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William Willcocks

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Sir William Willcocks KCMG (1852-1932) was a British civil engineer. He was an irrigation engineer who proposed and built the first Aswan Dam, the scale of which had never been attempted previously. He later undertook other major irrigation projects in South Africa and in Arab regions of the dying Ottoman Empire.

1852 September 27th. Born, one of five sons of Captain W. W. Willcocks, a British Engineer posted in Roorkee for Ganges canal works.

He graduated from the Thomason College of Civil Engineering, Roorkee in 1872, and joined the Indian Public Works Department the same year.

Following the British invasion and occupation of Egypt, he began work with the long-established Egyptian Public Works Department in 1883. He was serving as director general of reservoirs for Egypt when he completed his studies and plans in 1896 to construct the Aswan Low Dam, the first true storage reservoir on the river. He supervised its construction from 1898 to its completion in 1902. He also designed and constructed another dam on the Nile, the Assiut Barrage, also completed in 1902.

He later became chairman of the Cairo Water Works Company and was also president of the Anglo-Egyptian Land Allotments Company which was instrumental for the urbanization of Zamalek district (then known as Gezireh) early in the 20th century. One of the streets of Zamalek was named 'Willcocks' after him. He left his position in Egypt by 1897 and four years later he was invited to South Africa. With the end of the Anglo-Boer War he was asked to look into the possibility of irrigation projects in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony. Part of his plans were implemented and for this he was granted the title of KCMG.

He later became head of irrigation for the Ottoman Turkish government, for what was then the greater area of Turkish Arabia. He drew up the first accurate maps of the region, which were subsequently a great help to British expeditionary forces in 1914 and again in 1915.

In 1911 he proposed to have the water brought to the ancient area of Chaldea in Southern Mesopotamia. The Hindiya Barrage was consequently built on the River Euphrates near ancient Babylon, bringing 3,500,000 acres (14,200 km2) under irrigation.

He worked on irrigation projects in Romania shortly before the outbreak of World War I, and again as late as 1928 in Bengal, where he had received some his early training.

In January 1921 he was put on trial before the Supreme Consular Court of Egypt on a charge of sedition and criminal libel, on account of statements made by him impugning the trustworthiness of the data concerning the Nile irrigation published by Murdoch MacDonald, adviser of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works. He was found guilty March 11, and on April 16 he was bound over to be of good behaviour for one year.

1932 July 28th. Died at the Anglo-American Hospital in Cairo

1932 Obituary.[1]

1932 Obituary [2]


In the death of Sir William Willcooks, on Thursday of last week, one of the most remarkable figures of British engineering has passed away. We had prepared to write instead of “ British engineering,” the words “the British Occupation of Egypt”; but while Willcocks’ great achievements will for ever be associated with that country, his work and influence made history in much wider fields, to the renown of the great profession to which he belonged. That he was a visionary was undoubtedly true, but his visions were based on a vast amount of study and observation, conducted with a tireless energy which not infrequently resulted in him far outstripping-others in his zeal.

Though not discovered among the bulrushes, Willcocks was ushered into the world in circumstances peculiarly appropriate to his after life, for he was born, in 1852, in a tent on the bank of an irrigation canal in India. After the providential escape of the whole family at the time of the Mutiny, William, on attaining sufficient age, went to the Mussoorie School, where he ultimately became head boy. He passed on to the Thomason Civil Engineering College, Roorkhee, where his brilliant work put him at the top of his year. As a result, he was posted to the Irrigation Branch of the Public Works Department of the United Provinces. This was in 1872, and he remained in this service for eleven years, during which time he was engaged on a variety of works, including drainage projects connected with the Ganges and Lower Ganges Canals, important protective works necessitated by the great landslip of 1880 at Naini Tai, while he also acted as resident engineer for part of the time during the construction of the Paricha weir on the Betwa Canal headworks.

When Sir Colin Scott-Moncrieff was called by Sir Evelyn Baring to Egypt, to take charge of the reorganisation of the irrigation service of that country, his first task was to get together a nucleus of engineers capable of envisaging and planning a constructive programme of reforms intended to be the main foundation for the rebuilding of the Egyptian nation. This story has so often been written that we need not dwell at length upon it here.

It is common knowledge how this little band, with funds cut down to the very minimum, but actuated by the high purpose and ideals which have done so much to make us leaders of the world, successfully contended with endless obstacles and difficulties, and finally put Egypt, under the wise guidance of Lord Cromer, into the condition of prosperity she has now enjoyed for many years. Col. Scott-Moncrieff, himself an old Indian irrigation man, naturally looked to that training ground for the men he wanted. He gathered round him Willcocks, Garstin, Ross, Hanbury Brown, Foster, Western and Reid, Willcocks being one of the first to join him; and thus, in 1883, commenced the long connection with that country which terminated only with his death last week. When he left India at the age of 31 for Egypt, he had actually not previously been out of the country.

One of the first reforms of Scott-Moncrieff in Egypt was the abolition of the corvee system. This alone was a great accomplishment. The change was proposed by Willcocks and the reform carried through in the face of ridicule and opposition, as the result of trials made by him on the delta system of canals. After the rehabilitation of the Calioub barrage, on the feasibility of which Willcocks was the first to report, the work itself being carried out a little later by Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Western, the two engineering works of prime importance which led to the recovery of Egypt were the Assouan dam and the Assiout barrage. These were first put forward by Willcocks, then Director General of Reservoirs, in 1894, and, as is well known, both were subsequently built and remain lasting memorials to the inauguration of the new era. Later came the proposal by Willcocks himself to raise the height of the dam. A considerable controversy arose over this proposal, which subsequently materialised, but on lines suggested by Sir Benjamin Baker and not those propounded by Willcocks. At the present moment, the dam is being heightened and strengthened for the second time.

In 1895, Willcocks was appointed by Lord Cromer to be Director-General of Land Tax Adjustment, for which his knowledge of the value of irrigation was of great service. The readjustment was worked out on an equitable system, which brought immense relief to the small fellaheen holders, and was carried through in two years, after which Willcocks left the Government service to become manager of the Cairo waterworks. While holding this position he prepared a drainage project for the city. In 1899, he was appointed, by Sir Ernest Cassel, managing director of the Daira Sanieh Company, in which capacity he put through sales of land and sugar factories to the value of 11,000,000/. In 1902 he visited the Soudan and Upper Nile regions for the first time, and repeated the journey in 1908, 1912 and 1918, in connection with irrigation proposals. While with the Daira Sanieh, he was invited to South Africa to report on irrigation projects for the Cape, Orange Free State and Transvaal, and planned a scheme on a large scale, which, however, it was not possible to take up more than in part.

Willcocks’ name will be associated mainly with Egypt and Mesopotamia, for though in the latter only one engineering work of note stands to his memory, his study of the problem of the Tigris and Euphrates was in itself a monument to the immense labour which he devoted to this subject, which appealed to him on the grand scale. His work, 77?p Irrigation of Mesopotamia, presents to the reader a great project for bringing prosperity again to that cradle of civilisation. With the Bible and volumes of classical authors in his hand, Willcocks covered the whole of the country, locating historic sites and identifying ancient canals. Having decided from most careful examination on the spot, upon the general principles underlying the ancient systems, he set himself to the task of planning for their resuscitation in accordance with modern requirements. Anyone who has read his book, or was fortunate enough to listen to his lectures on the subject before the Royal Geographical Society, could hardly have remained unaffected by his enthusiasm, while to those who had, as some fortunately did, later, the opportunity of studying his proposals in the country itself, Willcocks’ fire unfailingly communicated itself. Here was a great country, practically barren, and the proposal was to bring it again under cultivation at a cost of something like 26,000,000/. British engineers had put Egypt on her feet for a comparable sum, and to individuals of the race which has done so much to people the waste places of the earth the appeal was, without doubt, attractive. Circumstances were, however, not so propitious.

Willcocks’ report was made to the Turkish Government, who put in hand a single work of importance, the Hindieh barrage, and even so were so parsimonious that this small fraction of the scheme could not be satisfactorily completed. Though not destroyed during the war, it was partially out of use until further work was carried out during the Occupation. Since the war, conditions have been wholly adverse to Willcocks’ project. Costs have greatly increased and the temporary nature of the Mandate was sufficient to discourage completely any proposals involving the sinking of great capital sums. The population question has also presented difficulties, so that there is small chance now of Mesopotamia becoming again the granary which Willcocks pictured.

In Egypt, as is well-known, there exists in the Wadi-Ryan a depression, the ancient Lake Moeris, which once was used as an escape and reservoir for the Nile flood. The site has attracted considerable notice in connection with modern schemes.

Cope-Whitehouse revived it, and Colonel Western and Willcocks were also engaged at one time on a study of it. Other matters were given preference, however, and ,the ancient use of the depression has not been resorted to again. In Mesopotamia, Willcocks, with his knowledge of Egypt and local history, sought for a similar means of reducing the danger of floods, and found it on the Euphrates in what he termed the Habbaniah escape, a low-lying tract of 500 sq. miles, into which he proposed at high floods to divert the flow of the river, for release as the levels fell. The great scale of the scheme of which this formed a main feature will be obvious. Willcocks, in fact, had in mind the reconditioning, not of a tract, but of a country, and it is to he regretted that so little of the scheme has materialised through the difficulties of the last 20 years. It may be stated that the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force was largely dependent upon the maps and information of the country which Sir William had made available, and which proved of immense service in conducting the campaign and dealing with the country after active operations. Indeed, his personal services were asked for, hut the request was not acceded to by the War Office.

From the irrigation point of view he was one of the first to lay stress upon the dangers of waterlogging, and on the importance of drainage, as well as supplies. Probably, his early experience on the Ganges Canals impressed this upon him. The vital necessity of adequate drainage has since become evident in many areas, especially in Egypt, where this aspect of the subject has absorbed a great deal of attention and money, since the water available has been so increased. In 1926, Willcocks was invited to Bengal to report on the ancient irrigation systems. He condemned the general plan of the modem works and considered the ancient system to be based on superior principles. He propounded a general scheme of rehabilitation, which he, moreover, was convinced would lead to much healthier conditions in the delta region. In fact, he considered that the conversion would largely rid the country of malaria, and by providing better irrigation and a healthier people, could add to its prosperity to an untold degree.

From what has been said, it will he gathered that Sir William Willcocks was quite exceptional as a man and engineer. He was unconventional to a degree, had an immense capacity for work, and formed very strong convictions. He was forceful in argument, hut at times, as events proved, allowed himself to be carried to the length of indiscretion, and his relations with his fellows in the profession were chequered in consequence. None will deny, however, that the causes which he so strenuously supported were, to him, based upon conscientious conviction, for he was a man who chose his own line only after very careful thought. He was a great linguist, and both in Egypt and Mesopotamia gained most of his intimate knowledge from close contact with the natives. He was a deep student of the Scriptures, and was indefatigable in substantiating Bible history on the actual spots, his deductions often being of a very original nature, propounded quaintly, perhaps, in a lecture or some other form of communication in a manner quite his own. His knowledge of the classics, at least, in so far as they concerned the subject he so much made his own, was equally profound, while he took infinite pains to follow up any clue suggested by folklore and legend. He was undoubtedly a genius, and even his visions, vast as they were, were raised upon basic facts taking the most ordinary details into account. He was therefore practical in what he did or proposed, though some of his schemes were too great for the times. He stands as a great figure among those men of our race who have devoted their lives to the advancement of the more backward peoples, of whom our work, especially in Egypt and India, has produced examples certainly unsurpassed by any other nation.

Willcocks was made C.M.G. on the completion of the Assouan Dam, an award which may be considered all too small for so great a work, which has since stood as one of the wonders of the world, epoch-making as an engineering feat, and a great contribution to civilisation. After his visit to South Africa he was created K.C.M.G. The residence of his choice was Cairo, where he was a well-known and active figure, and it appears from reports, that, after an energetic life, in the course of which he was exposed to all sorts of risks, in the end he succumbed in his own home to dysentery."

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