Arthur Dudley Dobson

Extract: Starky, Suzanne. 'Dobson, Arthur Dudley 1841 - 1934; Dobson, Edward 1816/1817? - 1908'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Arthur Dudley Dobson Edward Dobson was born in London, England, probably in 1816 or 1817, the son of Elizabeth Barker and her husband, John Dobson, a merchant. In 1832 his widowed mother apprenticed him to an architect and surveyor. He attended University College, London, obtaining certificates of honour in architecture and civil engineering by 1843. On 7 May 1839, at Shoreditch, London, he married Mary Ann Lough; they had 10 children. Arthur Dudley, their second son, was born in Islington, London, on 9 September 1841. Edward Dobson worked as a railway engineer near Nottingham from 1846 to 1849. When the railway boom ended, he sailed on the Cressy to Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1850, taking the oldest boys, George and Arthur, with him. Mary Ann Dobson and the other children joined them in 1851. Dobson built houses on their land in Christchurch and Sumner.

Arthur Dobson received his early education in Nottingham. From 1851 to 1853 he and George were taught in Tasmania by their uncle, the Reverend Charles Dobson. Family finances improved in 1854 when Edward was appointed provincial engineer for Canterbury, so Arthur returned to New Zealand and attended Christ's College from 1857 to 1858. The boys learnt practical building skills from their father as well as surveying and engineering. Arthur was apprenticed to his father for five years: an early task was assessing the depth of mud in Lyttelton Harbour. Father and son worked together surveying for the Rangiora main drain; their efforts made it possible to drain the 20,000 acre swamp.

Arthur Dobson then spent four months camping and surveying in North Canterbury, reaching Lake Sumner and the Hurunui River. For two years, from December 1860, he worked with geologist Julius Haast. He collected and labelled geological specimens and accompanied Haast exploring and surveying the upper Kowai River. They climbed Mt Torlesse, explored the Southern Alps and the glaciers, and tried to climb Mt Cook.

As provincial engineer Edward Dobson was chosen to superintend the building of a railway tunnel through the hills between Lyttelton and Christchurch in 1860; Arthur drew sectional plans prior to the beginning of construction. One of the first electric telegraphs in New Zealand was installed along the railway.

In 1865 gold was discovered on Canterbury's west coast and Christchurch was eager to share in the new wealth. Immediate steps were taken to build a road to Hokitika. The Dobsons had already helped search for passes over the Southern Alps, and in the early 1860s Arthur had carried out an extensive survey of the West Coast. He survived the rigours of bush surveying with the help of local Maori, whose language he learnt. In March 1864 he had discovered Arthur's Pass, now chosen by his father as the main route to the West Coast goldfields. Edward Dobson offered high wages, creating problems in the labour market, but his drive and energy ensured this difficult road was completed in a year, despite a severe winter in Otira; the road was opened on 20 March 1866. This costly highway was only used once by the gold escort, for the miners soon decided to ship their gold to Melbourne.

Prior to 1868 both Christchurch and Kaiapoi suffered from flooding of the Waimakariri River. The worst flood occurred on 4 February 1868 when water flowed about three feet deep through Christchurch, and the Canterbury Plains resembled a lake. Edward built embankments, and designed a canal through Kaiapoi Island, to straighten the course of the river. He resigned as provincial engineer that year, and river control passed to a board of conservators.

Arthur Dudley DobsonEdward Dobson moved to Australia in 1869, since public works had almost halted in Canterbury. With excellent references he became engineer to a Melbourne railway company, the engineer for water supply, Melbourne, and assistant engineer, Geelong Water Supply. Arthur, meanwhile, had been appointed, on 1 October 1866, assistant provincial engineer for Nelson. On 20 November 1866 he married Eleanor Lewis in Nelson; they were to have four children. In 1867 he explored the Motueka and Karamea districts. He became district engineer for the West Coast goldfields in Nelson province in 1869, provincial engineer in May 1871, and in December chief surveyor for Nelson. In October 1872, while still in the employ of the Nelson provincial government, he was placed in charge of railway construction in Westport by the general government. In 1875 he resigned all his offices in Nelson following a change in the provincial government; he was then appointed district engineer, and had charge of all railway works.

Edward Dobson returned to New Zealand in 1876. He conducted railway surveys until 1878, when he and Arthur formed a partnership in Christchurch. They upgraded the Timaru waterworks, and organised three water supply projects on the Canterbury Plains. In 1884, having surveyed a railway line through the Southern Alps, including '75 miles of the most difficult country in New Zealand,' they launched the Midland Railway Company in partnership with others; the line was not completed until 1923.

Dobson and Son were often called in as consultants. The Christchurch City Council commissioned a report from them in 1882 on providing a public water supply for the city. Artesian wells were plentiful but many private shallow wells were contaminated, and the Avon River was an open drain. Christchurch's figures for typhoid, diphtheria, dysentery and fevers were the worst in New Zealand in the nineteenth century because of the swampy nature of the soil and inadequate sanitation. Fire-fighting was badly hampered with no high pressure supply. Some favoured drawing water from the Waimakariri River, but the Dobsons calculated there was ample artesian water under the city for all requirements. The council approved their scheme, but the ratepayers kept refusing, fearing a rise in rates.

The Dobson partnership dissolved in 1885. Edward Dobson pursued his interest in education. In the 1860s he had participated in lectures to the Christchurch High School which were judged 'the first attempt to make Physical Science a branch of regular instruction in this colony.' He wrote papers for the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, and the Institute of Civil Engineering, Westminster, London, which awarded him the Telford Medal for his paper 'The public works of the province of Canterbury, New Zealand'. He helped establish the Canterbury College School of Engineering in 1887, submitting ambitious proposals. He lectured part-time in civil engineering until 1892. He was elected a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1881, and wrote many books on engineering. He died in Christchurch on 19 September 1908.

Arthur Dobson moved to Australia in 1885 as the 1880s depression had curtailed Canterbury public works, and for the rest of the century pursued a successful career in engineering. In 1886 he won the contract for the Warrnambool breakwater in Victoria. Designed by the British expert Sir John Coode, Dobson's breakwater remains in place today, although siltation has made the port too shallow for shipping. He then built the Wollaston cable suspension bridge, spanning the Merri River. Although strong enough when first built to carry traction engines, today it is a footbridge, protected by the National Trust of Australia.

Bank failures in Victoria almost ruined Arthur, and he returned to Canterbury in 1898. In 1901 he was appointed city engineer, Christchurch. At last he could perhaps achieve a healthy public water supply for the city. In 1907 the drainage board announced it would proceed with its sewerage scheme whether Christchurch's public water supply was operating or not. Those citizens not on high pressure would be compelled to pay much more for connection with the sewer and to provide their own water for it. The ratepayers capitulated, the water supply loan was passed, and reticulation commenced.

The advent of the motor car meant smoother road surfaces were desirable in Christchurch. Arthur experimented with tar macadam and resurfaced many of the city's streets. His plans to supply hydro-electricity from the Waimakariri River were blocked by legal difficulties with the Waimak--Ashley Water Supply Board.

Arthur Dobson became a member of the Geological Society of London on 30 December 1874, and of the Institute of Civil Engineers on 8 March 1882. He was a member of the Royal Society of Victoria and twice president of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury. In 1925 he became president of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers; knighted in 1931, he died at Christchurch on 5 March 1934.

  • Dobson, A. D. Diary, 1859--1863. MS. CMU
  • Dobson, A. D. Reminiscences. Auckland, 1930
  • Furkert, F. W. Early New Zealand engineers. Wellington, 1953
  • Starky, Suzanne. 'Dobson, Arthur Dudley 1841 - 1934; Dobson, Edward 1816/1817? - 1908'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dobson Brothers

Pioneer surveyors in Canterbury, Nelson, and Westland Provinces.

Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson (1841-1934), Edward Dobson (1847-1934), and George Dobson (1840-66) were the sons of Edward Dobson (1816-1908), who arrived at Lyttelton in the Cressy on 27 December 1850 with Arthur and George, their mother arriving, with the rest of the family, on the Fatima in 1851. Finding it difficult to settle down in Canterbury with two small sons, Dobson in 1851 sent Arthur and George to stay with their uncle, the Rev. Charles Dobson, Vicar of Buckland, Prossers Plains, Tasmania, where they remained for three years. On their way back (1854) their ship touched at Nelson, where the boys stayed a while with another uncle, Alfred Dobson, who was then surveying Nelson Province, and who soon was to become the Nelson Provincial Surveyor. Their father meanwhile had built a small cottage in Christchurch and a "soddy" at Sumner, as well as a small office at Lyttelton. In 1854 Edward Dobson was appointed Surveyor for Canterbury Province and, as money was more plentiful, the Dobson boys were enrolled in a small church school, later to become Christ's College.

In 1859-60 Arthur was employed in surveying work in Lyttelton, having charge of boring operations to establish the depth of the mud in the harbour bed. He was also engaged in surveying roads near Kaiapoi and Rangiora, and in the survey work connected with the proposed Lyttelton-Christchurch railway tunnel. Later he worked on a survey scheme for draining 18,000 acres of the Rangiora Swamp formed by the Eyre and Cust Rivers. In 1860 he assisted on the survey of the upper waters of the Hurunui and Lake Sumner, being associated with John Henry Whitcombe, then Government Engineer in North Canterbury. In 1861 Arthur marked out the line for the main south road from Riccarton to the Rangitata River, and surveyed the road line from Timaru to Waitaki River. He also worked with Von Haast in the geological survey of the Port Hills. Early in 1862 he was with Von Haast in the Mackenzie Country traversing the Ohau, Pukaki, and Tekapo Rivers, in preparation for fixing boundaries for some grazing runs. In 1863 he travelled on the West Coast, then unknown country, surveying a block extending from Grey River to Abut Head, and inland to the main range, while his brother Edward was clearing a rough track through the bush along the old Maori route over the Hurunui Saddle (Harper Pass).

Arthur spent seven months surveying on the West Coast, and then returned to Christchurch to report. Other surveyors were indignant that such work was given to a boy, but Thomas Cass the Chief Surveyor, was very pleased and offered him further contracts. One of these was to find out if there was an available pass out of the Waimakariri watershed into valleys running to the west. On 8 March 1864 he set out with his brother, George, for the upper Waimakariri, where the latter was setting out road lines. At Craigieburn, Edward joined him and accompanied him up the Waimakariri and into the valley of the Otira, where he climbed to 3,000 ft. When he returned to Christchurch he made a sketch of the country traversed and gave it with a report to Cass. Dobson did not name the pass, which he found to be very steep on the western side. When the gold rush began, a committee of businessmen offered a £200 prize for anyone who would find a better or more suitable pass from Canterbury to the West Coast. At the same time George Dobson was sent to examine every available pass between the watershed of the Taramakau, Waimakariri, and the Hurunui, and after examining passes at the head of every valley he reported that "Arthur's" pass was by far the most suitable for the direct crossing.

In 1864 the Canterbury Provincial Government decided to construct a road to connect Christchurch and Hokitika, a distance of 156 miles. Edward Dobson had charge of the work, which was completed so quickly that by July 1866 the road was open to coach traffic. It ran over Porters Pass, through to Cass, along the right bank of the Waimakariri to Bealey, up Bealey and over Arthur's Pass, and into Otira and down the Taramakau. Arthur Dobson completed the West Coast surveys in 1866, and then worked for the Nelson Government, laying out roads through Moutere Hills and other valleys.

Inscription Reads: SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF GEORGE DOBSON, C.E.,GOVERNMENT ENGINEER Murdered by Bushrangers, 28 May, 1866.In 1866 George Dobson was working on the road construction in the Grey Valley. He was missed on 24 May, and it was later discovered that Sullivan, Burgess, Kelly, and Levy, the Maungatapu murderers, had mistaken him for a gold buyer named Fox and murdered him.

Arthur Dobson, in 1867-68, opened up country in the Waimea and Motueka Valley, and surveyed a foot track over the Mt. Arthur Range. In April 1869 he was appointed District Engineer on the Nelson-West Coast goldfields with headquarters at Westport, and in 1871 he succeeded Blackett as Chief Surveyor for Nelson Province. The General Government appointed him Nelson District Engineer in 1875, and in this capacity he was in charge of all railway constructions in the area. As Chief Surveyor he was associated with Sir James Hector in exploring and mapping the Westport coalfields. In 1878 Arthur Dobson left Westport and joined his father in private practice in Christchurch. Their first undertaking was to mark out the road to the Rakaia bridge. They did engineering and survey work at Coalgate, Ashley township, and in the Heathcote Valley in 1879, and in 1880 undertook the Timaru water-supply works from the Pareora River to a reservoir west of the town and resurveyed an earlier scheme which had been unsuccessful. In 1884 he was employed for 13 months by the Public Works Department surveying the projected railway line from the main line near Waikari up the Hurunui and down the Taramakau to a place opposite Jackson.

By 1883 there was agitation afoot to link Canterbury and the West Coast by rail. C. Napier Bell surveyed the Arthur's Pass route, and Dobson the Hurunui, the Arthur's Pass route being chosen. An Act was passed authorising the Government to give payment in land to any substantial company which was formed to prosecute the work. The company was formed, and two financiers, Alan Scott of Christchurch, and Charles Fell of Nelson, together with Arthur Dobson, visited England in 1885 to raise capital for the Midland Railway Co. Edward Dobson, with his long experience in such matters, was called upon to advise on legal points involving title and occupation of land. On his return to New Zealand in September 1885 Arthur Dobson found little work awaiting him. He therefore went to Australia where he entered into partnership for the construction of Warrnambool breakwater designed by Sir John Coode. On the completion of this project he did survey work for the Victoria Railway Department. Dobson lost considerable money when a financial crisis closed all but two Victorian banks, and this misfortune led him in 1898 to return to New Zealand. He took over his father's office and was soon busy, first on water races in the Rakaia district, and then on land surveys. In June 1899 the Timaru Harbour Board engaged him to lay out a railway from the breakwater to the stone quarries, and later he reported on an abortive proposal to supply Christchurch with electricity from a scheme on the Waimakariri. In 1901 Dobson was appointed City Engineer in Christchurch, and held the post until 1921. There were 40 miles of streets when he began, and by the end of his service there were 175, while the population had doubled. He completed Sydenham Waterworks, and also began to tar seal the city streets. He built the Colombo Street and Fitzgerald Avenue bridges over the Avon, the Colombo Street bridge over the Heathcote, and also designed and supervised the construction of the bridge over the Waimakariri on the Great North Road.

A tardy recognition of the Dobson family's services to New Zealand came in 1930, when Arthur, the senior survivor of the brothers, was knighted. He died on 5 March 1934, a man who had done much to open up the lands and resources of three provinces. He had come to Christchurch on the first ship, and yet lived to see the Lyttelton-Christchurch railway electrified. An obelisk by the road running westwards from Arthur's Pass stands today as a memorial to him.

His brother, Edward, was for some time manager of the Kaituna and Ahuriri properties of the Rhodes Brothers. He afterwards farmed on his own account at Okoroire, Waikato, and Te Aroha, and for 30 years was judge of stock at shows, his specialty being Friesians. Edward was regarded highly as a Maori scholar and an authority on Maori language. He died at Waipukurau in October 1934.

Both surviving brothers married. Arthur married on 20 November 1866, at Nelson, Eleanor, daughter of Henry Lewis, a surveyor on the Nelson Provincial staff. Edward (in 1884) married Beatrice, daughter of T. H. Potts of Governors Bay.

by Oliver Arthur Gillespie, M.B.E., M.M. (1895-1960), Author.

  • Reminiscences, Dobson, A. D. (1930)
  • Early New Zealand Engineers, Furkert, F. W. (1953)
  • Press (Christchurch), 1934 (Obit).
  • Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of any image on this page.

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