In Praise of William White (1824–1899), Provincial Pioneer

Dr Matthew Birchall
Insights Newsletter
17 February, 2023

Getting things done in New Zealand can be a challenge. Even a simple deck extension can prove a hurdle.

But it was not always so difficult.

The story of William White of Kaiapoi shows what can be accomplished when Kiwis are able to simply get to work and build.

Even though he did not have a background in engineering, White took the initiative and erected the first bridge across the Waimakariri River. That is quite an achievement for a humble hotel owner in 19th century North Canterbury.

While you would not want the local manager of Quest to design you a bridge today, there is something appealing about a good project being able to progress without being bogged down by excessive rules and regulations.

And here is the kicker.

White personally paid for the construction of the bridge. As compensation, he was given permission to collect a toll fee for seven years.

If he failed to deliver, the people of Kaiapoi would not have been any worse off. But if he pulled through, everyone stood to gain.

As it transpired, the bridge was a rip-roaring success.

He certainly did not mess around.

White signed a contract with the provincial government in August 1862 and completed the project the following year.

Financial incentives have a way of concentrating the mind.

If nothing else, today’s planners could learn a thing or two from White about shepherding a project through to completion in a timely fashion.

Locals were enthralled. Before this, the only way to cross the great rivers of Canterbury was by ferry or by fording, which sometimes resulted in the tragic loss of life.

White’s timber construction was also a fillip to growth in a region that lacked basic transport infrastructure.

The bridge enabled local industry to thrive, such as the valuable timber trade. People and goods could now move efficiently between different parts of the town.

And it helped with flooding, too.

When the water level was high, the bridge could be raised to prevent water from flowing over it and into the town.

Despite his obscurity, White serves as a shining example of the determination and drive to create a brighter future. His bridge across the Waimakariri is an example we would do well to take inspiration from.

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