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HUME, Harry (1906 – 1981)

Harry Hume

Harry Hume (centre front), 31 March 1966 at his retirement function. Photograph also features: B. W. Spooner (left front), W. L. Newnham (right front), R. G. Norman (left back), C. W. O. Turner (centre back), and P. L. Laing (right back). Image from New Zealand Engineering, May 1966, p.232

Harry Lancelot Hume was born in New Plymouth on February 28, 1906 and grew up in Marton. As a youngster he was an avid cricketer and Boy Scout.

Early career, 1928-1939

By the time he retired on 31 March 1966, Hume had achieved the position of Ministry of Works (MOW) Chief Civil Engineer. Hume’s association with the Public Works Department (PWD) had started with his job as a temporary head chainman at Mangahao power station hydro development in 1927.  

Hume was surveying at Mangahao until January 1928, and studying towards his engineering degree at the same time. His first permanent post with the PWD was a brief time in Greymouth where he was involved in harbor development and maintenance as an Engineering Cadet while continuing his Canterbury University study. Hume graduated from Canterbury University in 1928 with a Bachelor degree in Engineering (Civil), and the following year he obtained a Bachelor of Science as well.

In 1929 he was transferred to Westport. His work there included river protection, extension of the breakwaters, and operation of the quarries. He was in the Harbourmaster’s launch in June that year, surveying the bar and river, when the Murchison earthquake struck. This event stuck in his mind because from that position he witnessed the shocking collapse of the Post Office’s clock tower. Later in 1929 Hume was in charge of a survey party on the Inangahua to Westport railway, preparing plans and quantities for this difficult section of the line through virgin country.   

Hume transferred back to Greymouth in February 1930 taking responsibility for extending the breakwater and inland road construction. He was soon promoted and from 1930 to 1934 Hume was Assistant Engineer at Weheka, South Westland, where he was responsible for more road surveying and 24 kilometres (km) of difficult road reconstruction between the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers. He also worked on a 13km main highway extension from Weheka, involving large river protection works. 

Following this Hume spent five years at the PWD’s Head Office in Wellington where he was tasked with a programme of railway crossing elimination and the renewal of many highway bridges. He also designed large reinforced concrete hangars for the Air Force and investigated sea-wall design with scale models. This led to the design and building of the Plimmerton to Paekakariki coast highway, eliminating the very tortuous Paekakariki Hill Road. The work involved much heavy construction and the building of a seawall to resist storm damage from the Tasman Sea. Hume’s paper about the project was published in the New Zealand Institution of Engineers Proceedings in 1944.

Related IPENZ Records:
Centennial Highway, State Highway 1 (Ngauranga Gorge to Paekakariki)
Mangahao Power Station
Ohakea Hangars 2 & 3

Overseas experience, 1939-1944

From 1939 Hume completed a Master of Engineering degree at Yale University in United States of America, through a Harkness Commonwealth Fund Fellowship. The resulting thesis, called ‘American Highway Practice,’ undoubtedly influenced highway and motorway design in New Zealand. In 1952 Hume made reference to his American experience in his New Zealand Engineering article, ‘Development of Motorways in New Zealand.’

However, immediately following this period of study, Hume was seconded for three years to the New Zealand Supply Mission in Washington DC as technical advisor for war supplies.

Recognition and service as a top New Zealand engineer, 1945-1966

He returned to Wellington and the newly formed MOW in 1944. In August 1945 Hume was appointed Chief Designing Engineer. As part of this role he visited Australia to investigate pipe construction and protection linings for Wellington’s water supply.

From 1951 to 1953 he was Highways and Roads Engineer to the Main Highways Board in Wellington. In 1955 he was appointed Assistant Engineer in Chief in charge of the Design Office, Roading Section, Aerodrome Section and the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Section.  

Finally from 1958 until he retired, he was Chief Civil Engineer responsible for the work of the civil engineering section. As such, Hume oversaw plans, tenders, and supervised many large projects, including the construction of the Nandi, Rongatai, Mangere, Momona, Rotorua, and Napier airports, as well as the Christchurch to Lyttleton tunnel, and Westport harbor extensions.

In eulogy Bob Norman said:

The whole of Harry’s life has been characterized by scholarship, quest, inquiry and discovery.  Engineers have to learn to live with change, so their lives are a continual quest for reconciliation with the transience of technology. Harry did this very well indeed. Early in his career he was one of those who pioneered new methods of engineering analysis which were to bring New Zealand international recognition. His thirst for knowledge was insatiable. Over thirty years ago the department was faced with transporting some electrical equipment which made the heaviest loads ever carried over the highway system at the time. Harry’s immediate reaction was to use them as test loads for a number of bridges. From his initiatives and the programme of testing which followed, New Zealand engineers learned a lot more about how bridges worked, and so did the rest of the world, because once again his work was internationally recognized. (Extract from speech delivered at Wellington Cathedral, 22 May 1981)

Reflecting his international reputation Harry was a Member of Britain’s Institution of Civil Engineers, and a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He was a Fellow of the New Zealand Institution of Engineers, taking an active role through his service as its professional interview panel’s moderator, as well as a member of the Underground Water Commission, the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council, and the Standards Council.

Hume Fellowship (

Harry married Henrietta Crawford Kirkwood in 1960. It was Harry and Henrietta’s wish to set up a scholarship for young New Zealand engineers to enable them to study at an overseas university. They had both benefitted from their Harkness Fellowship experience - Henrietta had used it to study for her Masters degree in nutrition education at Columbia and Cornell Universities - and the Humes wanted to help others in a similar way. Therefore, after Harry’s death Henrietta established the Harry Hume Fellowship. When she died in 1993 the estate was added to the investment fund, with the interest providing for scholarships. The Fellowship was first awarded in 1991. Publicity and applications are managed by IPENZ before an independent panel assesses the applications on behalf of a Trust.

Prepared by John La Roche, May 2013