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William Newsham Blair

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William Newsham Blair (1841-1891)


1892 Obituary [1]

WILLIAM NEWSHAM BLAIR was born in 1841 in Islay, one of the inner Hebrides Islands, off the coast of Argyll. His father, a substantial farmer and miller, owned property at Dumbarton, Greenock, and Denny, in addition to that in Islay.

William was educated at the Parish School, Ballygrant, where he remained until nearly seventeen years of age, when he was articled to Mr. Mackintosh, of Oban, a civil engineer and surveyor.

After serving a regular pupilage of nearly four years with that gentleman, he became, in 1861, an assistant in the Edinburgh office of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Thomas Bouch. Here, while losing no opportunity of acquiring professional knowledge, he also found time to become well acquainted with general literature, and particularly with Scottish history and poetry.

Finding, on the expiration of his engagement with Mr. Bouch, that there was very little engineering work in Scotland, Mr. Blair sailed for New Zealand in 1863. Shortly after landing at Dunedin he obtained an appointment as Assistant to the late Mr. Paterson, engineer to the province of Otago. Under that gentleman, he carried out many important works, including the Rangitata Road Bridge, the survey of the Dunedin and Clutha Railway, the Port Chalmers Wharf and Waterworks, and the planning of the Otago and Southland Railways.

On the death of Mr. Paterson, he succeeded to the office of that gentleman, and, when the Public Works Department of the colony was established, was taken into Government Service and appointed on the 1st of May, 1871, District Engineer for Otago, under Mr. John Carruthers, the Engineer-in-Chief of the Department. In that capacity Mr. Blair constructed the whole of the Government railways, and many of the roads and bridges of the province, and subsequently, as Assistant Engineer-in-Chief, carried out the construction of the Otago Central Railway, which had been laid down by him and which involved heavy and varied works, such as the important and imposing Wingatui Viaduct and other similar structures.

When Mr. Macandrew became Minister of Public Works, he divided the colony into two districts, and on the 1st of May, 1878 (Mr. Carruthers having retired), placed Mr. John Blackett and Mr. Blair in charge of the North and Middle Islands respectively. A subsequent change of policy once more brought the colony under the charge of one Chief Engineer, Mr. Blackett, as senior, being appointed to the post, while Mr. Blair was ordered to Wellington, as Assistant Engineer-in-Chief.

When Mr. Blackett retired from the position of Engineer-in-Chief in 1889 and came to London as Consulting Engineer to the colony, Mr. Blair performed the duties of that office, and was ultimately appointed, in May, 1890, Engineer-in-Chief, which post he unfortunately held for only twelve months.

His health soon began to show signs of failing, and an attack of inflammation of the kidneys completely prostrated him. He was granted leave of absence for a term, and, being unable to resume his duties, it was extended in the hope that further rest might effect a cure. After a time he became much better, and could even leave his bed and take short drives on fine days; but he suffered a relapse, and the disease ended fatally on the 4th of May, 1891.

Mr. Blair was an original member of the New Zealand Institute, to the Otago branch of which he presented several Papers. He possessed an extensive knowledge of forestry, and in 1879 published a book entitled “Building Materials of Otago and New Zealand generally,” which is still a standard work. He was also the author of a useful volume on the industries of the colony, of a description of “The Cold Lakes of New Zealand,” and of an article which appeared in the Zealandia magazine, on “Artificial Earth Sculpture,” showing the effects of travelling-shingle on the coasts. He gave many lectures on the poetry of Scotland, one on the evening before he was taken ill being his last public act. Mr. Blair was loved and respected by his officers, and in private life was the centre of a large circle of friends. Upright, generous, genial, and of a ready wit, he was a warm and true friend and companion, and was ever willing to perform any act of kindness in his power. By his death the colony lost an able, conscientious and hard-working officer. He married, in 1867, a daughter of Mr. Robert Kennedy, banker, of Oban, by whom he had four sons and two daughters.

Mr. Blair was elected a Member of the Institution on the 29th of May, 1877.



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