Page 1: Biography
Civil engineering manager and consultant
This biography, written by F. Nigel Stace, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
William Ferguson was born in Clerkenwell, London, England, on 15 June 1852, the son of William Ferguson, a chemist and later a brewer, and his wife, Louisa Ann Du Bois. William was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Burton on Trent, and at Rathmines School, Dublin. At 15 he was indentured to Courtenay, Stephens and Company, mechanical engineers. On completing his apprenticeship he was briefly chief draughtsman at Ross, Walpole and Stephens' foundry.
Ferguson was determined to gain higher education. In 1873 he began study at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated BA (1877), bachelor of engineering (1879) and MA (1881). He undertook engineering work while he studied, and then at intervals until 1883 designed special work for Ross, Walpole and Stephens. He also helped design waterworks and railways in Ireland, and in 1878 was chief draughtsman and computer for the Hydraulic Engineering Company, Chester. From 1879 to 1882 he was assistant to the professor of civil engineering at Trinity College; owing to the professor's ill health and subsequent death, for the final six months Ferguson undertook all his duties.
In July 1883 William Ferguson, with his younger brother, Lindo, and his mother, sailed for Dunedin, New Zealand on the Takapuna. In May 1884 he was appointed engineer and secretary (later also treasurer) of the Wellington Harbour Board. Ferguson was responsible for the general management and operations of the board as wharfinger, as well as the design and execution of engineering works. This was generally done in accordance with a comprehensive scheme of development prepared by consulting engineer C. Napier Bell, which Ferguson supplemented and improved. His decision to plan breastworks and wharves to lie in the direction of the prevailing winds meant that tugs were seldom necessary in berthing even the largest vessels. Ferguson's special knowledge of hydraulic machinery was valuable, and hydraulic cranes, allowing rapid loading of ships, became a feature of the wharves.
Under Ferguson's organisational and financial guidance the port became recognised as one of the best equipped in the southern hemisphere. He promoted the idea of a dry dock, which he considered to be of imperial importance since it would provide facilities for servicing warships. In 1900 he was granted nine months' leave to study such a dock in England. It proved difficult to find the necessary finance, and construction was not begun until 1907. Even then insuperable technical difficulties meant that the project was abandoned in 1910.
With the board's approval Ferguson's skills were made available to other bodies. He advised the Wellington City Council on the Te Aro reclamation in 1889; in 1890, with Edwin Cuthbert, he devised a scheme for the city's sewerage, and two years later with H. P. Higginson became consultant for its execution; and in 1895 he was honorary engineer for the construction of Kelburn Park. Between then and 1908 he advised on harbour proposals at Napier, Auckland and Melbourne. He resigned from his harbour board positions in February 1908 and was appointed consulting engineer for five years from 1 September.
In the same year Ferguson became general manager (later managing director) of the Wellington Gas Company. Under his direction completely new works were designed and erected at Miramar for the supply of gas to the greater Wellington area. He was in demand as a consultant and advised on silting in the Waihou and Ohinemuri rivers in 1910 and on a proposed ship canal for Christchurch in 1911-12. He also found time to report on Westport harbour (1913), iron deposits at Parapara (1913), proposed Waikato–Manukau and Manukau–Waitemata canals (1914), the renewal of Wellington City leases (1914), health problems at Trentham Camp (1915), and cargo facilities at Castlecliff (1916).
In 1916 Ferguson retired from the directorate of the Wellington Gas Company to devote himself to his new post of honorary chairman of the National Efficiency Board, a position he held until 1920. Despite his war commitment he undertook a wide range of consultancy work. In 1916 he investigated silting problems in Gisborne's inner harbour and in 1919 advised the Auckland City Council on the purchase of a tramway system and the Christchurch Tramway Board on sinking, depreciation and renewal funds. In 1920 he advised on engineering problems at Gisborne, North Auckland, New Plymouth and the West Coast.
Over a period of 20 years, until ill health forced a curtailment of his activities from 1924, William Ferguson was the inevitable choice for any important engineering inquiry. He also served as engineer member of the Board of Public Health (later the Board of Health) from 1918 to 1924, receiver-manager and (later) director for the Paparoa Coal Mining Company, a director of Equitable Building and Investment Company and a member of the Council of Victoria University College from 1912 to 1918.
Ferguson was a life member of the Royal Dublin Society, a fellow of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, and an honorary member of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland. He was also a member of the Institutions of Mechanical and Civil Engineers, London, and for many years acted as the New Zealand advisory chairman of both. It was as a member of the Institute of Local Government Engineers of New Zealand that he made his greatest contribution to the engineering profession in New Zealand. In 1914 he led with wisdom, urbanity and skill the negotiations that resulted in the foundation of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers and the merging of the local government engineers into the new organisation. He served the new engineering body as its honorary secretary from 1914 to 1918, as its president in 1919 and 1920, and as a member of its council until 1924.
Ferguson had married Mary Louisa Moorhouse at Wellington on 25 November 1890; she died in 1930. He died at his home at Silverstream on 20 June 1935, survived by a son. Although he received no public honours, he had been responsible for the design of many important public engineering works in Wellington, and his ability had been recognised in requests for advice from throughout the country.