Burton was born in Edinburgh on 11 May, 1856, but his family had
strong links with Aberdeen. His father, John Hill Burton, was the
son of Lieutenant William Kinninmont Burton and Eliza Paton, who
came from a family with deep-rooted local connections having lived
at Grandhome, Aberdeen, since the 17th century. He had studied in
Aberdeen before moving to Edinburgh with his widowed mother and
John Hill Burton
spent a career in the law becoming secretary of the Prison Board but
his real passion was history. A lifetime of scholarship earned him
the title Historiographer Royal for Scotland. Apart from his legal
and historical interests, he wrote two books on economics which,
apparently, were much acclaimed in Japan.
Katherine, was the daughter of fellow historian and advocate
Professor Cosmo Innes who, as one the earliest amateur photographers
in Scotland, was one of several influential figures in William’s
early life. During William’s childhood the family home was Craig
House, a handsome 16th century building commanding a splendid
outlook across Edinburgh and the Forth. Now known as Old Craig, it
is part of the Craighouse campus of Napier University and one of the
focal points for the events to celebrate William’s life.
Another key influence
on the young William was his aunt, the redoubtable Mary Burton. A
trailblazing educational and social reformer, she scandalized
respectable Edinburgh by persuading the Watt Institution & School of
Arts, the first Mechanics Institute and forerunner of Heriot-Watt
University, to open its classes to female students. William’s sister
Ella, daughter of John Hill Burton, was one of the first to enrol.
Today the university’s Management building and Museum & Archive are
both named in Mary Burton’s honour.
At Mary’s home at
Liberton Bank, Edinburgh, William met the young Arthur Conan Doyle
and they became life-long friends. William was to provide the
background information for Doyle’s story The Engineer’s Thumb and
the book, The Firm of Girdlestone, was dedicated to him by Sir
William studied at
Edinburgh Collegiate School. After leaving school, a young man of
his background would have been expected to go on to university.
Instead, in 1873 he signed up for a five-year apprenticeship with
the innovative hydraulic and mechanical engineers Brown Brothers &
Co. Ltd at their Rosebank Ironworks in Edinburgh. Rising to become
chief draftsman, he left the firm in 1879 to enter partnership with
his uncle, Cosmo Innes, in London.
Driven by his
conviction that “a plentiful supply of wholesome water” was of “vast
importance to the public health” he dedicated his career to
designing safe water systems for towns and cities. In 1881 he became
Resident Engineer to the London Sanitary Protection Association.
In 1877 William’s
life took a decisive turn when he was invited by the Meiji
Government of Japan to become the first Professor of Sanitary
Engineering and lecturer in Rivers, Docks and Harbours at the
Imperial University of Tokyo.
Although for three
centuries Tokyo’s residents had enjoyed the benefits of an advanced
water engineering system which, in William’s view, had provided “a
better supply of water than either London or Paris”, the government
recognised that cholera and other water-borne diseases posed a
constant, deadly threat to Japan’s communities. So in addition to
teaching, William took on a formidable series of projects as
engineer for the Sanitary Department of the Interior Ministry.
He designed new water
and drainage systems for Tokyo, then with a population of one and a
half million, and many other towns and cities in Japan and Taiwan.
His book The Water Supply of Towns became the essential
guide and inspiration to generations of young engineers in Britain
and Japan. Today his achievements are considered the starting point
of Japan’s modern environmental and sanitary engineering systems.
But William’s talents
were not confined to water engineering. An ardent photographer, he
wrote several practical guides to this emerging technology,
inspiring enthusiastic amateurs to try out the latest techniques for
themselves. He helped to set up the Japanese Photographic Society
and produced an extensive body of photographs which documented the
dramatic volcanic landscape of his adopted home and did much to
introduce Japanese culture to western audiences.
He also designed
Japan’s first skyscraper, ‘Ryounkaku’, literally ‘Cloud-Surpassing
Pavilion’, popularly known as ‘Asakusa 12-Storeys’ in Tokyo. This
elegant 225 feet (68.58 metre) octagonal building gained iconic
status as a symbol of modern Japan. A concert and entertainment
centre, boasting Japan’s first electric lift and stunning views
across the city, the tower was a magnet for visitors until it was
damaged beyond repair in the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923.
After 12 years of
unstinting work in Japan and Taiwan, William planned to take his
Japanese wife, Matsuko, and their daughter, Tamako, to Scotland to
meet his mother. Tragically, this was not to be. He suddenly fell
ill of a liver infection and died on 5 August, 1899 at the age of
43. His grief-stricken friends, pupils and admirers built him an
impressive tombstone at the Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo. To this day,
people still come together for an annual ceremony to lay flowers on
his grave and sing Scottish folk songs.
The above text was
written by ANN JONES who is
Archivist, and Freedom of Information and Data Protection Officer at
Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.
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