The following is an edited extract from "Reminiscences of a Municipal Engineer" by H. Percy Boulnois, M.Inst.C.E.
On April 3, 1883, I was elected Borough Engineer of Portsmouth by 43 votes to 5, and I took up my appointment on May 5 of that year. I found the work at Portsmouth very different to that which I had left at Exeter. The area was much larger, and almost entirely a dead flat, whereas Exeter was very hilly. The waterworks belonged, and still belong, to a private company so that I had nothing to do with water engineering any longer.
There was no canal, except a short length of a derelict one, that had never held water, after being constructed during the canal mania many years before. But there was a long sea front, and Southsea Common, which in those days was in a very rough and neglected condition. I found that a very big sewerage and sewage disposal scheme was in hand which was being carried out by Sir Frederick Bramwell, so that I had very little if anything to do with that. I found also that the War Office, and the Admiralty, had a good deal to say before any improvements could be carried out. I had an instance of this some little time after my appointment, when the Commanding Royal Engineer of that date said to me one day, " Mr. Boulnois, you lay a good many eggs, but they are not all hatched." In reply I said, " I'm afraid, sir, that is because you sometimes addle them."
However, I must say that the Government officials were nearly always extremely helpful whenever a proposal was not in any way inimical to the nava1 and military requirements, although at times my suggestions for improvements must have been somewhat trying to them.
The sea front had no promenade and to pass between Southsea Castle and the sea required considerable agility and was not unattended with some danger of slipping into the sea. One of the first works which I had to carry out was the construction of a paved promenade along the whole sea front, with a road between this promenade and the common. Towards the eastern end of this promenade the sea, when rough, used frequently to dash the shingle on to the promenade and road, and it was a costly job in labour to remove it. By erecting a low concrete wall with a continuous seat facing the sea, I prevented the shingle falling on the road, and as the promenade between this low wall and the sea was of concrete, it became an easy matter to sweep the shingle back on to the beach when this occurred.
Amongst other works which I found in progress and had to finish was a new custom house at the Camber Docks, the old building having had to be removed for some widening improvements in that congested locality. The plans had been prepared by H.M. Office of Works, and I found considerable difficulty in interpreting these plans, which were only drawn to an one eighth inch scale, and all the detail drawings and specification had to be prepared by me. However, I succeeded in carrying out the work to a successful conclusion after considerable difficulties. The foundations were found, when excavated for the work, to be of a boglike character, which obtains in this neighbourhood, and no provision had been made in the original scheme to meet this contingency.
The public swimming baths were also in progress and were finished by me with some additions thereto. As some trouble arose soon after my appointment as to what was the real area of certain parts or portions of the Borough of Portsmouth, the total area of which was 4,320 acres, I carefully took the areas from plans in the possession of the Council and surveyed other areas, with the result that I found the areas were as follows :-
|Land wholly built over in Landport and Southsea||1179.00|
|do. in Portsea||79.50|
|do. in Portsmouth||56.00|
|do. in Milton||32.00|
|do. in Eastney||28.00|
|Total thickly populated areas||1374.50|
|Dockyard and Gun Wharf||317.00|
|Various quays at Portsmouth, and Flathouse, etc.||14.75|
|Recreation grounds of the united services||30.50|
|Southsea common and minnow pond (this minnow pond, which was|
really an ugly swamp, was afterwards converted by me into an ornamental
|Roman Catholic Cathedral and grounds||2.75|
|Victoria Park, playground, library, etc.||17.50|
|Bogland at Southsea partially built upon||47.00|
|East Hants recreation ground||6.00|
The above figures are interesting as a record, and if compared with similar figures today would be found to have varied considerably with regard to the area built over, as during my term of office there passed through my hands as building surveyor many hundreds of plans of thousands of houses which were erected under the superintendence of my staff. I find from one of my notes that in three years, no fewer than 1,277 sets of plans passed through my hands, representing the erection of 3,025 new dwelling-houses and 636 miscellaneous buildings.
With regard to my staff, it may be interesting to note that when I was appointed in 1883, the staff consisted of an assistant engineer, a surveyor and leveller, an inspector of private house drainage, an inspector of private street improvement works, and a clerk. I also had two pupils, which made up the whole of the indoor staff. There was also a road foreman, stable foreman, store keeper, and various other foremen or gangers, and an inspector of sewers. It is interesting to see by my notes that the foreman of bricklayers received only 9d. per hour and the ganger of sewer flushers 4s. 6d. per day. The following list of wages then paid for a day of ten hours may also be of interest when compared with present rates of pay :-
Paviours, masons, bricklayers, all 5s. a day ;
excavators 3s. 6d.. to 4s. ;
labourers, 3s. ;
scavengers, 2s. 4d. ;
horse drivers, 3s.
I wonder what the trades unions of to-day would have to say to-such wages.
With regard to the prices of materials, it may be interesting to record from a few notes that I have of these, what the prices were in or about the year 1883, as the present generation of surveyors, and those to serve in the future, would, I feel sure, be interested in comparing them with the ruling prices of their time.
I find for instance that agricultural drain pipes of 3 inches. internal diameter, one foot in length, were 4s. per 100, 4 inches were-8s., and 6 inches were 16s., and 9 inches, 50s. Concrete pipes,. 18-inch internal diameter, 2s. 5d. per foot, delivered at Portsmouth station ; 21 inches, 3s. 3d. ; 24 inches, 4s. 5d. ; 27 inches, 5s. 3d. ; and 36 inches, 8s. 9d.
Portland cement concrete, in situ, from 10s. 6d. to 12s. 6d. a cubic yard. Dredging in the harbour and barging away 2s. 6d.. per cubic yard.
The prices of paving materials delivered at Portsmouth station were as follows :
Purbeck " marble," 3s. 10d. per square yard. Blue pennant,. 4s. 10d. Caithness, 6s. 1d. Keinton, 5s. 6d. Blue bricks from 1s. 9d. to 2s. 6d. Buff bricks, 2s. 3d. Artificial concrete flags, from 4s. 6d. to 5s. 6d. Tar pavement from 1s. 5d. to 1s. 10d. Limmer asphalte, 4s. 6d. Southampton gravel, 8d.
In connection with artificial flag paving, when I first went to Portsmouth, the Corporation were laying large quantities of an artificial flagstone made in the town. This was called " Ferrumite " because the surface had a small percentage of iron filings combined with the granite chipping matrix, which was supposed to add to its wearing capacity. The cost of these flags laid in the streets was about 5s. 6d. a square yard.
I very soon induced the Council to allow me to make our own artificial flags at one of the Corporation yards, and I find amongst my notes the following particulars of their cost of manufacture.............4s 6d per square yard laid complete, a saving of quite one shilling per yard on contract prices. One more instance of costs, or prices, before I pass on to other matters. The Corporation kept a large stud of cart horses, over which I had control, as we did all our scavenging, road cleansing, and other work with our own staff, and I find that the keep of a horse per week in the year 1887 was 13s 0d. I doubt if horses will ever be kept as cheaply again in this country, and they were very fine animals indeed, and did a long day's work.
One of the largest and most important engineering works that I can remember having carried out at Portsmouth was the increased wharfage accommodation at the Flathouse wharf. It was really a jetty projecting into deep water, and was constructed of concrete, faced with Portland roach and Purbeck stone, with a heavy granite coping. This gave an additional 800 feet run of wharfage face and an extra quay area of 3,530 square yards. The wall was about 35 feet deep, which allowed a vessel drawing 28 feet of water to lie alongside. As the foundations of this wall was on what was locally known as the Slipper Clay, the toe was protected by 12 inch by 12 inch baulks driven close together as deep as they could be driven. A travelling crane on rails was provided which ran along the whole face of the new quay or jetty.
I also carried out many miles of arterial sewers and reconstructions, as well as the sewerage of the whole of a district in Portsmouth known as Stamshaw, with a separate pumping station, but there are no special features with regard to this work worth recalling.
I also constructed the canoe lake at Southsea. This was previously a sort of morass into which rubbish was occasionally tipped and was a great eyesore. There was, I think, only one other salt water artificial lake of this kind then existing, which was at Ryde, in the Isle of Wight. Rather curiously there was strong opposition to the scheme at the Local Government Board Inquiry, which of course had to be held previous to the construction of the lake. This opposition was organized by an eminent retired Royal Engineer general, who objected on the ground that the sea was quite near enough without bringing it nearer to the houses! The result was a curtailment of the size of the lake, which was to be regretted, and it may be interesting to observe that after the lake had been constructed and surrounded with ornamental grounds, this gentleman, on meeting me one day, expressed his pleasure at its completion, and congratulated me on the great improvement I had effected. One would have thought that so eminent an engineer could have seen from the plans what would be the result when the scheme had been completed.
This description of criticism is one of many worries with which a municipal engineer has to contend. No one likes to interfere with the Town Clerk or his legal advice, as very few people think themselves lawyers ; very few interfere with the medical officer of health, as they do not pretend to know much about the intricacies of his work, but in the case of public works, especially when they are in progress and partially completed, nearly every citizen feels he is a competent critic, and all sorts of suggestions and criticisms are made to the Surveyor and also appear in the public press. On one occasion I remember I was improving, and intending to plant out, a large area at the intersection of some important roads, and a rumour was spread, when I had fixed some of the iron fencing for the beds of shrubs, that I was erecting sheep pens and intended too convert this area into a live stock market ! There was a great outcry and condemnation of the Surveyor and his project until explanations were forthcoming and the work was completed to the satisfaction of everyone.
Whilst at Portsmouth I was subjected to a good deal of friendly criticism from service men of my acquaintance. I can recall two instances of this. One of them was in connection with the canoe lake, as I erected in connection therewith a very tall flagstaff with a weathercock on the top. I took special care myself to see that the north point was correctly placed, and set it out personally both with the compass and also by the sun at noon (Greenwich time). A friend of mine, an admiral, met me one day near the spot and declared I had set it up wrongly, till I ventured to remind him that where we were standing there was a slight difference between magnetic and true north, when he was soon satisfied that I was right.
Amongst other improvements which I carried out along the sea front was the re-arrangement of the various monuments,. trophies, etc., which had previously been more or less scattered along the beach. Amongst them was discovered the large anchor of the Victory, and I designed and erected a granite base on which the anchor was placed. This, base had four tablets with appropriate inscriptions of which I was the author, and one of which reads :
" Near this memorial on the 14th September, 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson embarked for the last time, being killed on the following 21st October, at the victorious battle of Trafalgar."
Soon after the erection of this monument a friend of mine met me, and said, " Hullo, isn't he dead yet ? " I enquired to whom he referred and he said, " Nelson." I assured him he certainly was dead, but he then said, " Your monument says he is being killed,' which was true, but I did not have it altered and the words stand there to this day a living memento of my want of literary merit. After placing the anchor on its base, it looked rather bare, so I obtained a length of very heavy anchor chain and wreathed it round the shaft, and stock, which gave it a very pleasing effect, but it was not there many days, as another candid naval friend observed to me, " Do you know that in the days of the Victory, anchor chains were unknown and only huge hawsers were used ? I at once knew I had been guilty of an anachronism (I nearly wrote anchorism) and the chain was at once removed and the anchor has gone bare ever since.
In the year 1884 I prepared a scheme, which was accepted by the Council, for supplying sea water to the public swimming bath, and also for street watering and sewer flushing, and eventually carried it out after a good deal of preliminary opposition. In order to avoid the expense and unsightliness of a water tower, or standpipe, I prevailed on the War Office to allow me to fix a tank on the semaphore tower at the bottom of the High Street, Portsmouth. This tower is said to have been the Governor's house in early Tudor days, and had served many War Office purposes since that date.
The opposition alleged that the use of salt water on the roads would seriously affect the varnish on the wheels of carriages, that it would cause the water and gas mains to rust, that it would kill, or injure, the trees planted at the edges of the footpaths and be highly detrimental to steel, plated goods, and other articles, in the shops adjacent to the street so watered.
I overcame the first objection by testing varnished carriage wheel spokes with sea water in a variety of ways, without the slightest bad results. I proved that the mains were at sufficient depth not to be affected by surface sprinkling ; that trees and shrubs grew close to the edge of the sea and were unaffected thereby, and that as to goods in shop windows, some of the best shops at places like Brighton, Hastings, etc., had existed for years on the sea front and were constantly exposed to sea spray and vapours. When I proposed to use sea water for sewer flushing, I was met by arguments that the effect would be to set up decomposition and consequent smells, and other far-fetched criticisms, but I argued that nothing of the sort would occur, but that on the contrary the specific gravity of salt water was higher than that of fresh water and consequently the sea water would sink to the bottom of the sewers and thus tend to cleanse them. Eventually the opposition collapsed and I carried out the scheme successfully, and the beneficial results exceeded my expectations. I found that about two street sprinklings with sea water were more efficacious and more lasting in their effects than three street sprinklings with fresh water, and that no ill effects followed to either carriages, goods, or trees. Sea water, however, is better adapted to gravel roads than granite macadam roads, as with the latter the effect after some time is apparently to bind the surface, and even form a sort of skin on the road, which at times is a little slippery for horse traffic, whereas on gravel roads this effect is not produced. In connection with sewer flushing, it is rather interesting to note that the swimming-bath emptied through a 12-inch pipe, into a 3 feet by 2 feet 3 inch brick sewer. The bath held 72,000 gallons of water and the 12-inch pipe discharged full bore into this sewer, which had a gradient of about 1 in 300. I carefully noted the effect of this flush on the sewer, and though I cannot find the figures, I know I was struck with the small flushing effect this large volume of water had on the sewer. Owing to the action of gravity, the effect of the flush seemed to die away altogether in a distance of about 200 lineal yards. From this I learnt that flushing sewers for small distances, and with less quantity of water, is better than trying to flush a long length of sewer with a large quantity of water.....
....Amongst other miscellaneous work which I carried out was the laying out and planting of a large recreation ground at North End, which involved the construction of a bicycle racing track of which very few had then been constructed in this country. At one end I was obliged to make a rather sharp curve about 21 chains radius, and my difficulty was to estimate the correct elevation for the outer edge of the slope. In the end I took a tricycle as my gauge and a speed of 25 miles an hour, and worked at the slope on that basis, with the result that the slope when finished looked far too steep, though subsequent events showed that if anything I had under-estimated it.
I had a good deal of work to do at one time in the way of coast protection, as may be supposed, and soon came to the conclusion that it was no use " fighting " the sea, tides, currents, and winds, but that the only way to get shingle or beach to " grow " where it was wanted was to " nurse " it into place, i.e., to watch the effects of certain movements of beach, find out why at certain times there was a famine of shingle or sand at one point, and a surplus at other points and then begin the construction of a groyne about the level of half tide and build it up or down as the shingle showed a disposition to collect. I did this long before the late Mr. Case had studied this question very carefully, and became an expert on the matter, and was consulted on the subject by a large number of local authorities. There must have been a great deal of money often wasted in this fight against the forces of nature in the past, and I fear that in some instances this is being continued.....
....I made a great many personal friends at Portsmouth, one of my greatest was the late Major-General Drayson, R.A., who was one of the most able and talented men I have ever met, and with whom I spent many enjoyable holidays in the New Forest, with every acre of which he was familiar. During our rambles he gave me many a lesson in how to think and how to observe. He had been at one time instructor of surveying and practical astronomy at the Royal Academy, Woolwich, and his knowledge on these subjects was profound.
Another of my personal friends was Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, now Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the world-renowned author, and creator of Sherlock Holmes. General Drayson and I and Hugh S. Maclachlan (the then sub-editor of the Hampshire Telegraph), used often to go to Doyle's house after dinner, and, in his smoking-room, discuss all sorts of subjects, from metaphysics to more mundane matters. How well can I remember those enjoyable evenings when we settled mighty problems to our own satisfaction. I find amongst the few letters that I have preserved, one from Mr. Maclachlan, dated December 31, 1891, after I had left Portsmouth, in which he says, inter alia :
" How delighted I, too, should be if there could be a repetition of those cosy, chatty smokes at which we penetrated the veil of the future, each in his own particular way. I recall Doyle's bold defiance of conventionalities, Drayson's sarcasms, and your own light keen touch on questions of morality and science. May we meet again some day with spirits just as young, and views as fresh."
Maclachlan, soon after this date, became sub-editor of the London evening paper, The Star, and I saw him occasionally, but, alas, he died many years ago.....
....Soon after taking up my appointment, I joined the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society, of which Dr. Ward Cousins and Dr. A. Conan Doyle were then the joint Secretaries. I read several papers at this Society and eventually was elected President, which I looked upon as a great honour. Amongst some of the papers I read before this learned body was " Portsmouth from a Sanitary Point," " Engineering Triumphs," and others which I have forgotten. I also joined a Naturalists' Society and had many interesting jaunts with them in the New Forest. I gave them two lectures on Nature's forces, with numerous experiments, which I thoroughly enjoyed and hope my audience did also !
In the year 1889 I was elected President of the Association of Municipal and County Engineers, and the annual meeting thus had to be held at Portsmouth. It is always a two or three days gathering and in addition to papers (including the presidential address) which are read, it is usual to inspect works of interest in the locality and to arrange for various hospitalities. I set to work to arrange an attractive programme and think I succeeded. Of course, the Portsmouth Dockyard, and all the unique show that such a place offered, was my first thought. I approached the dockyard authorities but was received with some coldness. Fortunately, one of my brothers was then Member of Parliament for East Marylebone and knew Lord George Hamilton, who was at that time First Lord of the Admiralty. I wrote to my brother fully explaining the position and he approached Lord George, with the result that a most excellent programme was arranged whereby the association was shown everything that the dockyard could possibly show us, including a display of torpedo boats jumping booms in the harbour, the mysterious Brennen torpedo, and even a parade of bluejackets and a display of machine guns firing on Whale Island, in addition to free trips on torpedo boats running at full speed.
Towards the end of this year 1889 I heard that there was a vacancy for the appointment of City Engineer of Liverpool, and in due course I made application for the appointment, and was duly elected.