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George Turnbull (1809-1889)

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George Turnbull (1809-1889) M.Inst.C.E., F.R.A.S., F.R.G.S., late Chief Engineer of the East Indian Railway

George Turnbull was the Chief Engineer responsible for construction from 1851 to 1863 of the first railway line from Calcutta (the then commercial capital of India): the 541-mile line to Benares en route to Delhi. He was acclaimed in the Indian Government's Official Gazette of 7 February 1863 paragraph 5 as the "First railway engineer of India".

1809 September 2nd. Born in Luncarty, 5 miles north of Perth, Scotland, the 11th child of William Turnbull and Mary Sandeman

1814 Moved to nearby Huntingtower village, where his father developed a bleachfield. His two grandfathers Hector Turnbull and William Sandeman had jointly developed linen bleachfields in Luncarty.

Initially largely schooled by his older sister Mary

From 1819 from age 10 rode a pony to Perth Grammar School.

1824 Attended Edinburgh University learning Latin, Greek and mathematics.

1828 Sailed from Dundee to London to train under Thomas Telford, and was involved in the building of St. Katharine Docks.

1829 George Turnbull, 57 Sussex Square, Student under Mr. Rhodes at St. Katharine Docks, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

1830 Became Telford's draughtsman and clerk, living in Telford's house in 24 Abingdon Street.

1832 Helped survey the options for supplying water to London both from the north and south, gauging the north-side rivers Colne, Gade, Lea, Odess and Ver; and on the south side the River Wandle.

1833 Involved with experiments for fast passenger canal boats on the Paddington Canal with Cubitt, Dundas and other prominent engineers.

1834 Telford died and Turnbull (as Telford's clerk) made arrangements for his house and correspondence and was involved with his burial in Westminster Abbey.

Turnbull was promoted to be resident engineer, until 1840 building the Bute ship canal and Bute Docks in Cardiff, reporting to William Cubitt and meeting Lord Bute regularly.

1836 August. In Bristol to see the 1½-inch bar drawn across the river at Clifton for the future suspension bridge.

1839 Brunel visited him at the Cardiff works

Amongst other journeys, his January 1837 diary records travel from Cardiff to his Perthshire home: the mail coach to Bristol (with no Severn Bridge or tunnel); all the next day Bristol to London "on Cooper's coach, sitting on the box seat outside with the coachman" (there was snow 10 feet deep near Marlborough); the steamer Perth for the 41-hour journey to Dundee; and then overland to Huntingtower, near Perth.

From 1840 to 1842 Turnbull built Middlesbrough Docks which was later bought by the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

1841 He travelled through deep snow to Stirling to agree a contract to supply sleepers for the railway.

1843 Responsible for the railway line from the Shakespeare Tunnel along the shore to Dover station (he entertained the Duke of Wellington, "pale, old and shaky on his legs", who visited the works) and built a pier and landing stages at Folkestone.

1845 He was the engineer in Birkenhead for the complex Seacombe Wall sea defence that helped drain the marshes behind the town of Seacombe.

1846-49 He was the resident engineer for the Great Northern Railway making cuttings and the South Mimms, Copenhagen and three other tunnels for the first 20 miles out of London, and making the first plans for Kings Cross Railway Station.

1850 Appointed Chief Engineer of the East Indian Railway building between 1851 and 1862 the first railway 541 miles from Calcutta to Benares (on the route to Delhi), 601 miles including branches. He designed Calcutta's terminus at Howrah which now has 23 platforms and the highest train-handling capacity of any station in India. The monsoon-ravaged Ganges tributaries such as the wide Sone River were particularly challenging to bridge; a major constraint for Turnbull was the lack of both quality clay and brick-building skills resulting in the change to importing much ironwork from England for the many bridges and other structures (all rails were imported from England as no Indian steel works existed). Another constraint was the difficulty of moving enormous volumes of materials from Calcutta up the Ganges on its primitive "country boats", particularly during the period of the Indian Mutiny when many boats were sunk and materials stolen. Cholera killed thousands.

1850 August 23rd. Death of his wife Jane in Calcutta.[2]

Turnbull was offered a knighthood for his railway building in India, but declined it as he felt that he did not have sufficient money to live to the standard he felt was needed (he later regretted declining the knighthood, if only because it reduced his later earning power).

1868 February. Turnbull was offered £2,000 to settle the claim by contractors who had built part of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. He travelled via Marseilles, Alexandria, train to Suez, and on to Bombay. He and others had a private train for four days "getting down and inspecting every bridge and large culvert" and making copious notes for the 242 miles between Bhusawal and Nagpore.

1845 Married Jane Pope in St. Margaret's, Westminster. She died 1850 in Calcutta.

1855 After leave in England and on his way again to India, he married Fanny Thomas, the engineer William Cubitt's niece (in Neuchâtel, Switzerland because of concern that UK marriage to his deceased wife's half-sister might not be legal in England). They had five children.

1871 Living at 23 Cornwall Gardens, Kensington: George Turnbull (age 61 born Scotland), Civil Engineer. With his wife Fanny Turnbull (age 41 born Reading) and heir children Mary E. Turnbull (age 14 born Calcutta), Alexander D. Turnbull (age 8 born Kensington), and Fanny K. Turnbull (age 6 born Paddington). Also five servants.[3] Note: At no 25 is John Clarke Hawkshaw

1875 Moved to Rosehill, Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire, England.

He was the Vice-Chairman of the Assam Tea Company – his son (Alexander) Duncan Turnbull worked for the company in Assam and his granddaughter Doris was born there.

1877 March. Took a lease on 24 Collingham Place in London.

1881 Living at Rose Hill, Abbots Langley: Geo. Turnbull (age 70 born Perth, Scotland), Civil Engineer. With his wife Fanny Turnbull (age 50 born Berkshire) and their daughter Mary E. Turnbull (age 25 born Calcutta). Also one visitor and four servants.[4]

1885 Applying his engineering skills, he was involved with the Abbots Langley water scheme. He later wrote the prospectus for the Abbots Langley Water Company and was much involved with it.

1889 26th Feb. Died aged 79. [5]

His wife Fanny died in 1903.


1889 Obituary [6]

GEORGE TURNBULL, who for several years previous to his death had occupied the position of Father of the Institution, passed away on the 26th of February, 1889.

He was the youngest of eleven children of William Turnbull, of the Huntingtower bleach-fields, near Perth, and was born at Luncarty on the 2nd of September, 1809.

He received his early education at the Perth Grammar School, and finished his studies at Edinburgh University.

A comrade named David Hogarth, to whom through life Mr. Turnbull remained strongly attached, passed on to London in order to study engineering under Thomas Telford, and Mr. Turnbull resolved to adopt a similar course. His friend Hogarth eventually was ordained, and was for thirty-three years Rector of the Isle of Portland, where he died; but George Turnbull had found his true vocation, and speedily rose to be one of Mr. Telford's most trusted assistants.

Beginning in 1828 on the preparatory works of the St. Katharine’s Docks, he was, on the 10th of February, 1829, elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, of which Telford was the President. It is said that Mr. Turnbull gave his services gratuitously as reporter of the Proceedings, but as the same circumstance has been recorded of several others, it is probable that some of the younger members agreed among themselves to fulfil those functions for a certain period in rotation. The offer of Mr. Turnbull at any rate received the sanction and approval of his chief, and thenceforward, until Telford’s death in 1834, Mr. Turnbull was his professional representative and confidential clerk, and eventually became a participant in his residuary estate.

For some years before Mr. Telford decided to withdraw from the profession his engagements were very numerous and varied. As a result, young Turnbull saw plenty of work, and his name is associated with Sir Henry Parnell’s scheme of 1831 for a Metropolitan water-supply, with the Bute Docks at Cardiff, the Middlesborough Docks, the Folkestone and Dover Harbour Works, a portion of the Works at Birkenhead, the Shakspeare Tunnel and Viaduct at Dover, and the construction of 15 miles of the London end of the Great Northern Railway.

His reputation being now fully established, he was, through the recommendation of Sir William Cubitt, Past President Inst.C.E., and of Mr. James Meadows Rendel, Past President Inst.C.E., selected in 1850 for the responsible position of Chief Engineer of the East Indian Railway, his control extending from Calcutta to Delhi. This appointment he held until the opening of the railway to Benares in 1863, when Mr. Turnbull‘s active professional life may be said to have terminated.

Four or five years later he acted in Bombay as an arbitrator in a case of disputed contract accounts, and again he served in 1869-70 in a similar capacity in respect of the Chord Line of the East Indian Railway. The latter was a very intricate affair, and extended over a lengthened period, but Mr. Turnbull finally brought about an amicable solution. On its completion he settled at Rosehill, Abbot’s Langley, a small estate which he had purchased in 1875.

The evening of Mr. Turnbull’s life was passed in retirement at Rosehill. The affairs of the parishes of Abbot’s Langley and Hunton Bridge frequently shared his attention. He became Chairman of the Hunton Bridge Gas-works, also of the Hunton Bridge and Abbot’s Langley Water-works Company, an undertaking that owed its existence to his initiative, and a member of the Watford Board of Guardians.

In the City he was Chairman of the Assam Company.

Of honorary distinctions he was a Fellow and Member of the Senate and University of Calcutta. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical and Royal Geographical Societies, and as has been already mentioned, a very old Member of the Institution, having been borne on the books for a period of over sixty years. He was transferred from Associate to Graduate on the 9th of January, 1838, and from Graduate to Member on the 5th of May, 1840. Of his connection with the Institution, it may be said that, with the exception of his period of residence in India, he was constantly in touch with the office, besides being a frequent contributor to the discussions in matters relating to India. His long membership, coupled with a remarkably accurate memory, made him a most valuable coadjutor when it was necessary, for the purposes of obituary notices, to trace the careers of comrades who predeceased him, and applications for information, which might have taxed the patience of any by their frequency and persistence, were always courteously and effectively responded to.

The above outline of Mr. Turnbull’s professional career may be filled in by a few particulars of his more intimate life. In his early association with Telford he had the opportunity of meeting many notable characters, and in after life he was wont to recall with pleasure the table-talk of that renowned Engineer and his associates - the visits of Robert Southey to Abingdon Street, stories of Robert Burns, redolent of Scottish humour and brightened by the poetry of a past age. He was long and intimately associated with Thomas Brassey, who was the subject of his constant eulogy. It will be noted that Mr. Turnbull was in India - during the stirring times of the mutiny, and his fortitude and devotion enabled him to convert the temporary wreck of that disastrous hour into a colossal memorial of his varied skill. Those who did not know him would, from his quiet manner, ever have suspected the existence of the latent energy he had in reserve when occasion demanded.

One illustration, a trifling one compared with the unlooked for obstacles which confronted him during the mutiny, will suffice to show this. In England, the hostility to a railway invading the rights of landowners is smoothed away by Act of Parliament. It was far otherwise in India in Mr. Turnbull’s time, and as Government shrank from the necessary action the Engineer had to settle matters himself. In a particular instance Mr. Turnbull on his own authority cut a lane, 100 feet wide, through jungle and other impediments from Howrah up to Chandernagore and braved the consequences. As it happened, no litigious results followed, but the Chief Engineer was warned not to do the like any more.

Mr. John Marshman, the editor of “The Friend of India,” and Mr. Turnbull’s personal friend, on hearing of this exclaimed, “Well! there has not been such an act of audacity performed in these parts since the time Admiral Watson opened fire upon the Dutch fleet in the Hooghly when we were at peace with Holland.”

But elastic energy in the face of danger was not Mr. Turnbull’s only attribute. Domestic Virtues, generosity to his friends, forgiveness of injury, and sympathy with suffering, endeared him to those within that more intimate sphere which it is not the province of this notice to invade. Perhaps his chief characteristic was a singular simplicity of manner and a distaste for ostentation. This probably induced him to decline the honour of knighthood, which was pressed upon him by Lord Elgin at the close of his Indian career.

For those who knew him not, it will suffice to say that in the roll of eminent engineers, who have relied upon the arts of peace in furthering in distant climes the honour and influence of their country, there occurs no name more worthy of record than that of him who forms the subject of this notice.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1829 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. Morning Post - Wednesday 23 October 1850
  3. 1871 Census
  4. 1881 Census
  5. The Engineer 1889/03/01
  6. 1889 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries