The Hydraulic Power System of The Wellington Harbour Board, New Zealand.
The Wellington Harbour Board’s hydraulic network power system was seminal to the operations of this important New Zealand port, from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.
It was the most extensive of a small number of purpose built water based hydraulic networks, constructed and utilised by New Zealand local authorities and the communities they served, during the late 19th Century.
THE ENGINEER TO THE BOARD
Biographies of Ferguson can be found at;
and a tribute to him appears in the Appendix. This tribute was made on the occasion of the presentation of a portrait of him, from the Wellington Harbour Board to the National Art Gallery, 25th May 1939.
Ferguson was appointed Engineer and Secretary to the Wellington Harbour Board (WHB) in 1884 and later he became its Treasurer. He quickly gained the confidence of the Board, and he was paid the very generous sum of ₤1000 per annum.
Ferguson quickly began to enhance the Port of Wellington’s machinery and infrastructure, until the facilities he had installed made the wharves and their equipment the envy of other New Zealand ports. At the core of the Port of Wellington’s success, was its brilliant and extensive hydraulic power system. The pumped hydraulic power system was initiated in 1887 and was fully operational by 1889.
THE HEIRACY OF DISTRIBUTED POWER
The distribution of centralised hydraulic energy, using water as the transfer fluid, was first exploited for commercial purposes by Sir William Armstrong in Newcastle on Tyne, and items of commercially available hydraulic machinery from Armstrong's Elswick Works were most probably utilised by WHB in the early stages of the development of their hydraulic system.
By way of contrast, distributed electric energy came much later in time, and really only with the advent of AC generators and motor devices. A brief discourse of the subject as it pertained to New Zealand will possibly help place the hydraulic network in better context.
The first industrial application of electricity in New Zealand was commissioned in 1886 at the Phoenix mine in Central Otago where a genuine Pelton wheel drove a pair of Brush dynamos, and power, taken some 2 miles by overhead conductors, was used to drive gold-bearing quartz ore crushing machinery - again using Brush generators running as motors.
This and other schemes that used the distribution of high voltage DC were often limited to a couple of motors close to each other and relatively close to the generation plant, with connection generally by large diameter copper wires. This was not a system suitable for use on wharves, where both the workers and conductors were inevitably exposed to salt water.
Distributed AC in New Zealand was undertaken quite early, by international standards, often also initiated by local authorities and private companies and individuals. The Crown's first foray into distributed AC and associated hydroelectric generation was in 1915 at Lake Coleridge in the South Island.
Wellington had some experimental DC lighting made available from a mains water supply driven Pelton wheel generation plant by 1867 and distributed AC available to consumers for lighting (from both reciprocating steam engines and a Curtis vertical turbine) by 1907.
Of course WHB could have been a customer, and was, quite early on for lighting and other minor purposes,
However the the steam powered DC generation plant in Wellington was pretty much committed for lighting and for the city-wide network of trams which were first introduced in 1902. As the hydraulic system built and designed by Ferguson consumed more energy than the private generation operators could supply, it remained steam driven and independent of electricity until 1945, serving the port for another couple of decades after the introduction in 1929 of 230V AC in sufficient quantity to have been possible to use it. It was actually long after the introduction of widespread reticulated electricity to the city that the system became electric powered.
Distributed steam energy was rare world wide and distributed pressurised gas - mainly air, had limited uses in dangerous mining situations. (note for Editor - I am not an expert in this field - I know steam at low pressure was distributed for area heating but I think not at pressure for power)
THE WHB NETWORK.
The WHB hydraulic power system eventually serviced most of the Lambton Harbour waterfront, from the north at Railway Wharf, through to the main wharf, Queens Wharf, and subsequently to the Taranaki Street Wharf at the southern side of the harbour, a distance of roughly 3km. By implication, it is probable (in the absence at this time of layout drawings) that piping may have extended for 5 or 6 km in total length to service all of the long wharves, wharf fingers and on-wharf sheds and stores. In time the network was extended north and eventually came to "cover" some dozen large wharves and many acres of wharf space and buildings.
The map shows the extent of the wharves in Wellington at BBBBB and I have drawn in what the network looked like - in principle. Many of the wharves that existed and were serviced by the network are extant at 2012 and nearly all are either still working wharves or accessible to the public.
Wellington's waterfront is now an attractive and popular place and few if any, of its current users would be aware of its long history of innovative engineering.
I have taken the liberty of including a number of Internet links in this brief and sadly detail-deficient paper in order that readers familiar with the Internet might acquaint themselves with the city, the port and the extent of the extant hydraulic network artefacts, as the photographs I have taken are not of good enough quality to warrant publishing except on the Net.
THE IDEA OF USING HYDRAULIC POWER ON THE WHARVES.
This concept was apparently not Ferguson's idea.
At a Board meeting on the 8th March 1883, a Board member, Mr W V Jackson first raised the concept of utilising water power to move cargo around on the wharves. He was obviously aware of the use of jiggers in the UK and he had possibly read the seminal 1852 English language book "Power of Water" on the use of water power, by Joseph Glynn FRS., an engineer who had been involved in pumping, and machinery to move water and or extract energy from flowing water, for much of his working life. Glynn is credited with draining the Fens - which he clearly had a significant hand in, by designing and installing numerous steam powered pumps.
The meeting of that day is recorded in part in The Evening Post - Wellington's largest circulation newspaper of the day.
Jiggers— labour-saving appliances used in the stowage of wool— formed the subject of a discussion that was initiated by Mr. W. V. Jackson at yesterday's meeting of the Harbour Board. Mr. Jackson produced plans of the jiggers, of which he spoke strongly in favour, and urged the Board to order two of the machines from England. He said the estimated cost of two in London was £220, to which £50 would have to be added for a supply of hydraulic piping. The jiggers were worked by water-pressure, which he pointed out could be obtained from the Wainui-o-mata waterworks, and one machine could be placed at each end of the wool store. With the help of these, only two men would be required for stowing purposes in place of the ten or twelve men required for the same kind of work at present. Moreover, the work could be accomplished in one-third of the time, and, in Mr. Jackson's opinion, the cost would be covered in one season. The Board agreed that the jiggers would be a splendid investment, and Mr. Jackson was allowed to move without notice that two of those machines be immediately ordered from Home. The motion was carried.
Note however that the "water pressure - from Wainui-o-mata" refers to the utilisation of Wellington's public drinking water supply which by 1883 was coming from both the Karori Stream (virtually in the city with civil works undertaken 1877) and by pipeline from the Wainuiomata River - some 20 miles (31 km) away - providing quite significant volumes of water at possibly 100psi in town. The proposal was therefore to just connect to, and use, the public water supply - exactly as Armstrong first did in Newcastle-on-Tyne.
At that time, the Board did not have a salaried engineer and it used contractors and professional advice as necessary. Occasionally it found itself on the wrong end of a fabricated account from its engineering consultants and was clearly in the mood for the appointment of its own engineer when, on 14th December 1883, it found it had been grossly overcharged for commission on the purchase and installation of the two jiggers approved in March. The bill was just £10-10-00 but the true cost of £2-5-00 incensed the board and clearly made the appointment of a professional engineer, as an employee, very pertinent.
Ferguson's appointment was a turning point in the properly designed and professionally managed provision of sophisticated goods handling and in the building of wharves and wharf sheds etc., however the intuition of councillor Jackson should not go unrecorded.
The central pumping station was built of brick and it was a moderately impressive building. Nicknamed Ferguson's Castle by the wharf workers, it stood on a prominent site opposite the Wellington Railway Station until the late 1970s when it and a clutch of workshop and maintenance buildings that had grown up around it, were demolished and the land made available for other port related activities.
A single accumulator was housed at the north end of the former Wellington Harbour Board wharf offices on Queens Wharf
(which were at one end of a very decorative building also serving, somewhat incognito, as a cargo shed for wool bales) This building now houses a ballet school and a number of premium apartments, in one of which, on the first and second floors, the cross head weight guide rails form decorative elements in the living spaces.
A second accumulator was located in a tower at the north end of Shed 21, built in 1908.
This building was a wool store which incorporated wool dumping presses ("dumping" squeezed two bales of wool into the space generally occupied by one) It was a more prosaic brick building but it too has been preserved and re-fitted as apartments with the accumulator tower forming a stair well with the guides for the ram head and weights still extant.
In this Shed 21 accumulator tower space, the head weight guides (steel shod kauri beams) terminate at floor level and are worn nearly to floor level, leading to the intriguing possibility that the ram was set below grade and that it may still be in place below the modern concrete floor.
The Harbour Board went out of existence in October 1989 and its records were then archived by the Wellington City Council. These were well enough catalogued to have supported David Johnson's magnificent book "Wellington Harbour" about the harbour and its Board, but photographs and engineering materials are not well sorted nor catalogued so a modicum of speculation is needed, until that happens, to recount the history of the installation.
In particular there is sadly no information available to the author at this time on the steam engines or pumps which were initially installed to drive the system, however it must be made clear that this information gap is the result of the author's keenness to get this paper prepared and he is certain that details will later come to light - certainly there is no doubt that the engine(s) and pump(s) will be items of great interest to heritage engineers.
It is recorded that in 1920 a new Babcock boiler was installed along with two new Worthington hydraulic pumps - and I assume these were replacements for the main water pumps.
Throughout its long working life, the WHB hydraulic network was effective, low maintenance, economic and very safe and it took a long while for it to be replaced by individually powered electric machines.
The steam engines that initially powered the network were however replaced two sets of Fielding & Platt AC motors and pumps ordered in 1943 but not delivered until 1945. The network will have been one of the last major users of steam engines in Wellington.
Thus probably, in its initial stages, the hydraulic network was a total-loss system, drawing its water from the public supply, however that supply came under strain as the population of the city grew. Water for the city was sourced from a relatively small stream in the hills above the township (where a state of the art earth dam and associated valve towers and reticulation headworks were built in 1877)
see IPENZ reference
and citizens often raised concerns about the "waste of water at the wharves".
Through newspaper articles, they were reminded - over and over - but forgot just as often it seems, that a large part of the Board's water use was for provisioning the fresh water tanks of ships in port, however it is probable that after a few years of operation, the system was changed to flow and return to save water. The small loss of energy occasioned by the return path would not have been an issue if the pipes were dimensioned accordingly, and Ferguson was a consummate engineer. At any rate, photographs of the hydraulic cranes taken in 1900 show twin pipes serving the devices.
The initial components of the system were ordered from the United Kingdom and very probably from Sir William Armstrong's works. This equipment included 3 fixed wharf cranes, 3 movable cranes, 3 moveable winches, a wool press, 6 railway wagon traversers for use inside in storage sheds and 6 jiggers (whims) used for storing at heights.
New Zealand has never had a pipe making capacity (except for cast iron pipes) and so the wrought iron pressure pipes were sourced in the UK.
It should be noted also that for many years, only non-slewing cranes were seen on the wharves and loads were transferred horizontally with ropes, by wharf labour.
On the Te Aro reclamation a crane capable of lifting 35 tons was installed.
Subsequently the WHB purchased hydraulic equipment from the Hydraulic Engineering Company (Chester) and Scott Brothers, a Christchurch (NZ) foundry, Glenfield and Kennedy of Kilmarnock, Tannet Walker and Co. Leeds, A&T Burt Foundry of Dunedin in New Zealand and from Edward Seager & Co a Wellington foundry. As Wellington based engineering firms like Luke and Sons and William Cable and Company cottoned on to the business potential, they too manufactured hydraulic plant for the Board. Slewing and ultimately travelling cranes were built and erected as the port's business, which included large volumes of frozen meat for the UK, increased.
The costs of the total network will be difficult to analyse but a newspaper report of 1904 put the cost of the work to extend the network north onto the old Railway wharf at £14,340.
It is likely that the whole network and its machinery was hugely expensive, but the port handled vast quantities of goods and, particularly in its trade in frozen meat to the UK up to the early 1960s, the system was often reported as being well and truly justified.
By 1930 the system had probably reached its most complex and The Evening Post of 27th March 1930 reported that the network drove 241 hydraulic machines of one sort or another including 76 cranes and 146 fixed jiggers in wharf sheds. Many capstans traversers and the nine double dumping wool presses are listed. By any standard this was a comprehensive installation and a significant vindication of the ideas of Sir William Armstrong.
It was, to use the descriptor of the modern cultural movement and fad "a Steampunk paradise"
Hydrants were provided for the occasional connection of portable equipment, like winches and some cranes. Permanent connections were made to static equipment such as cranes, lifts, traversers, capstans, jiggers and presses for wool and flax.
In the 1920s the first of the self mobile cranes were installed and these had flexible pressure tubes fitted to relatively large diameter coiling drums in the legs of the cranes. When drawings are found, we will learn if the uncoiling and recoiling of these twin lines, which just trailed out behind the cranes as they moved and were laid near the bollards at the edge of the wharf, was effected by a water motor - perhaps with a slipping clutch, or a by a recoiling "clock" spring.
The hydraulic system proved very cost effective.
Ferguson was well aware of and concerned by the cost of the insurance faced by WHB with its (initially) significant number of individually engined steam cranes, as each boiler was a fire hazard on the dry timber wharves, with their deep cracks between planks.
As a result of the installation of the hydraulic power system coal consumption was greatly reduced and insurance premiums were correspondingly lowered by 30 per cent because of the reduced fire risk.
In addition, the cranes cut unloading time by as much as 30 per cent and meant fewer employees were required.
The last of the hydraulically powered equipment was withdrawn from service at the port in 1954.
It is possible that some of the pressure mains still lie under the wharves and reclaimed lands and that the cylinder and possibly the ram of both accumulators are still in place, because it appears that both might have been installed below grade with the whole length of the cylinder below ground.
Regrettably no cranes have been kept although the harbour features a Stoddart and Pitt level luffing crane and a tripod crane of 1970s vintage on static display.
What does remain, and is in remarkable preservation and completeness, is an unaltered hydraulic hoisting system in one of the more permanent wharf sheds.
is a listed building and was completed in 1905.
Installed at one end of the building and flanking a large set of cart doors are two whims (jiggers) complete with their hoisting cables (wormed and parcelled but not served) the overhead static wires supporting the lifting sheaves and the hoisting wire to which is fitted 10 hoists on each side.
Compared to what is extant in Sydney, Melbourne, London, or Manchester etc. this hydraulic warehouse hoisting system is a treasure beyond belief. It is protected and appreciated for its value by the harbour management authority, The New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the building tenants (Mojo Coffee Roasters) and in fact their pallet shelving for huge bags of coffee, mimics in many ways what the building may have looked like in its hey days. No makers name can be found on the whims.
The sheaves and ropes are presented in good condition and stored tidily but in a way in which their utilisation can be imagined. No doubt with a very small effort, the system could again be made to run. Mojo allows visitors inside the building and the hoisting system can be seen and appreciated.
On first seeing the jigger system it is immediately obvious that the operation of such an integrated single-power-source hoist must have required some degree of coordination by the store labourers. When the jigger (whim) collapses, all the lifting ropes and/or hooks will fall to or near the floor, and when water is admitted and the ram expands all the ten lifts occur at the same time and to the same extent. No doubt a system of shouts or whistles was used to signal pending lifting or lowering - the building is nearly 51 metres long.
As part of the research for this article it has been discovered that the Port of Greymouth (South Island New Zealand) also had a small steam powered hydraulic network that drove two Armstrong pattern cranes and a number of wharf capstans, rail wagon traversers and winches. Of this network just a single crane foundation base remains. Photographs of the cranes in operation show that they were designed to lift the whole "tub" off the bogies of special coal wagons, which were lifted into the holds and tipped and returned to the bogies back on the wharf.
Greymouth was generally seen as being the coastal port serving the historically largest coal mining district in New Zealand.
Of further interest to members it should be mentioned that Wellington was also one of the three or four New Zealand towns and cities (Dunedin, Oamaru and possibly Wanganui) that utilised their public water supply for hydraulic power.
A number of small Wellington businesses like bakeries and book binders, tobacco cutters, and sheet metal shops used water motors for motive power and the newspapers of the day around the 1890s report a few prosecutions undertaken by the police on behalf of the Wellington City Council, for wilful theft of water by disabling water meters.
In the historic Government Buildings,
there were two lifts (of which possibly a whim remains) for taking coal and wood fuel to, and ashes away from, the appropriately 200 fireplaces in that building.
At one time both The Evening Post newspaper and the Government Printing Offices were water powered and the Gulcher Company generated Wellington's first distributed electricity in 1893 by using the mains water supply to drive a Pelton wheel.
The history of mains drinking water supply based energy networks is itself well worth recording in the future. The history of the local authority hydraulic network of the township of Oamaru in the South Island is the most well researched and important because of its design and the fact that its use for power was not serendipitous as was Wellington's, but planned for and designed into the supply source, the reservoir and the reticulation system.
Readers may be enlightened by the author's Panoramio pages at;
where he is attempting to put all the above into graphic format with geocoded photographs so that anyone anywhere in the world (irrespective of membership in learned societies) can see what was achieved in colonial New Zealand.
The author harbours a desire (if the pun will be excused) to see an Armstrong pattern hydraulic crane displayed on the Wellington waterfront. This may involve the commissioning of the manufacture of one from scratch, however members are hereby canvassed to wrack their brains to see if one such exists anywhere in the UK or elsewhere, perhaps sitting unloved in a breakers yard still. Communication directly with firstname.lastname@example.org would be appreciated.
The Evening Post - various dates (viewed on Papers Past) at; http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast
Notes by William Pitt, pers com.
David Johnson, 'Wellington Harbour', Wellington, 1996
J Gibson & M Pierce, ‘Remnants of Early Hydraulic Power Systems,’ Proceedings of the 3rd Australasian Heritage Engineering Conference, 2009
'People Politics and Power Stations' Published Dept. of Internal Affairs NZ Govt. 1991
IPENZ and NZHPT records at;
Report on the presentation of a portrait of William Ferguson to the National Art Gallery.
The Evening Post
25 May 1939
FOR THE NATION
PORTRAIT OF MR. W.FERGUSON
GIFT BY THE HARBOUR BOARD
A pleasing function took place in the boardroom of the Wellington Harbour Board last night, prior to its monthly meeting. It was the occasion of the handing over of a portrait of the late Mr. William Ferguson, painted by Mr. A. F. Nicol, of Christchurch. The picture was received by the Hon. W. E. Parry, Minister of Internal Affairs, a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Art Gallery, and Dominion Museum, who represented the chairman of that board, and the Rt. Hon. M. J. Savage. There were also present, in addition to a full attendance of board members, the Under-Secretary of Internal Affairs (Mr. J. W. Heenan), and Messrs' T. Forsyth and S. W. Fearn, all of whom are members of the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery, Dr. A. D. Carbery and Mr. W. S. Wauchop. members of its management committee. Mr. W. D. Ferguson (a son of the late Mr. Ferguson) and his wife. Apologies for absence, were received from Mr. Savage and Sir Lindo Ferguson, a brother of the late Mr. W. Ferguson.
The chairman of the Harbour Board (Mr. C. M. Turrell), making the presentation, said that Mr. Wim. Ferguson was born in London in 1852, being the son of a scientific chemist of repute in England. At fifteen years of age he was apprenticed to a firm of mechanical engineers in Dublin, and on completion of his apprenticeship was appointed chief draughtsman to a firm of ironfounders there. He entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1873, graduating as a Bachelor of Arts I and first Respondent in 1877. Two years later he gained the degree of Bachelor of Engineering, with the highest honours granted in the school. Shortly after this the Board of Trinity College appointed him assistant to the professor of engineering, and for a time, during the illness of his chief, he acted as his locum tenens in the chair of engineering. Mr. Ferguson left the Old Country for New Zealand in 1883 and in May, 1884, was appointed engineer and secretary to the Wellington Harbour Board and a year later he took over the duties of treasurer. He retired in 1908.
During his long service with the board he showed an outstanding gift of organisation, a keen financial foresight, and sound engineering knowledge. He came to the board, in its beginnings, but with a characteristic thoroughness and vision he began building up a system of working and administration, and the preparation and planning of a programme of wharf and shed construction, to meet the development that he visualised for the future. He was instrumental in having the wharves equipped with hydraulic cranes and jiggers for the more rapid handling of cargo.
He was held in high esteem and veneration by those who worked under him, and it can be said that his example of carrying out his duties with impartiality and strict fairness has left a lasting impression. He took an active part in the formation, many years ago, of the Harbours' Association of New Zealand, and was its treasurer from 1904 to 1911.
Mr: Ferguson's other activities were many. He was a foundation member of the New Zealand Society of Engineers, being its president in 1919--1920. For four years he was chairman of the National Efficiency Board. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Philosophical Society, a life member of the Royal Dublin Society, and a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
As an expression of appreciation of his great work and an enduring tribute to a great officer, the board decided to offer to the National Collection in the Art Gallery a portrait of him in oils, and commissioned Mr. Archibald F. Nicoll of Christchurch. He asked the Board, of Trustees to accept this gift portrait for its national collection.
The Hon. W. E. Parry, Minister of Internal Affairs, expressed pleasure, as representing the Government and as a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum, in accepting the board's generous gift. He expressed the Government's appreciation of the gift to the people. It would be hung among other treasured portraits of citizens whose work in public spheres merited such recognition. Although without personal acquaintance with the late Mr. Ferguson, he could not, as a public man, fail to know the distinction his work gave him. Not only were his attainments known and recognised in his service as the board's chief executive officer, but they were known and applauded in other avenues of public usefulness. The chairman had recalled some of his distinguished work for the port of Wellington. It was a record of service which would live. New Zealand cities owed much to the men in charge of affairs. The work of the Harbour Board and its officers in the progress of the city was, from all angles, singularly important.
One feature of the work of the board was the collection and care of records of the complete history of its undertakings, with paintings and photographs. He had been surprised at the amount of information contained in the board's archives. He had, on a previous occasion in the boardroom, realised the value to the Dominion of this side of the board's work. Coming generations would appreciate it.
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Photo taken in Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
Misplaced? Suggest new location