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Turner, Charles William Oakey


Mechanical and civil engineer, engineering administrator and consultant

This biography, written by Rob Aspden, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Charles William Oakey Turner was born in Cardiff, Wales, on 27 January 1901, the son of William John Turner, a railway inspector, and his wife, Mary Ann Oakey. He won a scholarship to the local grammar school but left early to take up a fitting and turning apprenticeship; he completed his university entrance examination in his spare time.

Intending to become a surveyor for Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, Turner won a Lloyd’s scholarship and studied mechanical engineering at the University of Wales. Shortly before his final examinations he had an accident on his motorcycle and was hospitalised. He missed his finals, but met Anne Margaret Owen, a theatre sister at the hospital, whom he was to marry. While repeating his final year he also undertook a course in civil engineering, and graduated with honours in both mechanical and civil engineering.

To gain experience for his career with Lloyd’s, he worked for three years as a marine engineer on coal-fired ships sailing between Britain and New Zealand. He earned his marine engineering certificate, but cutbacks at Lloyd’s meant a job never eventuated. Instead, after his ship was made idle in Wellington by a worldwide strike of British seamen in 1925, he remained in New Zealand and the following year secured a position in the Public Works Department (PWD). On 5 January 1928 Turner married Anne Owen in Wellington, shortly after her arrival in New Zealand. They were to have three sons.

The next seven years were spent mainly in the PWD design office in Wellington, where Turner was involved in a wide range of civil and mechanical engineering projects, including the Mohaka rail viaduct. After the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931, Turner was seconded as surveyor for the boroughs of Hastings, Napier, Wairoa and Gisborne, where he was required to check designs and issue permits for reconstruction. He became a key figure in the establishment of seismic design principles which later formed the basis for the first earthquake design code for the country.

In 1934 Charles Turner won a Commonwealth Fund fellowship and travelled with his family to the United States, where he spent the next two years studying at Stanford University and the University of Illinois. He received a master of engineering degree from Illinois, where he had been able to study under leading engineering professors. He was also able to tour widely, viewing a range of civil engineering works.

Shortly after returning to New Zealand Turner was appointed deputy to William Newnham, the head of the PWD design office in Wellington, and in 1937 he succeeded him in that position. He played an important part in the design of reinforced concrete road and rail bridges, including arch bridges on the Napier-to-Gisborne railway. He was later to re-use the arch-bridge falsework for the construction of the Ohakea and Whenuapai aircraft hangars, which were among the largest tied arch spans in the world at the time. He also carried a high degree of responsibility for the design and construction of the large-diameter siphons used in the Canterbury irrigation schemes.

During the Second World War, Turner, as a major in the New Zealand Defence Engineer Service Corps, played a key role in meeting the urgent requirements of the armed forces. This included design work for the Ohakea and Whenuapai runways, timber hangars, gun emplacements, camps for American Marines, and radar towers. Anne Turner died of pneumonia in 1942. Charles married Helen Marjorie Porter at Wellington on 20 March 1943; they were to have two sons and a daughter.

In 1944 Turner was transferred to the new Ministry of Works as chief inspecting engineer. In 1946 he was appointed chief civil engineer of the newly formed State Hydro-electric Department (SHD), with responsibility for the investigation and design of urgently required power schemes. When the SHD’s civil design section was transferred to the Ministry of Works in 1948, Turner became assistant engineer in chief (power), responsible for the civil engineering part of the power projects. The desperate power shortage of the post-war years made this a challenging job, with work proceeding on projects on the Waikato, Waitaki and Clutha rivers as well as other smaller schemes. Turner was a strong promoter of the use of geothermal steam for power generation. In 1955 he was appointed one of the directors of Geothermal Developments Limited, a joint British – New Zealand company established to develop the Wairakei geothermal field.

In 1951 Turner succeeded Fritz Langbein as engineer in chief of the Ministry of Works. He came to have a special responsibility for the development of major projects, including the aluminium, steel and salt industries and the Marsden Point oil refinery. He was also called on as an adjudicator in construction contract disputes.

When he retired in 1962 Turner was appointed to the Imperial Service Order. He continued to work as an engineering and industrial consultant. He also continued as a contracts arbitrator and became a company director. Having been the prime mover while at the Ministry of Works in the joint development of the Manapouri power station and the Bluff aluminium smelter, he became an expert adviser to Comalco New Zealand, the smelter’s owners.

Turner was a brilliant and bold designer and was responsible for a number of advanced design methods being introduced into New Zealand. He was vice-president of a United Nations committee on earthquake engineering. Latterly he was a leading figure in contract administration, and his book on engineering contracts was recognised as the authoritative work on the subject. He endowed the Turner Lectures on contract administration, and was actively involved with the New Zealand Institution of Engineers, serving as a member of its council. He was also an active Rotarian. Charles Turner died in Waikanae on 18 May 1994, survived by his wife, four sons and a daughter.

How to cite this page:

Rob Aspden. 'Turner, Charles William Oakey', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5t22/turner-charles-william-oakey (accessed 24 April 2024)