one can only salute the surveyors, engineers, contractors, stonemasons, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, platelayers, axe-men, navvies … and the sweating horse and bullock teams. –John McLean

The fascinating story of building the country’s infrastructure

By Roger Childs

John McLean is a prolific writer of books on New Zealand History including Parikaha: The Facts, Captain Cook For Young People and Gate Pa and Te Ranga The Full Story (co-authored with John Robinson). Now, in Sweat and Toil: The Building of New Zealand, he follows up his interest in the construction of New Zealand’s infrastructure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So much of what we take for granted today – roads, wharves, bridges, viaducts etc.. – were built in the pioneering days in challenging terrain using primitive equipment by today’s standards.

John has a family link to this vital work in building the nation, as one of his ancestors founded John McLean and Company which constructed many bridges, railways, tunnels and tramways. Although the appropriate Public Works department of the time was involved in building some of the infrastructure, most projects were carried out by private companies tendering for the jobs.

Tendering, budgeting and interference

 As businesses know today, tendering is not an exact science, and it was definitely problematic back then. When one put in a tender it was gamble that one could do the work within the contract price and within contract time so as to make a profit.  For example what price would you put on building the Otira Tunnel under the Southern Alps? Nonetheless, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries a number of projects were completed on time and under budget. 

However, there were some horrendous cost over-runs and some companies went bankrupt in the process. Furthermore the interference of bureaucrats sometimes caused problems and delays. McLean gives the example of an officious Government inspector insisting that in the Makarau Railway Tunnel being built north of Helensville, sills supporting a brick arch be removed before the mortar had set. This was understandably against the advice of the contractor and workmen. The inevitable outcome occurred … the tunnel collapsed over a length of eighteen feet …

Labouring in difficult conditions

Most of the labour for the projects was provided by settlers and their descendants, although some Maori enjoyed working on road building projects, especially in the North Island. Many tribes were happy to see the new transport facilities constructed across their lands.  The famous 19th century chief, Rewi Maniapoto, told the surveyor of the railway through the King Country:  Tell Mr Bryce (Minister of Native Affairs) to hasten on the railway. I am an old man now and would like to ride the railway before I die.

Sweat and Toil pays tribute to the men who “built the nation”. They worked long and hard to tame the challenging New Zealand terrain with its dense forests, rugged hills and mountains, massive swamps, numerous rivers and deep gorges, and they endured snow, mud, heat and flooding. The country owes them a huge debt and John McLean’s book honurs their extraordinary efforts.

A systematic approach

In this very readable, well-illustrated book the author devotes separate chapters to the different types of public works constructed, from roads and railways to reclamations and tramways. In each section he provides detail on a number of public works constructed around the country. At the end, there is a bibliography, index and comprehensive set of footnote references. A wide range of sources have been used and all the chapters are laced with numerous quotes, notably from the newspapers of the time and the people involved in the projects. 


Sweat and Toil The Building of New Zealand by John McLean is published by Tross Publishing. It is available for $40 from Coastlands Paper Plus and can also be bought online from Tross.