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Story: McQueen, Charles

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McQueen, Charles


Engineer, gold-dredger

This biography, written by T. J. Hearn, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Charles McQueen was born on 17 April 1836, in Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the son of Peter McQueen, a fender-maker, and his wife, Elizabeth Scott. Little is known of McQueen's early life, other than that he served an apprenticeship with a boiler-making firm before emigrating to Victoria, Australia, about 1859 or 1860.

Here he made the acquaintance of James Kincaid. In 1862 or 1863 the two moved to Dunedin, New Zealand, where they established the Dunedin Boiler Works and, several years later, the Vulcan Foundry. They manufactured ships, farm machinery and mining equipment, including 'gold dredging spoons' – an early attempt to develop a technology for retrieving gold from the beds of Otago's swiftly flowing rivers. In 1862 the partners founded the firm Kincaid, McQueen, and Company; it owned both the foundry and the boiler works. The company constructed current-wheel dredges during the 1870s, and as early as 1873 the partners promoted the Alexandra Steam Dredge Company, one of the first steam-dredging ventures using the bucket-and-ladder principle. The venture failed in the face of opposition from miners and lack of public support, and the partnership was dissolved in 1880.

McQueen persisted, however, and in March 1881, 'on behalf of a private Company of adventurers for dredging gold', he and two partners applied for a mining licence for a stretch of the Clutha River above Alexandra. In September the newly registered Dunedin Gold Dredging Company, in which McQueen held a substantial shareholding, launched its 66-foot-long, twin ladder-and-bucket dredge, Dunedin. The first steam dredge to commence mining, it was widely regarded as the prototype of what became known as the New Zealand or Standard dredge. In 1887 the Dunedin No 2 Gold Dredging Company was formed to acquire the assets of the existing company. The following year the dredge was moved to Teviot River, and was reconstructed with a single centre bucket-and-ladder chain. It continued to operate until 1901, one of the few successes among Otago's many dredging ventures.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s McQueen invested in prospecting ventures and in alluvial and quartz mining. He served as a director of several enterprises, while Kincaid, McQueen and Company constructed ships, harbour dredges, gold dredges, factory machinery, and harbour cranes, and experimented with other types of motive power for dredges. He was deeply involved in the short-lived gold-dredging boom of 1889–90, as claim vendor and investor, while the company made many of the machines placed on the Kawarau and Clutha rivers and elsewhere in Otago.

In September 1889 McQueen, as sole owner (Kincaid had died in 1880) sold the entire assets to a new firm, Kincaid, McQueen and Company Limited, retaining most of the shares. The collapse of the dredging boom from 1890 and the rapid liquidation of most of the public companies involved appear to have created serious difficulties for the new company. In June 1891, on the company's own petition, the Supreme Court ordered that it be wound up, final dissolution taking place in 1893.

McQueen left New Zealand in 1893, participating in a number of unsuccessful mining ventures in both Tasmania and Victoria before dying on 30 May 1906, in Creswick, Victoria. He was married twice. On 7 February 1861 he married Mary MacKenzie at Emerald Hill, Victoria. Mary died in Dunedin on 17 November 1882, five days after the birth of their 11th child. Six years later, on 21 December 1888, McQueen married a widow, Agnes Sinclair, née Beveridge, in Dunedin. There were no children of the marriage. Agnes McQueen survived her husband.

Gold-dredging was Otago's contribution to mining technology; Charles McQueen was one of the new technology's major pioneers.

How to cite this page:

T. J. Hearn. 'McQueen, Charles', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2m22/mcqueen-charles (accessed 3 June 2023)