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James John Berkley

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James John Berkley (1819-1862), Chief Engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway

1819 October 21st. Born at Islington the son of James Berkley (1792-1853), Gentleman, and his wife Mary Davis (1792-1874). Brother of George Berkley

1849 November 14th. Appointed as first Chief Engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. Berkley remained as Chief Engineer until 1862

1852 December 5th. Married at Bycullah, Bombay to Louisa Blackwell

1856 April. Celebration dinner held before his return to India.[1]

1857 Birth of son James Eustace Berkley

1860 Paper to the ICE entitled On Indian Railways

1862 August 25th. Died in Bromley


Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 04

BERKLEY, JAMES JOHN (1819–1862), civil engineer, was born at Holloway on 21 Oct. 1819.

He was educated at King's College, London, and articled in 1836 to Mr. Wicksteed C.E., but soon entered the office of Mr. G. P. Bidder.

In 1839 Berkley began his real pupilage under Robert Stephenson, whose intimate friendship he enjoyed to the end of his life. During his period of training he was constantly employed by Stephenson in writing reports on works and arbitrations. Stephenson formed a high opinion of Berkley, and obtained for him an appointment as chief resident engineer of the Churnet and Trent Valley railways.

At the end of 1849, on the strong recommendation of Robert Stephenson, Brunei, Cubitt, Rennie, Bidder, and other eminent engineers, Berkley was appointed chief resident engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, and in this capacity he constructed the first line of railway that was opened in India.

In January 1850 he left England for India. Having first decided on a scheme for the construction of a short line of thirty-three miles from Bombay to Callian, he turned his attention to the extensions of the railway, and especially to the great work involved in carrying the line over the Western Ghâts Mountains, and designed two great inclines ascending mountains more than 2,000 feet high—the Bhore Ghât and the Thul Ghât.

In 1852 the surveys were begun, and four years were spent in surveying the Bhore Ghât. On 16 April 1863 the first twenty miles of the line from Bombay to Tanna were opened for public traffic, thus initiating the Indian railway system.

In 1856 the north-eastern line by the Thul Ghât was sanctioned by the Indian government, thus completing the Great Indian Peninsula system projected by Berkley, comprising a total length of 1,237 miles, and forming a grand trunk communication by the north-eastern line between Bombay, Calcutta, and the north-west, and by the south-eastern line between Bombay and Madras, including also an important line to Nagpore.

In all these operations Berkley evinced the highest technical skill, firmness, and tact. He was a zealous advocate of the contract system, then regarded with some suspicion by the government, and he was strongly in favour of the employment of native agency. This gained him great popularity with the natives of Bombay.

On his return to England, Robert Stephenson said of him that 'he had succeeded not only in engineering matter .. . but in the more difficult task of engineering men.' Berkley gave the details of his great engineering work in an address to the Mechanics' Institute of Bombay.

He took an active part in the scientific and other useful institutions of Bombay, and evinced always an especial interest in the Mechanics' Institute, where a 'Berkley gold medal' was founded in his name.

In 1855 he became a magistrate; in 1857 a commissioner of the Bombay Municipal Board, and in 1858 a member of the Senate of Bombay University.

His health failing, Berkley came in 1856 to England, but revisited India to see his cherished work on the Bhore Ghât fully developed. Compelled, however, by ill-health to leave India, he returned to England in April 1861, but his constitution was undermined by hard work in a tropical climate, and he died at Sydenham on 26 Aug. 1862 at the comparatively early age of 42.

The directors of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway passed a resolution at his death, mentioning him in terms of the highest praise, and directing that a tablet to his memory should be erected in a conspicuous position on the Bhore Ghât incline, and a sum of 8,000/. was raised by the engineers of the railway staff and others for the erection of a monument over his grave, and for the foundation of a Berkley fellowship in his memory at Bombay University. Berkley was a great reader, a clear writer, and a good speaker.

He was elected a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers on 4 Dec. 1856, and in 1860 his paper, read before the institute, gained for him the Telford medal and a council premium of books.


1863 Obituary [2]

MR. JAMES JOHN BERKLEY was born at Holloway, on the 21st of October, 1819, and completed his education at King’s College, London, under Dr. Major.

He was articled to Mr. Wicksteed (M.Inst.C.E.), then Engineer of the East London Water Works, in the year 1836 ; but very soon left him, and entered the office of Mr. G. P. Bidder (M. Inst.C.E.), and in 1839 he may be said to have commenced his real pupilage under Robert Stephenson (M.Inst.C.E.), by whom he was very actively employed, travelling with his chief, writing reports for him upon his numerous works, arbitrations, and other engagements.

Among these may be mentioned the Bute Docks at Cardiff; the examination of a system of railways projected to connect London, Brussels, and the various toms of the north of France, with Paris, which was reported on by the late Robert Stephenson in 1842; the Hesse Cassel and the Leopold Railways; the construction of the Northampton and Peterborough, the Trent Valley, the Churnet Valley, and the North Staffordshire Railways, on which latter Mr. J. J. Berkley held the position of Resident, Engineer.

At the latter end of the year 1849, an Engineer of ability, experience, and judgment being required to go to Bombay to layout an extensive system of railways in that presidency, Mr. J. J. Berkley was so strongly recommended for the important work by the late Mr. Robert Stephenson, Mr. Brunel, Sir W. Cubitt, Sir John Rennie, Mr. Bidder, and other eminent Engineers who knew and appreciated his talents, that he was unhesitatingly appointed to the position of Chief Resident Engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, and he left England for India in January, 1850.

The Company’s undertaking was at that time confined to the construction of 33 miles of 'experimental line' from Bombay to Callian, and having early decided the most important points connected with the course of that line, through the town of Bombay, and the mode of crossing the creek which divided the island of Bombay from the mainland, Mr. Berkley turned his attention to the extensions which he perceived would inevitably be called for, and to the means of surmounting the great barrier of the Western Ghats, which any extension into the interior immediately involved.

The original projectors of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway proposed to make one ascent of the Ghats, bifurcating at the top to the north-east and the south-east; but an examination of the line of Ghats led Mr. Berkley to report unfavourably of that scheme, on account of the almost impracticable nature of the works, and to recommend the adoption of lines branching off from Callian to the south-east and north-east, ascending the Ghdts at the Bhore Ghat and the Thul Ghat on the line of a large existing traffic.

In 1852 the surveys for both the lines were commenced. Four years were spent in the surveys of the Bhore Ghat, and during that period Mr. Berkley laboriously worked out the details of the plans and designs.

On the 16th of April, 1853, the first 20 miles of the line, from Bombay to Tanna, were opened for public traffic, thus initiating the Indian railway system. This is alluded to in a very interesting letter from Sir Bartle Frere, who, doing full justice to the intelligence, skill, and energy of Mr. Berkley, alludes to the previous unexecuted scheme of Mr. George Clark, in 1844, which, he says, preceded the plans of Mr. Chapman, and of Sir Macdonald Stephenson, to whom, however, he gives credit for their energy and perseverance, and in pressing forward their plans to fruition.

Considerable delay occurred in obtaining official sanction to the Thul Ghat portion of the scheme, owing to the Government of India having entertained a project for turning the Ghats, by a line from Surat along the course of the Taptee River. This resulted in further surveys and elaborate reports on the Ghat ascent, by which the superiority of the line, as proposed by Mr. Berkley, was fully established.

In 1856 the North Eastern Line, via the Thul Ghat, was sanctioned by the Government of India, thus completing the Great Indian Peninsula system of lines, as projected by Mr. Berkley, comprising a total length of 1,237 miles, forming a grand trunk communication, by the North Eastern line, between Bombay, Calcutta, and the North-West, and by the South Eastern line, between Bombay and Madras ; including also an important line to Nagpore, passing through some of the most extensive cotton districts of Western India.

The control which the Government exercises, under the guarantee system, has unquestionably been a source of special difficulty to the Engineers of the respective companies, and it was mainly due to Mr. Berkley’s firmness and tact that a minute and harassing supervision was avoided, and that efficient co-operation established between the company and the Government authorities, which has generally subsisted on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, to the manifest advantage of both parties.

Mr. Berkley was a firm and zealous advocate of the contract system, under which the whole of his works were constructed.

The system on a large scale was new in India and was regarded at first, by the Government, with some suspicion; it has now, however, been adopted almost entirely in the public works, with the best effect in the rapidity and extent of their operations.

The details of the great works, comprising the inclines of the Ghats, are so well known, from the description given by Mr. Berkley in his address to the Mechanics’ Institution at Bombay, and from other publications, that it is only necessary here to allude to the satisfactory solution of the question of practicability, by the successful working of them with enormous traffic, although these inclines exceed in difficulty and importance those of the Sommering, and the Giovi.

In connection with this undertaking mention should be made of the courage of the widow of Solomon Tredwell, the Contractor, who, after his too early decease, determined, for the honour of her husband‘s name, to continue the works, and with the efficient aid of Mr. Clowser and Mr. Adamson, did complete them most satisfactorily.

The labour entailed upon Mr. Berkley by the works he had undertaken, affected his health, and he visited England in the year 1856. Advantage was taken of the opportunity, by a number of the principal Civil Engineers, to invite him to dine with them ; when Mr. Robert Stephenson, who occupied the chair, spoke thus of his former pupil :-

'Gentlemen,-I have very sincere pleasure in presiding at this entertainment, which is offered to my friend Mr. James Berkley. I feel that on the present occasion it is not necessary to enlarge upon the professional already prominently brought himself to your notice by his professional acquirements, or talents, or the social virtues of my friend, for he has abilities under exceedingly trying and adverse circumstances, and by the esteem in which he is held by all who know him. Very early in his life, and when I was tolerably advanced in my career, he was introduced to my notice as a young and professionally inexperienced man, but a very short acquaintance and association with him, convinced me that he was possessed of a good heart and a good head, and in a short time he became not only confidentially associated with me in professional life, but my intimate friend in my domestic circle. I freely imparted to him my own views and opinions, and employed him in the construction of several of the principal lines intrusted to me. When the opportunity for his going to India presented itself, I felt that he had embarked in an exceedingly difficult task. Having myself been thrown in early life upon my own resources, in a foreign country, where engineering operations were of a very difficult character, I well knew the variety and nature of the obstacles he would have to encounter, and you will readily comprehend how operations, even such as are easy in this country, would become extremely arduous when undertaken abroad. The Directors of the Railway Company were influenced by my recommendation, strengthened as it was by the highest testimonials, and my friend went to India, where he has amply justified the opinion I had formed of his capabilities, and has successfully overcome numerous difficulties and impediments of no ordinary character. A favourite expression of my father's, in his early career, was- 'I can engineer matter very well, but my great difficulty is in engineering men.' Mr. Berkley has, I am happy to say, succeeded not only in engineering matter in a foreign country, with few available resources for railway operations, but he has also been eminently successful in that more difficult task of engineering men. No small tribute to his talents and temper.

'It, is scarcely necessary for me to do more than allude briefly to the works executed by our guest, during his comparatively short stay in India. He has already executed 90 miles of railway which are on the point of being opened, as far as the Ghats, the great physical feature of the West of India. The question of the ascent of the Ghats, is one of considerable difficulty, and demanding much knowledge, skill, and consideration. Excellent designs of them have, however, been prepared by Hr. Berkley, that I assure you I should feel proud of being the author of the plans he and the explanations he has afforded me are so minute and interesting, has proposed. Throughout these operations he has encountered all the formidable obstacles which the Ghats present, and has overcome them with remarkable success. And this redounds all the more to his credit, when we consider, that the Ghats present greater engineering difficulties than either the passage of the Sommering to Trieste, or the Giovi Incline between Turin and Genoa ; and that the ascent of those mountains wag long considered barely practicable. Although those mountain inclines are serious undertakings, it is compulsory for the good of the country to make and to maintain them, and, in spite of all difficulties, Mr. Berkley has, after six years of laborious research, succeeded in designing a series of lines, which I have no doubt will be amongst the most successful in the world. I trust, however, that greater wisdom will be displayed by the Indian Government than by our home legislature in that respect. That they will be watched over with something more like parental care, for here they have been deserted like prodigal sons. India demands accommodation for an enormous traffic and population, and if the railways are permitted to be to be extended with discretion and wisdom, there cannot be a question that they will be both beneficial to those who have invested capital in the enterprise, and of incalculable advantage to that important country. My friend at my side has also the honour, whether accidental or not, of being the engineer who constructed and opened the first railway in India. This is no small credit to him, and in all that he has done I feel proud of him, and that he has reflected honour upon my recommendation.'

Notwithstanding the extent and the laborious nature of his professional duties, Mr. Berkley took an active part in many of the useful and scientific institutions of Bombay. In the Mechanics’ Institution especially he took a lively interest, and by his personal exertions and active measures, as President, he greatly increased its sphere of public utility, and gave an interest to its proceedings which had before been wanting.

The Council of the Mechanics’ Institution has accorded a 'Berkley Gold Medal' as an annual prize for competition among its members in commemoration of his valuable services, and the first gold medal was sent to his widow with a resolution expressing sympathy and condolence.

Constant demands were made upon his services, but he was obliged to decline everything except the nomination to such position as indirectly bore upon the chief events of his life. In 1855 he became a magistrate. In 1857 he was appointed one of the commissioners of the Municipal Board, and in 1858 he was elected a member of the Senate of the Bombay University.

Mr. Berkley’s energy of mind far exceeded his physical strength, which was suffering severely from the effects of the Indian climate, so that in April, 1861, the state of his health compelled him to return to England. At that time he had the satisfaction of seeing his plans and designs of the Bhore Ghat, his most cherished work, fully developed, and the works being carried on with extraordinary activity under a very efficient management. He eagerly desired to return to India to witness the accomplishment of the great work he had designed and almost carried out to completion, but it was otherwise ordered ; and after a lingering illness he closed his short but useful career, at Sydenham, on the 25th August, 1862.

From early boyhood, James John Berkley showed signs of great activity of mind and love of knowledge. He was a great reader, and was ever ready with his pen as a contributor to general literature, or as a clear and able writer on professional subjects. In after years, when his position in India called forth the particular talent, he proved himself both as President of the Bombay Mechanics’ Institution, at the meetings, and on public occasions, a fluent and indeed an eloquent speaker.

By his devoted attention to the import,ant duties of his office as Chief Engineer, in Bombay, of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, by his high sense of honour, by his gentlemanly bearing and liberal sentiments, as well as by the kindness and consideration which he ever displayed towards all those who were connected with him in business, he deservedly obtained the esteem and affectionate regard of all who knew him.

The high estimation in which he was held is proved by the following extracts, which have been selected from numerous voluntary testimonials.

The Directors of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway in reporting his death to the shareholders stated :-

'The Directors have the melancholy duty of announcing to the Proprietors the death, on the 25th August last, of Mr. James J. Berkley, M. Inst. C. E., the Company’s Chief Resident Engineer in India. Mr. Berkley from the commencement of operations in January, 1860. down to the beginning of last year, when his failing health compelled his return to England, conducted the whole of the engineering operations with remarkable devotion, energy, and engineering skill, to the entire satisfaction of the Directors. In order to record more permanently their sense of the valuable services which Mr. Berkley rendered to the Company, the Board have directed a tablet to be erected to his memory in some favourably conspicuous position at the Bhore Ghat Incline.'

Sir James Outram, whose large experience of Englishmen in India, rendered him no mean judge of his fellow-countrymen, and who has established a world-wide character for truthfulness and talent, wrote to him on his leaving Bombay in 1857 :-

Parell, 9th July, 1857.
MY DEAR BERKLEY,

'I am loth to leave Bombay without seeing and bidding you goodbye, for which purpose I called at your old house in Mazagon, which I found shut up, and there was no one at the premises to tell me where you are. I am informed, however, that you are travelling in Candeish, I hope out of harm’s way in these troublesome times.

'When your line meets our line (from Calcutta) I trust we may have personal communication, if not before ; but in the meantime I hope you will not scruple to command me, wherever I may be, for there is no one for whom I have a greater esteem, or to whom this Presidency is more indebted, than yourself.

'Believe me to be, my dear Berkley,
'Very sincerely yours,
'(Signed) J. OUTRAM.

In addition to the above, the Engineers on the staff of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, and a few other gentlemen in Bombay, united soon after the death of Mr. Berkley to prove their high appreciation of his talent, as well as their great esteem and affection for their late friend and companion, by a substantial testimonial.

In a few days a sum of nearly £3,000 was raised, and it was determined to erect a monument over the grave of their late friend, at a considerable cost, and to expend the remainder of the fund, amounting to about £2,000, in the establishment of a fellowship, to be called the 'Berkley' fellowship, at the Bombay University. They well knew that the high value he attributed to education and the proper development of the powers of the mind, and the great interest he always evinced in this excellent university, would, were he living, render this, in his eyes, one of the most valuable testimonials of their regard which could be offered to him.

Mr. Berkley was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the year 1855, and his Paper on 'Indian Railways,' in 1860, obtained for him a Telford Medal and a Council Premium of Books.

He was one of the men who, if his mission had not been to become one of the engineering pioneers in the East, would have risen to a very eminent position in the profession, for which he possessed the highest qualifications.


Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 04

BERKLEY, JAMES JOHN (1819–1862), civil engineer, was born at Holloway on 21 Oct. 1819.

He was educated at King's College, London, and articled in 1836 to Mr. Wicksteed, C.E., but soon entered the office of Mr. G. P. Biddert.

In 1839 Berkley began his real pupilage under Robert Stephenson, whose intimate friendship he enjoyed to the end of his life. During his period of training he was constantly employed by Stephenson in writing reports on works and arbitrations. Stephenson formed a high opinion of Berkeley, and obtained for him an appointment as chief resident engineer of the Churnet and Trent Valley railways.

At the end of 1849, on the strong recommendation of Robert Stephenson, Brunei, Cubitt, Rennie, Bidder, and other eminent engineers, Berkley was appointed chief resident engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, and in this capacity he constructed the first line of railway that was opened in India.

In January 1850 he left England for India. Having first decided on a scheme for the construction of a short line of thirty-three miles from Bombay to Callian, he turned his attention to the extensions of the railway, and especially to the great work involved in carrying the line over the Western Ghâts Mountains, and designed two great inclines ascending mountains more than 2,000 feet high - the Bhore Ghât and the Thul Ghât.

In 1852 the surveys were begun, and four years were spent in surveying the Bhore Ghât. On 16 April 1863 the first twenty miles of the line from Bombay to Tanna were opened for public traffic, thus initiating the Indian railway system.

In 1856 the north-eastern line by the Thul Ghât was sanctioned by the Indian government, thus completing the Great Indian Peninsula system projected by Berkley, comprising a total length of 1,237 miles, and forming a grand trunk communication by the north-eastern line between Bombay, Calcutta, and the north-west, and by the south-eastern line between Bombay and Madras, including also an important line to Nagpore.

In all these operations Berkley evinced the highest technical skill, firmness, and tact. He was a zealous advocate of the contract system, then regarded with some suspicion by the government, and he was strongly in favour of the employment of native agency. This gained him great popularity with the natives of Bombay.

On his return to England, Robert Stephenson said of him that 'he had succeeded not only in engineering matter .. . but in the more difficult task of engineering men.' Berkley gave the details of his great engineering work in an address to the Mechanics' Institute of Bombay. He took an active part in the scientific and other useful institutions of Bombay, and evinced always an especial interest in the Mechanics' Institute, where a 'Berkley gold medal' was founded in his name.

In 1855 he became a magistrate; in 1857 a commissioner of the Bombay Municipal Board, and in 1858 a member of the Senate of Bombay University. His health failing, Berkley came in 1856 to England, but revisited India to see his cherished work on the Bhore Ghât fully developed. Compelled, however, by ill-health to leave India, he returned to England in April 1861, but his constitution was imdermined by hard work in a tropical climate, and he died at Sydenham on 26 Aug. 1862 at the comparatively early age of 42.

The directors of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway passed a resolution at his death, mentioning him in terms of the highest praise, and directing that a tablet to his memory should be erected in a conspicuous position on the Bhore Ghât incline, and a sum of 8,000l. was raised by the engineers of the railway staff and others for the erection of a monument over his grave, and for the foundation of a Berkley fellowship in his memory at Bombay University.

Berkley was a great reader, a clear writer, and a good speaker.

He was elected a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers on 4 Dec. 1856, and in 1860 his paper, read before the institute, gained for him the Telford medal and a council premium of books.



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