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Wednesday, July 6, 2022 - 08:39

In the article below, Tony Murray highlights the remarkable achievements of John Montagu and the influence he had on civil engineering in South Africa. The piece first appeared in the publication 'Past Masters: Pioneer Civil Engineers who contributed to the growth and Wealth of South Africa'. Click here to view the stories of other great engineers.

Montagu was not an engineer, but perhaps we can regard him as the first professional client in the country.  In any event he had a resounding influence on civil engineering in the Cape Colony in the mid -19th century and thus deserves a place in our annals.


John Montagu (Past Masters)


He was born in India, the son of Lt. Col. Edward Montagu, on 21st August 1797. He joined the army and served at Waterloo before re-entering civilian life. In 1823 he was posted to Tasmania as private secretary to the Governor, Sir George Arthur. At the time the island was simply a penal colony for the most difficult of the Australian convicts. Montagu assisted Arthur in developing a strict but fair system of dealing with the lags and his administrative talents were soon recognised; after a series of promotions he was appointed Secretary of the Colony in 1834. Through some astute land deals he built up a little fortune which would have sustained him in later years.

Arthur retired and was succeeded by Sir John Franklin, a famous Arctic explorer. As a governor Franklin was somewhat ineffective, but his formidable wife was determined to leave her mark on the Colony. Montagu, by now a seasoned administrator, resented the interference. After several disagreements he was recalled to England. He was subsequently cleared of any misconduct, but he was unable to control his property investments and which instead of an asset became a liability.


Sir John Franklin (Wikipedia)

In 1843 he was appointed as Colonial Secretary of the Cape. The Colony was virtually bankrupt and its economy was in the doldrums, so Montagu the efficient administrator took up the challenge. He immediately instituted reforms to sort out the muddled local fiscal system, collected large sums in arrear taxes, and thus liquidated the Colonial debt. He improved the educational system, and, drawing on his Tasmanian experience, arranged legislation to enable convicts to be employed on public works.

These measures enabled him to address the need for better engineering infrastructure in the Colony. His first step was to institute a Central Roads Board with exclusive powers over the main roads in the colony. Under his chairmanship this institution arranged for the prioritisation, funding and construction of the major transportation routes, which were then implemented under the direction of Charles Michell, the Colonial Engineer (click here to read more about Michell), largely using convict labour. Subsidiary Divisional Boards, responsible for local rural roads, developed into the Divisional Council system, which survived until 1987 and delivered sterling service in building and maintaining enviable rural roads in the Colony (later the Cape Province).

Three notable mountain passes were facilitated by Montagu. The pass over the Outeniquas which bears his name was completed in 1847, while a route into the Warm Bokkeveld was named Michell's Pass in honour of the supervising engineer. Montagu himself approved the location of an unlikely route through the Limietberge and encouraged Andrew Bain to build the spectacular pass which is named after him.


Montagu Pass

Montagu is also credited with gaining approval for the construction of lighthouses on the Cape coast, and in 1843 instigated studies which led to the construction of Cape Town Harbour as well as other minor ports.

He took particular interest in the construction of the hard road across the Cape Flats, and was noted for his personal efforts to stabilise the shifting sand dunes which threatened to bury the road after it had been built.  When all else failed he introduced Australian wattles to the Cape, and this solved the problem. These trees proliferated to such an extent that they have ever since been regarded as intrusive alien vegetation. Montagu closed out the project with a comprehensive report to the Roads Board. The 24-mile long road had cost £40,000, and 265,000 man days had been spent on its construction. He estimated that between 50,000 and 60,000 wagons and other vehicles used the road per annum, each saving between ten and twenty shillings per journey - without question, the road was cost effective! 

Michell retired due to ill health caused by overwork, but Montagu was not deterred. Despite his other administrative duties, he undertook two or three exhausting tours of inspection of the entire Colony, travelling on one occasion over 2000 miles, and reporting at length on his findings. His recommendations included the opening up of Seven Weeks Poort, and a proper road from Van Stadens River via Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, including the construction of Howison's Poort, long a bone of contention - at long last in the opinion of the neglected Eastern Cape - and a road from the Longkloof through Toverwater Poort to Beaufort West. (It was later decided to use Meirings Poort for the road, and Toverwater Poort became the railway route).The master plan was finally completed by 1853, and the discontented citizens of the eastern regions had to find other axes to grind.

He also pushed for a more direct road from the Bokkeveld to Beaufort West through the Great Karroo. (A major concern in route location at the time was the availability of water for the draught animals). On one of his inspection tours he almost came short while crossing the Great Brak River - his horse lost its footing and he was forced to swim to the banks where the silt deposits caused further alarm before he was rescued.

Eventually the strain of his energetic lifestyle took its toll. Besides his vigorous efforts at opening up the interior, his administration had to contend with the border wars and preparation for self-government for the colony. He departed on leave for England in June 1852, but became ill and was unable to return. He died in November 1853.

Montagu was apparently a "difficult" character, and the aftermath of his tenure in Tasmania, which had been abruptly and unjustly terminated, had exhausted his modest fortune. He was entirely dependent on his Cape salary and died penniless. The Cape held him in high esteem for obvious reasons, but his early career and his abrasive nature did not endear him to Whitehall. For this reason, and presumably because the Cape was still a backwater, his achievements went unrecognised by the home government. In a more just world he would surely have been suitably rewarded with a suitable decoration - far lesser men have received knighthoods. In fact Michell and the railwayman Brounger would probably have been similarly recognised had they worked closer to the corridors of power.

Main image: Montagu Bridge over the Liesbeek River

Tony Murray is a retired civil engineer who has developed an interest in local engineering history. He spent most of his career with the Divisional Council of the Cape and its successors, and ended in charge of the Engineering Department of the Cape Metropolitan Council. He has written extensively on various aspects of his profession, and became the first chairman of the History and Heritage Panel of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering. Among other achievements he was responsible for persuading the American Society of Civil Engineers to award International Engineering Heritage Landmark status to the Woodhead dam on Table Mountain and the Lighthouse at Cape Agulhas. After serving for 10 years on SAICE Executive Board, in 2010 he received the rare honour of being made an Honorary Fellow of the Institution. Tony has written manuals, prepared lectures and developed extensive PowerPoint presentations on ways in which the relationship between municipal councillors and engineers can be more effective, and he has presented the course around the country. He has been a popular lecturer at UCT Summer School and has presented five series of talks about engineers and their achievements. He was President of the Owl Club in 2011. His book "Ninham Shand – the Man, the Practice", the story of the well-known consulting engineer and the company he founded, was published in 2010. In 2015 “Megastructures and Masterminds”, stories of some South African civil engineers and their achievements was written for the general public and appeared on the shelves of good bookstores. “Past Masters” a collection of his articles about 19th century South African Engineers is also available from the SAICE Bookshop.


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