Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson was truly a man-child amongst men!
Arthur first entered into history as a nine year old, aboard the ‘Cressy’ with his father Edward Senior and his older brother George. His mother and younger siblings would arrive the following year aboard the Fatima – the Canterbury Association’s 19th ship.
Edward Senior struggled to find work so he sent his two boys over to Tasmania to stay with his brother and continue their education. When the family was finally all back together in 1854, the Dobson’s had two properties – one in the city and the other in Sumner. Edward Senior was working as a provincial engineer and passed his love for the job down to his sons. He taught them about surveying, engineering and building. Arthur worked under his father for 5 years – his first solo assignment was to assess the depth of mud in Lyttelton Harbour.
By 1860, Arthur was keeping company with Julius van Haast (the founder and first director of the Canterbury Museum), helping him to collect geological specimens around the Upper Kowai River. Together they climbed Mt Torlesse (named after early surveyor Charles Torlesse) and they even attempted to climb Mt Cook!
Arthur was a small part of William Moorhouse’s Railway Tunnel project (Lyttelton – Christchurch line) as Edward Senior was the main engineer in this ambitious project. Unfortunately, the project was finished by an Australian firm after it was dropped – the local engineers not so keen to hack their way through solid rock.
In 1865, gold was discovered on the West Coast of the South Island. A road was desperately needed to link the Canterbury Plains to the goldfields. Just a year earlier, under the surveyor Thomas Cass (the surveyor who marked out Homebush for the Deans), Arthur had been exploring the Southern Alps for an easy way over the mountains. In the company of his younger brother Edward and Maori trackers (Arthur spoke fluent Maori), a map was drawn of what would become Arthur’s Pass.
Although Thomas Cass was impressed, others scoffed at Arthur because of his age. He was even told to get his Dad involved – get a more experienced surveyor on the job! Arthur’s older brother George was sent to look for something better but he returned to say that “Arthur’s Pass” was the best option. The road was completed a year later with a proud Edward Senior in charge of the construction.
In 1866, Arthur moved his career to Nelson where he got a job as Assistant Provincial Engineer. He married Eleanor Lewis and the two would go on to have 4 children. In 1869 Arthur changed jobs, becoming the District Engineer for the West Coast goldfields. In 1872, he took charge of the construction of the railway in Westport.
It was during this time that the family struck tragedy. While constructing roads in Grey Valley (Greymouth), George was murdered by the Burgess Gang he was mistaken for a gold buyer named Fox. Dobson, the township, was named after George and is the site of this crime.
In 1876, Arthur went into partnership with his father, Edward Senior. Together they upgraded Timaru’s water works and prepared Christchurch for theirs. Due to the swampy area that was Christchurch, disease such as typhoid, diphtheria and other fevers were ripe. By 1882, the Avon River was nothing more than an open drain. Locating ample artesian wells that could supply Christchurch with fresh, clean water, the project was binned due to costs.
In 1885, the partnership between the Dobson’s ended and Arthur moved to Australia where he worked as an engineer. Returning home to Christchurch in 1898, he took up the post of city engineer and set up the sewerage scheme. He also went on to improve the roads with the arrival of cars in the city.
A member of the Geological Society of London, the Institute of Civil Engineers, the Royal Society of Victoria, President of the Philosophical Inst. of Canterbury (twice) and the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers, Arthur was knighted in 1931 and died in Christchurchin 1934. He is buried in Linwood Cemetery.
*Photo of Arthur Dobson’s grave and Arthur’s Pass taken by Chris Bulovic*