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William Watt Erskine GRAY

Rank Reg/Ser No DOB Enlisted Discharge/Death Board
Lieut. 2485 28 yrs 20 Jul 1915 6 Feb 1920 4

Lieutenant William Watt Erskine Gray (1887-1954)


Early Life

William Watt Erskine Gray who enlisted on 20 July 1915 was a son of the Manse.  His father, William Gray was twice Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in South Australia and served as a missionary in the New Hebrides for 13 years as well as in a number of congregations in South Australia. During his time in the New Hebrides he took many photographs providing an amazing record of that country. Young William was born at Norwood, South Australia on 4 June 1887.  His mother was Elizabeth née McEwen.

William was educated at Prince Alfred College Adelaide, where he graduated in science and electrical engineering with honours.  When he enlisted he gave his occupation as Instructor of Engineering at a Technical College. In 1913 he was approved as a teacher in the diploma course in mechanical and electrical engineering and he also was a tutor in science at Emmanuel College then located in Wickham Terrace. While there he would have become known to Rev. Merrington who was much involved in the establishment of the University of Queensland.

William was 161lbs (73kg) in weight and 5ft 8in (173cm) tall. The Honour Board at Saint Andrew’s Uniting Church incorrectly shows his initials as W.E.W.

War Service

His service record shows his attendance at a school of instruction at Moore Park in Sydney between 1 January 1916 and 11 April 1916.  His promotion to sergeant on 2 October 1916 was while he was in Brisbane.  He departed Adelaide on the troopship A55 Itria on 14 August 1916 arriving in Devonport in Devon U.K. a little over eight weeks later on 10 October 1916.  On arrival he underwent Pioneer Training at Rollestone, a small village and former civil parish on Salisbury Plain near the River Till.  It is about 8km west of Amesbury.

He joined the 5th pioneer Battalion in France on 1 August 1917 and in December was promoted to Lieutenant.  Early in 1918 he was detached for duty with the Australian Corps Wireless Section. In August 1918 he was admitted to London General Hospital. It was not determined what his health problem was related to.  After discharge and a period of convalescence he was readmitted on 21 September 1918 during his leave.

On 19 April, his Service record notes a change in his next-of-kin to ‘wife, Mrs W. N. Gray living at Geneva Cottage Ascot Berkshire’.

Following the armistice, he was engaged in Non Military Employment in Naval architecture at the Armstrong Naval Yard, Newcastle upon Tyne from 14 February 1918 to 17 August 1919 . The report from the Naval Yard stated that:

“Lt Gray proved to be satisfactory in every way. He was given an opportunity of studying the latest methods of ship building and to participate in the production of the latest designs. His progress has been very good and he has conducted himself in a manner becoming his office.”

Post War

Accompanied by his wife Winifred, he sailed from England to Melbourne on HT Wahehe arriving in Melbourne on Sunday 13 December 1919.  They had four children Ronald, Margaret, Alan and Audrey Grace later Harvey (1925 – 2001).

He was discharged from the A.I.F. in Adelaide on Friday 6 February 1920 having been awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the 1914-1915 Medal.  Lt Gray died on Friday 19 November 1954.

Page 2 of the Canberra Times, Saturday 20 November 1954 reported: 

The death of Mr William Watt Erskine Gray occurred at the Canberra Community Hospital last night after a prolonged illness.  For many years, Mr Gray was chief electrical engineer in the A.C.T. and was responsible for most of the electricity services now enjoyed by A.C.T. residents.  After discharge, he joined Vickers Armstrong Limited, ship builders, at Newcastle on Tyne. He returned to Australia in 1920 when he was employed by William Adams Ltd, of Adelaide.  In 1924, Mr. Gray joined the Department of Works and Railways, coming to Canberra as assistant electrical engineer.  From this time Mr. Gray was associated with local electricity undertakings, and maintained a high standard of construction, and scientific investigations required for its development.  Mr Gray also initiated the rural electrification programme which has been carried out in the A.C.T. since 1945.  He was also responsible for the development of major electrical installations at Darwin and Alice Springs before and during the war years.  Prior to his retirement through ill health in 1952, Mr Gray had prepared the ground for the reversion to the Department of the Interior of the Electricity section.

Mr. Gray was well-known in Canberra community life, being chairman of the local Repatriation Committee, a post he has held since 1946, and a past president of Legacy.  In his youth, Mr Gray represented his university in inter-state lacrosse.  He was a foundation member and former director of the Canberra Services Club.  He is survived by his widow, two sons and two daughters.

In addition to publishing a number of papers on engineering subjects, a draft of William and Elizabeth Gray, Life on Tanna, New Hebrides, was written prior to his death but not completed.

Brisbane Telegraph. 23 August 1913
Canberra Times. 20 November 1954
Canberra Times.  22 November 1954
• National Archives of Australia
Australia, Birth Index, 1788-1922: Page 141, Vol Number 419.
• South Australian Obituatries
• Paterson, Douglas. Researching Prince Alfred College WW1 participants

Written by Bob Warrick, Brisbane.    March 2018 ©



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