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Engineering dynasties – The Lighthouse Stevensons

Posted by on June 19, 2014

 

The Lighthouse Stevensons  by Bella Bathurst

The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst

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[1]”.   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[2]. 

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.

Barbara



[1] The Lighthouse Stevensons, Bella Bathurst

 

[2] The Chamber Dictionary 1993

3 Responses to Engineering dynasties – The Lighthouse Stevensons

  1. Nicola Stevens

    I always feel an awful tug in my heart when I read about the ups and downs of family fortunes. Education is SO important – and so is the ability to pay something towards it, which is still true today even in the state system. I had always though that the Victorians were greatly reverent of the engineer’s abilities. But I guess, just like today, only the few are recognised – the rest are the worker bees quietly keeping communities lives moving smoothly only to be noticed when their work closes a road or causes a detour, and then only to be sworn at for the temporary inconvenience! Thanks for an enlightening piece.

  2. Diana Devlin

    Just watched a piece about the lack of women engineers nowadays. And also found that women were quite pioneering in the field of electric engineering; this is covered in A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, a history of housework in the British Isles, 1650 – 1950 by Caroline Davidson Published by Chatto & Windus 1986-06-30 (1986) ISBN 10: 070113982X ISBN 13: 9780701139827

    • Barbara Selby

      I’ll tryand get hold of that, I was always told that I was named Barbara after my paternal grandmother’s elder sister who was suppossed to have been the first woman accepted into the Institution of electrical Engineers but I’ve never managed to track her down.

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