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BALFOUR, James Melville, (1831 - 1869)

BALFOUR, James Melville (1831 - 1869), was born in Edinburgh, 9th son of Reverend Lewis Balfour DD of Colinton, and educated in Edinburgh.  He was an uncle of Robert Louis (Lewis) Stevenson, Balfour’s sister Margaret, having married Thomas Stevenson, son of Robert Stevenson, the builder of Bell Rock lighthouse.  He served his time with D. and T. Stevenson's, the lighthouse builders, having previously attended several workshops in Scotland and Germany, the latter to study optics particularly.

On 28th September, 1863, he arrived in New Zealand to join the Otago Provincial Government, This was due in part to the Scottish connections in the province who sought the advice of the Stevensons who in turn recommended Balfour.  He designed and brought out lamp equipment for Cape Saunders and Taiaroa Head lighthouses.  His energy was enormous for within six months of his arrival he had prepared plans for Dog Island and Taiaroa Heads lighthouses, surveyed the Clutha river (New Zealand’s largest) recommending its improvements for navigation up to nine miles above Tuapeka Junction, surveyed the Molyneux and Waikawa Harbours, and reported on a water supply for Dunedin City.  Also in this time he designed a dock for Port Chalmers which was to be a pontoon floating dock of 2,500 tons capacity. In the event it was not built, but he later prepared plans and specifications for the first dock built –the Otago Graving Dock.

In October, 1864, he was Chairman of a Commission to decide on the future development of Port Chalmers, and also reported on the proposed shelter for surfboats at Timaru.  And in January, 1865, he was appointed a member of the Sanitary Commission on Dunedin, and an advisor to that Commission.

Around this time he also reported on proposed harbours of New Plymouth (with W. T. Doyne), and Timaru and Wanganui.  While passing through Wellington he advised on the best site at which to erect a permanent bridge over the Hutt River and the required training works. He also designed a graving dock for Wellington which embodied a novel idea not previously utilised.  He surveyed Cook Strait and decided the route for a submarine telegraph cable.

In November 1865 he made a final report on Otago Harbour, recommending the dredging and training of Victoria Channel with a depth of 21 feet at high water, costing £118,000, as against a railway from Port Chalmers to Dunedin estimated at £142,102.  Towards the end of 1866 it appears that Balfour's employment as marine engineer to the Otago Council was not renewed (although this may have been his choice).  However, while still in Dunedin, he wrote more than once during 1866 to the Superintendent with suggestions for works in the harbour, recommending that pending the money being available for the purchase of a steam dredger, dredging should be done by convicts with a mechanical man-operated dredger.  In addition having in June 1866, taken over the construction of Ross Creek reservoir and Dunedin water supply, he was allowed to retain control with John MacGregor as assistant on the site until completion in November, 1867.

Balfour was appointed Colonial Marine Engineer and Inspector of Steamers on 11th October, 1866, and it was in the field of lighthouses that he made his strongest mark in the colony.  He set in train the establishment of key lighthouses around the country.  Work which was to be continued after his tragic death by John Blackett.  In addition to the lighthouses in Otago/ Southland Balfour designed the lighthouses for Bean Rock, Ponui Passage pile light, Nuggets Point, Cape Campbell and Farewell Spit.  

He also surveyed the coast of Taranaki, reported on Nelson Harbour, the Buller entrance and the bay behind Point Elizabeth on the West Coast, and planned a harbour for Timaru. With W. T. Doyne he designed a harbour scheme for New Plymouth in 1866 (although not where the harbour was eventually established). He built an experimental mole 30 yards long on a reef detached from the shore at Timaru to test the action of the travelling shingle, and also by lead weighted blocks ascertained that material travelled up the 90-mile beach at one mile a day even in fine weather.

He married Christina Simson and they had one daughter, Marie Clothilde (b 1862)

Unfortunately, while at Timaru, on 18th December, 1869, he heard that a friend had been drowned three days earlier. He decided at once to go to his funeral.  The weather was too rough for a coastal south-bound vessel in the roadstead to enter the Port, but Balfour and some others endeavoured to board her by boat. The boat was capsized and Balfour was amongst those lost.

Balfour was a young man destined to be a leading engineer in this new country.  In all likelihood he would have preceded Blackett as Engineer-in-Chief of the newly formed New Zealand Public Works Department (PWD).  Frederick Furkert (himself an outstanding Engineer-in-Chief of the PWD) considered that Balfour “was a far-seeing man of boundless energy and sound judgement whom the young colony could ill afford to lose”.



  • F W Furkert, W L Newnham Ed (1953) Early New Zealand Engineers;
  • The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1940) (Ed. G H Scholefield); 
  • Beaglehole, Helen “Lighting the Coast – a history of New Zealand’s coastal lighthouse system.” (To be published November 2006);
  • Timaru Herald, 19 January 1870.

Author: R J Aspden