NZ Geomechanics News

Obituary – A Tribute to Philip John (Pip) Alley

Tribute to Philip John (Pip) Alley
(1901 – 78)

A Soil Mechanics Pioneer in New Zealand

Philip John Alley was a pioneer in New Zealand in promoting from the late 1930’s the newly established field of civil engineering then known as soil mechanics and he established one of the first soil mechanics laboratories in the country.

His Family Background

He was born at Amberley, North Canterbury in 1901 where his father was the local school headmaster who later became headmaster of Wharenui School in Christchurch in 1905. Pip Alley attended Wharenui School then Christchurch Boys High School.

Pip was the third child in a family of five. His older brother was Rewi Alley (1897 – 1987) who became well known as a writer and poet after he left New Zealand in 1927 to live in China for the remaining sixty years of his life. Earlier, Rewi Alley had volunteered to serve in World War I and was decorated with the Military Medal.

Rewi Alley’s politics moved from being fairly right-wing pro-empire conservative policy sentiments to thoughts of social reform in 1929, soon after he moved to China. He subsequently became a member of the Communist Party in China in 1932, eighteen years before the Communists takeover of the government of China in 1950.

Pips Earlier Career In County Engineering

Pip studied engineering at Canterbury University College in the early 1920’s and obtained a BE degree in civil engineering then spent about 25 years working in county engineering positions in the South Island, becoming County Engineer in the 1940’s for the Waimairi County Council, then on the northwestern outskirts of Christchurch but later absorbed into Christchurch City.

During this 25 year period, he developed an abiding interest in soil mechanics (as it was then known) and with a special interest in the use of lime and cement in soil stabilisation of pavement sub-bases and subgrades on country roads.

He received awards for two early papers which were among the first to be published on soil mechanics topics in New Zealand.

As reported in W L Newnham’s 1971 book ‘Learning . Service . Achievement’ he won special awards from the New Zealand Institution of Engineers (NZIE) for two papers. Special awards were made by NZIE from time to time to members submitting papers of exceptional merit which did not fall within the conditions for other awards, or otherwise justified recognition. The titles of these papers were:
1938; “Soil Mechanics of Southland Road Making Materials”;
1948: “Loess in Soil Cement Mixtures”.

His Appointment as a Senior Lecturer at Canterbury University College

In about 1950, he was appointed as a Senior Lecturer at Canterbury University C ollege with a particular brief to introduce lectures on soil mechanics topics into the civil engineering curriculum and to establish a soil mechanics laboratory which was originally housed in an unpretentious ‘tin shed’ on the University’s town site (now the Arts Centre). When the School of Engineering of the University of Canterbury moved into new buildings on the site at Ilam in mid-1960, the opportunity came for him to establish a much more fully equipped soil mechanics laboratory from 1961.

Canterbury University’s Purchase of Its New Site At Ilam

Pip Alley lived for the later part of his life in a house at 70 Clyde Road in Ilam looking directly across the road at three farms, extending right through to Waimairi Road and including the grounds of what is the now the Ilam Homestead (off Ilam Road) and the University playing fields nearby.

In about 1951, he wrote a letter to the University College Council, suggesting they consider purchasing these three farms in which to establish a much larger campus site for the University grounds and playing fields. He received a polite letter in reply acknowledging receipt of his letter and thanking him for it but nothing more was heard until, about 2 years later, it was announced the University was going to purchase these three farms to be become the site of the University’s present Ilam campus.

The Second Australian-New Zealand Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering

Soon after taking up his senior lecturer position, he joined the recently established International Society of Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering (ISSMFE) as an individual member, because there was no existing body to be the national committee for New Zealand of the ISSMFE. He then attended the first Australia-New Zealand Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering held in Australia in 1952. While he was there, he was invited to attend a meeting of the Australian National Committee of the ISSMFE held in conjunction with that conference. This committee had coordinated the planning of this first Australia-New Zealand conference.

Without consulting with anyone as far as I know, Pip Alley offered that the second such conference be held in Christchurch in 1956. This offer was accepted with some alacrity by the Australian National Committee. When he returned to Christchurch, his colleagues at the University, including the Head of Department of Civil Engineering, Professor H J (Harry) Hopkins were rather dumbfounded that this offer had been made and accepted. But they realised that if such an international conference could be organised well, it would reflect favourably on the standing of their civil engineering department and a great effort was made to run a very successful second Australia-New Zealand Conference held at Canterbury University College in 1956.

Establishment of a New Zealand National Committee of ISSMFE

Pip Alley proceeded to strongly urge the NZIE to form a New Zealand National Committee of the ISSMFE. This became the first Technical Group of NZIE to be established.
Senior engineers in the Ministry of Works who had also been strongly promoting the advancement of soil mechanics in New Zealand (especially in regard to dams for hydro-electric power projects) were also strongly advocating a similar proposal.
The New Zealand National Committee was eventually established in 1958 and Pip Alley became a member of that committee representing the School of Engineering at the University of Canterbury. The committee was initially chaired by Mr J W (Jack) Ridley who was then a senior design engineer in the Ministry of Works head office in Wellington.
Mr Ridley had to relinquish the position in the following year after being appointed Project Engineer for the Benmore Power Project at Otematata.
Mr Noel Collins also from the Ministry of Works (in the Water and Soil division) became the second chairman of the New Zealand National Committee for the next three years. He was followed by Mr O T (Trevor) Jones who was the principal design engineer for the earth dam at the Cobb River power station built in the early 1950’s.
The name of the National Committee was changed to the New Zealand Geomechanics Society in 1972 during the chairmanship of Mr J H H (John) Galloway. This Society also incorporated rock mechanics and engineering geology. About two decades later the name was changed to the New Zealand Geotechnical Society.

Pip Alley’s Political Interests

By the late 1950’s, Pip Alley had become well known in Christchurch and at the University as being an avowed communist. This was in the earlier years of the Cold War when to be called a communist in New Zealand was one of the worst things people could say about you. He was also seen as being very much influenced by his older brother Rewi Alley who by then had lived in China for nearly 30 years.

My Meetings With Pip Alley

When I received a scholarship to undertake a Masters degree in engineering at the University of Canterbury in March 1963, I was drawn towards a soil mechanics topic for my thesis because I could see from my undergraduate student days that soil mechanics was a rapidly growing area of civil engineering activity that was destined to play a major role within civil engineering in the future. Pip Alley then became my thesis supervisor.

I met weekly with him to discuss progress with my research for my thesis. It became clear to me that he was very much influenced in his political views by his older brother Rewi, but in my opinion, he was not really a communist at all. He was much too kind-hearted for that!

I never did find out whether or not he actually was a member of the Communist Party in New Zealand.

However, because of his political beliefs, he had great difficulty in getting other people to take him seriously and engage with him in discussion on engineering and other matters. But in my weekly meetings with him, I could see that he greatly enjoyed a good discussion on wide ranging topics and did not take any offence in debating a topic with a much more junior person of different views (even a post-graduate student).
He appeared genuinely upset when I went to see him to say thanks and goodbye after handing in my thesis in June 1964 before leaving New Zealand for further study at the University of Illinois, where the leading professor in soil mechanics subjects was Professor Ralph B Peck.

Service to the University of Canterbury

Pip lectured at the University of Canterbury for 17 years and introduced many civil engineering students to soil mechanics. He was promoted to Reader in the early 1960’s.

Pip Alley’s Retirement

After retiring from the University in 1967, he joined Soils and Foundations Ltd, a subsidiary of a consulting engineering firm in Christchurch where he worked for several years until the early 1970’s, establishing a small soil mechanics laboratory and providing consulting advice on soil mechanics matters before fully retiring. He died in 1978.

John Blakeley DistFEngNZ
Chairman 1977-1980 and
Life Member
New Zealand Geotechnical Society


NZ Geomechanics News
John Blakeley
NZ Geomechanics News>Issue 99 – June 2020
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