29 October 2013

James Edward Fulton (1854–1928)

At the time of his death in 1928 James Edward Fulton was “one of the best known engineers in the Dominion [New Zealand]” (Auckland Star, 8 December 1928).

Born in Outram, Otago, on 11 December 1854, Fulton became a Public Works Department (PWD) engineering cadet in Wellington when he was 19. His brother Arthur (1853–1888) had become a cadet the previous year. James worked his way through the PWD ranks and in 1878 he became Napier’s Assistant Engineer.

Having gained valuable experience in the public sector, Fulton went into private practice in 1880. Between 1882 and 1897 he worked for the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, starting as a Resident Engineer. Again James followed Arthur into this, with the two working under the company’s senior engineer Harry Pasley Higginson (1838–1900). After Arthur died, aged 34, James stepped into the role of manager and locomotive superintendent for the completed railway. It was also during this period that Fulton became a member of Britain’s Institution of Civil Engineers.  

Later Fulton became a consultant engineer again and designed some central North Island private railways, including one for the Taupo Totara Timber Company. Fulton is also notable for designing Wellington’s first Kelburn Viaduct and many other bridges. Perhaps his best known work is the Wellington Cable Car system for the Kelburne and Karori Tramway Company in the early 20th century.

Fulton was an early member of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers (now the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand, IPENZ), joining in 1915. Fulton died in Wellington on 4 December 1928 and one of his lasting legacies is the IPENZ Fulton-Downer Gold Medal. This was established in 1929 by Fulton’s bequest to the NZSCE. This award is presented annually and is IPENZ’s premier Member award.

More information


‘Obituary. Mr James Edward Fulton,’ Auckland Star, 8 December 1928, p.12.

Frederick Furkert, Early New Zealand Engineers (Wellington: Reed, 1953), pp.171-72.

Peter Lowe, ‘Fulton, James Edward - Fulton, James Edward,’ from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30 October 2012.