Page 1: Biography
Furkert, Frederick William
Civil engineer, senior public servant, local politician, writer
This biography, written by Rob Aspden, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Frederick William Furkert was born in Ross, Westland, on 14 October 1876, the son of Geoffrey William Furkert, a butcher, and his wife, Eliza Sales. He attended school in Ross and Hokitika and in 1893 topped the junior civil service examination. The following year he entered the Public Works Department as a cadet. He spent eight months in the head office draughting room and started his engineering training at Wellington Technical School. Returning to the West Coast, he worked first with road surveys, then on the construction of the Greymouth–Hokitika railway and the Midland railway.
In 1898 Furkert was appointed assistant engineer, and went to work for R. W. Holmes on the location survey on the North Island main trunk railway. He was promoted to engineer in 1901 and moved to the Stratford district, where he was involved with the survey and the start of construction of the railway from Stratford to inland Taranaki. On 3 September 1902 in Wellington he married Constance Mary Plimmer; they were to have three sons. Furkert was appointed resident engineer for Taranaki in 1905 and placed in charge of all public works in the area except roads.
In 1906 he was transferred to Taihape and in 1907 to Ohakune. As well as supervising the construction of the south end of the main trunk railway, he was in charge of railway operations on the unopened section of line. He made all the arrangements for the first train in August 1908, when a parliamentary party was carried north to meet the American fleet at Auckland. The journey was made possible by connecting the north and south sections of the line some months ahead of schedule, with Furkert making a number of deviations, narrow cuttings and temporary expedients.
At the end of 1908 he was sent to Dunedin as district engineer of the Otago and Southland districts. Over the following four years he worked on many significant irrigation schemes in Central Otago and the Waitaki Valley, and on various railway projects including the Lawrence to Roxburgh line. During this time he completed his professional examinations, and in 1909 he became an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London.
Furkert moved to the department's head office in Wellington in 1912 as inspecting engineer with special responsibility for work in the South Island. In 1913 he was granted leave to undertake a world trip, visiting Australia, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Europe, Africa and America. During this tour he inspected irrigation works in the United States and Canada. He also investigated narrow-gauge railways in Europe and produced a report on the Belgian lines on his return. While in London he represented New Zealand at an international road congress.
When the First World War broke out, Furkert volunteered for active service, and was appointed to command the newly formed Corps of New Zealand Engineers Tunnellers Company. However, the engineer in chief, R. W. Holmes, opposed his application for leave of absence from the department. As a result, Furkert continued with his normal duties, although he also had charge of the construction of military camps at Trentham, Maymorn and Featherston.
He was appointed assistant engineer in chief in 1919, and succeeded Holmes as engineer in chief and under-secretary of the Public Works Department in August 1920. His appointment was warmly greeted by the minister of public works, J. Gordon Coates. The two men were to form a strong team over the next decade when, despite a slowing in railroad construction, there was substantial growth in the development of roads and power stations. Furkert was involved in preparing the legislation for the inauguration of the main highways system and, on the passing of the Main Highways Act 1922, was appointed the first chairman of the Main Highways Board.
During his 12 years as engineer in chief he was responsible for the first major development of hydroelectricity in New Zealand. Mangahao, Arapuni and Tuai power stations were completed in that time and Waitaki was close to completion. He suffered much criticism from politicians, the press and the public during the construction of these schemes, particularly Arapuni, because of delays in commissioning and because of various technical problems that were encountered.
In 1926 Furkert was made a CMG and later that year went to Western Samoa to advise the administration on hydroelectric development at Apia. From there he proceeded on a year-long world tour. He visited North America, Europe, North Africa, and the Far East. He attended the Imperial Conference in London in November 1926, and inspected the world's first geothermal power station at Larderello in Italy. He and his wife, Constance, were accompanied by Muriel Jones, who was living with them as an adopted daughter. Constance died in 1928, and in Wellington on 21 July 1931, Furkert married Catherine Annie White (née Foley).
From 1929 problems with Arapuni were compounded by the additional burdens caused by the depression. The government not only called for major reductions in expenditure, but also required the department to provide work for the unemployed. Although Furkert made substantial cuts in staff and in the salaries of his officers, he was instructed in 1932 to make further reductions in staff. He decided to lead the way by taking early retirement, but continued to work as a consultant to the government and the department.
At the onset of the Second World War Furkert again volunteered, but was declined on account of his age. In August 1941 he travelled to Fiji, as controller of materials and New Zealand representative, to advise on the establishment of a sea-plane base at Laucala Bay and on other airfield matters. In May 1942 he was appointed commissioner of defence works and materials in Fiji, and served until October that year. After returning to New Zealand he continued to assist the commissioner of works, advising on naval bases, aerodromes and camps. During 1943–45 he travelled to various Pacific island countries to advise on works, and later on the disposal of assets such as buildings and materials. At the end of the war he was appointed to the War Assets Realisation Board and served until it was disbanded at the end of 1948.
Furkert was a strong supporter of the engineering profession and a foundation member of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers, serving as president in 1923–24. He was on the council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, for a time, and was a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, England. A leader in the development of legislation for the registration of engineers, he was the first chairman of the Engineers Registration Board. He was also largely responsible for the reference text, Early New Zealand engineers, which was published in 1953, four years after his death. This work includes a history of engineering in New Zealand and biographies of over 300 engineers born before 1865. It was written from a combination of personal experience and thorough research, and remains an invaluable record of the profession.
During his career Furkert was a member of numerous royal commissions, in many instances serving as chairman. Probably the most outstanding from an engineering point of view was the Rivers Commission of 1919–21, the findings of which were used for many years. He also sat on various boards of inquiry and on several government-appointed special committees. He was one of the leading figures behind the establishment of the New Zealand Standards Institution in 1932 and became deputy chairman of the Standards Council. His most notable achievement in this capacity was the preparation of specifications for a standard code of building by-laws.
Furkert's activities were not restricted to engineering matters. As well as being a Wellington city councillor (1941–49) and a member of the Wellington Hospital Board, he was a foundation member of the Rotary Club of Wellington, a member of the Carter Observatory Board, and served for many years on the Town-planning Board. He was a Freemason, a keen lawn bowler, a deerstalker, a capable photographer and a wood-turner. He died on 26 September 1949 in Wellington, survived by his second wife, two sons and the adopted daughter of his first marriage, and a son and a daughter of his second marriage.