Charles Yelverton O'Connor was born at Gravelmount, Castletown, County Meath, Ireland, probably on 11 January 1843, the son of John O'Connor, a farmer and company secretary, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth O'Keefe. He was educated at the Waterford diocesan school, then in 1859 articled to the Dublin railway engineer John Chaloner Smith. He early demonstrated the abilities which were to enhance his career: quick and accurate surveying, able accountancy, acceptance of responsibility, and immediate response to emergency.
In 1864 the deteriorating Irish economy led O'Connor to emigrate to New Zealand. He arrived at Auckland on the Pegasus on 28 March 1865. An introduction from an Auckland relative, Forster Goring, clerk to the Executive Council, brought immediate work in road surveying at Ngahinapouri. Within six months he was working under Edward Dobson as an assistant engineer to the Canterbury provincial government.
O'Connor's first work was laying out the Otira Gorge section of the road to the West Coast goldfields. He spent the greater part of the next 15 years on the West Coast where, in the wild terrain, he enhanced his reputation as an imaginative organiser and leader, and demonstrated his ability to master tough engineering problems.
In 1871 John Carruthers was appointed the first engineer-in-chief to the Public Works Department. O'Connor's professional association with the new man ripened into a lifelong friendship. It was on Carruthers's recommendation that O'Connor became the department's district engineer for Canterbury in 1872. To mark the occasion, the citizens of Greymouth recorded their appreciation of his voluntary work on essential projects which would otherwise have been long delayed. O'Connor married Susan Letitia Ness in Christchurch on 5 March 1874; they were to have eight children. His district responsibilities were later extended to include Westland and, for a time, Nelson.
In 1880 O'Connor was appointed inspecting engineer for the South Island with headquarters in Dunedin. In the same year he was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, with testimonials from New Zealand's most eminent engineers. His activities had encompassed surveys for the Mikonui water race and the West Coast–Canterbury railway, supervisory problems at the Rakaia bridge, harbour construction at Hokitika and Greymouth, drainage works at Ross, the Kurow railway, reports on the Timaru harbour, and evidence to commissions. The road bridge over the Taipo River, north-west of Otira, stands on his projected line for the railway, and it was O'Connor who placed its massive columns in anticipation of a railway's extra load.
A capable manager of men, Charles O'Connor was always understanding and responsive to their needs. He was patient and encouraging to young men starting their careers, but was rigorous in his expectations of professional standards. Strangers could find his manner abrupt and austere, but his reserve concealed a deep compassion and sympathy. Throughout his life he was prepared to speak out passionately on behalf of anyone threatened by injustice.
O'Connor's administrative ability led to his undoing. He was appointed under-secretary in 1883 and made this the most powerful engineering position in the department. In 1884 John Blackett was made engineer-in-chief, with O'Connor's contemporary, William Blair, as deputy. Each was professionally senior to O'Connor and each in earlier times had been his administrative superior. Now, although they were the heads of the department's technical side, they were subordinate to O'Connor, the department's permanent head. Blackett, 25 years older than O'Connor, could face the situation's anomalies, but a power struggle between Blair and O'Connor was inevitable.
When Blackett retired in 1889 O'Connor's experience in engineering and administration gave him every expectation of succeeding to a dual post of engineer-in-chief and under-secretary. Instead, the new minister for public works, Thomas Fergus, gave the post to Blair. O'Connor was moved sideways to become marine engineer with special control of Westport and Greymouth harbours.
It was officially agreed that O'Connor should not suffer the further ignominy of being placed under an already ailing Blair, but he could obtain no ministerial reassurances as to his ultimate future. Harbour works at Gisborne and Timaru claimed his attention in 1890 and 1891. Amid growing insecurity caused by government retrenchment, O'Connor accepted the invitation of Western Australia's formidable premier, John Forrest, to become the state's engineer-in-chief. On his arrival in May or June 1891 he found that he was also to be acting general manager of railways, a responsibility he continued to hold during five years of unprecedented development.
Two outstanding works crowned O'Connor's career: the design and construction of the Fremantle harbour and the provision of a water supply from Perth to the remote Coolgardie goldfields. The harbour works brought renown and his appointment as CMG in 1897, and O'Connor's pensive statue stands beside the towering Fremantle Port Authority building. The 353-mile-long pipeline to the goldfield towns was a technological triumph and continues to be their only water supply.
Even so, from its inception 'the fanciful project of a departmental engineer' met with violent opposition from Forrest's political detractors. O'Connor was vilified in both Parliament and press. A proud, sensitive man, he could not withstand misrepresentation. On 10 March 1902, with the pipeline ready for testing, he wrote, 'The position has become impossible'; he brought it to an end with a revolver shot as he rode his horse out into the sea at Fremantle. New Zealand politicians had ill-used an outstanding engineer; Australian politicians destroyed him.