Jack Ridley, QSO, engineer, politician. Died aged 87


As a politician, Jack Ridley, a quiet, gentlemanly Labour Member of Parliament for Taupo for two terms (1972-75 and 1978-81), caused little excitement.

But by that time his other achievements had already left an indelible mark on the New Zealand countryside and the electricity industry.


John Wallace (Jack) Ridley, Rhodes Scholar and engineer, was particularly expert at building dams for producing hydro electricity. In his younger days he was sometimes characterised as "brilliant".

In the early 1950s he worked on such key projects as the Wairakei geothermal power scheme near Taupo and the nearby dams at Atiamuri and Whakamaru on the Waikato River. Such projects were of great importance as the country struggled with insufficient electricity supplies.

Ridley was, from 1948, on the staff of the Ministry of Works, at first on investigations for hydro works, then on designing them. By the time he was appointed to take charge of the Benmore hydro dam construction from 1958 to 1962, he was at his peak.

In 1954 he had been awarded the NZ Institution of Engineers' highest annual award, the Fulton Gold Medal. It recognised a technical paper, "Seepage and Uplift Pressures Under Hydraulic Structures", a work of significance applauded by those equipped to judge such matters.

The medal was followed by a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship which allowed him to travel overseas, particularly to study dam engineering with the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States, especially the design and construction of earth dams.

This experience led to him working on the original planning of the Benmore hydro dam, one of the largest dams on the Waitaki River in the South Island. He was largely responsible for drawing the Government's attention to the suitability of the area for an earth dam rather than a much more expensive concrete structure.

And it was finished under cost and ahead of time, his family still notes proudly.

Benmore, with Ridley as project engineer, became one of the largest producers of electricity in the New Zealand system. At the time it was described as one of the largest construction jobs undertaken in New Zealand, with 28 million tonnes of material used in its construction and a 110m-high dam wall.


After handling several big construction and development projects in Australia as local head of the American firm Utah Engineering from 1962 to 1965, Ridley played a big part as mining and development manager of New Zealand Steel, using the ironsands at Taharoa, just south of Kawhia Harbour on the North Island's west coast.

Ridley was born in Invercargill in 1919, attended Timaru Boys High School and then Canterbury University, studying engineering. In 1946-47, after war service as an engineering officer, he spent two years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, graduating with an MA in engineering science.

As a politician in middle age, Jack Ridley was a well-regarded, relatively quiet MP in the politically aggressive Muldoon era from 1975.

Once asked why there were so few engineers in Parliament, he responded simply: "Because engineers are realists and politicians are idealists."

Mr Ridley, who died in Auckland, is survived by his wife of 57 years, Avis (nee Reed), and his four sons.