|Country of Origin||Northern Ireland|
|Date of Birth||4th September 1834|
|Year of Arrival in Australia||1854|
|Submitted by||Valerie Howse|
Born at Lislaird, a small townland near Castlederg in County Tyrone, his family was of Scots-Irish descent & his parents were Arthur Robb, a farmer & Sarah (nee Bird). Aged 19, John, together with two brothers, Robert, 18 & Samuel, 15, embarked on the 1307 ton ship, ‘Fitzjames\’ with Captain Hamilton & 456 passengers. They sailed from Liverpool on 14th June & arrived in Melbourne on 14th October 1854. John\’s occupation was given as ‘agricultural labourer\’.
While in the Bay of Biscay, their ship collided with the ‘Charles\’, a small 190 ton ship carrying 30 immigrants from the Port of Jersey, including Thomas Stranger, his wife & 4 children. Fortunately both ships managed to complete their journeys to Australia, for not only did John Robb subsequently obtain employment as a stone carter with the said Thomas Stranger, a quarry master at Collingwood & Brunswick, but on 6th October 1858 John married his employer\’s 18 year old daughter, Elizabeth.
Together with his father-in-law, John was engaged on his first important railway contract Ð the removal of one of Melbourne\’s historic landmarks, Batman\’s Hill, to make way for Spencer St Railway Station. In those early days of Melbourne, excavating was accomplished with dynamite, wagons & hard labour. At this time of tremendous growth & development demand was high for new rail routes & these were John Robb\’s principal contracts – he went on to build railways throughout Australia. In Victoria he built the Geelong to Colac; Portland to Hamilton & Ararat; Morwell to Mirboo; Murtoa to Warracknabeal; the Narracan Valley line & several others. He also built railways in SA, WA & QLD, & in Tasmania the state\’s first railway & landed the first locomotive in 1868.
Robb was also engaged in other construction projects including water supply & drainage in Victoria; a section of the Adelaide sewers; the Royal Exchange Building in King William Street, Adelaide; Robbs Buildings in Collins St, Melbourne; & the Victor Harbour screw pile jetty & Breakwater in South Australia Ð ‘the construction of the screw pile jetty & breakwater was carried out on a large scale & was one of the biggest undertakings attempted in SA at the time. The amount of mechanical equipment assembled for the work was considerable as at that time mechanisation of large construction works was only in its infancy. This is one fact that adds to Victor Harbour holding a unique place in SA history.’
Another construction project of significance is the Kuranda Railway in far North QLD. Any visitor to Cairns will know of or indeed have travelled on this 15 mile section of railway running some of the wildest & most picturesque scenery in Australia, involving a climb of 1,000\’ in 12 miles as is winds its way up the precipitous Barron Gorge. It has been termed in a tourist brochure as Ð ‘an engineering feat of tremendous magnitude that has shaped Nth QLD\’. On 21st Jan 1887, John Robb\’s tender of £290,094 for the section between Kamerunga & Myola was accepted. Work commenced in the same year. The purpose of the railway was a link between the inland pastoral & mining settlements & the port of Cairns. Robb\’s Monument, a huge pillar of natural stone on the outer side of the line high up at the edge of the Barron Gorge stands today where it was left & named in his honour by the work gangs. Once the Italian flag fluttered from its 70\’ top, for among the workers of many nationalities imported by the shipload were Italian men.
Not surprisingly the final cost of the project was far above Robb\’s original tender & in 1892 he filed a claim with the QLD Government for an added sum of £262,311 but after lengthy & costly arbitration was only awarded £20,000. This loss contributed to John Robb\’s being declared insolvent in October 1894, after he had suffered severe financial loss from his share, real estate & agricultural holdings. He died at the age of 61 in Melbourne on 18/5/1896 of a stroke while attending a business meeting. He was survived by his wife, 7 of his 13 children & many grandchildren. An obituary in the Adelaide Advertiser summed up his achievements of his 42 years in Australia;
‘Both surprise & regret will be felt at the announcement of the death of Mr John Robb who was widely known & highly esteemed all over AustralasiaÉ. Mr Robb was one of the most extensive & successful contractors in AustraliaÉ.. A mention of some of the works he carried out is sufficient to show the colossal nature of his business undertakings ‘