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Hugh Fullarton -- His Life and Work

by Bob Norman

When we mean to build,

We first survey the plot, then draw the model;

And when we see the figure of the house,

Then must we rate the cost of the erection;

Which if we find outweighs ability,

What do we then,

But draw anew the model in fewer offices, or at least desist

To build at all?


Henry IV, Part II

In his long life as an engineer and administrator, Hugh Fullarton did many things, but at heart he was always a superb designer and planner. Real engineering isn't about building icons, monuments, and lofty towers. It is about meeting real needs of society with the resources available and with the technology of the time. And it is about ensuring people understand what you are doing, so that there are no surprises. This calls for articularity and sincerity, and in my association with engineering I have encountered no one with such talents as Hugh Fullarton.

It would take a very long list to record all of Hugh Fullarton's engineering achievements: but what needs to be remembered is that many of the tasks he undertook were for the first time. Following his early experience in river and lake control in Canterbury, he spent the early wartime years in the Public Works Department design office. He worked under the legendary Charles Turner and was responsible for all the work involved in setting up defence installations throughout New Zealand. Towards the end of the war he was appointed to the NZ Supply Mission in Washington. During the three years he was there he was able to study at first hand American design and construction techniques, from which much of our road and bridge engineering work developed. On his return he immediately involved himself in aerodrome construction, and in the development of agricultural aviation -- an achievement at which New Zealand became the foremost exponent in the world -- and still is.

Later he spent five years as the first Planning Engineer on the staff of the Commissioner of Works. He was responsible for the administration of the new Town and Country Planning Act, and established close consultation with the many local authorities throughout New Zealand.

Having made his mark on so many ground-breaking enterprises in engineering, he completed his public works career by controlling some of the largest works programmes ever undertaken in the capital city. As District Commissioner, Hugh had the challenging task of building the Thorndon Motorway, a job which entailed cutting a swathe through the historic Bolton St Cemetery. His superb handling of all the public issues involved in this disruption is now legendary. His leadership in this task was without peer and with his extensive background in planning, he was able to bring this project to a successful conclusion.

In 1968, when he was just about to retire from the Ministry of Works, he was invited by the government to take up the post of Chairman of the Local Government Commission. His outstanding service in this role saw his chairmanship extended, so that he served for ten years. He was a firm and outspoken advocate for the setting up of a limited number of strong District and Regional Councils to replace the plethora of municipal and county authorities -- of which at the time there were no less than 1200 !

It is somewhat ironic that his far-sightedness in this reached well beyond that of many of the political pundits of the day, and his reward was the untimely termination of the services of the entire Commission including himself as Chairman. The severance was peremptory and ungracious, and a stain on the political administration. Some of those politicians live on today, and they are no doubt swallowing the bitter pill of witnessing all those changes now having taken place -- a tribute to Hugh Fullarton's single-mindedness, fearlessness, and immense competence. His services to engineering were recognized a few years ago with his elevation to the rank of Distinguished Fellow of the Institution of Professional Engineers.

Now he belongs to the ages, but his works live on.

From Stockade 37, 2004, 4-6 Karori Historical Society