Story: Anderson, John

Page 1 - Biography

Anderson, John

1820–1897

Blacksmith, engineer, businessman, local politician

This biography was written by Peter Lowe and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

John Anderson, son of Jean Harper and her husband, Alexander Anderson, a ploughman, was born on 7 November 1820 and baptised at Inveresk, near Edinburgh, Scotland. After an apprenticeship with a blacksmith, John was employed at the North British Railway Company, Leith, and in Edinburgh. He also attended evening classes in mathematics, mechanical philosophy and chemistry at the School of Arts, Edinburgh, and gained a diploma and medal. On 3 June 1845 he married Jane Gibson at Leith. Before her marriage Jane had been employed by the Dalmahoy family, who later provided a vital stimulus to the Andersons' emigration hopes by advancing them £300 to buy goods to take to New Zealand. John and Jane Anderson's first two children, Marion and Alexander, died in infancy, and this probably contributed to their decision to emigrate.

Although they were Presbyterians, the Andersons came to New Zealand under the auspices of the Canterbury Association. With their third child, John, they arrived in Lyttelton in December 1850 on the Sir George Seymour. John Anderson's first night ashore was spent with John and William Deans at Riccarton, who are said to have influenced him to settle at Christchurch, rather than the more developed Lyttelton.

For about a year John Anderson practised his blacksmithing skills at The Bricks, on Oxford Terrace. A fourth child, Andrew, was born in 1851. In February 1852 Anderson bought section No 877 in Cashel Street from Daniel Inwood for £12 and moved his business and household to this new site. Later, more land was purchased on the other side of Cashel Street, where the family home, Inveresk, was built. In 1857 the plant of 'J. Anderson, Engineer, Millwright, Boiler Maker &c', as described on a contemporary invoice, expanded to include a foundry, for which raw materials were imported. Anderson acquired agencies for a range of equipment imports; in particular, Aveling and Porter traction engines and road rollers. The business expanded and eventually the Cashel Street site extended through to Lichfield Street. The family also expanded – Jean, Alexander, Elizabeth and Frederick were born between 1853 and 1861. The Andersons became involved in the Presbyterian community in Christchurch. John Anderson was instrumental in bringing the first Presbyterian minister to Canterbury, and was a founding member of the congregations of St Andrew's Church (1854) and St Paul's Church (1864).

In the next decade the firm began to manufacture steam boilers and also made equipment to process the province's primary products, especially wool, flax and livestock. After 1860 Anderson's commercial interests extended beyond engineering. He was a shareholder and director of the Union Fire and Marine Insurance Company of New Zealand, the Christchurch Gas, Coal and Coke Company Limited, the Press Company Limited, and the New Zealand Shipping Company Limited, which had its origins in Christchurch.

Anderson was also drawn into public life from about 1860. He took an active interest in the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association, the Lyttelton Harbour Board, the Christchurch Mechanics' Institute (later the Canterbury Public Library), the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce, the Christchurch Licensing Committee and the Canterbury Club. In 1862 he was elected to the Christchurch City Council and in 1869 served as the second mayor of Christchurch. During his year in office he hosted the visit to Christchurch by the young Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh.

Anderson's social standing and aspirations grew. In 1866 his sons John and Andrew were sent to the élite Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. Later both sons worked in Scotland: John with a firm of mechanical engineers in Glasgow, Andrew with a firm of civil engineers in Edinburgh. They returned to New Zealand in 1873 and 1876 respectively, and entered the family business.

In the 1870s Anderson's firm took advantage of Julius Vogel's policy of railway and infrastructure expansion. One of its projects was the construction of the Rakaia and Ashburton Forks railway to Methven, during 1878 and 1879. Contracts such as these were tendered for by 'J. and A. Anderson', to protect the main business in case unexpected contract liabilities were incurred. By this time the firm was prospering: in 1875 John Anderson and his daughter Jean embarked on an overseas business trip to Australia, Great Britain and the United States.

In 1881 John Anderson relinquished his business interests and in the same year stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for Christchurch South. His sons John and Andrew became proprietors of the family firm, which, in the phase after his retirement, went on to establish a pre-eminent position among New Zealand construction companies. In particular, it gained a reputation for building road and rail bridges. The Beaumont road bridge (1886–87) was the first outstanding example. Alluvial gold dredges were also built, and vessels were constructed and repaired at the Lyttelton works, which opened in 1887. Local expertise for large-scale projects was regarded as suspect but the firm undertook major contracts, including the impressive viaducts at Waiteti (1888) and Makatote (1908) on the main trunk railway, and the manufacture of the steel lighthouse for Farewell Spit (1895–96). In 1903 a private limited liability company, Andersons Limited, was formed. It merged with Mason Brothers Limited in 1964 and ceased trading in 1986.

John Anderson died on 30 April 1897 at Christchurch; Jane Anderson had predeceased him in 1894. A practical man, he made a valuable contribution to the development of industry and communications in New Zealand. He was rewarded in large measure by social, financial and business success.