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John Jenkin
Research papers on Robert Hall Chapman (1890-1953)

MSS 0204

Biographical Note

Robert Hall Jenkin, ca. 1917, at the age of approximately 27

One of eight siblings, Robert Hall Chapman was born on the 5th January 1890, the son of Sir Robert William Chapman, the University of Adelaide’s first Professor of Engineering (1907), and Eva Maud Hall.  He attended St. Peter’s College from 1901 to 1906, winning the Wyatt Scholarship Prize in 1905 for finishing first in the end of year mathematics examination, and also the Bowman Scholarship Prize in 1906 for finishing first in the end of year physics examination.  He enrolled at The University of Adelaide in 1907 taking on a range of subjects that included mathematics, physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, surveying, geology, mining, metallurgy and railway engineering, amongst others.  He was awarded a B.Sc in 1910, a Diploma in Applied Science (Mining) in 1912 and eventually a Mechanical Engineering Degree in 1921.

When WWI broke out, Chapman was working as an engineer for the Railways and Tramways Construction Branch of the NSW Public Works Department.  He returned to Adelaide to enlist on the 25th June 1915, initially as a Private in D Company, 3rd Depot Battalion, but was later promoted to Officer in the Engineers.  When he arrived in England in 1916, Chapman was transferred to the Royal Engineers (Imperial Service) and served at the front in 237th Coy, Royal Engineers, where he gained valuable experience in the applications of engineering and artillery in the context of battle.  On the 5th of January 1917, his 27th birthday, Chapman was shot in the neck.  He was fortunate, though.  The bullet narrowly missed his windpipe and he returned the following month to France, where he joined the 1st Field Survey Coy, Royal Engineers, who were deployed to the J Sound Ranging Section.  Sound ranging offered a new method for determining the coordinates of a hostile artillery battery and made it easier for allied artillery to target the German guns.

Chapman contributed a great deal to these advancements before transferring to the British 2nd Army Calibration Service as Captain in the 22nd Observation Group.  Here, he began work on a new method of calibrating artillery.  This was known as screen calibration, in which the line and range accuracy of a gun could be determined by its firing through a series of wire screens, each placed at known distances from the muzzle.  The elements of the flight of the projectile could then be calculated simply by recording the intervals of time between its passage through the screens.  Unlike previous calibration methods, where the sheer volume of artillery fired at reference points would alert the enemy to imminent battle, screen calibration ensured an element of surprise.  This method was used for the first time, and with great success¸ by the British 4th Army and Monash’s Australian Corps in the battle of Amiens which began on the 8th August 1918 and was the beginning of the “Hundred Days Offensive” leading to the end of the war.

After the war, Chapman returned to the NSW Public Works Department, rising through the ranks from Chief Engineer in 1924 to Commissioner for the South Australian Railways in 1947.  During his career there, Chapman was involved in many exciting projects, from the updating of railway stations and locomotive depots to the testing and rebuilding of bridges.  He oversaw the redevelopment of the Islington workshops and he travelled extensively throughout South Africa, Europe, Canada and America in order to learn more about the construction and maintenance of their rail networks.  He experienced post-war highs within the organisation, managing more than 3,000 men; he also experienced the lows of the Depression and saw his staff reduced by two thirds.  WWII, however, brought with it much work for the South Australian Railways.  The workforce was bolstered as the organisation took on contracts to manufacture ammunition, gun carriers and aircraft components, building new structures to accommodate these activities along the way.  Chapman, too, was at the height of his career and assumed the role of South Australian Railways Commissioner in 1947.

On the home front, however, it was a challenging time for Chapman.  His mother passed away in 1946, followed by his wife in 1947, and then, tragically, his brother and both of his sons died in 1948 when they were swept from the rocks near the Delamere coastline on the Fleurieu Peninsula.  Chapman was reported to have taken solace in his work at this time.

Robert Hall Chapman was awarded C.M.G. in 1950, he was Chairman of the Adelaide division of the Institution of Engineers, a member of the Council of the University of Adelaide and of the Council of the Standards Association of Australia and he also lectured in civil engineering at the University of Sydney.

The papers listed below were collected by John Jenkin and deposited within the Library in 2015.

Contents Listing

Student years

1. SPSC School Lists 1910-1910

Photocopied extracts from St Peter’s College and University of Adelaide lists of students, prizes etc; correspondence with St Peter’s College re Chapman

2. University of Adelaide

Typescript of Chapman’s student record; typescript ‘The mystery of R.H. Chapman’s Adelaide degrees’ / John Jenkin 2014 (2 p.); extracts from Calendars; copies of official correspondence re Chapman from University Archives; correspondence with Archives and Special Collections; copies of newspaper articles

War service

3. World War I (National Archives of Australia Series no. B2455)
Copies of Chapman’s Australian Infantry Force service record 1915-16, 1925

4. World War I (Australian War Memorial)
Photocopies provided by the Australian War Memorial (PR04821) re

  • The Smith’s Weekly articles from 1930 by Sir John Monash in defence of the Australian Digger, along with associated contributions / correspondence between Monash, Robert Chapman and C.E.W. Bean
  • Chapman’s overseas service records and related material relating to Chapman’s work on gun calibration and appreciations thereof. Includes photograph of Chapman in army uniform

5. World War I (overseas service)

  • Copies of 2 letters from Chapman to W.L. Bragg 2/9/1951 & 29/11/1951 re proposed visit of Braggs to Australia (originals held by Royal Institution of Great Britain)
  • Copy of article ‘Calibration and ranging’ / Major H.C. Harrison (1920-21)
  • Copy of mention of Chapman in War Office despatch 7/4/1918
  • Copies of Army Medical Board records 1919 re Chapman from British National Archives, and correspondence between Jenkin, Peter Buske and John Payne
  • Copy of ‘A treatise by major R.H. Chapman on the calibration of guns and howitzers by the direct measurement of muzzle velocity, as carried out at Schols of Artillery in France and England (Chapperton Down), 1917 and 1918’ published UK ordinance Committee, August 1922, with annotations by Jenkin

6. Material supplied by researcher John Payne
Includes correspondence and

  • Copy of article ‘Engineer-soldier: Major Robert Chapman’ / John Payne (from ‘Digger’ 27, July 2009)
  • Timeline of Chapman’s military service
  • Calculations re the technical side of screen calibration development
  • Copies of correspondence from UK Army re Chapman’s experimentation with calibration for ship’s guns
  • Copy of letter from Chapman’s father (R.W. Chapman) 1916 re his brother’s death
  • Caricature of Chapman from The Mail 3/1/1948

Engineering career

7. Published references
Correspondence and photocopied extracts from published works re Chapman and his background:

  • W.A. Webb / R.I. Jennings
  • ‘They built South Australia … / D.A. Chapman and G.C. Moxham
  • ‘Who’s who in Australia’ 1938
  • ‘Notes on engineers, technicians, manufacturers and contractors who have served South Australia. Part I / D.A. Cumming

8. Material supplied by researcher Peter Buske

  • 2014 correspondence with Peter Buske
  • Copy of ‘Chapter 2: Robert Chapman: the Railways Commissioner’, draft extract from Buske’s ‘The Kangaroo Railways’

Biographical sources

9. State Library of SA

  • List of references related to Chapman available from the State Library of SA

10. The Advertiser (Adelaide)

  • List of references to Chapman in The Advertiser newspaper 1923-53

Collection measures 10 cm

Cheryl Hoskin
February 2016


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