26 September 2015

John Carruthers (1836–1914)

Born in Inverness, Scotland, John Carruthers initially planned to follow in his father’s footsteps with a career in the newspaper industry. However, after travelling to Canada he found engineering to his liking and he worked on railway construction there, and in the United State of America, Russia and Mauritius. In 1866, he became an Associate Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (becoming a member five years later) and married into an engineering family.  

After working on canal building in India and a brief return to the United Kingdom (UK), Carruthers moved to New Zealand when he was appointed the Public Works Department’s (PWD) first Engineer-in-Chief in 1871.

It was a formidable job setting up the nation’s engineering service as well as beginning to implement politician Julius Vogel’s ambitious public works and immigration scheme. This included plans for numerous railways which Carruthers analysed and made recommendations about and within five years of the PWD’s establishment New Zealand railways building peaked.

Among Carruthers’ significant projects were the North Island Main Trunk railway, Rimutaka Incline and Rakaia Gorge Bridge.

Carruthers was not happy with planned PWD restructuring and resigned in 1878, apparently at the behest of the Government having rejected the offered demotion to Engineer-in-Charge of the North Island. Carruthers then left New Zealand, returning to the UK in 1879.

Carruthers suitability as the Engineer-in-Chief seems to have split opinion. On appointing Carruthers the Government obviously thought the 35 year old sufficiently qualified and experienced to build the department and at the time he was described as an eminent engineer. However, although Carruthers was acknowledged as hardworking, honest, and well meaning, upon reviewing his tenure in 1878 several newspaper articles stated his appointment had been disadvantageous for the country.

Despite returning to the UK, Carruthers retained a link to New Zealand as the Government’s consulting engineer in London. Aside from a short period Carruthers held this position until his death and visited New Zealand again in 1907. He also consulted for several governments in South America and also Western Australia.

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Timaru Herald, 5 April 1878, 3.

‘The Civil Service,’ Otago Witness, 27 April 1878, 7.

‘House of Representatives,’ Wellington Independent, 26 August 1871, 3.

‘Telegraphic News,’ New Zealand Herald, 2 April 1878, 2.

Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol. 198 (1914), 341-343, accessed 4 February 2015.

Frederick Furkert, Early New Zealand Engineers (Wellington: Reed, 1953).

George Mullenger, “Carruthers, John - Carruthers, John,” from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, last modified 30 October 2012.

R. J. Noonan, By Design: A brief history of the Public Works Department Ministry of Works, 1870-1970 (Wellington: Government Printer, 1975).