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Kenneth Davies Nelson 1921-2017


Welsh émigré who took part in Victoria's big irrigation and water projects of the 1950s and wrote internationally respected technical books for engineers.

Kenneth Davies Nelson was born in the small coalmining town of Llandebie, Carmarthenshire, South Wales, on 3 August 1921. In 1941, he studied civil engineering at University College, Cardiff and like his father before him, gained the Colonel Page Prize at the end of his first year.

He enlisted in the RAF but was swiftly commissioned into the army, serving three years in the Far East. He spent two years in Burma during the War and another year in Singapore afterwards.  Ken was recruited by Victoria's Rivers and Water Supply Commission (then, the Victorian Water Commission), to contribute to large-scale irrigation and water-supply schemes.

Arriving in Melbourne in March 1950, Ken was first employed on the Cairn Curran Project, near Maldon, supervising foundation excavation and spillway work. By the end of the year he had been transferred to the Central Gippsland Irrigation Project to work on Glenmaggie Dam and the Tarago River Diversion Project.

There, in Heyfield, Ken met his first wife June Grace Ayres, whom he would take, with their daughter Anitra, back to Wales in the mid-1950s to research water pollution, contributing to reforms to Victorian water policy, passed by the government in the 1960s.

Ken became engineer-in-charge of the Farm Water Supply Branch in the Soil Conservation Authority in 1966. After the Victorian government withdrew from constructing dams, demand for small, private earth-dams increased. Consequently, the Water Research Foundation of Australia gave Ken a grant to write a book for farmers. Design and Construction of Small Earth Dams (1985, reprinted 1991 and 1996, 2nd ed. 1997), attracted international interest and remains a useful handbook on permaculture booklists. 

Ken's father Archibald (‘Archie’) Nelson (1893–1969), one of Britain's best-known mining engineers and geologists, spent several years of his retirement living with his son's family – which now included Ken's second daughter, Margaret – on the Mornington Peninsula. Father and son’s first co-authored book, Dictionary of Applied Geology, Mining and Civil Engineering, (1967, George Newnes) was republished (1968) by Elsevier for distribution in Europe and the USA as Concise Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Applied Geology, Mining and Civil Engineering, later translated into Portuguese.  Ken co-authored another book with his father (d. 1969) though he was left to complete their Dictionary of Water and Water Engineering (Butterworth, 1973) alone.

In 1975 Ken married Shirley Dallas Roberts, a distinguished radiologist who in retirement mainly wrote medical biographies. Ken went on to write Water Resources (Lothian, Melbourne, 1979) for secondary school students and teachers, covering various aspects of Australia's water development since white settlement.

Retiring in 1983, Ken became a consultant and technical writer, completing another book and more than 50 technical papers and journalistic articles. He continued writing and publishing until he turned 90 in 2011, when Shirley's death deeply affected him.

Ken was not only an esteemed alumnus of Cardiff University but a long-standing benefactor. He contributed substantially to the Nelson Scholarship fund (established in memory of his father) and supported the refurbishment of the Trevithick Library, specifically the refit of the silent study area, the Nelson Room (Yr Ystafell Nelson). His military service led to other philanthropic support, including for families of Nepali Gurkhas, whom he greatly respected.

Ken Nelson died on 10 September 2017 and is survived by his daughters, granddaughter Siân and grandson Rhys, and his brothers living in Wales, Derek and Clive.


* Written by Ken's daughters, drawing on biographical material in Water, journal of the Australian Water Association, August 2011.