HISTORY OF THE SOCIETY
The portrait of John Smeaton, shown to the right, was painted by George Romney and was purchased by the Smeatonian Society in 1926. It is currently held in custody by the Institution of Civil Engineers.
The Society’s motto ‘Omnia in Numero Pondere et Mensura' (Thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight) taken from the Wisdom of Solomon was adopted in 1793. The Greek motto, construed to mean ‘By art we master what would master us’ was added in 1843.
On 15th March 1771, John Smeaton and six other practitioners in the newly established profession of civil engineering met at the King’s Head Tavern, Holborn and: “Agreed that the Civil Engineers of this Kingdom do form themselves into a Society consisting of a President, a Vice-President, Treasurer and Secretary and other members who shall meet once a fortnight… at seven o’clock from Christmas… to the end of the sitting of Parliament’.
This was against the background of the previous decade where “They (the Engineers) often met accidentally in the Houses of Parliament and in the Courts of Justice each maintaining the propriety of his own designs without knowing much of the other.” It was evidently mutually beneficial for the engineers and their colleagues to meet in a societal format and discuss issues of common interest.
The Society takes its name from Smeaton, the leading engineer of the mid eighteenth century who coined the name of the civil engineering profession around 1760, and led the formation of the Society. Today as in 1771 it comprises many of the leading British Engineers and continues a great tradition of the age of the enlightenment. The Smeatonians held their earliest meetings at much the same time as the Lunar Society of Birmingham (1765), with a similar blend of engineers, scientists and interested ‘gentlemen’ but have proved more resilient, with their firm professional base. Likewise the Society was set up at a time when other professions were taking on a more modern appearance, with the creation of the ‘Society for Gentleman Practisers in the Courts of Law and Equity' in 1739, the publication of the first Law List in 1775 and the establishment of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800, followed by the Apothecaries Act in 1815.
Given the significance of the foundation it is worth summarising the careers of the founder members. The First President was the oldest member, Thomas Yeoman (1708-1781), who was also acting treasurer and secretary. He made his reputation as a millwright in the Northampton area, designing a water powered cotton mill in 1743, and carrying out various enclosure and road improvement surveys. From the mid 1750s he was involved in various river and canal navigation schemes, getting to know colleagues like Smeaton. Demand from his clients encouraged him to move to London in the 1760s.
Smeaton (1724-1792) hailed from Leeds and initially trained and worked in London as an instrument maker, but by his early 30s was making a name as an experimental scientist and improver of mills and steam engines. In 1759 he was appointed engineer for the reconstruction of the Eddystone Lighthouse which once successfully accomplished launched his career on a national scale. His works included the Calder and Hebble Navigation, Forth and Clyde Canal, Potteric Carr drainage and Perth and Coldstream Bridges. By 1771 he was the leading engineer in the country, although it had been another Smeatonian, Robert Mylne (1733-1811), rather than himself, who had won the competition to design Blackfriars Bridge in 1759.
Mylne practiced variously as an engineer, architect and surveyor, and held a long term appointment as engineer to the New River water supply company, London’s largest. Joseph Nickalls (1725-1793) was another millwright by training; he worked under Smeaton on the Calder and Hebble, advised London Bridge waterworks, and engineered improvements to the Thames Navigation. John Grundy (1719-1783), unusually for the time, benefited from an engineering education from his father. Based in Spalding he undertook a large number of fen drainage schemes as well as Hull docks. One of his drainage colleagues at Spalding, John Thompson (fl. 1766-1795), another navigation engineer, was also a founder member as was the Essex based engineer J. King. Thus the first members were very much practicing civil engineers, and with the addition of John Golborne (1724-1783), Robert Whitworth (1734-1799), William Black and Hugh Henshall. (1734-1816) can be said to have included all the senior engineers in the country. Golborne worked on the Dee and Clyde navigations, Whitworth and Henshall both worked with Brindley and were leading canal engineers.
Early Organisation and History
More than 60 members were elected to the Society in the first 20 years of its existence. Although, as originally intended this included most of the country’s leading engineers, including rising stars like Smeaton’s pupil William Jessop (1745-1814) and John Rennie (1761-1821) elected in 1773 and 1785 respectively, many were less significant, and a number of instrument makers and manufacturers also were elected, including the leading London millwrights James and John Cowper, and James Watt and Matthew Boulton.
The original intention had been to meet fortnightly from Christmas untill the end of the Parliamentary session, a period when country members were most likely to be in London. Members resident in London had to pay a forfeit of one shilling for non attendance, a rule that fell by the wayside after 1772. Members paid an initial subscription of one shilling, and early growth ensured a healthy financial position at first. Attendance, prompted by a regular summons to London members, could be as low as 2 or 3, but was generally 6-13. In general, as Mylne later recorded ‘conversation, argument and a social communication of ideas and knowledge in the particular walks of each member were, at the same time, the amusement and business of the meetings…’ or as one evening’s minutes recorded ‘The evening, after being spent Canalically, Hydraulically, mathematically, Philosophically, Mechanically, Naturally and Sociably, was adjourned til Friday next…’
Following Yeoman’s death in 1781 the instrument maker Christopher Pinchbeck succeeded him as President, to be followed by Nickalls. He proved more irregular in his attendance and at times in the 1780s meetings became episodic, however those active recognised the benefit of the Society. It was something of a blow, therefore, that the minutes of 6 December 1791 recorded that Nickalls ‘was sorry for the offence given Mr Smeaton and that he begged his pardon as a Member of the Society.’ Both Nickalls and Smeaton were at the end of their careers and had worked together many times; it is a rare moment of controversy in the Society’s working.
More profoundly some members had become concerned at the somewhat random nature of the membership, with the original intention to have a society of leading civil engineers appearing lost. That could of course be regarded as a mark of success in that it was able to attract a broad range of talented people to its dinners. However, after an initial decision was taken to differentiate between Members (i.e. practising civil engineers) and Honorary members (i.e. those in other professional categories) it was decided in May 1792 to set up a Committee of Reorganisation, with Smeaton, Mylne, Whitworth, Jessop and Rennie as its members.
Reorganisation and Publication of Smeaton's Reports
The committee of reorganisation met for the first time on 15 April 1793 at The York Tavern, Blackfriars to place the Society‘ in a better and more respectable form’. Unfortunately Smeaton had died prior to this. The key decision was to create three classes of members - First Class or ordinary members who were practising civil engineers, ‘artists’ involved in related professions, and gentlemen. After some further discussions the gentlemen became honorary members of the second class and the artists a third class. While the clarification of grades of membership made some sense, what proved more significant was the manner of handling the transition. Neither Nickalls nor another leading member Joseph Hodgkinson were invited to join, and only an elite of 8 First Class members were admitted, the number of artists was restricted to 6 members, although the class of ‘gentlemen' proved more elastic. The membership categories were accompanied by a set of other rules which were printed, and specified that new members needed the support of two thirds of voting members in a ballot, meetings would continue to be held fortnightly on Saturdays, and members would be expected to present copies of their reports, and gentlemen copies of relevant published works as part of their obligations. Members could use the designation Member of the Society of Civil Engineers in London. Mylne took on himself the task of retrieving the earlier minute books, from the Kings Head, and from March 1794 the Society changed its regular venue to the Crown and Anchor in the Strand
While the rule changes may have made sense as regards categorisation, the net effect was to make it a much more elitist organisation, and very difficult for engineers outside the core circle to gain admission. That said the Society appeared revitalised and discussions of inventions, and receipt of members’ latest reports were regularly recorded.
The most significant achievement of the Society, at that time and arguably its greatest legacy, was the organisation of the publication of John Smeaton’s reports. Sir Joseph Banks the well known naturalist and leader of the Royal Society was one of the new class of Honorary Members to be admitted in 1793. In the chair at the meeting of 27 February 1795 he offered to make Smeaton’s papers, which he had recently acquired from the family, available to the Society with a view to publication, with any profits going to the family. A Publication Committee was set up, initially comprising Banks as Chair, Jessop, Mylne, Rennie and Captain Joseph Huddart; Dr Charles Hutton was asked to act as editor. Over the next twenty years the Society organised the publication of four volumes of reports, the last being Smeaton’s scientific papers - the first volume going through two editions, the second with plates - and also a new edition of Smeaton’s account of the Eddystone Lighthouse. The lead in the early years was taken by Mylne, who worked closely with the family and produced a fascinating preface. Latterly John Rennie was largely responsible. The publishers were Longman, with most of the costs met by members of the Society. The result was to provide a bible for the next generation of engineers, and immortalise the reputation of Smeaton. Other early members of the Society including Grundy, Mylne and above all Rennie left a similar manuscript legacy but none were able to command the support of their peers in such a way as to sustain their legacy.
While the Society was undoubtedly very active and its dinners proved popular, its elitist nature meant it was of little value to the young engineers who craved professional development and recognition, and in 1818 the foundation of the Institution of Civil Engineers was a response to their needs. The election of Thomas Telford as their President in 1820, the country’s leading engineer and one never elected by the Smeatonians, set the ICE on the road to expansion, and ensured that the Smeatonians became seen as a dining club rather than a professional body.
Fortunately however the constrained character of the engineering membership in the 1810s - William Chadwell Mylne and Josias Jessop, and the East India Company Engineer William Garstin were the only engineers admitted in that decade while the lighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson was effectively blackballed - was slowly relaxed in the 1820s following John Rennie's death, and from the 1830s leading engineers in all disciplines rather than children of the eighteenth century elite were regularly admitted. The Society took on the appearance that was to characterise it for the next 150 years.
The Victorian Society
By the 1840s the Society contained leading engineers in all disciplines, many to be Presidents of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and in contrast the number of Honorary Members, characteristic of the 1800s shrank. The reformed Society had deliberately avoided appointing a President, and the affairs of the Society were very much in the hands of the Treasurer, Robert Mylne, and then his son William Chadwell Mylne. In 1841 this changed with the election of Sir John Rennie as the Society’s first President for nearly 40 years. Thereafter Presidents were chosen annually, and this enabled closer links with ICE as several Smeatonians succeeded to the ICE Presidency; indeed Joshua Field, one of ICE’s founders, held the office of President for both bodies in the same year. This period also saw the transfer of the Society’s ‘library’ to the ICE. The centenary dinner of 1871 was held at the Freemason’s Tavern, Great Queen Street, WC2, by then the usual home of the Society for 50 years. The days for the meetings became established as the last Wednesday of the month, in January, March, May, September, October, and November. and depending on the wishes of leading members, on occasion visits were arranged to engineering works. The venue for dinners changed in 1893 to Willis’s restaurant in St James.
Into the Twentieth Century
The late Victorian period had seen an expansion of numbers, and this growth was formalised in 1912 when membership was fixed at 48 ordinary Members - ‘The Engineers’ and 12 Honorary Members. In a 1942 rule change, the term First Class Members, dropped in 1827, was resumed. From 1908 the location of meetings was changed to Princes Restaurant, Piccadilly. Meetings were suspended during the First World War, and restricted to lunches during the Second. In 1937 many of the Society’s records and artefacts were passed to the ICE for safe keeping, and indeed from time to time meetings were being held there and in 1990, with much improved dining facilities, it became the regular venue.
Much of the Society’s business was concerned with the election of new members, and ensuring attendance at dinners. The former was not always without controversy as at times concern was raised that distinguished engineers were being nominated but not elected. The membership itself generally contained the leading engineers from the military, particularly the Directors of Naval Construction, and engineering manufacturers, as well as senior consultants and contractors, engineers to the major railways and government ministries. A particular feature was enduring family connections- four generations of Rennies 1785-1949, three generations of Mylnes 1771-1890. three generations of Donkins 1835-1952, and four generations of Hawksley, 1872-1972. These names also made a significant contribution to the general running of the Society: members of the Mylne and Rennie families acted as Honorary Treasurers for over 150 years 1793-1948. Since then Sir John Wrightson (1949-1979), James Wiltshire (1981-1994) and John Watson (1995-2013 ) have provided similar continuity.
Towards the New Millennium
When the Society celebrated its bicentenary in 1971 it commissioned Professor (Sir) Alec Skempton, a member since 1963, to write an account of its history. He had been inspired by an invitation to a Society dinner by William Wallace (1883-1969) in 1950 to take an interest in the early history of the Society and its largely forgotten early Members, but it is apparent he got bored with the later history, as largely a succession of dinners with no easy insight into topics of discussion. This is reflected in Garth Watson’s detailed account of the Society, The Smeatonians, published in 1989, from which, as reflected above, it is apparent little changed over long periods of time, Members were generally content with the convivial atmosphere of its dinners, for long held at the Junior Carlton Club, and the select and stable nature of its membership.
To celebrate the Society's 200th Anniversary HRH Prince Philip kindly agreed to be President, and a reception and buffet supper with women invited was held at the Royal Society, Carlton House Terrace. A banquet was held at Fishmongers Hall on 19 May, facilitated by the Company Court member, and naval architect Sir Gervais Tennyson D’Eyncourt. It was attended by senior figures from the established church, civil service and legal profession as well as the engineering profession. Marmaduke Tudsbery, senior member, presented a silver model of Eddystone lighthouse, and Geoffrey Binnie a silver water jug inscribed ‘TO WATERWORKS’ evoking the Society’s toast.
The 250th anniversary of Smeaton’s birth provided an opportunity for the Society to get involved in celebrations, with the President attending a church service at St. Mary, Whitkirk in May 1974; it was decided to persuade the Council of Engineering Institutions to institute a John Smeaton Medal as a multi- disciplinary award for outstanding engineering achievement. The first award was made to Geoffrey Binnie in 1974; in November 1975 the retiring President Richard Hawkey presented a silver salver on which to record winners of the awards. With the abolition of the CEI, the Medal fell into disuse to be revived in 2000 as an award for outstanding students at the University of Plymouth. The bicentenary of Smeaton’s death in 1991 was also celebrated by the society who persuaded the Dean of Westminster Abbey to allow a commemorative stone to be placed in the floor.
In 1976 a President’s Committee was established to address issues of importance to the Society, comprising the President, President designate, immediate Past President, and Honorary Treasurer. Despite this activity attendance at dinners was dropping - possibly due to the rising cost of staying overnight in London, and an ageing membership. The initial solution was to increase the membership subscription and reduce the number of dinners to four while introducing two luncheons, with little immediate impact. Various other arrangements were tried through the 1970s. Undoubtedly one challenge was an ageing membership and to an extent one that did not reflect changes in the profession itself. In January 1980 Sir William Harris suggested creating a new class of members - Members Emeritus - for members unable to participate fully in the affairs of the society. A postal ballot of members followed that November with the proposal overwhelmingly carried. The numbers were restricted to twelve, in combination with the long established limit of 48 ‘First Class’ Members
The number of second class ‘Honorary Members' remained at 12. Whilst this enabled more new members to be elected, it could not solve the problem of non attendance. In 1981-83 problems with existing rules for balloting new members became apparent and to help resolve these the bye laws were changed so that members were expected to vote for all available vacancies
The links to the ICE were gradually increasing, with administrative support from the Society provided from late 1976, with the retirement of past President Sir John Wrightson from Head Wrightson & Co in June 1976, the company having provided such support for 38 years. He followed this in December 1978 by stepping down as Hon. Treasurer of the Society, and was presented with a scroll signed by all of the Society’s members. This arrangement was changed in 1979 when James Wiltshire, Assistant (Hon) Treasurer, of Kennedy and Donkin suggested his firm could take on the role, becoming Honorary Treasurer in succession to Cecil Turner in November 1980
To again broaden membership, numbers were increased to an unlimited number of First Class members, save that only three new such members would be elected annually: later, the number was limited to 72, with the number to be elected determined each year in order to keep within this limit. A Membership Committee of four senior First Class members oversees the process of selection of candidates and also the transfer to Emeritus membership. These changes when combined with a suggestion from Gwilym Roberts (President 2009) that a formal programme of topics for discussion at two dinners should be agreed for each session, have made the dinners much more inviting for new and younger members, with discussions being held twice a session since 2010 and with attendees regularly being over sixty in number. The Committees have helped ease the workload for the Honorary Treasurer, still the principal officer of the Society, but even so it has proved beneficial to appoint an Assistant Honorary Treasurer (AHT) regularly since 2013. Chris Price took the role of AHT in 2013 before becoming Honorary Treasurer from 2014 - 2018, followed by Hugh Ferguson as AHT in 2017, becoming Honorary Treasurer from 2019 - 2021. Rod Muttrum took on the role of AHT from 2019 - 2021 before becoming Honorary Treasurer in 2021. David Johnson took on the role of AHT in 2022.
The Society’s reputation had undoubtedly been strengthened among the wider community by the election of the Duke of Edinburgh and his well-known advocacy of engineering. To maintain such a link is always likely to be a challenge given the varied demands on the time of members of the Royal Family, and it was with great pleasure that the Society were able to welcome the Princess Royal as an honorary member. This proved propitious in making arrangements for the 250th anniversary celebrations. The Princess has agreed to act as President the anniversary year (2021), as her father did 50 years earlier.
The objects of the Society today are substantially unchanged
To be a Society to which leading engineers of the day of all disciplines aspire to be elected.
To arrange a variety of convivial dinners and other meetings attractive to members and their guests.
To retain the Society’s unique traditions and camaraderie
The Society has included amongst its members many of the leading engineers of the day. For many years the membership comprised 48 engineers and 12 Honorary Members –‘gentlemen’, not professional engineers but persons distinguished for their work in related fields. HRH The Prince Philip is an Honorary Member and served as President in 1971. HRH The Princess Royal is an Honorary Member, and is President in 2021.
There are three Classes of Membership:
First Class Members (professionally qualified engineers), presently limited to 72 in number.
Members Emeritus (retired First Class Members) maximum 18.
Honorary Members (distinguished persons, not practising as engineers, but associated with the profession) maximum 15
New Members are elected at the Annual General Meeting held in November. Candidates require the personal recommendation of a proposer and two seconders.
Candidates for election should:
be eminent in their profession
have a desire (and ability) to attend a reasonable number of meetings
still be active in their profession
Members are encouraged to bring guests to meetings and in particular persons whom they are mindful of proposing as candidates for membership and those who may be interested in contributing to a discussion.
Meetings are held generally on the last Wednesday of the months of January, March, April, May, October and November, although some dates are adjusted to avoid holidays. The October meeting is normally a lunch; all other meetings are dinners with a variety of formats. At Discussion Dinners a Member or guest is invited to speak on a topical subject and lead a discussion under the Chatham House Rule.
Members are encouraged to invite their spouse or partner to the President’s Dinner (normally held in April). At the January Dinner new Members present are invited to say a few words about their careers or an engineering topic of their choice.
The Society’s meetings do not seek to replicate meetings of the Royal Academy of Engineering or those of the Engineering Institutions. Topics for discussion are normally on matters of general engineering interest or wider societal subjects.
Whilst regular attendance is not obligatory, it is suggested that all Members should attend at least five meetings over a three-year period.
The Officers of the Society are the President, the President Designate, the immediate Past President, the Hon Treasurer and the Assistant Honorary Treasurer, who together with three appointed First Class members form The Committee and direct the affairs of the Society.
The President is elected at the AGM in November and serves for the following calendar year. The President is usually the next willing senior member (First Class or Honorary) in order of election to the Society. Candidates for President are expected to have attended the Society’s meetings regularly. List of Past Presidents.
The Hon Treasurer is elected at an AGM with an open-ended term of office. The Hon Treasurer is the Society’s executive officer, keeps the accounts, and administers the membership. The term of office of the Hon Treasurer is expected to be 3 years. An Assistant Hon Treasurer, elected at an AGM, is expected to be in office for 3 years and makes arrangements for the dinners, before succeeding to the role of Hon Treasurer.
The Committee decides the format and programme for each meeting and all other matters relevant to the wellbeing of the Society.
A Membership Panel facilitates the nomination of suitable candidates for membership and advises The Committee on the number to be elected each year.