I have just finished reading Bella Bathurst’s “The Lighthouse Stevensons”, the story of the family of engineers who built Scotland’s lighthouses. The book was our reading group’s choice for June and I began reading it as an well written, engrossing family story but then started to find it an unexpected source of material, both for early civil engineering but also in writing a family story.
This is the family of Robert Louis Stevenson, and he was rightly proud of his ancestry even though, resisting strong family pressure, he did not choose to follow them. Louis did write his own family history, Records of a Family of Engineers, including wishful and ultimately untrue links back to Rob Roy MacGregor. After all which of us has not wished for a more glamorous forbearer to feature in our family histories.
In my own case its salutatory to read that even such an illustrious family of engineers received scant recognition in their lifetimes. Bella Bathurst notes “Even at the height of the Victorian engineering boom, great men went unnoticed and exceptional feats unacknowledged”.
In the 18th century there was no such thing “as an archetypal engineer, let alone a civil or marine specialist. The qualifications and bureaucracy of the modern profession did not exist”. In 1755 Samuel Johnson described an engineer as ‘an officer in the army or fortified place, whose business is to inspect attacks, defences, works’. We have moved on a bit; The Chambers Dictionary gives a much longer definition for an engineer but specifically defines a civil engineer as ‘a person who plans and builds railways, roads, bridges, docks etc. as opposed to a military engineer, or to a mechanical engineer’.
My own Institution of Civil Engineers was founded in 1818; some seven year after Robert Stevenson’s Bell Rock lighthouse was completed. Its Royal Charter granted in 1828 defines the profession of a Civil Engineer as “being the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man”. In the list of works are included, “the construction of roads, bridges, aqueducts, canals, river navigation and docks……. the construction of ports, harbours, moles, breakwaters and lighthouses”, the bread-and-butter of the Stevenson family.
I started reading this book thinking only of my great-grandfather, Alfred John Liversedge, and how I imagine he would have dreamt of founding an engineering dynasty. Given that his two sons followed him into the profession it must have seemed likely, but one emigrated to New Zealand and the other, my grandfather Herbert James Liversedge, predeceased him leaving in his turn two young sons but no income for the necessary technical education or apprenticeships. He has had to wait for me, his great-granddaughter to have another member of the Institution in the family.
However I then realised this was also the story of my father’s family, in three generations from the mid-19th century the family’s small building firm was sold and my grandfather began work as a surveyor for the borough council, still an engineer but no longer running his own firm. My own father, John Francis Day, never completed his education, being diagnosed with suspected TB hip he spent years in bed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Land of Counterpane as his companion.