Alfred Goninan

(1865-1953) – Railway man

Son of a tin-dresser from the Geevor area, Alfred became a marine engineer and settled in Australia. Here he built up an international business based on railway rolling stock supply, and visited America in 1917-18 to get equipment and new ideas. Later, he was presented at court in London.

Credit: Geevor Tin Mine, Pendeen

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Alfred was born in St Just-in-Penwith, the son of a tin-dresser.  His father had migrated to Australia aged 16. He returned ten years later and married the daughter of a family that had given him shelter from a blizzard just before he left!

Alfred attended the Wesleyan Day School before eventually becoming an apprentice at Holman’s engineering works at Nancherrow.  He went to London in 1885 to see the International Inventions Exhibition and Crystal Palace.  With tin mining in the doldrums young Alfred realised that there was no future for him in Cornwall, so he went to sea as a marine engineer.

At the age of 23 Alfred was sailing the world and became the youngest Chief Engineer in the British Mercantile Marine.  He married in 1889 and in 1891 migrated to Australia and took up a position ashore.  He had various jobs before establishing a general engineering and agricultural implement making business in New South Wales with his brother, Ralph.  The business spread to cover other areas of engineering such as the making of pitheads, boilers and wagons. 

The First World War was a time of great opportunity for the steel industry in Australia and laid the foundation for future industrialisation.  In 1917 Alfred helped establish a new company called the Commonwealth Steel Products Co. Ltd. to make axles, wheels and tyres for railway rolling stock (Belgian imports having dried up due to the war).  He also braved the danger of being torpedoed and travelled to America to buy machinery and get ideas a number of times before the end of the war.

Production of axles began in 1919 with a new Goninan factory and foundry; shareholders included the British company, Taylor Brothers.  This may well be why Alfred and his wife were presented at court on a visit to London in 1922.  The following year another British firm, Vickers, became associated with Goninan’s company and, in 1924, the Goninan Bridge Corporation was established to (unsuccessfully) bid for the Sydney Harbour Bridge contract. 

Alfred left the company in 1933 and died at his home in Chatswood, Sydney in 1953.  The foundry closed in 1985, marking the end of an era in general engineering, but the firm bore the Goninan name until 2005 when it became United Group Rail.  

Key words: mining

Credit: Geevor Tin Mine, Pendeen