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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Egypt—Alexandria, 1867-8

EARLY in the year 1867, the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pacha, visited England, and during his stay in London requested the late Mr. J. R. Maclean, M.P., C.E., and Mr. Abernethy, through his Minister, Nubar Pacha, to design works for the improvement of the harbour of Alexandria. Accordingly, accompanied by the Secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the late Mr. Charles Manby, the engineers left England on the 5th February, and travelling vid Brindisi, reached Alexandria on the evening of the 10th. A fortnight later upon their return to London they advocated to His Highness a scheme of which the chief recommendations were the construction of a breakwater from Eunostos Point to protect the harbour from westerly winds, the building of quays in front of the city, provision for additional railway facilities for the export and import trades, and lastly, a shorter overland route to Suez. The report was duly submitted to His Highness, and the engineers were requested to attend on the 16th of July, at Lord Dudley’s house, in Park Lane, where they were presented to the Khedive. His Highness expressed approval of the scheme submitted bj' them, except as to certain proffered railway facilities direct with the palace, by which, if carried out, the members of the household and harem would have been enabled to enter the train without driving through the city to the existing station. After several subsequent interviews with Nubar Pasha, in Paris, during the summer, a second invitation to visit Egypt was received and accepted in the month of December. On this occasion they were joined by the late Sir George Elliot, Bart., M.P., and Professor Owen, and the entire party celebrated Christmas Day, 1867, in the kitchen of Shepheard’s Hotel, whither they had repaired in order to be near a tire, with songs, etc., the genial professor being one of the merriest. The late Sir Samuel Baker was also a guest at the hotel at this time, busying himself with preparations for the expected visit of H.R H. The Prince of Wales. At Cairo, several further interviews took place both with the Khedive and his Minister of Public Works, at some of which Colonel Staunton, Her Majesty’s Consul was present, but nothing more definite than an expression of general approval of the project ever resulted. The delay was difficult to account for, especially as the requisite capital was forthcoming, but subsequently it was reported to' have been due to the influence of some excellent French engineers who were held in high esteem by the Egyptian Government at the 1’ine, and who presumably were somewhat jealous of English intervention on Egyptian soil.

The various interviews were conducted amid a strong seasoning of tobacco, and, occasionally with an indifference to time and attention to the topic under discussion, which, although wholly unsatisfactory from a business point of view, left a certain charm on the memory as having constituted a novel experience. During one such interview with a certain Minister, by way of illustration, a small packet was brought in and handed to His Excellency, who immediately proceeded to open and read it slowly from beginning to end several times, which occupied so much of the portion of the afternoon available for further discussion concerning the proposed harbour works, that it was thought desirable to postpone proceedings till another day, and this was accordingly done. The missive, it subsequently transpired was nothing more important than a play bill of a French theatrical company who were to periorm in the evening at the Khedive’s Palace.

While passing the Christmas at Cairo, the English Government instructed Mr. Abernethy to visit and report upon the construction of a temporary hospital for invalid soldiers during the forthcoming Abyssinian Expedition, numbers of whom were already encamped near Suez, at that time little more than an Arab village, with a highly disreputable population. The house of the English Consul, Mr. Green, and the Peninsular and Oriental Hotel being ihe two more imposing buildings, and constituting two very agreeable exceptions to the rest. Having visited the hospital upon one occasion and dined with some officers at the hotel, he left later in the evening on the return journey to Cairo by a “special” train, consisting of an engine and tender and one dilapidated first-class carriage, of which he was the sole occupant. All went well till early in the morning, when he was suddenly pitched off the seat on to the floor, and a few seconds later the train was brought to a standstill. On alighting, his momentary apprehension of the engine and carriage having left the metals was at once confirmed, and it was equally obvious that there they must remain till some assistance in the form of a break-down gang arrived on the scene. The driver and guard, who were both Bedouins, and wholly unacquainted with either the English or French languages, soon showed what they considered the best thing to do under the circumstances, by wrapping themselves up in their bnurnnuses and making preparations to sleep on the sand, while the passenger returned to the “special” and followed their example. This last selection, however, was the less safe of the two, for in addition to the possible danger of collision, the compartment contained among its musty cushions a scorpion, and the insect happening to awake while the passenger still slept, took the opportunity of inflicting a severe sting on the back of the sleeper’s right hand. At first he thought it was the bite of some large fly and paid little attention to the painful wound, but the swelling of the entire arm which shortly afterwards ensued, suggested that it might have serious consequences. Leaving the carriage to arouse the driver and guard, he saw ;n the distance the smoke of a train approaching from Suez, and thus had sufficient time to walk down the line for some distance to meet it, and signal to the driver to stop The signal was understood, and the train, filled with homeward-bound English passengers, safely stopped, and with the assistance of the newly arrived officials and passengers, the way was cleared, and the journey to Cairo resumed—the two Arabs and the “special” being left to shift for themselves. Upon arrival at Cairo an English doctor at once applied poultices, etc,, and these were continued for several days, but the poisonous effect of the sting deprived him of the use of hJs right arm for some weeks afterwards.

It was during the first visit to Egypt, in February, 1867, that he first made the acquaintance of M., afterwards Count de Lesseps, to whom he was introduced, as his diary records, on March 17th, by Mr. Laing, the English representative on the Suez Canal Board, who remarked to M. de Lesseps that the English engineer he was introducing was one of those who scouted the opinion held by some members of the profession that the making of the Suez Canal was impracticable. M. de Lesseps after some further conversation, invited him to stay at his house for a week, and during this time he paid visits to the Canal Works, then in active progress, with his host. He also accompanied Monsieurs Voisin and Laroche to Suez, where he stayed at the house of the former, and rode by stages on horseback to Port Said, where he was the guest of M. Laroche.

Ismailia, at this time, where the chief engineer resided, presented a French aspect with its newly-formed boulevards planted on either side. In the centre of the courtyard, adjoining his house, was a bath supplied with water from the adjoining, or what was termed, the Sweet Water Canal, and from the window of the bedroom facing this courtyard, the guest was much amused, while dressing one morning at seeing his good host seated up to his neck in the bath, with several of his staff round him reading papers and conversing with them. Writing of the distinguished French engineer, who accompanied him on the greater part of a ride from Suez to Port Said, he stated—“I have never met his equal: although sixty years old he is an accomplished horseman, and active beyond the majority of young and even athletic men; ” and of the work of making the Suez Canal, upon which he was engaged, that he was “Carrying it out, with the assistance of able engineers, whose talents from the simple character of the work they are engaged on, are confined to organization as to the best and most economical methods of excavation and dredging, and in this his contractor, Lavallay, displays much energy.”

In the summer of the year 1871, the work at the harbour of Alexandria was commenced by a company of contractors who were also their own engineers— Messrs. Greenfield & Co. This being an arrangement inconsistent with Mr. Abernethy’s experience hitherto as a Civil Engineer, he declined to act in the twofold capacity, as one of the partners 'n the firm, and engineer to the same, and as the Egyptian Government insisted upon the scheme being carried out on different lines to what he had designed, and apparently with no improvement, his connection with the undertaking ceased. The foundation stone was laid by the Khedive, on May 15th, 1871, with great ceremony, and the work completed in 1874, the plan of 1867 was considerably modified, and that the mod’ficat'on proved in the end to have detracted from the value of the original designs, the Official Report of Alexandria, written by Her Majesty’s Consul, Mr. Stanley, in July, 1874, expressly affirms in these words,—

’The harbour works at Alexandria are approaching completion. The great breakwater will be finished in a month, and the inner mole run out to within a short distance of its entire length of 9S0 yards. The direction of the mole has been changed since 1871, when I sent a plan of it which was published with my report of that year. It now runs out straight to the lighthouse, whereas before, after running in this direction 200 yards, it was to make a bend to the arsenal. This it was found would cramp the harbour, so the direction has been changed. The portion already begun, has been completed, and will form an arm of the main mole. The mole is intended to be upwards of 100 feet broad. Vessels are not to come alongside it, but small iron jetties will run out for them. The quays, which arc to be formed from the railway to the Custom House, have not been begun. It has been found necessary to abandon the idea of having perpendicular quay walls, alongside of which vessels could lie, owing to the great difficulty of getting a proper foundation, there being 40 feet of mud, so they will be roughly formed of rubble and stone, and ’ron piers will be run out at intervals.

“It will be seen that the original plan has been much modified. It seems also generally allowed that Mr. Abernethy’s plan for the breakwater was infinitely better than the one adopted by the Egyptian Government. His plan was to run out the breakwater on the inner bank of the shoal. The consequence of its being on the outer bank is that there is a distance of nearly a mile between it and the shipping, so that with a strong wind there is room for a sufficiently heavy sea to get up to prevent working. Had the breakwater been run out on the inner shoal, the harbour would have been practically as large as at present, the intervening space being too shallow and rocky for vessels to anchor in, and shipping work could have been carried on in all weathers.’



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