18 June 2015

James Melville Balfour (1831–1869)


James Melville Balfour was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1831. He was the ninth son of Reverend Lewis Balfour of Colinton and was educated in Edinburgh.

Balfour gained early experience with D and T Stevenson's, the lighthouse builders, having previously attended several workshops in Scotland and Germany. Balfour’s sister Margaret married Thomas Stevenson, son of Robert Stevenson who was responsible for Scotland’s Bell Rock Lighthouse. Margaret and Thomas’ son was well-known author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Otago engineering career

On 28 September 1863 Balfour arrived in New Zealand to join the Otago Provincial Government. This was due in part to the Scottish connections in the Province who sought engineering advice from the Stevensons, who in turn recommended Balfour.

Balfour designed and brought out lamp equipment for Cape Saunders and Taiaroa Head lighthouses. He demonstrated enormous energy in his first six months, preparing plans for Dog Island and Taiaroa Heads lighthouses, surveying the Clutha River and recommending improvements for navigation up to nine miles above Tuapeka Junction, surveying the Molyneux and Waikawa Harbours, and reporting on a water supply for Dunedin City. He designed a dock for Port Chalmers which was to be a pontoon floating dock of 2,500 tonnes capacity. This wasn’t built, but Balfour later prepared plans and specifications for the first dock built – the Otago Graving Dock.

In October 1864 Balfour was Chairman of a Commission to decide on the future development of Port Chalmers and also reported on the proposed shelter for surfboats at Timaru. In January 1865 he was an advisor and appointed member of the Sanitary Commission on Dunedin. Around this time Balfour also reported on proposed harbours of New Plymouth, Timaru and Wanganui. While passing through Wellington he advised on the best site for erecting a permanent bridge over the Hutt River and the required training works. He also designed a graving dock for Wellington. He surveyed Cook Strait and decided the route for a submarine telegraph cable. In November 1865 he made a final report on Otago Harbour, recommending the dredging and training of Victoria Channel with a depth of 21 feet at high water, costing £118,000, as against a railway from Port Chalmers to Dunedin estimated at £142,102.

Towards the end of 1866 it appears that Balfour's employment as marine engineer to the Otago Council was not renewed (although this may have been his choice). However, while still in Dunedin, he wrote more than once during 1866 to the Superintendent with suggestions for works in the harbour, recommending that until a steam dredger could be purchased that the job should be done by convicts with a mechanical man-operated dredger. In June 1866 Balfour had taken over the construction of Ross Creek reservoir and Dunedin water supply. He was allowed to retain control with John MacGregor as assistant on the site until completion in November 1867.


Balfour was appointed Colonial Marine Engineer and Inspector of Steamers on 11 October, 1866 and it was in the field of lighthouses that he made his strongest mark in the colony. He set in train the establishment of key lighthouses around the country. John Blackett continued this work after Balfour’s tragic death. In addition to the lighthouses in Otago and Southland, Balfour designed the lighthouses for Bean Rock, Ponui Passage pile light, Nuggets Point, Cape Campbell and Farewell Spit.

Harbour works

He also surveyed the coast of Taranaki, reported on Nelson Harbour, the Buller entrance and the bay behind Point Elizabeth on the West Coast, and planned a harbour for Timaru. With WT Doyne, he designed a harbour scheme for New Plymouth in 1866 (although not where the harbour was eventually established). He built an experimental mole 30 yards long on a reef detached from the shore at Timaru to test the action of the travelling shingle, and also by lead weighted blocks ascertained that material travelled up the 90-mile beach at one mile a day even in fine weather.

Untimely death

While at Timaru on 18 December 1869 Balfour heard a friend had drowned and decided to go to the funeral. The weather was too rough for a coastal south-bound vessel in the roadstead to enter the Port, but Balfour and some others endeavoured to board her by boat. The boat capsized and Balfour was among those lost.

Balfour was a young man destined to be a leading engineer in this new country. In all likelihood he would have preceded Blackett as Engineer-in-Chief of the newly formed New Zealand Public Works Department (PWD). Frederick Furkert (himself an outstanding Engineer-in-Chief of the PWD) considered that Balfour “was a far-seeing man of boundless energy and sound judgement whom the young colony could ill afford to lose”.