Page 1: Biography
Public works contractor, sportsman
This biography, written by John McLean, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
Neil McLean was born on 4 August 1857 on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, the third child of Mary McLean and her husband, John McLean, a shipwright. The McLeans belonged to Norman McLeod's religious community, and in the 1850s joined their exodus to New Zealand in search of better economic conditions. They arrived in Auckland on the Ellen Lewis on 11 May 1860. Rather than go to Waipu with their fellow Normanists, they settled on a farm at Papakura; they were forced to return to Auckland because of the fear of war. John McLean joined the militia during the Waikato war, then in 1870 set up as a contractor building bridges and wharves.
Neil McLean served his apprenticeship as a shipwright at Henry Niccol's shipyard at Devonport before joining his father's firm, John McLean and Sons. He married Hannah Wilson Ratcliffe at Auckland on 14 March 1882; they were to have three sons and one daughter. When John McLean retired in 1886 Neil and his brother Murdoch took over the management of the firm's contracts all over the country. In 1887–88 they built the first bridge across the Buller River at Westport. The brothers then divided the work of the firm between them. While Murdoch built the Makarau railway tunnel, near the Kaipara Harbour, Neil supervised the construction of the Kaponga–Tarukenga stretch of the Rotorua railway. Cutting through high, mountainous spurs, this was the most difficult section of the line. Neil McLean then moved to Wellington where he built the drainage tunnel (1895–96) under Mount Victoria to Kilbirnie. This was the largest contract of the Wellington drainage system, which began to transform a town served by night carts into a properly serviced city.
At this time Wellington had only one wharf (Queen's) capable of taking steamships and McLean spent the next few years building the wharves needed to accommodate both the larger steamships that were replacing sailing vessels and the increasing ferry traffic on the harbour. He extended Queen's Wharf in 1894–95, built the wharf at Days Bay in 1895 and then built the ferry wharf on Waterloo Quay where the little steamships departed for Days Bay and Eastbourne. With circular piles he constructed the Jervois Quay staging and between 1899 and 1901 he built Glasgow Wharf which, linked by rail to Wellington railway station, enabled wool and meat from Wairarapa and Manawatu to be conveyed right to the ship's side; the Railway Wharf (rebuilt 1903–5) used a similar system. Between 1900 and 1902 McLean built the wharves at Miramar, Seatoun and Karaka Bay, and between 1903 and 1905 he built the sea-wall for the Te Aro West reclamation. From 1907 to 1910 he constructed the Clyde Quay Wharf, which was one of the first in New Zealand to be made of ferro-concrete. He then tried to build a dry dock for Wellington, but the concrete would not set in salt water and the McLean firm, having suffered a loss of £40,000, was released from the contract.
By 1907 John McLean and Sons was the largest firm of contractors in New Zealand and Neil and Murdoch McLean were reputed to be among the country's wealthiest men. They now undertook a five-year contract to build the 5¼-mile-long Otira tunnel under the Southern Alps. It was to be the longest tunnel in the British Empire and the seventh longest in the world. While Murdoch went to England to purchase the necessary equipment, Neil built settlements at each end of the proposed tunnel to house the hundreds of workers. After his return Murdoch established himself at the Otira end while Neil began digging in from the Canterbury side.
John McLean and Sons had hitherto had an excellent record of labour relations; during more than 40 years of contracting there had never been even the semblance of a strike. The firm paid better wages than other contractors in order to attract the most productive workers and prided itself on treating the men fairly. However, working conditions at Otira were miserable, militant unionists travelled from the West Coast to organise the men, and several bitter strikes occurred. Isolation made it hard to attract labour, and the sheer physical difficulty of the work meant that the job could not be completed on time. Facing financial ruin, the firm was released from its contract in 1912. World-wide tenders were called to complete the job but so grim were the prospects that no contractor was foolish enough even to put in a bid; the Public Works Department undertook the completion of the work, which took another 10½ years.
Neil McLean continued contracting until 1921 but on a much smaller scale than before. During this time he constructed a railway at Hororata in Canterbury, the tram barn at Epsom and the Kaituna River bridge at Te Puke.
Neil McLean was a keen and able sportsman who played rugby for Auckland in 1888 and 1889 and was also a skilled oarsman and athlete. He played bowls and was president of the Wellington Bowling Club. Between 1897 and 1902 he raced horses in partnership with his brother and he was a steward of the Wellington Racing Club from 1905 to 1915 and from 1921 to 1939. Together with other stewards he undertook a personal guarantee for the purchase of Trentham racecourse at a time when many thought it too bold a project. Well informed and with a broad experience of life, the pipe-smoking, clubbable McLean was a longstanding member of Wellington's Wellesley Club.
Neil McLean died in Wellington on 5 May 1939; he was survived by two sons and a daughter, Hannah McLean having died in 1931. For over 30 years he had been one of the leading public works contractors in New Zealand. The unexpected difficulties of the Otira tunnel project eventually led to his firm's demise, but its surviving works, often achieved in the face of daunting physical odds, testify to the integrity, courage and perseverance of Neil (and Murdoch) McLean.