William David Nisbet (1837 - 1897)

Nisbet was a harbour and drainage engineer. Born at Newcastle-on-Tyne, he was articled for three years to the Engineer to the River Wear Commissioners (at Sunderland), who formed a consulting practice with him in 1868. The partners designed and supervised dock and harbour work in southern Scotland and north-east England, municipal works in Yorkshire coastal towns and a small railway in County Durham.

Nisbet arrived in Brisbane in May 1875, having been selected five months earlier from fifteen applicants as Engineer of Harbors and Rivers. There were three urgent tasks: the construction of a dry dock on the Brisbane River, the preparation of a plan for the development of the Queensland ports, and the main drainage of the municipality of Brisbane. Early in June 1875 Nisbet reported that the proposed design for the dock was inadequate, and that the approved estimate of 25,000 pounds should be increased to 81,000 pounds. The dock was opened in 1881 and was in service until 1972; it is now the headquarters of the Queensland Maritime Museum.

Dredging of the outer bar of the Brisbane River began in 1862 and by 1874 small liners could reach the town wharves on the high tide. But the river training, dredging and reclamation which have since made Brisbane a great river port followed Nisbet’s report of 1877. He obtained the funds needed for a large dredging plant; two dredges came from Britain, but all the ancillary vessels and four dredges were built in Queensland. Much of the design was by the Department, including the “Octopus” which was “one of the largest iron ships built in the Colonies” when launched by R. Smellie & Co. in 1880.

Nisbet was responsible for work at all ports along the Queensland coast including Ross Creek (Townsville), Cairns, Port Douglas and Normanton. Wharfage was built at Auckland Point (Gladstone), Port Alma (for Rockhampton), in the Pioneer River (Mackay), and Normanton. Dredging was carried out in the Mary, Burnett and Fitzroy rivers.

The business centre of Brisbane was seriously flooded twice in February 1875. Fortunately a sympathetic Government was in power in the Colony and it took over responsibility for main drainage. Nisbet, who arrived in Brisbane during the discussions which led to “The Brisbane Drainage Act of 1875”, completed the investigation of relief drain through the flooded area in August, and placed the contract in October. Nine more drains were designed, which included all the main catchments in the municipality. Six drains were built by 1879 and are still in service (with comparatively little augmentation). The remaining schemes were aborted by a change in Government and by the parochial aldermen who would not agree to the construction of proper outfalls beyond the town boundary. Until 1881 Nisbet was responsible for water-supply in the Colony (except in Brisbane), but in that year J.B. Henderson (q.v.) was appointed State Hydraulic Engineer in charge of a separate Water Supply Department. Nisbet was active in the public life of Brisbane; in 1879 he was President of the Philosophical Society of Queensland and in 1883 the first Treasurer of its successor, the Royal Society of Queensland.

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