S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Methven, Mr Cathcart William (marine engineering)

Born: 24 September 1849, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
Died: 30 August 1925, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Active in: SA.
Mr Cathcart William Methven

Cathcart William Methven, harbour engineer, architect and artist, was educated at the Royal Naval College, London, and at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. After practical training in engineering he was appointed as assistant harbour engineer at Greenock, on the Clyde estuary west of Glasgow, under the eminent English harbour engieer W.R. Kinniple. He became a member of the (British) Institution of Civil Engineers (MICE) in 1882 and was awarded its medal several times. In 1886 he succeeded Kinniple as engineer-in-chief at Greenock. He married Amelia Mary Andrews in 1875 and eventually they had eight children.

In 1888 Methven came to Natal as engineer-in-chief of the Durban Harbour Works. Under his supervision the existing wharfs and sheds were extended. He advocated the use of solid rather than wooden quay walls, advised on the best method of loading coal in bulk, and prepared specifications for the octopus dredger which was used extensively in the bay. To solve the problem of the sand bar across the entrance to the bay he supported the lengthening of the north pier. This proposal brought him into conflict with H. Escomb, politician and chairman of the Natal Harbour Board. The Natal government dissolved the Harbour Board and terminated Methven's appointment in July 1894. The north pier was later built despite Escomb's opposition.

In 1895 Methven started his own successful business as consulting marine and civil engineer, architect and surveyor. His expertise led to his being asked by the government of the Cape Colony to report on its harbours, which he did in 1902, in collaboration with R.H.H. Heenan*, engineer to the Cape Town Harbour Board. Upon his recommendation the Table Bay docks were extended early in the twentieth century. His Report on Port Alfred harbour was published in Grahamstown in 1901. He inspected the Zululand coast for the Natal government and recommended the Mhlatuze Lagoon (at Richard's Bay) as the best site to develop a second harbour for Natal - an opinion that was acted upon only many years later. His report to the Natal government, Zululand harbours, was dated February 1903. That same year he wrote Reports on the proposed construction of a fishing harbour at Kalk Bay for the Public Works Department of the Cape Colony. In 1905 he reported on "The harbours of South Africa; with special reference to the causes and treatment of sand bars" at the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science. This paper was included in the Addresses and papers... published after the meetings; also in the Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and in the form of a monograph of 78 pages, including maps, tables and diagrams. In 1913 he reported more specifically on "Durban harbour, South Africa" to the Institution of Civil Engineers. At the request of the Portuguese government he advised on harbour construction work at Delagoa Bay (now Baia de Maputo), while he advised also on the conservation of the foreshore at Chinde, at the mouth of the Zambezi River. In 1925, the year of his death, he wrote Durban's harbour: the Wilson-Nicholson report. Comments and criticisms, published as a pamphlet. In 1907 he was elected an honorary corresponding member of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, in recognition of his work as an engineer in South Africa.

After his dismissal from the Durban Harbour Works Methven turned to architecture. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA) in 1902 and was president of the Natal Institute of Architects for several years. Over a period of ten years around the turn of the century he designed many of Durban's buildings. He was a foundation member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science (established in 1902) and in 1907, when the association met in Natal, served as president of Section B (which included engineering). That same year he read a paper on "Domestic architecture, with special relation to the requirements of Natal", which was published in the association's Report (pp. 39-46). He was elected a member of council for 1907/8. By that time he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1905 he became a member also of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

From an early age Methven showed artistic ability and throughout his life practised painting and music as hobbies. While still in Scotland he exhibited his work at the Institute of Fine Arts and the Royal Institute of Painters, and published Sketches of Greenock and its harbours (1886). In 1891 he published Sketches of Durban and its harbour in 1891, a brochure including a map and 35 plates. Partly through his initiative the Durban Art Gallery was established in 1892. Painting in oils and in watercolours, he specialised in black and white illustrations of the Durban harbour and in water colours of the Drakensberg range, though other subjects included Durban and its environs, other coastal ports, and the Natal Midlands. He held solo exhibitions in Johannesburg in 1921 and 1925. In 1924 he published a book, A century of progress, 1824-1924, which deals with art and the Durban harbour. He was also an accomplished organ player and drew up the specifications of the organs installed in the city halls of both Durban and Pietermaritzburg. As a keen fisherman he played a role in the introduction of trout to the rivers of Natal.

List of sources:
Bozzoli, G.R. Forging ahead: South Africa's pioneering engineers. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1997.

British Association for the Advancement of Science. Report of the seventy-fifth meeting... South Africa, 1905, list of members.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 2, 1972.

Hall, A.L. Bibliography of South African geology to the end of 1920. Pretoria: Geological Survey, Memoir No. 18, 1922.

Methven, C.W. The harbours of South Africa... Addresses and papers read at the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science held in South Africa, 1905, Vol. 2, pp. 199-241. Johannesburg: SAAAS.

Natal who's who, 1906.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to Cathcart Methven / C.W. Methven.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Quaterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa, 2000, Vol. 54(4), p. 133, Readers' notes and queries.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1903, 1905/6, 1907, 1910.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African who's who, 1908.

Compiled by: C. Plug

Last updated: 2020-04-23 17:30:14