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15th March 2021, Virtual Performance and Discussion

The evening of the 15th March 2021 marked the actual moment when the Society became 250 years old. At the instigation of past Treasurer, Chris Price, we held a unique and very enjoyable and informative celebration – at the ‘virtual’ Kings Head Tavern in Holborn.

Picture shows the Kings Head Tavern in the late 1700's

Kings Head.JPG

Chris Price’s original idea had been a small gathering at a hostelry close to the site of the original King’s Head where the Society’s first meeting was held; the COVID restrictions prevented that but our increasing experience with holding virtual events allowed an on-line gathering of 60 members including our 2021 President HRH The Princess Royal.

After an introduction by Her Royal Highness Chris activated his virtual ‘time-machine’ to take us back to that evening in 1771 when John Smeaton and six of his associates met and agreed to form The Society of Civil Engineers. But the time machine’s initial reaction was ‘location not found – web data ambiguous’ and Chris explained the researches he had needed to do to find the location of the correct King’s Head. It transpires that it was at the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane, well placed between the Inns of Court where the Engineers were working with their lawyers on agreements and parliamentary bills to enable their infrastructure projects to go forward. The King’s Head was demolished in 1799 and the site now holds a Jewellery shop most notable for an audacious robbery when Fleet Street was full of half marathon runners in 2019. Having re-set the time machine, we were taken back to the King’s Head where Chris morphed into Mr Pierce, the Landlord, welcoming the Engineers and telling us about his establishment.

“The tavern occupies the first and second floors, above two shops one of which is the bookshop where the first edition of Isaac Walton’s famous book The Compleat Angler was printed and sold in 1653. The history of the King’s Head Tavern goes back 300 years to 1472 in the second reign of King Edward IV.

“In 1666, fortunately, the Great Fire of London stopped its westward progress just short of the tavern. Which was also the venue for meetings of the notorious anti-Papist “Green Ribbon Club”

“The noted 1660s diarist Samuel Pepys was a regular visitor and as President of the Royal Society he met here with other Fellows, including occasions when they drank, dined and discussed lectures that they had attended at Gresham College.

“So, Mr Yeoman and Mr Smeaton, as Fellows of that same Royal Society, as well as having regular business in this part of London, you have chosen the most appropriate place for your Group of the country’s leading Engineers to meet and to dine.”

Then after regaling the gathering with the delights of the Tavern’s menu, using fresh produce from Covent Garden, Smithfield and Billingsgate, Mr Pierce handed over to Thomas Yeoman who was elected that evening as the Society’s first President (The Society did not adopt the name Smeatonian Society until the mid-1800’s).

Thomas Yeoman (played by James Whiteaway) introduced himself:

“Born in Somerset in 1709, and 62 years old, I will in a moment summarise my skills in engineering, but firstly let me set our meeting into some perspective.

We have today, Friday 15th March 1771, gathered in the King’s Head Tavern in Holborn with the objective of forming the Society of Civil Engineers. I am honoured that you are considering me for election as the first President of the Society. The objective of the Society is to have good conversations concerning our skills and for pleasant social interaction, and not so much to be a learned society.

Now is an excellent time to be an engineer. London was of course severely damaged by the Great Fire more than 100 years ago now, and engineers played a significant role in rebuilding it.

My personal skills were developed firstly as a wheelwright. I was then recruited by Edward Cave to operate a water-powered cotton roller-spinning mill at Northampton in 1741. I established myself then as a millwright and went on to construct ventilators. These machines were important in improving the conditions in coal mines which often had a suffocating atmosphere due to the presence of choking coal dust. Ventilators were also used on ships of the fleet.

More recently, as my business flourished, I moved to Gold Street where I built and sold scientific instruments, and then to Bridge Street in Northampton.

In 1744 I surveyed the River Nene which flows from near Northampton into the Wash. I subsequently worked as a surveyor and engineer on many canal and river navigations including the River Stort, Lea, Chelmer, Medway and Thames. I also worked as an assistant to John Smeaton, with a major achievement being the Limehouse Cut which allowed shipping to avoid the sinuous lower reaches of the River Lea. I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1764.

Given my close connections with John Smeaton, it is therefore very appropriate that I now hand over to him so that he can introduce himself to your good company.”

John Smeaton (played by Paul Jowitt) was next to introduce himself:

“Good evening, Gentlemen.  And some Ladies too, I see! My name is Smeaton, John Smeaton

I was born in 1724, at Althorpe Lodge, near Whitkirk in the West Riding of Yorkshire. 

As a young man I liked “engineery” things but Father wanted me to follow him into the Law, so in 1742 he sent me to Grays Inn. 

I returned to Althorpe in 1744, and convinced Father to let me pursue an apprenticeship with Mr Hindley at his workshop in Petergate.  In 1748, I set out for London to set up as an instrument maker, with premises in Great Turnstile off Holborn, and later in Furnival Inn Court.  I was able to attend meetings of the Royal Society in the Strand and present a number of papers.  I was elected as a Fellow in 1753. 

After an extended study, including five weeks in the low countries, in 1759 I read a Paper to the Royal Society entitled “an experimental enquiry concerning the natural powers of water and wind to turn mills and other machines, depending on a circular motion.”

It was well received, and subsequently, I was awarded the Copley Medal

In 1756, the President of the Royal Society recommended me to build a new lighthouse on the Eddystone Rock.  My design had dovetailed granite blocks and marble dowels, assembled to resemble the trunk of an oak tree.  I also used hydraulic lime, which would set under water.  The light was first lit in October 1759 and has proven a great and celebrated success.

(image shows a cross section of 'Smeaton's Tower')

Smeaton Tower 1.JPG

In 1756, I was invited to survey a canal, to extend navigation along the River Calder and Hebble Brook, from Fall Ings Cut in Wakefield, to Halifax.  Construction started in 1759.  By 1764 the navigation had reached Brighouse.  Our eminent friend, Joseph Nickalls, was my resident engineer in this endeavour. 

By profession, someone once said, I was a Civil Engineer……..In fact, I think it was me…

[From this point the contributions are reported in the third party for brevity]

Robert Mylne (played by Hugh Ferguson):

Mylne came from a long line of Scottish master masons and architects.

After his apprenticeship, he spent four years travelling and studying architecture in Europe, culminating in the Silver Medal for architecture in the prestigious Concorso Clementino in Rome. On returning to London in July 1759 his design for Blackfriars Bridge was chosen from some 50 entries – including one from his friend Smeaton.

(image shows Blackfriars Bridge under construction

Blackfriars Bridge 3.JPG

His design also included innovative engineering including the first use of elliptical arches in Britain. But the greatest challenge came as Surveyor for the construction - supervising everything from purchase of properties and laying out approach roads to managing contractors for the foundations and masonry in the treacherous tidal waters of the Thames. The bridge opened in 1769.

Blackfriars Bridge provided a platform for two parallel careers – as an engineer and as an architect (including as surveyor for both St Pauls and Canterbury Cathedrals).

By 1771 he was developing a third career, as a hydraulic engineer. Four years earlier the New River Company had appointed him as joint surveyor at a salary of £200 per year. A salaried position which allowed him to pursue private work as well was a great comfort.

Mylne knew he was considered arrogant and high-handed. One of his workmen referred to him as ‘a rare jintleman, but as hot as pepper and as proud as Lucifer’. He assured the other founding members that he would be a genial companion. His son and grandson were both leading Smeatonians.

John Grundy (played by Peter Hansford)

John Grundy hailed from Lincolnshire and was just over 50 in 1771. His father, also John Grundy, was quite a renowned mathematician and land surveyor in his day, and one of the first people in the UK to practice what we would now call civil engineering. Having been trained and mentored by his late father he was proud to be known as “John Grundy of Spalding, Engineer”.

Grundy’s career had been entirely focused on surveying, protecting and improving the great rivers and drainage courses of East Anglia, as well as repairing sea defences in Happisburgh (pronounced Haze-Bruh) on the North Norfolk coast. He worked extensively with the rivers Trent, Humber, Witham, and Hull and prepared numerous authoritative reports, notably for the Earl of Lincoln and the Duke of Ancaster.

He collaborated with Mr Smeaton to improve navigation on the River Witham between Boston and Lincoln and for drainage of the adjacent Fen.  A report that he prepared jointly with Mr Smeaton and Mr Langley Edwards resulted in a Bill being laid before Parliament some nine years earlier, seeking authorisation to shorten the river course between Boston and Chapel by over two and half miles.  This scheme also included the mighty Grand Sluice and navigation lock at Boston, which he was proud to claim as being the largest structure of its kind in this country completed just five years before the gathering.

In the last few years before 1771 he had been directing the design and construction of new main drains and raising banks on the River Hull, again in collaboration with Mr Smeaton, and supervising construction of the Driffield Navigation in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  In 1771 he turned his attention to drainage in the Wisbech area and to dock facilities in the port of Hull which he foresaw becoming a major port in future years.

Joseph Nickalls (played by Michael Purshouse):

Nickalls was a Londoner who originally trained as a Millwright, in which capacity he first met Thomas Yeoman. Partly encouraged by him he became interested in waterways and was chosen by Smeaton as his assistant during the construction of the Calder and Hebble Navigation in Yorkshire – a fine waterway through the Pennines spanning the 211/2 miles from Sowerby Bridge to Wakefield including 28 locks.

In 1771 he was hoping that his next job would be in the south. He had received instructions from the Thames Commissioners to survey the river between Maidenhead and Reading to improve its navigability and had just presented his results to Parliament. Perceived wisdom at the time was that only a full canal scheme would be able to handle the traffic anticipated. But Nickalls’ scheme to improve the river with eight locks was well received and he predicted it would easily handle the traffic. In his words “It is a sobering thought that my scheme could still be in use 250 years from now and I await a decision with anticipation”

Elland Viaduct 2.jpg

John Golborne (introduced by Tony Roche)

John Golborne joined the Society at its second meeting on the 28th March. A canal and river engineer he had heard of the formation of the Society on the 15th March and was greatly interested in joining.

Born in Chester in 1724 his father had been a schoolmaster and had encouraged him and his brother to take an interest in science and engineering studies. He began working for his brother in 1735 on the River Dee. He became the Engineer to the River Dee Company in 1754 and during this period provided consultancy services for the River Weaver Navigation. In 1771 he still held this position and sought to continue the works of river training and land reclamation originally instituted by Mr Nathaniel Kinderley some 40 years before.

Three years earlier, James Brindley had recommended him to the proprietors of the Forth and Clyde Canal to consider the navigation of the rivers Caron and Clyde upon which he had reported. He was now tasked to prepare a scheme for deepening of the river for a length of 12 miles below the city.

More recently he had been engaged in problems related to the construction of a dam and lock at Marlin Ford, Renfrew, on the River Clyde. This was part of an initiative to create an improved water way between Glasgow and the sea to support the developing tobacco trade. The original design was made by Mr John Smeaton and at the behest of Mr Golborne, Mr James Watt was commissioned to validate the design criteria. The construction of the dam and lock was now underway, with his nephew James as the Resident Engineer.

In the past two years he had been working on two major assignments, firstly with James Brindley and Thomas Yeoman advising on improvements to the outfall of the River Nene and secondly on the drainage of the North Level of the Fens and the Outfall of the Wisbeach River.

Robert Whitworth (played by Andrew Wolstenholme)

Whitworth was quite young in 1771, only 37 with much still to achieve. His father had been a Combsmith and bought him up with six brothers and sisters at their home in Sowerby, in the West Riding of Yorkshire where he was born in in 1734. He loved engineering and in particular the art of designing canals and waterways to serve industry and communities.

He had designed a navigable canal between Coventry and Oxford. Its main purpose to bring coal from the Coventry mines to Oxford and the River Thames. As the ‘father of British inland navigation – The Duke of Bridgewater’, has said ‘every canal must have coals at the heel of it’.

As an assistant to James Brindley he said that he owed much of what he knew today to that great engineer and to his willingness to guide him. As Brindley’s chief surveyor and draftsman, he knew how important the drawn specification was to be able to accurately predict the effort needed to complete these great engineering endeavours and to plan for their complexities. In his earlier years he had also learned from Smeaton’s methods …though he had not worked with him directly. So was pleased to meet him that night.

His recent work had taken him to Ireland to assess proposals for the Lagan Canal and to County Durham for a canal near Stockton-on-Tees. He also conducted reviews of plans for a canal between Leeds and Liverpool and of improvements to the River Thames. He was particularly proud of an innovative solution to bypass the river channel at Bray.

Hugh Henshall (played by David Johnson):

Henshall, was also 37 years old and the youngest member of the group being slightly younger than Whitworth. He was a navigation engineer, although the term ‘canal engineer’ was gaining popularity.

He came from Newchapel in Staffordshire and started in his father’s footsteps as a land surveyor. After an education at Newchapel Grammar School, he started surveying in the counties of Staffordshire, Cheshire and Gloucestershire and also worked on the survey of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire navigation. When Mr Congreave proposed linking the Trent and Mersey rivers by a navigable waterway, he worked for Smeaton and Brindley on surveying the route and taking responsibility for producing the parliamentary map. Brindley who was married to his younger sister was his role model and mentor.

5 years earlier, he had been appointed as clerk of works on linking the Trent and Mersey working directly for Brindley. His work was largely on the northern section of the waterway, including the Saltersford and Barnton tunnels. The Trent and Mersey navigation was well advanced by 1771 and predicted to complete ahead of schedule and below budget, not common even then.

He was engaged in training aspiring new engineers and was supporting Brindley on a new project known as the Chesterfield navigation which was also proceeding at pace. In particular, the Norwood tunnel, when completed, would be the longest in the kingdom at 2,844 yards long.

As he said “It really does look as if waterways will become the future transport of the country, as there is no other means by which significant quantities of merchandise can be carried efficiently and with relative speed.”

Mr Henshall then handed back to the Landlord who introduced a contemporary journalist from 1771 who had been reporting on engineering matters, played by Julia Elton.

The journalist: “Good evening gentlemen. I have been listening to you all with great interest and I applaud your aspiration to share your experiences for the benefit of everyone.

I have, however, overheard discussions about those people you are proposing to elect in the near future (and perhaps you should not be having such conversations in taverns if you wish to observe Chatham House rules).  I consider that your nominees largely reflect your existing interests in canal and river engineering, bridge building, millwrighting and fen drainage but for the good of your Society you should perhaps be looking at other disciplines to enlarge your knowledge. 

For this reason, I would most sincerely suggest that you invite Mr. John Metcalf to join your Society. Mr. Metcalf lost his sight aged 6 and now goes under the soubriquet of ‘Blind Jack of Knaresborough’.  He has triumphantly overcome his disability and has already built 115 miles of roads in Lancashire and Yorkshire. I believe that he has it in mind to build 200 miles before he dies. He has developed a successful method of crossing boggy land by using bundles of heather, a sort of floating foundation on which the roadstone is laid.  Surely this method will be of use to engineers in the future? He has certainly acquired an expertise that seems to be lacking amongst your members.  I realise that road building is a very minor branch of your profession but perhaps this will change.

Might I also draw to your attention to Mr. Henry Berry. Mr. Berry built the Sankey Canal which, as I am sure you all know, was the first canal to be built in this country, pre-dating Mr. Brindley’s Bridgewater Canal. He was also concerned with improving the Weaver navigation, though here, alas, he had a foundation failure with one of his locks. This is something you will not hold against him, as you will all know how ground conditions so frequently cause problems in construction! Mr. Berry overcame this setback and went to Liverpool where he completed the Salthouse Dock before building two new graving docks there. His George’s Dock in that same city has just opened and he is planning to construct two more, even larger, docks there. His achievements will, I am convinced, ensure Liverpool’s success as a major oceanic port.

I now feel second sight coming on, a condition I am prone to when a surfeit of liquor quickens into life my Viking blood. I foresee that your Society will become an outstanding success and every great engineer will belong to it, every great engineer, that is, save one. That engineer will build roads and docks. He will build ship canals in Britain and abroad and he will design magnificent bridges in stone and iron. He will add enormously to the prestige of your profession and will be buried in Westminster Abbey. His name is Thomas Telford and he will never become a Smeatonian. However, by exercising my supernatural talents on your behalf, I am giving you an opportunity to change the future.”

The Journalist then handed back to Mr Yeoman the new President of the Society who said:


We have done good work this evening.

We have agreed that the civil engineers of this Kingdom do form themselves into a Society and you have been so generous as to elect me the first President of the Society.

This will not be a learned society but more of a dining club where we, who have so much in common but find little time to spend together, can meet in a friendly atmosphere and get to know each other better. I hope that conversation, argument and a social communication of ideas and knowledge in our particular walks will be, at the same time, the amusement and the business of our meetings.

I thank you all for your participation and look forward to our next meeting a fortnight hence.

No doubt we will develop a set of toasts to conclude our meetings, but for now, let us raise a glass to the King and Constitution.”

After that Toast the Narrator/Landlord returned us all to 2021 where there was a lively and thought-provoking debate about the priorities for the Society going forward (see Discussion below)

The Landlord then briefly returned to 1771 where he called ‘Time’ on the discussion.

Back in 2021, the President, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal summarised the proceedings of the evening and thanked and congratulated Chris Price for the idea and all those who had contributed to making this such an enjoyable and informative evening. She then led us through our traditional toasts before closing the formal proceedings.

(picture shows HRH The Princess Royal summarising the discussion)

HRH 250th Summary 3.JPG


Proceedings at the King Head Tavern in March 1771, as recreated by Chris Price and his team of actors, gave rise to a lively discussion which was impromptu and somewhat unexpected.

After a brief discussion about why Thomas Telford had never been a Smeatonian (the consensus being that he fell out with Rennie and his family), Deputy-President Sir John Armitt raised the point that if the founders of our Society thought that their canals would be the definitive form of transport and had no inkling in 1771 of the arrival of railways fifty year later, what issues today may cause a similar transformation?  What will engineers be doing fifty years from now that we cannot currently imagine and how might we contribute more to developing these new areas without losing the traditions and history of the Society? This led to several themes emerging:

- Sustainability and Climate issues: The target has been set to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5degC but current projections look more like 3degC. If that is the case many engineers will be involved in mitigating actions; not just flood defences but geo-technical issues and carbon capture. The point was made that there will be an increased need for what is called ‘Garden Engineering’ – hydraulics, dams, water wheels and turbines and windmills. A very big issue is finding replacement materials for concrete which is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions.

- Energy: What if nuclear fusion finally comes good and we have limitless cheap power and water? Equality of access will be essential. With the shift to renewables and smaller scale generation distributed systems will become more important, not just for generation but likely for storage too. Electrification of the vehicle fleet offers the potential for vehicles not-in-use to feed energy back into the grid for load/generation balancing. The computing power to control that effectively is available now. Hydrogen as a fuel potentially offers a bridge between ‘green’ energy and transport modes like aviation. Much of the technology is available but the right strategies and investment are essential.

- The Oceans: two thirds of our planet is under water; would we not be better understanding and sustainably developing the oceans than trying to build on the Moon and/or Mars?

- Data analytics/communication: The success of communication tools like ‘Zoom’ through the pandemic has been amazing: many people would not have heard of it a year ago, now it is a ‘household name’. It is likely that working patterns and (at least to some degree) transport needs will be changed for ever (perhaps favouring different solutions like Hyperloop) and in some respects team work has been enhanced. The digital infrastructure has performed remarkably well but needs further investment. The point was made that ‘not travelling’ has downsides too, and all of these digital technologies need solutions to avoid abuse or mitigate consequences, be that on-line bullying, fake news and misinformation or ‘targeted influencing’ that crosses the line into manipulation. Engineers need to develop techniques to avoid harm from these technologies as we have in other areas. Communication technology continues to evolve with very high data-rate fibre optics increasingly being used over very short distances, saving a great deal of power for big data centres.

- Artificial intelligence: Advances in AI, machine learning and quantum computing will likely mean that all the ‘heavy lifting’ in terms of design and validation is done by the machines. What will the role of the human engineer be then? Option selection and the stakeholder interface, it was suggested. To what degree will autonomous vehicles be accepted and adopted for road transport and what will the impact be on infrastructure needs?

- Bio engineering: The technology exists now to generate artificial organs and the pandemic has rapidly advanced vaccine development. Both in this area and AI (which is also being implemented for medical diagnostics) engineers will increasingly be involved in ethical issues.

- Core competencies: The point was well made that there is still much improvement possible in existing techniques. Tunnels and bridges still cost too much and take too long to build.

- Diversity: It took the Society 200 years or so to admit its first woman. Many of us have worked internationally and strongly believe in the power of diversity in every sense. How do we better help make the profession and the Society more diverse?

- Systems engineering: The society needs to embrace all engineering disciplines in the spirit of the original ‘Civil’ engineer meaning of anything that was not ‘military’ and even that distinction is now much more ‘blurred’. The tragic events at Grenfell Tower give rise to many lessons but one of them is the adverse impact of ‘silo thinking’ with different disciplines acting in isolation. We need safe ‘integrated’ systems and that means all of the involved disciplines working together.

An extremely interesting and thought-provoking set of points that will give the Committee much to think about and provide subjects for future discussion evenings.

[The account above has been condensed but full texts and images used with the presentations are retained in the Archives of the Society.]

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