Tramway ANZAC: Percy Markham De Courcy Ireland

Rolling stock and military engineer

An earlier version of this article appeared in the March 2023 edition of The Bellcord.

The Melbourne Tram Museum holds a vast number of technical drawings and plans in its collection, currently in the process of being digitised. Each of these items is marked with the initials of its creators – one of whom was Percy Markham De Courcy Ireland (1893-1976).

Percy had a 44-year career with Melbourne tramways. Described at his 1958 retirement function as one of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramway Board’s most popular officers, he was considered to have unequalled experience in tramcar construction, operations and maintenance. In addition, he served in both World War I and World War II and was an active supporter of Social Credit – an economic and social reform movement that became popular in the 1930s.

Detail of drawings of W2 tramcar by P.M. Ireland, 1925. From the collection of the Melbourne Tram Museum. Detail of drawings of the driver’s compartment for a W2 class tramcar, drawn by P. M. Ireland and approved by Chief Engineer T. P. Strickland, 25 July 1925.
From the collection of the Melbourne Tram Museum.

Early years

Percy was born in Horsham in 1893, where his father, De Courcy Ireland (1845-1935), was a solicitor with his own practice. His mother, Margaret Elizabeth Carter (1859-1932), was De Courcy’s second wife and a descendent of the Bonham Carter family, prominent in several spheres of British life, including politics, the judiciary and the military. De Courcy had previously spent several years in Fiji, where he and one of his brothers ran a cotton plantation, and where he was a member of Fiji’s first parliament before returning to Victoria in 1875.

The extended Ireland family was prominent in early Melbourne society. Percy’s paternal grandfather, Richard Davies Ireland QC (1815-1877), was also a lawyer. An Irish barrister, he emigrated to Melbourne in 1853 with his wife and eight children. For 20 years, R.D. Ireland was Victoria’s leading criminal lawyer, establishing his reputation in 1855 with his defence of the Eureka Stockade defendants. By all accounts, he was a barrister very much in the mould of the fictional ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, relying on his considerable talents for eloquence and wit, rather than a deep knowledge of the law. R.D. Ireland was also active in Victorian politics for just over a decade, being elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1857 and serving as solicitor-general and attorney-general.

By 1898 De Courcy Ireland and his family had left Horsham and by 1903 he was running a practice in Narre Warren, relocating to Springvale by 1908.

Like his father before him, Percy attended Melbourne Grammar School. He was in the senior school from 1908 to 1909, where he spent ten months in the school’s cadet corps.

P.M. Ireland, 1908. Photograph courtesy of Melbourne Grammar School Percy Markham De Courcy Ireland, photograph from a series taken to commemorate the jubilee of Melbourne Grammar School in 1908.
Photograph by Johnstone O’Shannessy & Co, courtesy of Melbourne Grammar School.

After completing school, Percy enrolled as a day student in the three-year Electrical Engineering diploma at the Working Men’s College (now RMIT University) and was admitted as a student member of the Electrical Association of Australia in 1912. According to his student record, his studies did not progress smoothly – they spanned the period 1911-18 and included several gaps.

Start of a tramway career

By 1913 the Ireland family had moved to Heidelberg and then in January 1914 Percy started work with the Prahran & Malvern Tramway Trust (PMTT).

The PMTT was the largest and oldest of the independent municipal electric tramways, opening its first two lines on 30 May 1910.

Coming straight from his engineering studies, Percy would have joined the Engineering Section at the lowest level – Junior Draftsman. Above him, in increasing seniority, were Draftsmen and Engineers, with the team led by the Chief Engineer.

Technical design and development were very much team efforts. Engineers would develop their concepts and specifications, with Draftsmen drawing the plans on paper – under supervision – to meet those specifications. The plans were then traced in ink onto linen, which would be submitted to the Chief Engineer for final approval.

World War I and Gallipoli

On 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Australia, as a loyal member of the British Empire, pledged its support to Britain.

Just a couple of weeks before the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915, Percy enlisted as a sapper in Second Australian Division Signal Company. According to his enlistment papers, Percy was slightly built – just 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 metres) tall, weighing 10 stone (63.5kg), with a chest measurement of 34 inches (86cm) – and one month shy of his 22nd birthday.

He was promptly sent off to Egypt on HMAT A39 Port Macquarie, embarking from Melbourne on 4 May.

The role of Divisional Signal Companies was to provide communications during warfare – essential for commanders to keep in contact with their troops. During World War I this was achieved with field telephony, using wire lines, which were buried where possible but otherwise ran over the ground. Towards the end of the war there was some limited use of wireless, but the radio sets were cumbersome and had greater requirements for power – thus were not always feasible under combat conditions.

Signallers (sappers) laid the telephony wires and kept them operational. They were required to be proficient in map reading and manual signalling – Morse code via flag, lamp or heliograph – which was essential when a telephone network was not available or inoperable. Signallers also often acted as dispatch riders, on foot, bicycles or motorbikes.

It was a dangerous role, as these duties required signallers to be highly exposed to enemy fire.

Member of 2nd Divisional Signal Company, 1918. Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.
Members of the Second Divisional Signals Company east of Amiens, France, 1918, where they are repairing a broken or faulty telephone cable. The shallow trench they have dug gives little protection from enemy fire.
Photograph courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Percy was one of the men of the Second Division being shipped from Alexandria to Gallipoli when their transport, HMT Southland, was attacked on 2 September 1915 by the German submarine UB14. The ship was around 56km from the Greek island of Lemnos when it was hit by a torpedo. It did not sink immediately, enabling 1400 men to leave the ship via lifeboats. The survivors were picked up by other transports later that day, however 14 men were killed in the explosion and a further 22 drowned. Percy arrived in Gallipoli a few days later.

Percy spent three months at Gallipoli before the Australian troops were evacuated in December 1915. The Second Division was then transferred to France and the Western Front. Percy arrived in France in March 1916 and took part in the action in the Somme in July 1916. Wounded in action with an ankle injury, he was evacuated to England on 2 August 1916. Due to a subsequent illness he spent nearly five months in hospital, eventually returning to the Western Front in October 1917, in the midst of the Battle of Passchendaele.

After the cessation of hostilities, Percy left France in February 1919, returning to Melbourne in May 1919. He was discharged in August 1919. Percy's military service is commemorated on the Narre Warren War Memorial, now located on the Bunjil Place forecourt, Narre Warren.

Civilian life

Back in Melbourne, Percy resumed employment with the tramways. He was accepted as a Junior Member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia in 1919, the year the Institution was founded, however was not admitted as an Associate Member until 1930.

In February 1920 the various municipal tramway trusts – including the PMTT – were merged into a single entity, the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB). An M&MTB list of its employees notes that by June 1920 Percy had become a Draftsman.

That same year Percy lodged a patent application for a trolley pole safety apparatus for electric trams. This device was designed to prevent a springcontrolled trolley pole from fouling the overhead wire if the trolley wheel broke or became disengaged. The patent was accepted in 1921 and was also registered in New Zealand, France, Great Britain, Canada, Germany and the United States.

There is no evidence that the M&MTB or other tramway in Australia or New Zealand implemented Percy’s device.

Drawings from P.M. Ireland's 1920 patent application. Drawings from P.M. Ireland’s 1920 patent application for a trolley pole safety apparatus for electric trams.

Six years after returning from his military service, Percy married Lillian Maud Harewood Lascelles (1894-1989), settling in Heidelberg. In 1926 the couple welcomed their first child, a son, followed by a second son in 1931.

Joining the Militia

After its heavy expenditure during World War I the Federal Government slashed its defence budget. In 1922 large numbers of permanent military personnel were retrenched. Training quotas for the compulsory military service scheme (‘Universal Training’) – introduced in 1911 – were reduced. Then in 1929 the Government abolished compulsory military service. The stated aim was to maintain a volunteer force based on the part-time Citizen Military Forces (also known as the Militia).

In 1927 Percy signed up with the Militia and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Australian Engineers.

Over the period from May 1932 to June 1938 Percy was Acting Adjutant and Temporary Quartermaster in 3rd Division Engineers. He was promoted to Captain In November 1933 and then in January 1939 he was promoted to Major. Three months later he was appointed Deputy Assistant Director of Engineer Stores, District Base Headquarters.

Group photograph of 3rd Division Engineers, 1936. Photograph courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

Informal group photograph of 3rd Division Engineers militia in camp at Wesburn, February 1936. Captain P. M. Ireland is at the far left. Seventh from the left is Major General Thomas Blamey, Commander in Chief, 3rd Division; next to Lieutenant Colonel Fred G. Thorpe, Commander 3rd Division Engineers.
Photograph courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

The Douglas Social Credit Movement

The Great Depression of the 1930s proved to be fertile ground for various populist proposals for economic and societal reform. One of the more prominent movements was that of Social Credit, a doctrine developed by Major C.H. Douglas (1879-1952), a British engineer.

Douglas’ reforms have been described as:

…an engineer’s view of the economic reorganization necessary for the betterment of the lower classes, the alleviation of scarcity, and the loosening of the noose which the existing financial system held around the neck of productive industry. [Janet Martin-Nielsen]

Social Credit was almost universally dismissed by economists – Douglas’ foundation ‘A+B theorem’ was flawed and the Social Credit policies were claimed to be inflationary. Nevertheless Social Credit was supported by many prominent individuals worldwide and was most notably successful in influencing political parties in Canada and New Zealand.

Percy was an enthusiastic supporter of Social Credit – he was honorary secretary of the Victorian Douglas Credit Reform Movement. In 1936 he presented a proposal for monetary reform to the 1936 Royal Commission into Australia’s Monetary and Banking System. Over the period 1931 to 1947 he gave numerous lectures on Social Credit at various locations across Melbourne – a key part of the movement’s strategy to popularise its ideas.

Social Credit had some support within the Australian Labor Party during the early 1930s, however this waned due to the fear that the movement – once it had started to field candidates in elections – would fragment the Labor vote. Subsequently differences over policy and tactics split the Australian Social Credit movement into various factions, after which membership declined rapidly.

World War II military service

Eleven days after the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939, the members of the Militia were called up for active service. Under the Defence Act 1903, the Militia could not be compelled to serve outside Australia or its territories – this area was subsequently extended to the South-Western Pacific Zone by the Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943.

The upper age limit in 1939 for enlisted men was 35, but was higher for officers – 40 years, under exceptional circumstances, for Warrant Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers and 45 years for Lieutenant-Colonels.

Nonetheless Percy, 46 years old with a rank of Major, was seconded for staff duties in September 1939, shortly after the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, announced that the nation was at war.

Initially his position was Assistant Director, Engineer Stores, Southern Command (the Australian Army command area or military district covering Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania during the period from October 1939 to April 1942). Over the course of the war, Percy progressed through a series of senior military and civilian appointments. In September 1940 he was appointed Deputy Director of Mechanization, Ordinance Branch, Army Headquarters, with a temporary promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel.

Over the two decades since the end of World War I, military forces recognised the need to innovate using mechanical methods – referred to during this period as ‘mechanisation’. Transport was evolving from horse power to tanks, trucks, armoured cars, Bren gun carriers and a variety of non-armoured vehicles.

The challenge for the military was not simply to acquire and maintain this modern equipment, but also to adapt to new modes of operation and tactics that were enabled through new technology – a situation that still remains highly relevant today.

However, for the Australian Army the mechanisation process had been slow, due primarily to financial constraints during the 1920s and 1930s. This meant that by the start of World War II the Army was woefully underprepared. Many branches of the Army were still reliant on a mix of motorised and horse transport. After the outbreak of war, the move to becoming a fully mechanised force was accelerated, and Percy had a key part in that process.

In May 1941 Percy was seconded from his mechanisation role to the Department of Munitions. Although this was a civilian position, he retained his rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Established in 1940, the Department was created to facilitate the manufacture, acquisition and provision of various military supplies. Initially ‘munitions’ was defined to include armaments, arms, ammunition, weapons, vehicles, machines and aircraft; locomotives, ships and small craft were later added, while aircraft later became the responsibility of a separate Department of Aircraft Production.

The war’s first two years had enabled Australia to organise for the war effort without the threat of direct attack. Industry supporting the war effort had expanded, with around 35 new government munitions factories and 77 munitions annexes built or under construction by the time Japan entered the war in December 1941. By 1941, it was estimated that munitions manufacture had directly engaged 50,000 workers, with a further 150,000 workers indirectly engaged.

According to the Australian War Memorial’s Second World War Official History, the most useful achievement was not the munitions output over those first two years, but the establishment of the factories and the creation of the organisation that facilitated the rapid expansion required for the increased demand during 1942 and 1943. Percy, with his senior role in the Department of Munitions, would have been deeply involved in that achievement.

In July 1945 Percy was transferred to the Reserve of Officers. Germany had already surrendered, however the war in the Pacific continued until 15 August 1945.

Return to the tramways

After his war service, Percy returned to the M&MTB and its Preston Workshops.

The Workshops had been established on a 17 acre (7 hectare) site in the mid 1920s, providing facilities to build and maintain the M&MTB’s tram fleet. Within the site was a blacksmith and foundry, mechanical/electrical shop, lifting/body shop, paint shop, and central store, as well as offices and recreation facilities. In 1928 – the peak year of new tramcar construction – the Workshops had nearly 500 employees, who over the course of the year built 53 new W class tramcars and serviced a further 734 tramcars.

M&MTB W2 No 522 at Preston Workshops, c1929. Photograph from the collection of the Melbourne Tram Museum.

Lifting M&MTB W2 No 522 onto its bogies after an overhaul at Preston Workshops, c1929.
Photograph from the collection of the Melbourne Tram Museum..

The M&MTB clearly found Percy’s experience during the war years to be invaluable. His career rapidly progressed through senior management positions at the Workshops, where he controlled the organisation and output of this large manufacturing facility. Percy was appointed Assistant Manager of Preston Workshops in 1946, and then promoted to Manager in 1950.

The following year Percy was appointed Rolling Stock Engineer, in charge of the Workshops and the Running Sheds (depots). His successor as Manager of Preston Workshops was Ian Macmeikan (1890-1978), who subsequently wrote a detailed report on the construction, operation and maintenance of Melbourne cable tramways (available to museum members).

As Rolling Stock Engineer, Percy oversaw the construction of 70 new tramcars, comprising the entire Bourke Street and Nicholson Street fleet following the conversion of those services from buses to electric trams in the mid-1950s.

Percy continued as Rolling Stock Engineer until he retired from the M&MTB in May 1958, after 44 years of service with Melbourne tramways.

He passed away on 12 December 1976, aged 83, survived by his wife, his two sons and their families.

Past senior employees at the 1965 M&MTB Head Office Christmas function.
Past senior employees at M&MTB Head Office Christmas function, 1965. From left to right: H. R. Steains (Architect), H. S. McComb (Chief Surveyor), W. Aird, P. M. Ireland (Rolling Stock Engineer), J. Fisher (Civil Engineer) and H. A. Warner (Secretary).
From M&MTB News, January 1966, in the collection of the Melbourne Tram Museum.


Many thanks to the resources at Australian War Memorial, Melbourne Tram Museum, National Archives of Australia, National Library of Australia (Trove), Public Record Office Victoria, RMIT Archives and State Library Victoria. Thanks also to Warren Doubleday, Ros Escott, Russell Jones, Ken McInnes, Joy Olney and Luisa Moscato, archivist at Melbourne Grammar School.


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Percy Markham De Courcy Ireland (1921), Trolley pole safety appliance for electric trams and the like, publication no NZ45603.

Percy Markham De Courcy Ireland (1922), Trolley pole safety appliance for electric trams and the like, publication no GB182584.

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Percy Markham De Courcy Ireland (1922), Trolley pole safety appliance for electric trams, publication no CA223577.

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