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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
A Circuit of England and Wales, and of Ireland

WITH the description of the improvements recently effected in the harbour of Fraserburgh, it is thought that a sufficiently long list of more important engineering works, undertaken and sucessfully completed, has been given, to enable the reader to form an independent judgment as to the utility of the life reviewed. It will have been noted that Mr. Abernethy’s long professional career was spent mainly in the furtherance of one particular branch of civil engineering, namely, harbours and docks, and that by applying himself to that branch, and having the good fortune to be appointed as engineer to carry out such works, and thereby acquire the necessary experience, he had, at a comparatively early age, reached a position of some distinction as a specialist. He was possibly aided in achieving an early success by the circumstance of the majority of the leading engineers of the day devoting themselves to the construction of railways, a new department of civil engineering which opened out in the first quarter of the present century, and increased with startling rapidity during the reign of William the Fourth, and the first few years after Her Majesty had ascended the Throne, and which, to a large extent, diverted the attention of the profession. With the prospect of a large amount of work to be done in the near future, in consequence of this new adaptation of steam power, the majority of the younger engineers were also borne away with the current known as the “railway mania,” and thus he may, to some extent, have been relieved from competition with many men of ability of equal standing, who would otherwise have proved formidable rivals in the special branch of the science which he had selected to follow up.

The tendency towards specialization in any given science can be traced back for a long period, and it is one that has steadily increased. Pope recognised its value and certain future in the lines :—

“One science only will one genius fit,
So vast is art, so narrow human wit,
Not only bounded by peculiar arts,
But oft in these confined to single parts.”

and the selection of harbours and docks as special subjects, was by no means an unfortunate one sixty years ago. For as “all returning rivers run towards the sea,” so in conformance with the law laid down by Nature, the majority of railways in this country- lend down to the coast, and it is there that the hydraulic engineers’ services are required.

But whatever circumstances may have combined to assist him in making a good start, to himself alone must be attributed the credit of having thenceforward maintained and steadily improved the position he had so early won, and for having done this in a manner which commended itself to brother engineers and thereby earned their respect. The secret of the ultimate success of his numerous works seems to be contained in drawing a correct line of demarcation between theory and practice, and while always willing to accept the former, at the same time, never to do so before applying some previous test to ascertain its possible value, and ever bearing in mind that:

“Nature like art is but restrained,
By the same laws which first herself ordained.”

Mr. Abernethy’s first important work was, as has been already stated, at his native city Aberdeen, and his last at Fraserburgh, some forty-seven miles further north in the same county, and during the interval of fifty-six years he had practically completed a circuit of work around the coast line of Great Britain.

On the Western and Northern shores of Scotland few schemes of importance have been projected during the long interval, and consequently his scenes of operations in those parts are few and far between, though it may be here mentioned that for several years he acted on behalf of the Clyde Trustees; but on the Eastern coast at Leith, Dundee, and even the far off Wick, his advice has at times been solicited, and given in the form of reports.

It was on the shores of England and Wales, however, that his chief scenes of work are located and in order to avoid the tedium which would be likely to attend an exhaustive enumeration of the seaport towns at which he has been engaged, the accompanying map has been prepared with the intention of conveying the same information at a glance, and so perhaps in more acceptable form, to the reader. Each harbour on the coast at which his professional services have, in the author’s judgment, been of sufficient consequence to warrant the association of his name with it, will there be seen marked in red letters, and the illustration will, it is hoped, bear out and substantiate the statement of his having completed a circuit of the entire coast line of England and Wales.

Many of the places mentioned on the map there make their first and last appearance in this book, but they suggest much additional useful work, though perhaps not of sufficient importance or interest as to call for special mention. In a few instances the places marked in red have reference to schemes designed only and not executed, as docks at Dagenham, at Tranmere near Birkenhead, and at Heysham near Morecombe, for the Midland Railway Company, the last named project however, will shortly be commenced by Messrs. J. A. McDonald and G. N. Abernethy, members of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

There is no engineering work cf consequence to record n connection with London, and therefore it has not been marked on the map. But from another point of view It should have been w'ritten in large type, for Westminster had been the centre of his business since 1854, and for forty years of his life he had acquired a large additional practice there as a consulting engineer, especially in supporting or opposing Engineering Bills before Parliamentary Committees.

The omission of London further seems to increase in gravity when it- is remembered that in 1882-4 served as a member of the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Sewage Discharge, of which the late Lord Bramwell was Chairman, his fellow Commissioners being, the late Sir John Coode, C.E., Sir P. Benson Maxwell, Prof. A. W. Williamson, F.R.S., Col. C. B. Ewart, C B. R.E., and Messrs. F. S. B. de Chaumont, F.R.S., and Thomas Stevenson, M.D. Meetings were held for the examination of witnesses on sixty different occasions, extending over a period of two and a quarter years, and an elaborate first report was presented on January 31st, 1884, and 1 second and final report on November 27th of the same year.

But it may be asked by some readers, what has he done for Ireland? The answer is, nothing of much importance, but something, and that he would have liked to have done more if the opportunity had been given. The “something” consists mainly in having acted as a Member of the Royal Commission on Irish Public Works in the years 1886 and 1887, in conjunction with the late Sir James Allport, Managing Director of the Midland Railway Company, Messrs. J. Wolfe Barry, K.C.B., Pres. Inst. C.E., and J. Todhunter Pim of Dublin, with Mr. S. E. Spring Rice as Secretary, and having as a member of that Commission been a party to recommending certain improvements for the welfare of that country, some of which have been since effected by the Government.

The subjects entrusted to the Royal Commissioners for enquiry were principally three: 1. Deep Sea Fisheries; 2. Arterial Drainage; 3. Railway Extension and Organization. To the second of these headings, which stated more fully, involved an enquiry as to “what measures are required with due regard to the improvement or preservation of any necessary facilities for inland navigation, for the completion and maintenance of the system of arterial drainage in Ireland, especially in the districts of the Shannon, the Barrow, and the Bann,” the Commissioners directed their attention first, and reported that the catchment area of every river as far as the limit of tidal water, should be put in the charge of a separate bod}- of conservators, to be composed of representatives of the various interests concerned, who were to be held responsible for the maintenance and improvement of the main watercourses, and who were to have the necessary powers given to them for executing works, and obtaining funds.

The composition of the Board of Conservators would accordingly as recommended, consist of representatives of the lands benefited, the catchment area, the towns, and the Government Drainage Department.

Commencing with the River Shannon, the first and finest river in Ireland, the Commissioners suggested certain controlling works in the form of sluices, and the use of Lough Allen as an impounding reservoir, and advised the abandonment of the navigation of the river above Athlone and the utilization of its various locks for discharging flood waters, and that the Government should contribute towards these works. For the River Barrow, the upper portion of which is more subject to floods than any other Irish river, though the lower portion owing to a more rapid fall, and the height of its banks, is more fortunately situated, controlling works were also advocated. The removal of portions of piers and shoals which impeded the current, deepening the river bed at stated places, and the formation of embankments with back drains, were also deemed advisable.

In the case of the River Bann similar regulating works were advocated, the river bed was to be deepened, and certain sluices erected, and the Government were asked to authorize an outlay of 20,000 towards the expense of improvement. Having sent in a report upon “Arterial Drainage,” dated April 9th, 1887, they proceeded to investigate the two remaining subjects, Deep Sea Fishing, and Railway Extension and Organization.

Deep Sea Fishing, an expression which is defined in the second report of the Commissioners as meaning “sea fishing which is carried on at a considerable distance from land and in deep water,” was a less difficult subject of enquiry.

It was found that some 1900 boats were engaged in this industry, about 400 of this number regularly and exclusively, but that a more general use of decked sailing boats of larger tonnage was advisable. Many of the boats then in use were only eighteen to twenty feet in length, and Undecked, or rowing boats of various sizes down to the primitive “curragh,” made of tarred canvas stretched over a wooden framework. The inferiority of the gear and nets, and the defective local knowledge possessed by the fishermen of the fishing grounds were also minor points noticed but deemed of sufficient importance to call for mention in the Report.

In many of the naturally protected harbours, such as the Cove of Cork, Berehaven, Lough Swilly and others, it was reported that there were no proper facilities for landing cargoes, and that frequently such harbours were inconveniently situated with regard to the fisher-folk and fishing grounds. In these natural harbours too, piers were much required.- and in districts where no natural shelter existed, harbour accommodation was needed. In the case of existing Fishing Stations much had already been done by State Agency. For by 9 and 10 Viet. c. 3 (1646), the Government had been empowered to make free grants to the extent of 5000 upon any such one harbour, the balance being provided by a loan charged either on the county, the district, or the proprietors of adjacent lands, according to the character and extent of the benefit conferred, in respect of general advantages as well as regards sea fisheries, the invitations in making application for such assistance being left to the locality interested. Such works when completed remained vested in the Government, and were to be maintained out of the tolls received for their use.

But not only were the places and means of landing fish found to be defective, but there was a great want of facilities for bringing the fish to market when landed, by sea. road, or rail. The last named was clearly the best means, provided that the physical convenience were accompanied by moderation of rates.

Under the heading of “ Railway Extension” to afford these facilities several lines were recommended as Downpatrick to Ardglass and the Mulroy Bay and Sheep Haven Railway, alternative lines to KiHibegs, Ballina to Belmullet, and Galway to Clifden.

They advised also the connection by rail of Tralee with Dingle, Killorglin with Valencia, and Skibbcreen with Baltimore, a branch line at Kinsale Harbour, and two short lines at Bantry and Durgarvan.

The second report was issued on January 4th, 1888, and several of the recommendations have since been adopted, more especially providing additional facilities for the fishing industry.

In order to obtain information respecting the three subjects submitted, enquiries were held by the Commissioners at various towns in Ireland, and witnesses examined, and in the month of June, 1887, H.M.S. “Enchantress,” under the command of Captain Vine, R.N., was placed at their disposal, and on the 1st of that month they started from Kingstown on a four weeks cruise to inspect the harbours upon the Irish coast. This brief period sufficed to complete the circuit of Ireland, in effecting which the log registered a voyage of 1941 miles.

In a letter of June 26th 1887, after referring to a vi*it of the Commissioners to Donegal on the 21st inst., and holding a enquiry there, he wrote: “We returned to the ‘Enchantress’ at Killibegs, which was anchored in front of the town in deep water and under perfect shelter, and next morning being Her Majesty’s Jubilee day, Captain Vine read prayers, all the officers and crew being in grand trim, after which the whole crew joined with us in singing ‘God Save the Queen,’ which resounded over the hills and far away. An officer on a revenue cutter anchored close to us, managed to fire a royal salute in good time from the only two pieces on board, and when night came we fired oft rockets and fireworks. The loyal houses in the town illuminated their windows, and the lofty hill behind had a large bonfire blazing on its summit.” This extract from one of his letters, which affords strong evidence of his loyalty as a subject, serves as an appropriate introduction to a reference to other personal qualities. Those who knew him professionally, are equally qualified, however, to testify to these, and their testimony will perhaps be received with

less suspicion of partiality if they are called, instead of his son. “Engineering” of March, 20th 1896 said of him:—“Wherever he stayed he made friends, and everywhere he left behind him the remembrance of his bright cheery personality, and of his goodness of heart,” and the editor of “Transport” in the issue of March 13th, of the same year:—“With him there passed away probably the last of the old school of harbour engineers: and not a few of the younger men who are now coming to the front will remember many a kind encouragement which they have received from Mr. Abernethy, for one of his most marked characteristics—and this I can speak to personally—was the almost exceptional interest he showed in the progress of his younger brethren.”

Perhaps the branch of engineering with which it has been attempted to permanently associate his name, is not one that appeals very forcibly to the popular imagination, but it should be remembered that in many instances the completion of an undertaking was in fact a local victory gained over the sea, and that much of his best work, by means of which a series of such victories have been won, remains hidden either under land or under water.

He joined the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1844 and became its President in 1881. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a member of the Society of Arts, an Associate of the Royal Society of Naval Architects, and Justice of the Peace for the Counties of Kent and Middlesex. Rut perhaps the most appropriate title, was that conferred upon him in his old age by members of his own profession: “Father of Marine Engineering."



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