Public Works Department (previously the Department of the Commissioner of Public Works)

Public Record Office Victoria
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Full description

Establishment and Functions

Following the achievement of responsible government in late 1855, Charles Pasley, previously the Colonial Engineer was appointed Commissioner of Public Works and became responsible for the co-ordination of all public works and for the administration of the Public Works Department, previously known as the Department of the Commissioner of Public Works.

The Public Works Department was responsible for public works and buildings (1855-1987), including property and accommodation management (to 1985), building and government accommodation services and supply of stores, furniture and equipment (to 1987); preservation of historic buildings (to 1973) and historic government buildings (to 1983); main roads and bridges (1877-1913); rural water supply (1860-1867); and Melbourne water supply and sewerage (1855-1891); local government (1855-1958); tourist resorts and facilities (?1922-1958); tourist roads; ports and harbours (1900-1983); including fisheries (1900-1910), aspects of immigration (1900-1923; 1927-1930); metropolitan foreshores (to 1956; 1974-1983), Alfred Graving Dock (1900-1917), marina permits (to 1987), wire netting advances (to 1928) and licences for the occupation of unused roads and water frontages (to 1928) and cemeteries (to 1873).

In 1987 one of the longest established departments was abolished when the newly appointed Minister for Housing and Construction (VRG 88) assumed responsibility for all major functions then under the administration of the Minister of Public Works and the Ministry of Housing and Construction (VA 2907) was established.

Establishment of the Board of Land and Works VA 744

Some of the administrative difficulties which may have prompted the Government to establish the Board of Land and Works (VA 744) in 1857, were described in the "Report from the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on Public Works" in 1853/4. Papers Presented to Parliament 1853/4 Vol.3. The Select Committee had noted "the want of co-operation between different departments; the loose mode of authorizing expenditure; the unsatisfactory manner of dealing with tenders and the delays in payments, all of which cause unnecessary waste of the Public Funds and enhance the cost of Public Works....".

The former Colonial Architect, Henry Ginn, advocated the establishment of a Board consisting of the Surveyor-General, the Colonial Engineer and the Colonial Architect who would be jointly responsible for all public works. He recommended that the Board should be empowered to decide upon tenders; to consider the plans for proposed public works and buildings and to determine their location; and that once the work had been completed, the Board should inspect it and determine whether the design and specifications had been met.

The Government opted instead for the appointment of a Commissioner of Public Works who was to be responsible for the co-ordination of all Public Works from 1855.

The Board of Land and Works was established by statute in 1857 (An Act to establish a Board of Land and Works, No.31) because it was considered that the administration of public lands and public works would be more effectually and economically managed if they were consolidated and placed under one head. Under the provisions of the "Act to establish a Board of Land and Works", all powers previously vested in the Commissioner of Public Works and the Surveyor General were to be vested in the Board and Letters Patent dated 28 April 1857, formally abolished the two positions of Commissioner of Public Works and Surveyor General or Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey.

The Departments of the Civil Service which were then under the respective control of those two positions together with the Central Roads Board (VA 2803) which was disbanded from 1 January 1858, were to be consolidated in the Board and effectively became sub-departments. While there was clearly an intent to achieve consolidation, the extent to which the sub-departments were administratively integrated following the establishment of the Board in 1857 is uncertain and from late 1858 and the re-appointment of a Commissioner of Public Works and a Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey, the sub-departments are clearly administratively separate.

The Board was initially to consist of between three and five members. The only political member of the Board was to be the President and the Act specifically precluded the other members of the Board from being members of either the Legislative Council or the Legislative Assembly. The President and one other member constituted a quorum and the first four non-political members to be appointed to the Board were the Inspector General of Public Works and Railways; the Surveyor-General; the Commissioner of Roads and Bridges and the Engineer in Chief of Railways. (See supplemental Report of Civil Service Commission in Papers Presented Parliament 59/1859-1860 Vol.IV).

In June 1858 this arrangement was altered slightly to allow for a vice-president, who was also a Minister, to sit in the absence of the President. In December 1858 the Governor appointed Charles Gavan Duffy as Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey and George Samuel Wegg Horne as Commissioner of Public Works apparently reviving the old ministerial offices. Yet although the positions were nominally the same and the incumbents were responsible ministers, the powers and duties of the previous positions had been vested in the Board of Land and Works by the 1857 Act. Statutory responsibility for the functions they administered remained with the Board until its abolition in 1964. By c1859/60 the Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey and the Commissioner of Public Works acted as the President and Vice-President of the Board respectively. The Board was officially incorporated with a common seal in 1860 (Civil Service Commission 1859 Supplemental Report).

Operation and Responsibilities of the Board of Land and Works

Although one of the primary purposes in establishing the Board of Land and Works was to achieve a consolidation of the administration of all matters relating to public land and works under one head, this was quickly undermined by the manner in which the Board operated. A report of the Civil Service Commission of 1859/60 noted that "... although the Board nominally remains, a return has practically been made to the former system of two separate departments, each under the direction of a Responsible Minister and each with its several sub-departments." At those meetings of the Board held to determine Land and Survey or Roads and Bridges matters the President (Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey) presided, whilst the Vice-President (Commissioner of Public Works) sat as head of the Board when public works or railway matters were to be discussed.

In 1865 "An Act to Amend and Consolidate the Laws Relating to Public Works" (No.289) (referred to as the Public Works Statute) was passed. Section 12 listed the duties of the Board as "... consider and determine all matters and questions relating to the adoption of any plans and specifications for public works and shall consider and deal with all requisitions for buildings, furniture, or repairs and shall decide upon the acceptance of all tenders for such works, buildings, furniture or repairs and the terms and conditions on which the same shall be accepted ... and all other matters and questions relating to or concerning the public lands, works and buildings of the colony." Together with its responsibility for public lands and works the Board was also responsible for overseeing the construction and maintenance of railways, sewerage works, domestic water supply works for both Melbourne and Geelong, and the electric telegraph lines. Such responsibility extended to the making of by-laws and the levying of tolls, etc. Although statutory responsibility for these functions was vested in the Board, operational responsibility was effectively exercised by various sub-departments of the Board including the Public Works Department (VA 669) and a number of these sub-departments became Departments of State on the abolition of the Board in 1964.

Under the provisions of the Public Lands and Works Act 1964 (No.7228) the Commissioner of Public Works became the Minister of Public Works in whom were vested the relevant statutory powers of the Board of Land and Works.


The primary responsibility of the Public Works Department was the construction and maintenance of the colony's and later the State's public works and buildings. Prior to 1855, responsibility for these functions had been exercised by the Colonial Engineer and the Colonial Architect. For further information about the administration of public works in the period 1836-1855, see VRG 28 Public Works.

Although research into the way in which the Department exercised its responsibility for public works and buildings is yet to be undertaken, it is clear that the civil establishment of the Department always included a very significant number of architects, engineers, draftsmen and inspectors who together were responsible for the design and construction of public buildings, the preparation of plans and specifications, the preparation of estimates for furniture and fittings and the supervision and inspection of all public works and buildings under construction.

It is also apparent that most of this work was undertaken by contractors but the role and responsibility of the Department in the letting and supervision of contracts is yet to be researched. Until 1964, statutory responsibility for the design, construction and maintenance of public buildings, the approval of plans and specifications, the consideration of tenders, the supervision of contracts and the approval of requisitions for buildings, furniture and repairs was vested in the Board of Land and Works (VA 744).

Transfer of Public Buildings and Related Functions from the Public Works Department

In 1985 the Property and Services Division was transferred from the Public Works Department to the Department of Property and Services (VA 430). This Division was responsible for the purchase, acquisition, leasing and rental of properties for State government departments in accordance with the policies of the State Accommodation Committee and under the direction of the Victorian Public Offices Corporation. The Division was also responsible for the security of government property, the provision of janitorial services, and management of canteens, cafeterias, a light transport fleet and vehicle parking.

In 1987 a Ministry of Housing and Construction was established and assumed responsibility for the planning, design and construction of public buildings and the restoration and maintenance of existing buildings for the Government and agencies funded from the State budget; the supply of furniture, stores and equipment to government agencies; the fitout of government accommodation and the maintenance of air-conditioning in government buildings.


Main Roads and Bridges

On 1 September 1877, by Order of the Governor-in-Council, the administration of matters relating to roads and bridges was separated from the administration of railways and responsibility was assumed by the Roads and Bridges Branch of the Public Works Department (VA 669). Responsibility for main roads and bridges had previously been exercised by the Department of Roads and Bridges (VA 2964) from 1858 to 1871 and the Department of Railways and Roads (VA 2875) from 1871 to 1877.

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