Pump House, Graving Dock, Cyrus Williams Quay

Graving Dock

Graving Dock

Pump House, Graving Dock
Cyrus Williams Quay

Date of building: 1882-3
Architect: C. Napier Bell
Graving Dock Builders: Ware and Jones
Pumphouse Builders: John Stinson
Pump engines and dock machinery: Easton and Anderson
Supervising Engineer: H. Turpin
Construction materials graving dock: Stone, concrete, iron caisson
Construction materials pump house: Brick, pitched iron roof
Situated on Cyrus Williams Quay, Port of Lyttelton

Tenders were called for the construction of a graving or dry dock in Port Chalmers in 1868. The first ship to be serviced there, the Phoebe, entered the dock in May 1871. By then Christchurch and Lyttelton locals were agitating for a similar facility to be built in Port Lyttelton.

In 1872 a formal request to the Canterbury Provincial Council for the construction of a graving dock was made, and the Member for Lyttelton, Mr Webb, was asking questions on the subject in parliament. In 1874 the Provincial Council had allocated £500 for the survey of a possible site for the dock, and the Secretary for Public Works asked Mr Whately Elliot, on behalf of the Government, to prepare a report on the best site for a dock in the vicinity of the Naval Point.

Mr Elliot’s report took into consideration the type of foundation required, the amount of land required to be excavated, the position of the dock site relative to other operations in the harbour, and the entrance to the dock by sea, and access to it by land. His report recommended a Naval Point site where the amount of excavation would be minimal, and any rock that was excavated could be used to build the walls of the dock. Elliot’s site gave the greatest depth of water, but also anticipated the building requirements of other harbour operations.

A patent slip was to be included for smaller vessels. Elliot recommended a slipway with a total length of 400 feet, with the capacity to take a vessel 150 feet in length, so that larger vessels could be accommodated in the graving dock which would be able to take a vessel up to 400 feet in length. Dredging would be required to provide an entrance to the dock, but the draught of ships using the dock would be limited by the depth of dredging carried out in the harbour itself. The report by Elliot contained no construction details, just an endorsement of the practicality of the graving dock scheme, and no considerations of budget.

The Lyttelton Harbour Board came into existence in January 1877 by Act of Parliament (Lyttelton Harbour Board Act 1876) and took over the work begun by the now defunct Provincial Council. Land for the new graving dock was purchased in 1878, and the Lyttelton Harbour Board’s engineer, C. Napier Bell, was enlisted for the design and planning of the graving dock’s construction. The actual construction was carried out by Ware and Jones, with a £92,000 contract, while Easton and Anderson provided the dock machinery and pumps. Ware and Jones had previously completed the Auckland Graving Dock, so came to the project with useful experience.

Excavation work included removal of part of the Naval Point Hill, the reclamation of Dampiers Bay and the construction of a breakwater on the south side of the dock to provide protection from south-west weather. Stone for the dock was in the end supplied by the Port Chalmers quarry and transported up the coast from Dunedin.

During construction the decision was made to extend the length of the dock from 400 to 450 feet, and a new contract was drawn up and signed to implement this decision. The floor of the dock was laid with concrete 2 feet 6 inches in depth, then a 2 foot stone flooring was laid on top. A time capsule bottle containing details of the dock’s construction, along with coins and copies of the daily newspapers was inserted into a cavity in the first stone laid.

Stone from Melbourne was also used for the final layer as it had a particularly fine grain. In all over 30,000 cubic feet of dressed stone was laid, and between 14,000 and 15,000 casks of cement were used for the concrete and masonry. About 300 men were employed on the project, without any fatalities, and only a few minor incidents or injuries.

The patent slipway for smaller ships was completed by Lyttelton builder John Stinson in 1884, and was able to accommodate vessels up to 300 tons. Coal-fired steam engines, housed in the brick pump house, were used to power both the dock and the patent slip. While waiting for the caisson (the watertight structure designed to fit across the end of the dock) to arrive from Glasgow, the delay was used by the contractors to erect the brick engine and boiler house on the south side of the dock near the entrance.

The pumphouse was a well-proportioned and detailed example of nineteenth century design and construction. The boiler house contained three large Cornish boilers which supplied steam to two 15 horse power nominal engines. Three pumping wells were sunk to a depth of 30 feet. Two pumps were designed to empty the dock, with 23 feet of water in it, within five hours, and less if a ship was actually in the dock. A third pump was a leakage pump, designed to keep the dock dry. The boilers were also designed to provide steam to the winding machinery required by the patent slip.

The caisson for the graving dock was 62 feet in length, constructed of iron, and was designed to close off the end of the dock when in use, through use of separate compartments which could be filled with water ballast in order to sink the caisson to a depth of 12 feet, then pumped out again.

The dock was completed by February 1882, but the official opening was delayed by the very late arrival of the caisson. Finally, on 3 January 1883, the graving dock was opened by the Acting Governor, Sir James Prendergast, and the Hurunui entered the dock. The official ceremonies were accompanied by gala celebrations in Lyttelton, including a banquet for 700 guests.

In 1901 and in 1904 the graving dock was used to inspect and refurbish the ships of the Discovery and Terra Nova Expeditions both before and after their voyages to the Antarctic. The Discovery brought back a pair of king penguins in 1904, which were briefly accommodated in the dock before being moved to the Acclimatisation Society’s gardens in the city.

Other notable visitors included the Carnegie, a special non-magnetic brigantine purpose-built by the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C. to carry out research into the earth’s magnetic field, visited Lyttelton at the end of 1915 before completing a circumnavigation of Antarctica. It returned to the port in 1916 to spend seven weeks in the graving dock, having a copper plate replaced.

In 1926 new electric engines were installed to power the dry dock machinery, and the pumphouse chimney, once a port landmark, was demolished and the boilers removed in 1931.

The pumphouse was severely damaged in the 22 February 2011 earthquake and following aftershocks, and was demolished on 22 March 2011. The graving dock remains in use today, though only for smaller vessels.


  • Johnson, John. The story of Lyttelton, Lyttelton Borough Council, 1952
  • Rice, Geoff. Lyttelton: port and town: an illustrated history, University of Canterbury Press, 2004
  • Rossie, Liza. Original research notes and material on Lyttelton built heritage.
  • Papers Past
  • Heritage NZ

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