stevens came to power. Lt-Col. Bruxner became Deputy Premier and Minister for Transport – positions he held for nine years until May, 1941. Late in June, 1932, a proclamation was issued transferring the administration of the Main Roads Act back to Mr Newell, who was vested with the full powers of the Transport Commissioners. The road transport aspects of Mr Newell’s duties earlier in the year were taken over my Mr S. A. Maddocks when he was appointed in August as Acting Transport Commissioner for Tramways and Road Transport, leaving Mr Newell responsible solely (and solely responsible) for main roads matters.

To round off a year of complicated changes, the passage of the Transport (Division of Functions) Act, 1932, constituted a Ministry of Transport and three Departments, namely Railways, Road Transport and Tramways, and Main Roads. On 29 December, 1932, Mr Newell was formally appointed as the first Commissioner for Main Roads.

It was a fitting appointment for a man who had contributed so much to the establishment of a competent new central roadbuilding authority during such critical formative years. It was, of course, in part at least, Bruxner’s recognition of his skill and dedication as a “road man” that assured Mr Newell’s appointed. Recognition also came to Mr Newell when he was created a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (C.B.E) in 1936. He was a Member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and was President of the New South Wales Advisory Committee of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London.

Mr Newell, was still Commissioner when he died of heart failure on 15 March, 1941, at the age of 63 and just over 16 years since his appointment to the Main Roads Board. Although in some photographs he looked stern and aloof, Hugh Newell was a kind and sympathetic man. He practised his Christianity unobtrusively and, despite the formidable programme of work he set himself, he went out of his way to foster good working and social relations among his staff. The Main Roads Social and Recreation Club – still thriving in 1977 – was founded by Mr Newell as early as 1930.

If Hugh Hamilton Newell was a “road man” by profession, he was also a “people man” by nature. It was therefore fitting that, in July, 1941, State Highway 17 – which links the people of three states – should have been named the Newell Highway to commemorate a man who understood so well the vital role of roads in the everyday life of the community. In November, 1941, Bellingen Shire Council gave the name “ Newell Falls ” to a waterfall which cascades its way pleasantly past Trunk Roads 76 between Bellingen and Dorrigo. A plaque records “appreciation of his untiring efforts in providing good roads”.

In the slim war-time economy edition of the Department’s 1940-41 Annual Report, more than one page out of a total of 24 was given to outlining Mr Newell’s work. One particular paragraph sums it up so well and is a fitting conclusion to this brief article on his brilliant career and his special place in this Department and this State’s history.

“Mr Newell had a unique knowledge of the whole of the State, acquired during his forty-seven years of public service, and this, together with his undoubted engineering and administrative ability, were invaluable attributes in coordinating main roads activities. By his untiring devotion to duty throughout the whole of his years in service he was a guiding influence in pioneering, developing and improving the roads system, which will serve as a lasting monument to him.”

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