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William Alexander Brooks

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William Alexander Brooks (1802-1877)

Civil Engineer to the River Tyne Commissioners.

1834 William Alexander Brooks of Stockton-on-Tees, a Civil Engineer, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

Died 26th Jan 1877 aged 75. [2]


1877 Obituary [3]

MR. WILLIAM ALEXANDER BROOKS, the son of Mr. William Brooks, architect, was born in London on the 25th of March, 1802.

He was articled to Mr. John Long, at that time architect to Christ's Hospital, who took great interest in bis professional education.

In 1822 Mr. Brooks went to Spain, as engineer officer with Sir Robert Wilson and others, to join the revolutionary movement under General Riego at Vigo; but upon the suppression of this movement by the French, he returned to England, and in 1826 became connected with Mr. Henry Habberly Price, M. Inst. C.E., under whom he superintended and carried out various works in Ireland and in England, amongst others the Improvements on the River Suir Navigation, the river Lee at Cork, building piers, bridges, &C., up to 1828, when he was appointed Resident Engineer to the Tees Navigation Company.

By order of a committee of that company he, in 1833, made a report on the effect of the then recent alterations in the river Clyde, which report was printed as an appendix to his 'Treatise on the Improvement of the Navigation of Rivers; with a New Theory on the Cause of Bars' (8v0, London, 1841).

In 1832 Mr. Brooks was a candidate for the position of Engineer to the Commissioners of the River Wear, and was strongly recommended by Mr. Price, who, after mentioning various works on which Mr. Brooks had been engaged, said, 'I am satisfied that he will be found both theoretically and practically well qualified to conduct the works of the Sunderland Harbour his thorough acquaintance with the theory and operations of tides and land floods, and his accurate habits of observation thereon, which have often proved of good service to me, cannot fail to be beneficial also in your case, whilst his high and unbending integrity is a matter of the last importance in undertakings of such extent as your harbour requires.' It would be difficult in a short sentence to give a better summary of Mr. Brooks’s character. Intimate knowledge, based upon accurate observation, and a strict integrity, distinguished him throughout a long and often a sorely anxious life; and no personal advantage could ever induce him to swerve from the path of conviction. This application was not successful. In the same year his attention was directed to the project which he carefully elaborated for a harbour of refuge at Redcar.’

This project was in December 1834 referred to Mr. W. Cubitt (afterwards Sir William Cubitt), who reported most favourably upon it, and spoke in the highest terms of the accuracy of Mr. Brooks’s surveys and estimates, and the soundness of his views. It is not a little strange that to this day such a work should remain unaccomplished, on a coast where for 220 miles, from the Frith of Forth to the Humber, traversed by probably a larger amount of tonnage than any similar extent of coast in the kingdom, there is no place of safety except the Tyne, now exclusively used as a harbour of refuge. The work might have cost from £250,000 to £300,000, an outlay which would have provided a harbour accessible at all times of tide, with good holding ground, easy of access by day or night, and in size about double that of Kingstown Harbour, near Dublin, said by Sir William Cubitt to be the finest artificial harbour in existence.

In 1842 Mr. Brooks became Engineer to the Corporation of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in which body was at that time vested the conservancy of the river Tyne. Mr. Brooks’s employment here may be divided into two epochs : the first when the conservancy rcmained in the hands of the Corporation of Newcastle, and the second, when it became vested in the present River Tyne Commissioners.

During the two periods in which Mr. Brooks had the management of the Tyne, he planned and executed various works for the improvement of the navigation of that river. These works consisted principally in the construction of jetties, transversely to the stream, with the view of training the current and deepening the bed of the river, such jetties ultimately to be connected with each other by full tide embankments thus forming solid land, the operations being also supplemented by dredging to a limited extent, and other works for the straightening of the channel. He laid down a very useful system of mooring accommodation in Shields Harbour.

Mr. Brooks presented several valuable reports on the Tyne and the measures requisite for its improvement.

He designed, in 1845, the plans of a deep water dock, proposed to be constructed at the Lowlights on the north side of the river, just within the entrance. He also designed a deep water dock at Hayhole, a large bight or inlet in the river near Howdon, the site of the extensive shipping places for the Northumberland steam coal. This dock was afterwards constructed by the Tyne Commissioners, and became the present Northumberland Dock.

Mr. Brooks designed various plans of sea piers at the entrance of the Tyne; those ultimately adopted by the Tyne Improvement Commissioners and the Admiralty were substantially from his plans, although subsequently advanced much farther into the sea than he considered advisable.

A great deal of controversy had for a long time existed as to the merits or demerits of Mr. Brooks’s mode of dealing with the Tyne. The communities on that river, situated respectively at the head and foot of the navigation, held diverse views, and Mr. Brooks was assailed as having injured instead of improved the river by the exclusion of a large quantity of tidal water. In the long contest, however, which took place when the conservancy of the Tyne was taken out of the hands of the Corporation of Newcastle, and put under the control of an elected Commission, as also on the occasion of the Royal Commission which sat in 1855 to inquire into the state of the Tyne, Mr. Brooks’s plans were vindicated and those of his opponents condemned. However, soon after the new Commissioners entered on their duties, it was found that a great divergence of views existed between them and their Engineer.

Mr. Brooks looked almost entirely to land floods as the only certain means of permanently deepening the river; whilst others considered that artificial deepening of the bed of the river by mechanical means would give the river a capacity as a great tidal harbour vastly in excess of its natural characteristics. These unhappily diverging views acted as a bar to any vigorous effort for the improvement which was imperatively called for to enable the Tyne to hold its own against commercial rivals.

Thus it came about that Mr. Brooks ceased to be the Engineer of the Tyne in the year 1858. There can be no question that a considerable improvement was effected by Mr. Brooks in the Tyne, to which he devoted the whole of his time and unceasing energy. His active and fertile brain was ever busy in devising measures of improvement, and it is perhaps unfortunate that SO many of these measures remained unexecuted while he was the engineer of the Commissioners of that river.

At the end of 1858 Mr. Brooks came to London, where he practised as a civil engineer to the close of his life. It was of course difficult for him at his age, and in face of great competition, to make way ; but hew as well known at the Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty, and also at the Board of Trade, and from time to time he was employed in important inquiries by those departments.

In 1870 he went to Honduras to examine the mineral resources in the vicinity of the line of railway then in progress. During the following six years he made four successive visits to the same country on various professional matters, an account of which he published; and finally, in the autumn of 1876, he accepted an appointment as one of the engineers of an expedition sent out, under the auspices of M. de Lesseps and others, to investigate the feasibility of a ship canal across the Isthmus of Darien.

It was in the prosecution of this investigation that Mr. Brooks died at Paya, an Indian village in the Isthmus, the 26th of January, 1877, in the seventy-fifth year of his age. He had been much weakened by a severe attack of fever and diarrhoea, but was recovering when, during the night, sleeping in his hammock in the open air, he was bitten on the foot by a vampire. In the morning he was found all but unconscious, and having lost so much blood, he never rallied.

Mr. Brooks was elected a Member of the Institution on the 10th of June, 1834.

He presented a Paper in 1852 'On the Improvement of Tidal Navigation and Drainages,' a for which a Telford Medal was awarded, and in 1867 a 'Memoir on the River Tyne,' which received a Telford premium. For many years he was a constant attendant at the meetings, and frequently took part in the discussions when they had reference to questions of hydraulic engineering. He also contributed several Essays to the Royal United Service Institution, which will be found recorded in their Journal.



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