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BELL, Charles Napier, (1835 - 1906)

BELL, Charles Napier (1835 - 1906), civil engineer, known as C. Napier Bell, was born at Rothesay, Scotland on 14 September 1835, son of James Stanislaus Bell, trader and adventurer. He was to experience a great breadth of people and cultures and engage in a tremendous range of engineering works.

His father became British Resident on the Mosquito Coast of Central America, and was involved in the cutting of mahogany. Charles spent his boyhood years in the company of the young ‘King of Mosquito’ and Prussian adventurer Gustavus von Tempsky. Towards the end of his life he wrote Tangweera (1899) based on his experiences (which included illustrations by von Tempsky). Von Tempsky was to marry his sister, Emelia, and emigrate to New Zealand after time in Australia. Tangweera, meticulously observed, became a classic account of the Mosquito people. In this he followed in his father’s footsteps. James had published a study of the customs of the people of Circassia in the Caucasus in 1840, and had edited von Tempsky’s account of his travels in Mexico and adjacent countries, Mitla, published in 1858.

            C. Napier Bell returned to Scotland in 1857, when the British had to leave the Mosquito Coast, and was articled to Bell and Miller, Glasgow engineers. He engaged in a survey of the Tay River, and worked on the Edinburgh sewerage works and the Glasgow graving dock. He was then employed by the eminent engineer Sir James Brunlees, who designed railways, docks and piers. He was sent to Brazil in 1860 to assist with the survey of the extremely difficult São Paulo railway (with cable sections) through mountainous terrain. He became a resident engineer for its construction. He then worked on surveying other railways in Brazil including the Rio Grande do Sul railway and designed the Rio Grande waterworks. He also surveyed the Buenos Aires harbour, Argentina. Napier Bell briefly returned to England in 1866 and then worked on railway, gas and waterworks in Russia and Prussia, 1866-70. He was elected M.Inst.C.E. in 1867.

            Napier Bell left England for New Zealand in 1871, as an engineer for James Brogden and Sons’ railway works in various parts of the country in the early 1870s. Whether his sister, by now widowed as a result of von Tempsky’s death in 1868 in guerilla warfare with Maori, encouraged him to emigrate is not known. He would live in New Zealand for much of the rest of his life and contribute to a great range of infrastructural services vital to the country’s development.

When the provincial governments were abolished in 1876 he with others valued the South Island railways taken over by the central government. In 1883 he served on the Royal Commission investigating a line between Canterbury and the South Island’s West Coast and carried out a survey and prepared plans for a line through Arthur’s Pass and Otira Gorge – approximately the route eventually taken. Napier Bell was for a time Chief Resident Engineer for the Midland Railway Company that from the mid 1880s attempted to push a railway line through from Canterbury to the West Coast.

            In 1876 Napier Bell became engineer to the Christchurch Drainage Board. Built on swampy ground, the city had serious drainage problems. He designed drainage and sewerage works for the city, which became the first in New Zealand to have a proper underground sewerage system. He also reported on sewerage works for Wellington and Napier. He was appointed engineer to the Lyttelton Harbour Board, 1878-85, designing its graving dock, patent slip and first wharves (Lyttelton was Christchurch’s port).

            Napier Bell was extensively involved in harbour construction and associated facilities. He was engineer for Westport Harbour, 1885-93, providing a breakwater, a bridge over the river and a railway line, so that the coalfields and other resources could be exploited. He reported on harbours for Greymouth, Napier, Dunedin (Otago Harbour), Wanganui, New Plymouth, Timaru and Nelson and elsewhere. He designed a graving dock for Wellington. His report of 1900 on the development of Auckland’s port facilities was adopted.

He travelled to Australia to report on Tasmanian harbours, designed harbour works for Launceston, Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast and other harbours, and investigated improved navigation in various rivers in Tasmania. He also designed a graving dock at Hobart and the East Bay Neck ship-canal in Tasmania. He investigated flooding in the Hunter River, New South Wales, and reported on improvements to the Brisbane, Burnett (southern Queensland) and Fitzroy (central Queensland) Rivers. He acted as Chairman of the Royal Commission considering proposals for an outer harbour at Adelaide. He was involved in the development of sewerage and waterworks at Parramatta (Sydney), Hobart, Perth, Fremantle and other towns.

Napier Bell’s long and active career was notable for the number and range of his civil engineering schemes. He was elected to represent Australasia on the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1904. Suffering ill health for the last five years of his life, he died on 3 January 1906 in Derby, Tasmania.


Dr. John E. Martin
Parliamentary Historian
Parliamentary Library
New Zealand



  • F.W. Furkert, Early New Zealand Engineers, Wellington: Reed, 1953, pp. 111-12
  • G.H. Scholefield, (ed), A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940, vol 1, p. 56
  • Obituary in Proceedings, Institution of Civil Engineers, vol 164, 1906, pp. 401-3
  • Obituary in Evening Post, 4 January 1906
  • Biographical note in Proceedings, New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers, vol 10, 1923-4, pp. 228-9
  • C. Napier Bell, Tangweera – Life and Adventures Among Gentle Savages, London: Edward Arnold, 1899

Books mentioned in the biography

Gustavus Ferdinard von Tempsky, (edited by James Stanislaus Bell), Mitla: a Narrative of Incidents and Personal Adventures on a Journey in Mexico, Guatemala, and Salvador in the Years 1853 to 1855; with Observations on the Modes of Life in Those Countries, London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1858

James Stanislaus Bell, Journal of a Residence in Circassia During the Years of 1837, 1838 and 1839 (2 vols), London: Edward Moxon, 1840