As city engineer for over 20 years, Walter Ernest Bush played a leading part in modernising the physical infrastructure of Auckland. Walter was born at Kingston, Surrey, England on 8 September 1875, the son of Emily Mary Rowden and her husband, John Bush, a linen draper. At the age of 16 he became an engineering cadet. He developed a particular interest in the fields of water supply and sewerage, qualifying for the diplomas of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Sanitary Institute. On 7 August 1901, at Luton, Bedfordshire, Walter Bush married Margaret Louisa Allwood; they were to have five children. Bush advanced in his profession to become borough and waterworks engineer at Sudbury in Suffolk before being appointed Auckland city engineer in 1906.
Bush was just 30 years of age when he arrived in New Zealand; photographs reveal that he was tall, angular and bespectacled. Great results were expected from the council's bold decision, the mayor, Arthur Myers, describing Bush as a 'man of eminent capacity, still young, in the vigour of life, and with a large experience.'
Bush's competence and mettle were soon tested by technical and administrative problems: an inadequate sewerage and water supply system and a disorganised engineering department. He endorsed a controversial scheme for a crude-sewage outfall into the Waitemata Harbour at Okahu Point (now Takaparawha Point), Orakei, and under his direction three water-supply dams in the Waitakere Ranges were planned and constructed. Within a year of his arrival he had reorganised the engineering department; a second review and reorganisation in 1911–12 was vindicated in 1915 by an independent inquiry. His energy was further demonstrated when in 1908 he secured the job of drainage engineer for the Auckland and Suburban Drainage Board while still retaining his city council post. He worked for the board until 1915, overseeing the construction of the main outfall works at Okahu Point.
Bush was the first member of the council's staff to be sent on an overseas tour of investigation, visiting Australia in 1913. He returned with the comment that, in engineering, Sydney had very little to teach Auckland. Although this trip received little publicity, there was considerable interest in 1919 when he embarked on a nine-month journey through North America and Great Britain. He observed and later reported on roadmaking, water and sewerage works, refuse disposal, street cleaning, quarrying, and also municipal management, housing, and town planning.
Social as well as engineering considerations influenced Bush's vision for Auckland. In 1909 he was urging demolition of inner-city slum housing, and in 1916 he prophetically suggested that the former city market site be transformed into a civic centre. In 1926 he was appointed to Auckland's Civic Centre Commission, and the following year became a foundation member of the national Town-planning Board.
By the 1920s Bush had achieved a high reputation among New Zealand civil engineers. He was national president of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers from 1927 to 1928. His stature was affirmed in 1928 when the Wellington City Council appointed him to a commission to adjudicate on the problem of physical access to its hillier suburbs.
Bush put down strong roots in Auckland. He was actively associated with the Rotary Club of Auckland and the YMCA. He staunchly advocated a school of engineering for Auckland University College and saw its establishment in 1927. He was later to say that he 'had always felt that Auckland would achieve a high destiny, and that it was a city worthy of any man's best effort.'
From 1927 Bush was one target of an economising campaign by two maverick councillors and by early 1929 he had resigned, announcing that he had been appointed engineer for the water supply and sewerage department of the Brisbane City Council. His departure in April 1929 was preceded by a series of gatherings at which warm tribute was paid to his work in New Zealand. At a packed public meeting Bush was especially commended for the confidence he had engendered in the business community.
Bush's career in Brisbane had an unfortunate sequel. In 1934 the expiry of his five-year contract coincided with a changeover in political control and he was not offered a further term by the incoming Labor council. Instead he worked as a consulting engineer in private practice until his retirement. Walter Ernest Bush died in Brisbane on 29 January 1950. His wife had predeceased him; he was survived by four children.