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William Thomson Halcrow

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Sir William Thomson Halcrow (1883-1958) was one of the most notable English civil engineers of the 20th century, particularly renowned for his expertise in the design of tunnels and for projects during the Second World War.

1883 July. Halcrow was born at 9 Shakespeare Terrace, Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland, at a time when Sunderland was the site of extensive railway and harbour developments.

Early 1900s He joined the London-based firm of P. W. and C. S. Meik as a pupil of Patrick Meik (coincidentally, engineering brothers Patrick Meik and Charles Scott Meik were also born in Bishopwearmouth). One of his earliest projects was the Kinlochleven hydroelectric scheme in the Western Highlands of Scotland, where he worked as assistant resident engineer.

In 1910 he became chief engineer of the contracting firm Topham, Jones and Railton - his major projects were construction of the King George V Dock in Singapore and the survey of the approach to Rosyth Dockyard.

WWI Back in Scotland, he was in charge of the construction of the Invergordon naval base and for defences at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.

After a brief return to Singapore to work on the Johor-Singapore Causeway (c.1919), he returned to rejoin Charles Meik and work on the design of the Lochaber hydroelectric scheme.

1923 When Meik died, the delivery of the ambitious Lochaber project (which involved boring a main tunnel 5m in diameter and 24 km long through the Ben Nevis massif, and creating a series of dams and reservoirs) was left in Halcrow's hands; that same year, the firm was renamed C. S. Meik and Halcrow.

1927 Visited Greece on behalf of Halcrow and Buchanan, consulting engineers, to advise on rectification of problems on the Karditza Tunnel[1]

The knowledge he had gained at Lochaber was to prove invaluable as the Second World War approached and the transport authorities sought to protect the London Underground system from flooding. He also helped design deep air raid shelters, eight of which were attached to existing stations such as Goodge Street tube station (which also housed a signals centre used by General Eisenhower to direct the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944).

1941 The name of C. S. Meik and Halcrow was changed to W.T. Halcrow and Partners.

Halcrow's expertise was also used in preparatory works at the Manod slate quarry in north Wales, used to keep treasures from the National Gallery, London, safe from enemy air raids. His firm was also involved in designing the reinforced concrete caissons used for the Mulberry Harbours employed after D-Day in northern France, while his knowledge of dam construction was used by Barnes Wallis to help perfect the 'bouncing bomb' used in the famous Operation Chastise or Dam Busters raids of July 1943.

1944 Halcrow was knighted; the firm was renamed Sir William Halcrow and Partners

1946 He was elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

After the war, Halcrow's attention once again turned to Scotland. Instead of generating power for aluminium production, the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board proposed a new scheme using hydroelectric generation to provide power for public consumption. The 'Glen Affric' scheme, started in 1947, was the biggest, but there were equally impressive projects in neighbouring catchments such as Glen Garry and Glen Moriston – the latter including one of the first underground power stations in the UK – and Strathfarrar and Kilmorack.

In Wales, Halcrow firm's attention also turned to water supply projects. The Claerwen Dam opened in 1952 and, later, the Clywedog Dam, helped create reservoirs to supply the towns and cities of the English West Midlands. Halcrow was also instrumental in persuading the UK government to set up a Hydraulics research laboratory at Wallingford, while his colleagues were designing railway tunnels at Potters Bar (1955) and the third Woodhead Tunnel (1954) and starting work on the new Victoria Line underground line beneath central London.

Overseas, Halcrow led the company to work on a wide range of engineering projects, from roads, bridges and harbours in Ghana, Libya and Mozambique to dams in Venezuela.

He retired in the late 1950s and died in Folkestone, Kent in 1958.

The firm is now known as Halcrow Group Limited.


1958 Obituary [2]

THE death occurred last Friday of Sir William Halcrow ; he was 75. Sir William's career was indeed a fine example of that grand manner in civil engineering which the profession has inherited from the early days of industrial expansion, and which nowadays tends to be obscured by the growth of specialised technologies. His practice was world wide, and the works he designed were varied in kind and included docks and harbours, tunnels, hydro-electric schemes, road and rail schemes, and power stations. Apart from directing civil engineering projects of great size, he served on many committees and advisory bodies, and was a member, during the war, of the war cabinet's engineering advisory committee. His early years saw service with both consultant and contractor, before he joined the firm which now bears his name, and from partnership of which he retired three years ago.

William Thomson Halcrow was educated at George Watson's College and Edinburgh University. He was a pupil with Patrick Waiter Meik, M.I.C.E., then senior partner in the firms of Thomas Meik and Sons and P. W. and C. S. Meik. His early experience included engagement as an assistant on the construction of the Kinlochleven hydro-electric works and resident engineer on the reconstruction of a pier at Pozzuoli, Italy. In 1910 he accepted an appointment with a leading firm of Westminster civil engineering contractors, Topham, Jones and Railton, Ltd., and was engaged on the construction of the King George V dry dock in Singapore. In the year the first world war broke out he was in charge of the construction of the defences of the Invergordon naval base and for his work received the thanks of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. During the war he was in charge of the submarine and land defences at Scapa Flow, and then returned to Singapore to take charge of the construction of the Johore causeway. On returning to London, he was taken into partnership by the late C. S. Meik in 1922. His partner died in 1923, and in 1924 he was entrusted with the Lochaber water power works for the British Aluminium Company, Ltd., which has the largest output of power of all the hydroelectric schemes in Scotland, and includes the 15-mile Ben Nevis tunnel.

Sir William Halcrow and Partners, as the firm is now known, has since been connected with many of the developments or of those proposals during the 1930s which were frustrated of Highland water power, and in particular with the Affric, Garry and Moriston schemes. It is worth reflecting here how much this subsequent activity owed to the sound design and execution of the Lochaber scheme. The work at Lochaber was unusually original in several of its aspects, and was succinctly described by Halcrow in a paper presented to the Institution of Civil Engineers in November 1930. The success of this scheme was doubtless of great value to the progress of British hydro-electric engineering during the difficult decade before the war. It is interesting to recall figures of cost per horsepower quoted in the discussion on this paper, at Niagara, a power station had been built at that time for £27 per horsepower, whereas for the smaller scheme at Lochaber the cost had been kept as low as £37 per horsepower, which it was considered, spoke very well for the latter considering the difficulties. Other hydro-electric works with which Sir William was concerned included schemes in Ireland Jamaica, Venezuela, and British Honduras, and investigation into the Kariba and Kafue schemes (he was a member of the panel appointed to report on these schemes) and the Volta river project With all 1ts associated developments which altogether will cost £60,000,000 to build, it is estimated. He was also chairman of the panel wh1ch reported on a related project, the Severn barrage proposal.

Two other aspects of Sir William's civil engineering work should be dwelt on, as well as his contribution to hydro-electric engineering. They relate respectively to tunnelling and to harbour and dock construction.

His firm has been responsible for 66 miles of deep tunnelling in the large cities of this country, and more recently, for the deep tunnel from Hampton to Chingford which the Metropolitan Water Board is constructing. Other noteworthy work in this field included deep-level shelters, tunnels for the Admiralty, and the Woodhead railway tunnel. Amongst major harbour works which Sir William has directed are those at Beira, Tema and Tripoli in Africa.

Throughout all this activity, the firm which, in 1922, he entered as a partner, gradually attained to its present eminence, in the front rank and amongst the largest of British consulting engineering organisations. The scale and variety of works now under its care is as varied and as world-wide as its principal partner would have wished. During the second world war, Sir William's advice and experience were clearly put to important use. His position on the war cabinet's engineering advisory committee has already been mentioned. He was also consultant to the Secretary of State for War on ports, including the Mulberry Harbour, and was responsible for design and supervision of construction of the "Phoenix" units for this project. He was also adviser to Bomber Command, and was responsible for protecting the Underground tunnels from flooding from the Thames through enemy action, and for deep level tunnel shelters in London. Another wartime task of great responsibility was his position as head of a group of consulting engineers who were responsible for the design and construction of ordnance factories for the Ministry of Supply, and storage depots for the War Office, the total value of all this work being about £10,000,000.

Sir William became president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the session 1946-47. His address did not follow the traditional pattern of reviewing the engineering works of which he had had experience, although it will be clear from those amongst Sir William's professional achievements which we have mentioned, that an address along those lines would have been exceedingly good. Instead, he chose to comment on the work of the Institution, and the progress it was making, in directing the affairs of the profession, by its publications and its other activities.

Another aspect of his activities, which illustrates how the experience of a varied and long career can be of benefit to the community generally, was service on advisory committees, of which Sir William's chairmanship of the Hydraulics Research Board and the Froude Tank Committee may be noted. He was also a member of the Advisory Committee of the D.S.I.R., and sat as a member of various of the D.S.I.R.'s research boards, and was a member of the Air Safety Board. He actively promoted the affairs of international bodies such as the World Power Conference and the Permanent International Association of Navigation Congresses, by his membership and service on committees.

Perusal of Sir William's writings will reveal a style of unusual directness and polish. His interests were not limited to matters of engineering, a fact which was reflected in his appointment as a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission, which is a rather unusual office for a civil engineer. Not all, by any means, of the major civil engineering projects with which he was associated have been mentioned in this appreciation of his career, nor have all the bodies to which he belonged been listed, for the list is very long. But perhaps we have said enough to show that his career was unusually brilliant and energetic, and his death is a sad loss to the civil engineering profession.


1958 Obituary [3]



See Also

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Sources of Information

  • [1] Wikipedia
  • Biography, ODNB [2]