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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Belgium, 1880-1

TEN years after the rejection of the Channel Ferry scheme between Dover and Cape Grisnez by the Committee of the House of Lords, presided over by Lord Lawrence, at the instigation of the South Eastern Railway Company, and accompanied by the Chairman, Sir Edward Watkin, M.P., and Sir Myles Fenton. General Manager, Mr. Abernethy visited Belgium, with a view to determining the advisability of improving the harbour either at Nieuport or Ostend, and to render one or the other accessible at all periods of the tide to the mail packets, and so establishing a regular service of inter-communication via Belgium between England and the Continent. Five years previously he had, conjunction with the late Mr. Thomas Ilawkesley, F.R.S., Past Pres. Inst. C.E., and Captain Calver, R.N., F.R.S., reported to his majesty in favour of improving the former port, chiefly in consequence of the natural advantages it possessed in having a far more extensive roadstead, and a larger area of deep water, than the port of Ostend. The predominance of opinion, however, in 1880, was in favour of improving the latter port, and several interviews took place with his majesty the King, or his Minister of Public Works, at which the project was discussed, and on March 7th, 1881, the English engineer reported against the system of improvement hitherto attempted at Ostend by sluicing from reservoirs at the periods of low water, in the following words :—

“The utter failure of attempting to maintain deep water harbours on sandy coasts by the creation of artificial reservoirs and sluicing, without the aid of dredging, is fully exemplified in the present condition of the harbours of Boulogne, Calais, and Ostend.

“In England, as far back as 1852, it was supposed that by constructing works for giving great effect to the outgoing currents, rivers such as the Tyne, Clyde, and others, would be deepened and maintained, and that the bars of sand at their entrances, as instanced in the case of the Tyne, composed of light sand, would be removed, but no such result followed, and it was only by resorting to dredging, and actually removing altogether the bar and banks within the channel of that river to the extent of 62 million tons, that the present satisfactory results have been attained. The bar, which I sounded in 1850, and found but 6 feet upon it at low water spring tides, has now at the same period of the tide, a permanent depth of 20 feet, and the river throughout its whole course to Newcastle Bridge, a distance of 12 miles, is proportionally deepened, so that at the highest point at Newcastle where the depth was 5 to 6 feet at low water in 1850, the present depth is 20 feet.

“Similar results by dredging have been effected at the river Tees, and other rivers where extensive sandy foreshores exist, and it 'must be borne in mind that in these cases there are continuous outgoing currents infinitely superior in force to the discharge from artificial reservoirs, such as those existing at Boulogne, Calais, Ostend, and other ports.

“I am of opinion that the question of attempting to maintain deep or low water harbours in the case of the section of coast extending from Boulogne to the northern extremity of the Belgian coast, is fully settled and determined by the existing state of the harbours on that coast.

“As far back as March, 1872, at the Chamber of Commerce at Boulogne, in a discussion relative to the formation of a deep water harbour there for a large class of vessels, I expressed a strong opinion that it was utterly futile to attempt the construction of such a harbour to be maintained by the sluicing power that then existed, which was and is very considerable, from the large area of the Bassin de Retenue at its head, together with the powerful sluicing apparatus in connection with it, and the present condition of the harbour, I think, fully corroborates the soundness of these views.

“As regards Calais, its condition is at the present time such that the small class of mail packets frequenting it cannot often enter at low water, and the regularity of the mail service is much disarranged, and I am informed that the authorities are now about to resort to extensive dredging operations.

“In the case of Ostend, the effect of sluicing the detritus from the inner portion of the harbour, as in all parallel cases, results in its deposition and the formation of banks at the entrance, which would not be the case if the accumulation within 't were dredged and removed altogether; for the conservation of the harbour

I strongly recommend the use of a powerful dredging machine.

“I am of opinion that by resorting to efficient dredging the depth of water at the entrance may be increased, and the accretion within the harbour removed without the aid of sluicing, and that the Bassins de Retenue de l’Ecluse Leopold, and de Francaise may hereafter be converted into efficient floating docks at a moderate cost.”

On March 13th Mons. Devaux wrote to Sir Myles Fenton to acknowledge the receipt of this report in these words:—“I had the honour of laying before the King the report of Mr. Abernethy on the subject of dredging the entrance to the harbour at Ostend. His majesty was greatly interested with this report, and wishes that you would be so kind as to thank Mr. Abernethy on his part for his great kindness. Nothing could be better than this remarkable paper.”

Several more interviews with his majesty followed, at one of which, in the month of May, the English visitors dined at the Palace. The scheme for improving Ostend Harbour was eventually approved of, but the work was never carried out, the reason assigned being want of funds owing to the great expenditure incurred in building the Palais de Justice. The project had been in contemplation for nearly ten years, and it is only fair to mention that the South-Eastern Railway Company had done all in their power to bring about the improved communication with Belgium, and in reliance upon satisfactory arrangements being forthcoming, had in the meanwhile constructed a line of railway to Port Victoria, and created a temporary deep water pier. In 1888-90. Mr. Abernethy furnished further designs for a harbour there, and prepared Parliamentary plans. Thu Act was obtained, but operations have not, as yet, been commenced.

In April of the year 1881, Mons. Jacquemyns, the Belgian Minister of the Interior, addressed the following letter to Mr. Abernethy :—

“Monsieur Abernethy, President de la Socitte des Ingeniours de I.ondres.


“Le Roi des Beiges a fonde un prix de vingt-cinq millo francs, en faveur du rncillcur ouvrage sur les moyens d’amuliorer les ports etablis sur les cotes basses et sablonneuses coniine celles de la Belgique.

“Un trcs grand nombre de concurrents ont pris part a ce concours international S. M. a l’intention de vous appcler a faire partie du Jury qui sera chargfi de decerner le prix. je viens vous prier, Monsieur, de vouloir bien me faire connaitre s’ilentre dans vos convenances d’accepter cette mission.

“Recevez, Monsieur, l’assurance de ma consid6ration la plus distingu6e,

f" Le Ministre de l’lnterieur,

“(Signed) G. Rolin Jacquemyns.

“Brurrelles, 18 Avril, 1881."

The invitation was accepted, and the gentlemen of the jury to award the prize were:—

“ MM. D’Elhoungne, Ministie d’Etat, Membre de la Cliambre, des Repr6sentants, President.
“ Michel, Inspecteur General de la Marine.
“ Symon, Ingenieuren Chef, Directeur des Ponts et Chaussces.
“ Abernethy, President de la Sociotc des Ingenieurs Civils de Londres.
“ Dirks, Ing6nieur en Chef du Waterstaat k Amsterdam.
“ Lystcr, Ing6nieur en Chef, des Docks & Liverpool.
“ Plocq, Ing6nieur en Chef des I’onts et Chausees a Boulogne-sar-Mer.

Fifty-three Competition Papers were sent in, and the Jury ultimately found as follows :—

“Resumant son opinion sur le mcmoire de M. Demey, le Jury constate que l’auteur a fait preuve, non seulement d’une science tres 6tendue et d’une grande profondeur de vue dans l’etude du regime des cutes, mais encore d’un esprit trts pratique et d’une prudence trs louable dans les solutions qu’il preconise pour l’am6]iorat:on des ports. Si ce m6moire ne contient pas beaucoup de suggestions absolument nouvelles, le Jury ne croit pas devoir lui en faire un reproche: il vaut njieux, a ses yeux, dans une question aussi difficile et aussi complexe que celle soumise au concours, s’en tenir aus donnees positives qui re-sultent de la science et des faits acquis, que de s’aventurer dans des conceptions tumeraires. II y a lieu de remarquer d’ailleurs que quelques-unes des solutions recommandees par l’auteur etaient nouvelles en 1880, quand il les presentait, et se sont trouvees justifiees depuis lors par la pratique.

“ En consfquence, le Jury a attribufi le prix du Roi a M. Demey. Cette decision a 6te adoptee a l’unanimit6 moins une voix."

Six years later, on April 2nd, 1887, His Majesty was graciously pleased to confer upon Mr. Abernethy the honour of Commander of the Order of Leopold, for his services as a member of the Jury, in inspecting the designs, and awarding the prize.



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