William Newsham Blair was born in Scotland. For a few years before he immigrated to New Zealand he worked in the surveying and engineering fields, notably for Sir Thomas Bouch’s Edinburgh engineering firm.
However, this position was only short term and Blair found it difficult to gain another suitable position. Therefore, he looked overseas for opportunities. In 1863 Blair arrived in Dunedin, which was booming because of the Otago goldrush, and soon joined the Otago Provincial Council’s staff.
Here he worked on a variety of projects including the Dunedin to Clutha, Winton to Athol, and Winton to Kingston railways, the Rangitata Road Bridge, and Port Chalmers’ wharf and water supply. Blair was promoted to Otago Province’s Chief Engineer for Railways after his boss, Thomas Paterson (1830–1869), drowned crossing a river en route to the funeral of a colleague who had also drowned.
In 1871 Blair became the first District Engineer for the recently established Public Works Department (PWD), which was formed as a result of Julius Vogel’s (1835–1899) public works and immigration scheme. Railway construction was a focus of this programme, and as such much of Blair’s work during this period was supervising local railway construction and reporting on proposed lines, including the Otago Central and Midland Railways.
Blair became a member of the British Institution of Civil Engineers in 1877. Developing the railway network continued to occupy Blair in his role as the PWD’s Engineer-in-Charge of the Middle Island (South Island) from 1878. In particular, Blair and Charles Yelverton O’Connor (1843–1902) explored the Southern Alps in 1879 to try and locate a suitable railway route from the east to west coasts.
In 1884 the PWD was restructured again and Blair became the Assistant Engineer-in-Chief based in Wellington, and set off to explore the King Country in order to report on the proposed North Island Main Trunk railway. The Otago Central Railway’s construction continued during this period and Blair remained involved, inspecting structures such as the Wingatui Viaduct before it was opened. During 1889 Blair vied with O’Connor to cement a promotion to the PWD’s top engineering position, and in May 1890 he succeeded in becoming the Engineer-in-Chief and Under-Secretary for Public Works.
However, his tenure was cut short by his death, caused by a kidney disorder, in Wellington on 4 May 1891. His body was transported to Dunedin (via Lyttelton), being escorted to the ship by hundreds of people including senior politicians as pall-bearers. His funeral service at Knox Church was attended by leading Dunedin citizens.
As well as being a talented civil engineer, Blair was described as “a descriptive writer of high capabilities” (Otago Daily Times, 6 May 1891). For example, in 1875 he produced an authoritative account of local stone and timber in his book, Building Materials of Otago and South New Zealand Generally, and was praised for his papers on New Zealand’s lakes and the environmental effects of mining and deforestation.
‘Obituary: William Newsham Blair,’ Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol.107 (January 1892), pp.396–98.
Frederick Furkert, Early New Zealand Engineers, Wellington: Reed, 1953, pp.117–18.
Trevor Williams, ‘Blair, William Newsham’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 5 June 2013.