Engineering New Zealand Engineering Heritage Jobhunt Foundation


FERGUSON, William, (1852 - 1935)


Miss Baldwin-Warne, ‘Portrait of William Ferguson,’ 1912. Copied by H. L. Cole, 1950. IPENZ Collection.

FERGUSON, WILLIAM: Born in London on 15 June, 1852, Mr Ferguson was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School at Burton-on- Trent, Rathmines private school, Dublin, and later at Trinity College, Dublin, where he took his B.A. (First Respondent) in December, 1877, B.A.I. (Engineering) in June, 1879, and M.A. in December, 1880. He was indentured to Courtenay Stephens and Co. of Blackball Place, Dublin, from 1867 - 1872, and on completion of his apprenticeship he became chief draughtsman for about 12 months to Ross Walpole and Stephens North Wall Foundry, Dublin, and thereafter, at intervals until 1883, was employed in designing special work for that firm.

From 1875 to 1877 he was assistant to John Bower, M.I.C.E., engaged in designing waterworks for Warrenpoint and bridges for the County of Carlow, and on other contracts, on Belfast Central Railway works, and upon Parliamentary work for the Northern Railway and Belfast Hollywood and Bangor Extension Railway Schemes. In 1878 he acted for 12 months as chief draughtsman and computer to the Hydraulic Engineering Co., Ltd., at Chester. From 1879 to 1882 he acted as assistant to the Professor of Civil Engineering, Trinity College, Dublin, and during the last six months of that period, owing to the ill-health and death of the professor, Mr Ferguson undertook all his tuition.

In July, 1883, he sailed from the Clyde in the s.s. Takapuna with his mother and younger brother, Dr H. Lindo Ferguson, for Dunedin, New Zealand. In May, 1884, he was appointed engineer and secretary (and subsequently also treasurer) to the Wellington Harbour Board, positions which he retained until February, 1908. During these years he was responsible for the general management and control of the working operations of the Board as wharfinger as well as for the design and execution of the engineering works of construction, including plant, reclamation and dredging. On his voluntary retirement, he received six months' leave of absence, and was appointed consulting engineer to the Board for five years from 1 September, 1908.

From 1908 to 1917 he acted for the first year as general manager and subsequently as managing director to the Wellington Gas Co. Ltd., during which time completely new works were designed and erected at Miramar for the supply of greater Wellington. He retired from the directorate of the Gas Company, and from all other offices then held by him, in order to devote his whole attention to war work, having been appointed by the Government of New Zealand to the honorary position of chairman of the National Efficiency Board which continued to function until March, 1919.

Among other important works undertaken by Mr Ferguson, apart from those relating to the Wellington Harbour Board, are the following:

  • In 1890, jointly with the late Edwin Cuthbert, M.I.C.E., he reported on and devised a scheme for the main drainage of the city of Wellington; and, the proposals being adopted, he was, in 1892, appointed by the Wellington City Council, jointly with the late H. P. Higginson, M.I.C.E., consulting engineer, to see the scheme carried out.
  • He reported to the Napier Harbour Board upon the feasibility of dredging in the open sea, with a view to the possibility of obtaining and maintaining a deep-water entrance to the Spit Harbour, and was responsible for six months' experimental dredging there.
  • In 1905, in conjunction with the late Robert May, M.I.C.E., he reported to the Auckland Harbour Board upon the scheme of permanent harbour works prepared by its engineer .
  • In 1908, he visited Melbourne and reported to the Victorian Government upon Melbourne Harbour in the matter of improved facilities and management.
  • In 1910, he acted as chairman of a Commission of four appointed by the Government of New Zealand to enquire into the cause of and remedies for the silting of the Waihou and the Ohinemuri Rivers.
  • In 1911-12, he acted as the engineering member of a Commission of three that reported to the Lyttelton Harbour Board on the proposals that had been submitted to that Board for the construction of a ship canal to connect the City of Christchurch with the sea.
  • In 1913, he acted on a Commission of three to investigate and to report to the Government upon the working of the Westport Harbour Board.
  • In the same year he acted as chairman of a Commission of three to investigate the Parapara iron deposits, and reported confidentially to the New Zealand Government as to the proposals made by a financial syndicate to start an iron and steel industry in the Dominion.
  • In 1914, he was appointed chairman of a Royal Commission to investigate the canalisation of waterways or the construction of canals in the Auckland Province, but owing to the war the work lapsed until 1921, when he was appointed chairman of a fresh Royal Commission which reported on the question.
  • In 1914, he acted as chairman and umpire in a series of important arbitrations fixing the rentals under Wellington City Council leases.
  • In 1915, he acted as the engineering member of a Royal Commission appointed to investigate matters arising out of sickness in the Trentham Military Camp.
  • In 1916, he reported to the Wanganui Harbour Board upon the provision of cargo facilities at Castlecliff for ocean-going steamers.
  • In 1919, he reported to the Auckland City Council upon an option of purchase which that Council had obtained over the privately-owned tramway system, resulting in the municipalisation of the tramways.
  • In the same year, in conjunction with a chartered accountant, he investigated the financial position and the sufficiency or otherwise of the sinking, depreciation and renewal funds of the Christchurch Tramway Board, and their joint report to the Tramway Board resulted in legislation dealing with the funds.
  • Also, in 1919, he acted as chairman of the Court of Appeal set up to deal with the triennial regrading of civil servants by the Civil Service Commissioner .
  • In 1917, he reported to the Gisborne Harbour Board on the silting of the Turanganui River (inner harbour), and,
  • in 1920, acted as chairman of a Commission of three engineers-the other being J. Blair Mason, M.I.C.E. and Cyrus J. Williams, M.I.C.E., also of the Society, to design and report on an outer harbour for ocean-going vessels for the Port of Gisborne.  The presence of this Commission in the Gisborne district was taken advantage of also by the Borough Council for an investigation into concrete failures in the district, by a local electric power company to obtain a report upon the suitability of a site for a dam, and by the Wairoa Harbour Board for a report upon a proposal to construct a port at Waikokopu to take the place of that previously attempted at Wairoa. The Waikokopu port was consequently commenced with railway communication to Wairoa.
  • In 1920, he acted as chairman and engineering member of a Commission appointed by the Government to report as to the necessity for and the routes upon which any further railways should be built in the North Auckland district.
  • In this year, also, he valued and reported to the New Plymouth Borough Council on the local gasworks which were under offer of sale to that body.
  • In 1924, he acted as chairman of a Committee appointed to investigate the affairs of the Wellington Farmers' Co-operative Freezing Co. Ltd. (Waingawa); an investigation which resulted in the reconstruction of the company.
  • In the same year, he was chairman of a Commission of three engineers, the others being Blair Mason and F. W. Furkert, that investigated and made a report to the Greymouth Harbour Board with a view to increasing the depth of water on the Grey River bar.
  • For about nine years he acted as one of the receivers and managers of the Paparoa Coal Mining Co. Ltd. (in liquidation) and on reconstruction, in 1925, was appointed as one of the three directors of the Paparoa Coal Co. Ltd.
  • From 1918 onward, he was a director of the Equitable Building and Investment Co. Ltd., of Wellington.


He was appointed by the Government to be the engineering member of the Board of Public Health constituted under the Public Health Act of 1918, and continued a member of that Board until his retirement through ill-health in 1924.
He was for several years a member of the Council of Victoria University College.

William Ferguson was a life member of the Royal Dublin Society, was elected an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland in 1873, an associate member in 1899, and a member in 1916, and, after 50 years' connection with that Institution was made an honorary member in 1923. He was elected a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1881 and for many years acted as its corresponding member and chairman of the local advisory committee in New Zealand. He was elected an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in December 1880, and in 1923 was transferred to the grade of member. He acted as a member of Council of the Institution from 1912 - 1914, and for many years was chairman of the local advisory committee in New Zealand.

Joining the Institution of Local Government Engineers New Zealand, in July, 1912, his leadership in the negotiations which resulted in the foundation of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers in 1914 and the merging of the Institute of Local Government Engineers into the new Society, entitles William Ferguson to be regarded as the actual founder of the present organisation, of which he was honorary secretary from 1914 to 1918, president 1919-20, and member of Council, 1920-24.

He died on 20 June 1935. It would be difficult to exaggerate either the influence he exerted upon the Society and upon the profession in New Zealand, or the profound personal regard which he inspired in all who came in contact with him.


This biography comes from Newnham, W L, “Learning Service Achievement” New Zealand Institution of Engineers, 1971, pp 343 - 7

Refer also to: 
Furkert, F W, “Early New Zealand Engineers”, p 165
Stace, F Nigel; “Ferguson, William, 1852 - 1935”;  Essay F 4, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Vol 3,  pp 157-8. (