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Biographies

BLACKETT, John, (1818 - 1893)

John Blackett

John Blackett – Photograph taken by Herbert Rose Barruad (England), August 1891. Reference: PA3-0005. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Permission must be obtained from the Alexander Turnbull Library for the re-use of this image.

BLACKETT, John (1818 - 1893), civil engineer, was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 8 October 1818, the son of John Blackett and his wife Sarah Codlin.

In 1834 John Blackett was apprenticed as a draughtsman to R. and W. Hawthorn of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In 1841 he joined the Great Western Steam Ship Company as a draughtsman and then engineer in 1845. After copper mining in South Wales from 1846 to 1848 he was in private practice until 1851.

He married Mary Chrisp at Kirk Leavington on19 February 1851 and they had four children, two, John George and James William both becoming distinguished engineers. John and Mary went to New Zealand on the Simlah  in that year and  lived in Taranaki, having taken up land at Mangorei near New Plymouth. On 3 June 1858 he was gazetted as ensign in the New Zealand Militia.

In August 1859 the Blacketts moved to Nelson where John had been appointed Provincial Engineer. He was responsible for roads, bridges, wharves, the Nelson Lighthouse, public buildings and in 1867 the Nelson City Waterworks. In 1861 he had joined the Nelson Rifle Volunteers as an ensign.

John Blackett designed the 1864 pointed (Gothic) bolted timber arch bridge to replace the ferry over the Waiau River at Lochiel in North Canterbury. On 1 August 1865 he was appointed Warden of the Nelson South-West Goldfields and in 1867 he was a member of the Nelson Provincial Council Executive.    

On 1 October 1870 he was appointed Acting Engineer-in-Chief of the newly formed Public Works Department and was based in Wellington. In the following year Blackett became Assistant Engineer-in-Chief and Marine Engineer to the Government. Up to 1889 he made his greatest contribution to New Zealand engineering in the location, design and construction of 14 lighthouses. This involved a year in which he circumnavigated the entire coastline involving many hazardous landings including small uninhabited rockbound islands.  In this he was accompanied by Captain Robert Johnson, Nautical Adviser. He was elected AMICE on 28 May 1878 and wrote a paper on this subject for the Institution. 

As Assistant Engineer-in-Chief he was responsible for roads and bridges. And from 1884 to 1889 he was Engineer-in-Chief. While in this role he designed the replacement for the 1864 timber bridge over the Waiau River at Lochiel which had been destroyed in a tremendous gale. The new bridge in 1887 has a central wrought iron double-intersection Warren truss of 21.3 m,  a large 27.4 m double cantilever Warren truss on each side, and an overall length of 77.8m. Understrutting supports the wrought iron trestle bents and the height is 32 m above the river.

In 1889 with the PWD winding down in the 1880s Depression he was appointed Consulting Engineer in England for the New Zealand Government. He resigned in 1892 because of ill health and returned to Wellington where he died on 8 January 1893. John Blackett was diligent and modest and he made a substantial contribution to the infrastructure of the young colony.

LIST OF LIGHTHOUSES

1873 NAPIER timber: 1874 MANUKAU timber: 1877 THE BROTHERS timber: 1877 CAPE FOULWIND timber: 1878 TIMARU timber: 1878 MOERAKI timber: 1878 PORTLAND ISLAND timber: 1879 PUYSEGUR POINT timber: 1879 HOKITIKA timber: 1880 AKAROA timber: 1880 CAPE SAUNDERS timber: 1883 MOKOHINAU (BURGESS ISLET) concrete: 1889 CUVIER ISLAND cast iron: 1887 CAPE MARIA VAN DIEMEN timber:

 

Sources:

  • Furkert, F.W. Early New Zealand Engineers Wellington 1953, p. 115; 
  • Noonan, Rosslyn J. A Brief History of the Public Works Department Ministry of Works 1870 - 1970   Wellington 1975; 
  • Orr, Katherine W. Essay B23, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Volume One 1769 - 1869 General Editor W.H.Oliver   Wellington 1990    

 

Author:  Geoffrey Thornton