S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Bisset, Mr James (civil engineering)

Born: 1836, Aberdeen, Scotland.
Died: 1918, Cape Town, South Africa.

James Bisset, son of William Bisset, received his training in engineering at the University of London and subsequently worked for Fox Henderson and Company, Birmingham. He became a member of the (British) Institution of civil engineers and gained experience both in Britain and in Continental Europe. As one of six qualified engineers (the others were W. Perrolt, A. Priestley, J.W. Roberts, W.B. Taylor and E.W. Young*) he came to the Cape Colony, under the leadership of W.G. Brounger*, to build the Cape Town to Worcester railway. They arrived on the Athens in December 1858. Bisset soon submitted a scheme for a horse-drawn tramway through central Cape Town to the far end of Sea Point, which was eventually approved in August 1861. He became general superintendent of the Green Point Tramway Company and in this capacity drew up plans for the permanent way, supervised its contruction, and designed two coach cars. The tramway opened on 1 May 1863. He resigned his post in May 1865 and became involved in various local engineering projects, including the design of the Dutch Reformed Church at Graaff Reinet and Trinity Church in Port Elizabeth. Later he published a paper, On the construction of the railways in the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town, 1869, 39p).

In 1871 Bisset was appointed resident engineer of harbour and public works at Port Elizabeth. Among others he was involved in building the Port Elizabeth to Uitenhage railway, and designed the Port Elizabeth railway station. In 1873 he participated in building the East London to King William's Town railway. He remained in Port Elizabeth until at least 1876, but in 1879 resided in Kenilworth, Cape Town. In 1890 he appears to have been involved in the planning of the Cottage Hospital in Mowbray. He retired in 1892 and subsequently became mayor of Wynberg. During the Anglo-Boer War he served with the rank of major. From 1903 to his death in 1918 he resided in Kenilworth, Cape Town.

Bisset became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1903 and was still a member in 1918. By 1910 he was a member also of the (British) Royal Sanitary Institute. He married Miss E.C.M. Jarvis in 1862. Five of his sons were prominent enough to be included in the first South African Who's Who in 1908: James Jarvis, born 1863, land surveyor; William Molteno, born 1867, attorney; Bazett Gerhard, born 1874, land surveyor; Murray, born 1876, barrister; and Arthur Vintcent Crossley, born 1879, attorney.

List of sources:
Bull, E. Aided immigration from Britain to South Africa, 1857 to 1867. Pretoria: HSRC, 1991.

Malherbe, D.F. du T. Family register of the South African nation (3rd ed.) Stellenbosch: Tegniek, 1966.

Mendelssohn, S. South African bibliography. London, 1910.

Murray, Tony. Past Master 21: James Bisset. Civil Engineering, May 2009, Vol. 17(4), pp. 56-58.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to Bisset, James.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1903, 1905/6, 1910, 1918: Lists of members.

South African Who's Who, 1908.

Compiled by: C. Plug