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Long-serving city engineer helped transform Gisborne city

Opinion Piece

The death of Harold Williams this week deprives the community of a real character and severs the last link with a colourful and sometimes turbulent era in the history of Gisborne.

City engineer for 29 years, Mr Williams was a man who was never afraid to express his opinion — whatever the situation.

At his job interview he told Mayor Sir Harry Barker that Gisborne was in a mess with its water and sewage. Barker, another man who appreciated plain speaking, gave him the job.

They went on, with redoubtable town clerk Bill Hudson, to form a trio that completely transformed Gisborne from a time when the whole of the Mangapapa suburb had no sewerage and the night cart still roamed city streets.

Mr Williams reminisced about his first trip to Mangapoike soon after he came here as assistant engineer in 1948. Asking for directions, he was told “find yourself a decent rut, you will be in it for the next four miles”.

Back as chief engineer in 1957 he threw his considerable energies and intelligence into fixing the city’s two great infrastructure challenges.

The year 1964 was a pivotal one with the new water pipeline from Mangapoike reaching the city and the launch of the submarine sewer outfall pipeline from Midway Beach.

That launch was the high point of his time as city engineer. A considerable engineering feat in its day, it won him national and international recognition.

In more recent times the pipeline became the centre of a long-running battle with Maori and environmentalists that still has its impact today. Mr Williams never changed his opinion and fiercely opposed its replacement.

A man of intense character and principle, he became dissatisfied with decisions made by the then city council and resigned. He stood for mayor against Hink Healey, unsuccessfully.

There was much more to Harold Williams however. A true polymath, he fearlessly tackled diverse subjects such as race relations and whether Young Nick was actually the illegitimate son of King George 111.