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Significant Scots
James Stewart

JAMES STEWART M.inst.C.E. – Civil Engineer and Surveyor
1832 - 1914

James Stewart aged about 67 yearsJames Stewart was born in Perthshire, Scotland 1832 (1). Growing up in Perth, he was educated at the Perth Academy. (2)  Leaving this fine Scots Grammar School at eighteen years of age in 1850, James was Articled to Mr. Peter D.Brown, M.Inst.C.E. (3)

During the next eight years, firstly as a pupil and then as Chief Assistant, he learned the profession of Civil Engineering. Along with mechanical engineering he was also engaged in the engineering work of railways, roads, bridges and waterworks. It was also during this time, in 1853, that he was fortunate to be involved under Mr.  P Brown M.Inst.C.E. in pond design and construction at the Stormontfield Salmon Works on the Tay.

This experience was to be put to good use again by James. This was with the introduction of salmon and trout to the Waikato and Thames tributaries of New Zealand by Mr. Firth and Mr. Nathan in 1875. (4)  Eight years gaining the skills of Civil Engineering gave a solid foundation, for a career that was pursued right up to his death in 1914.

In 1859 James married Mary in Perth, Scotland. It was this same year that they set out for new horizons in New Zealand. Leaving his native land of Scotland, James and Mary arrived on the clipper barque, Joseph Fletcher, at Auckland, New Zealand on 18th August 1859. (5) They settled in Auckland, capital of New Zealand, at this time. Jame’s skills were at once in demand in a country that was rugged terrain, tracts of dense bush and little roading, railway, bridges or waterworks. The first years in this new home saw him:

         winning a competition for design of the Auckland Waterworks.

        with Mr. Samuel Harding surveying the Auckland – Drury railway route in about 1861 (this was to become the first part of the North Island Main Trunk Railway from  the Auckland end)

         Being appointed engineer to the Auckland City Board of Works 1862 - 1863. (6)

However tensions festering between European Settlers and Maori finally came to a head.  What is known as the New Zealand Wars with the Waikato Wars erupting in 1863. Railways were put on hold in the Auckland Province and preparation for war was a priority for the Government. James was sent to Sydney, by the then Minister of Defence, to purchase steamers for the New Zealand Government, suitable for use on the Waikato River during the campaign. Two of these, the iron gunboats “Koheroa” and “Rangiriri”, were from designs by James. Superintending the work, they were constructed at Sydney by P.N. Russell and Co. (7)

The end of the Waikato Wars saw James and Mr.Samuel Harding appointed engineers by the Provincial Government for the construction of the Auckland – Drury railway. In 1867, this was put on hold until Government funding became available again in 1870. (8)

Meantime in 1867, James, in addition to being in private engineering practice, was also appointed by the Marine Department to be Inspector of Steamers and Examiner of Engineers at Auckland. (9) Steamships were taking the place of sailing ships at this time. Engineers required a different set of skills to run the boilers and machinery of steamers.

Jame’s civil engineering, skills were well utilised, in the design and overseeing of construction of lighthouses, and reconstruction of various steamers boilers and machinery. Of mention, were the alterations in the engines, to compound principles, of the steamer ss. Star of the South (10). Compound principles were a new technology at that time.

Lighthouses that James became involved with in design and supervising construction of were Bean Rock (11), Ponui Passage (12) and Manukau Heads (13). Bean Rock, associated initially with marine engineer James Balfour, who unfortunately drowned before his plans were complete, ended up in Jame’s hands. Incorporating many of Balfour’s design aspects, the eventual completed design was James Stewart’s work. Likewise Ponui Passage Lighthouse of which James wrote about the design and construction in an article, which he read to the Auckland Institute in July 1871. (14)

The proclamation and opening of the Thames Goldfield from 1st August 1867 bought a gold rush to the area. Many of the Auckland businessmen became involved with this goldfield in mining, timber milling, running steamers to Thames, tramways and later a railway. Thames was not alluvial gold that could be panned for and required large amounts of capital and equipment.  Pumps to remove water and stamper batteries to crush the gold quartz. Amongst the many people involved in Thames goldmining, James Stewart was recorded as one of seven shareholders in the Queen of Beauty Goldmine. (15)

In 1870 Government funding became available again when the Government Immigration and Public Works Department was established. Under what is known as the “Vogel” Scheme, priority was placed on road and rail construction which employed immigrant labour to open up areas for settlement. (16)  James turned to his passion – design and construction of railways. In 1870 he was appointed to survey the upgrading of the Auckland – Drury railway. 1872 he became Resident Engineer for construction of the extension of the rail route to Mercer. This was followed by his appointment in 1874, to be in charge of all railway works in the then Auckland Province. (17).

The rail route continued down from Mercer (18) which was completed 1875, to Ngaruawahia completed 1877, to Hamilton completed 1877 (19), to Te Awamutu opened 1 July 1880. (20)  Thus this formed the Auckland – Te Awamutu section of the Main Trunk Railway, a distance of 100 miles of track. Construction was under difficult conditions for much of this route lay across swamp and peat lands, requiring large amounts of ballast to be poured into some areas before tracks could even be layed.

At the same time as the Auckland – Te Awamutu railway route were constructed, surveys for a railway route between Auckland and Kaipara harbour were begun in 1876. This was under the direction of Messrs. Samuel Harding and James Stewart. This line passed through Henderson, Swanson and Waitakare and connected with the existing Riverhead - Helensville line at Kumeu. Two years later an alternative route was surveyed from Wai komiti (now New Lynn) to

Riverhead. Cost assessments favoured the earlier survey which connected with Kumeu. The construction was commenced in 1879 and completed in July, 1881. (21)

In 1879 the railway eastwards from Hamilton toward Thames was begun. Morrinsville was opened in October 1884. The Thames Branch line from Morrinsville to Te Aroha was opened 1 March 1886 but Paeroa was not reached until 20 December 1895 and Thames 19 December 1898. The railway was bought to these towns to service settlement and goldmining and completed the roundabout rail route Auckland – Thames. (22)

In June 1880, a roading project giving access to Rotorua was announced officially. James, the District Engineer was directed by government  to carry out the necessary exploration and surveys to allow construction to begin on this project. As he carried out the survey, construction followed, beginning at Cambridge. By December 1880 a suitable dray track had been built of approximately 20 miles. A smaller gang followed the surveyors and by April 1881, a bridle track was completed to Rotorua. (23)

In 1881, Government once more faced funding problems with recession looming. James was retired from the Public Works Department and he re entered private practice with Mr. Ashley Hunter.

On 20 November 1880, Te Aroha was proclaimed a Goldfield. A town was established at Waiorongomai nearby to Te Aroha. Piako County Tramway built in 1882-83 was built to service the goldmining and battery area. (24). James was engineer to the Piako county tramways for the opening up of the Waiorongomai Mines. (25)

In 1881 the Patetere Association had discussions on the feasibility of a railway line from Morrinsville to Rotorua. The Thames Valley and Rotorua Railway Co. was formed and in 1882 James was contracted as Resident Engineer to oversee survey, design and construction of this initially, privately constructed railway. The railway was constructed in two sections – Morrinsville to Lichfield under the District Railways Act ( distance about 42 miles) and Putaruru to Rotorua under the Railways Construction and Land Act ( distance nearly 32 miles). (26)  The first section of railway was opened at Tirau on 8th March, 1886 and Lichfield on 21st June 1886, both opened at the time of the Tarawera Eruption which destroyed the famous Pink and White Terraces. Tirau became an important communication point at the time of the eruption. (27). One of Jame’s sons, Andrew, who spent time with James in the construction camps, was later to settle at Tirau in the 1900s, farming.

Finally after 13 years from the initial discussions of the Patetere Association, the railway was opened for through traffic to Rotorua on 8 December 1894. (28) In 1897 James was asked to do a feasibility survey of two railway routes Gisborne to Rotorua – one via the Urewera and the other via Opotiki. In July 1899 James reported on the survey, recommending the route Gisborne to Rotorua via Opotiki. Government approved construction. (29)

After the opening of the Railway to Rotorua, James turned his attention to electric traction of the Auckland city tramways. He visited England in 1896 for the latest information and on his return, in partnership with Ashley Hunter oversaw the laying of the Auckland Electric Tramways as consulting engineer. (30). The opening ceremony in 1902 was attended by Hugh crowds.

Throughout Jame’s career, he took a keen interest in the seeking of knowledge from many sources. Along with standards in the profession of Engineering and Surveying. Joining the Auckland Institute in 1868 he remained a member, apart from a short break, until his death. He was President of the Institute in 1890 and again in 1901. In addition he represented the Institute on the Board of Governors of the New Zealand Institute from 1903. In 1906 he was appointed Trustee. (31). As to his chosen profession of Civil Engineer and Surveyor, he was elected A.M.I.C.E. in 1868 and made M.I.C.E. in 1877. On 9th August 1881 he became an Authorized Surveyor, licensed under the Land Transfer Act in July 1884. (32)

James Stewart had a family of three sons and four daughters. In 1909, James and Mary celebrated a 50th Wedding Anniversary and the birth of a grandson Jack Morton Stewart, at the family home “Tirorangi”. Even though New Zealand where he settled was loved, a love of Scotland, his birthplace, was retained. He enjoyed the poems of Robbie Burns and works of Sir Walter Scott. He joined the Stewart Society and passed down to family, oral stories of his birthplace. James died on 12th February 1914, aged 82 years, and is buried at Auckland, New Zealand.  A man hardworking, with good knowledge and commonsense who was a leader of his time.

Bibliography and End Notes:

1.   THE PIONEER LAND SURVEYORS OF NEW ZEALAND C. A. LAWN, F. N. Z. I. S, 1977.Part IV, p 476 -477

2.  The Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Obituary. Stewart, J., from Volume 46, 1913 pg  vii

3. CYCLOPAEDIA NEW ZEALAND, Vol 2, Auckland Province pg.316- 317

4. The Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Art. XXVI.—Notes on the Introduction and Acclimatization of the Salmon. By James Stewart, C.E., from Volume 8, 1875, pgs 205 - 209

5. Auckland Area Passenger Vessels 1838-1886 Source Southern Cross 20 August 1859

6. CYCLOPAEDIA NEW ZEALAND, Vol. 2, Auckland Province pg.316 – 317

7. THE NEW ZEALAND WARS VOLUME I: 1845- 1864, James Cowan 1923 R. E. Owen, 1955, Wellington Pg 311

8. Cyclopaedia New Zealand, Vol. 2, Auckland Province pg.316 - 317

9. NEW ZEALAND GAZETTE, ALPHABETICAL LIST OF OFFICERS OF THE CIVIL ESTABLISHMENT OF NEW ZEALAND Employed on the 1st day of July 1871, showing the Rate of Salary and length of Service up to that date. R –S

10. &page=1&IDNo=&number=

11. -

12. Annual report. NZ Marine Department. AJHR, 1870/1871   Page G.6, 4 

13. Annual report. NZ Marine Department. AJHR, 1874   Pages H.22, 14 - 18

14. The Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Art. XI.—A Description of the Foundation of the Lighthouse in the Ponui Passage. By J. Stewart Assoc. Inst. C.E., from Volume 4, 1871 pgs 135 - 138



17. PIONEER LAND SURVEYORS OF NEW ZEALAND C. A. LAWN, F. N. Z. I. S, 1977.Part IV, p 476 -477

18. BETWEEN THE RIVER AND THE HILLS, WAIKATO COUNTY 1876 – 1976, David Moore, Wilson & Horton 1976, pg 39 ref to Stewart & Hunter.

19. BETWEEN THE RIVER AND THE HILLS, WAIKATO COUNTY 1876 – 1976, David Moore, Wilson & Horton 1976, railways pgs 15-17, pgs 175-179

20. FRONTIER TOWN. A HISTORY OF TE AWAMUTU. 1884- 1994 Laurie Barber, railways pgs 57 -64


22. LAND OF THE THREE RIVERS – CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF PIAKO COUNTY, Vennell C.W. and More D, Wilson & Horton, Auckland N.Z. , 1976 pg 199 ref to James Stewart, railways pgs 196 – 202.

23. THE FOUNDING YEARS IN ROTORUA – A HISTORY OF EVENTS TO 1900, D.M. Stafford, Ray Richards and Rotorua District Council, 1986, roads pgs 279 - 306

24. LAND OF THE THREE RIVERS – CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF PIAKO COUNTY, Vennell C.W. and More D, Wilson & Horton, Auckland N.Z., 1976 Waiorongomai pgs 279 – 290.

25. CYCLOPAEDIA NEW ZEALAND, Vol. 2, Auckland Province pg.316 - 317

26. The Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Art. LVIII.—The Rotorua Railway and District. By James Stewart, C. E., from Volume 24, 1891 pgs 205 – 209

27. MEMORIES OF TIRAU – A HISTORY OF TIRAU, compiled by Peg Cummins, Tirau Historical Society, 2006 p 32-33, 283 - 284

28. THE FOUNDING YEARS IN ROTORUA – A HISTORY OF EVENTS TO 1900, D.M. Stafford, Ray Richards and Rotorua District Council, 1986, railway pgs 337 – 366 .

29. THE FOUNDING YEARS IN ROTORUA – A HISTORY OF EVENTS TO 1900, D.M. Stafford, Ray Richards and Rotorua District Council, 1986, railway pgs 345

30. CYCLOPAEDIA NEW ZEALAND, Vol. 2, Auckland Province pg.316 – 317

31. The Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Obituary. Stewart, J., from Volume 46, 1913 pg vii

32. THE PIONEER LAND SURVEYORS OF NEW ZEALAND  C. A. LAWN, F. N. Z. I. S, 1977.Part IV, p 476 -477

33. Family Stories and Papers


The Research I have done over the last eighteen months to begin writing a biography on James Stewart could not have been achieved without the wonderful sharing and help of many people. The above article is but a very brief overview of the more in depth work currently being written. The journey is a fun one while I am doing my research and visiting the places. I stand in awe as I know that Great Grandfather was in that place in the late 1800’s. Overseeing survey, design and construction of lighthouses, bridges, roads, railways and tramways in conditions that I could not even begin to imagine today. I am grateful for the help received to date from my cousins Jocelyn Raymond, Judy Adlington and Neville Collins; the staff of the Waihi Library; Marleene Boyd, National Maritime Museum NZ; John Isdale, Thames School of Mines; Peter Barber Te Aroha Historical Society; Dr. Neville Ritchie, Regional Archaeologist Department of Conservation; Staff of NZETC, NZ National Library, Waikato Museum, Auckland Museum, Rotorua Museum and MOTAT.


The following are a list of structures and designs James Stewart was involved with and today are registered Historic Places under the New Zealand Historic Places Act. Many of these sites are now part of the NZ Tourist Heritage Trail.

Steamer Gunboat Rangiriri                                             Hamilton

Bean Rock Lighthouse                                                   Waitemata Harbour, Auckland

Ponui Passage Lighthouse                                            Ponui Passage Waitemata

Manukau Heads Lighthouse                                           Manukau Heads Manukau Harbour

Queen of Beauty Mine Shaft                                          Thames

North Island Main Trunk Railway                                     Auckland – Te Awamutu

Water Tower, Railway                                                     Tirau

Water Tower, Railway                                                     Lichfield

Waiorongomai Tramways                                               Te Aroha

About the Article Author

Anne STEWART BALL, daughter of JACK MORTON STEWART, is currently writing a full biography about the life and work of her Great Grandfather JAMES STEWART. Semi retired has given Anne the opportunity of time to carry out the Research and Writing. Anne was born in Epsom, Auckland 1949. Upon leaving school, she started work at Field Research Department, Ruakura Agricultural Reseach Station as a Technical Assistant in 1966. From here she moved into the field of Adult Education and Research, working in the Forest and Scrap Metal Industries. Disciplines covered were Training, Occupational Health and Safety, Environmental and Quality.

Anne Stewart Ball 2007

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