Walker, James (1781–1862), civil engineer
by Denis Smith

Walker, James (1781–1862), civil engineer, was born on 28 October 1781 in his father's house at the corner of the Law Wynd in Falkirk, the first of five children of James Walker, farmer, merchant, and banker, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of Robert Smith, a merchant linen draper of Falkirk. At the age of four he was sent to the parish English school. In October 1794 he began a five-year course of studies at Glasgow University, the first two years devoted to classics, the third to logic, and the final years to combined natural philosophy and mathematics, in which he distinguished himself. In the summer of 1800, on a chance visit to London, he stayed in Blackwall with his uncle Ralph Walker, an engineer with a large practice in London, who was then involved with the preliminary works of the West India docks on the Isle of Dogs. Ralph discussed drawings and specifications with Walker and was most impressed with his nephew's abilities.

Thus began one of the most distinguished engineering careers in nineteenth-century Britain. Walker was soon articled to his uncle and his first appointment, in 1803, was as engineer to the Commercial Road Trustees in east London. In 1807 the Commercial Dock Company was formed with Ralph Walker as engineer and James superintending the new lock and keeping the accounts. On his uncle's death James became engineer to the Commercial Dock Company and also succeeded him as engineer to the East India Dock Company. During the 1820s and 1830s Walker developed his career as a consulting engineer and was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1823. His connection with railways was brief but significant. In 1829 he was, with J. U. Rastrick, an adjudicator at the Rainhill locomotive trials on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. In the same year he reported on a railway route from Leeds to Selby, and in 1834 was engaged to extend the railway from Selby to Hull. Both lines were constructed under his supervision. The Hull and Selby directors described Walker as ‘at once prompt and decided, and at the same time, prudent and cautious’. By then he had begun his characteristic work on harbour design, making reports on Great Yarmouth (1826) and Sunderland (1832) among others. While living in the East India Dock Road he married his childhood friend from Falkirk, Janet Cook. They had three daughters followed by a son who was stillborn.

On the death of Thomas Telford in 1834 Walker became the second president of the Institution of Civil Engineers and inherited much of the work that Telford had in progress at the time. Walker's practice developed and by 1830 he had taken Alfred Burges into partnership and soon established an office at 23 Great George Street, Westminster. In 1853 he promoted one of his assistants, James Cooper, to a partnership, the firm being then known as Walker, Burges, and Cooper. Many of the next generation of eminent civil engineers were trained in Walker's Westminster office. His consulting work comprised inland and marine navigation works (canals, river improvements, harbours, and lighthouses) and the design and maintenance of bridges. He was first consulted by Trinity House about 1824 and he was associated with them until his death. He was appointed initially as inspector-general of the lights, with a retaining fee, and afterwards as consulting engineer. He designed and built all the important lighthouses in the first half of the nineteenth century, including Belle Toute, Start Point, St Catherine's, the Needles, the Smalls, and Menai Strait, but his greatest work was Bishop Rock lighthouse at the Isles of Scilly. Walker's firm designed some twenty-nine towers for Trinity House.

Walker was consulted, and retained, as engineer to various harbour schemes by both the Admiralty and civil harbour commissioners. His improvement schemes included those of Belfast, Whitehaven, Dover, Harwich, Leith, Granton, the Tyne piers, Alderney, and the completion of Plymouth breakwater. His canal schemes included design work on the Tame valley Canal and the Netherton Tunnel and major repair works to the Caledonian and Crinan canals. Walker undertook extensive work in London—tide surveys on the Thames and embankment schemes including the coffer-dam and river wall of the houses of parliament. He designed Vauxhall Bridge, the first iron bridge over the Thames, opened in June 1816, and was extensively involved in the maintenance of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. In addition, he was frequently consulted about the drainage of the Middle Level on the fens.

Walker said in his diary: ‘I have never courted business abroad partly from a dislike of sea voyages, & partly from this obliging me to neglect business at home of which I have always had as much as I could manage.’ During his eleven-year tenure of the presidency of the Institution of Civil Engineers he was described as ‘most active, persevering, punctual and constant in his attendance, liberal in his gifts, courteous in the chair … though somewhat wanting in dignity’ (‘Institution of Civil Engineers: notes’, 15). However, his period as president ended in acrimony and led to the limiting of the presidential terms to three years. Walker's portrait, by P. J. Knight, hangs in the institution's building in Great George Street.

Walker was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, received the degree of doctor of laws from Glasgow University, and was elected a member of the senate of the University of London in 1858. He endowed prizes at both Glasgow University and the Institution of Civil Engineers. In 1861 he suffered a slight paralysis and in May 1862 he wrote to Trinity House saying that, owing to ill health, he wished to retire. He died on 8 October 1862 at 23 Great George Street, Westminster, but by his own wish was buried in the family vault in St John's episcopal burial-ground in Edinburgh.



PICE, 22 (1862–3), 630–33 · J. Walker, diary, Inst. CE · ‘Institution of Civil Engineers: notes of the session, Tuesday 12 January 1841’, Surveyor, Engineer, and Architect (1 Feb 1841), 15 · d. cert.


Inst. CE, autobiography, diary, and notebook |  BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel · Trinity House, London · U. Southampton L., letters to first duke of Wellington


J. P. Knight, oils, Inst. CE

Wealth at death  

under £300,000: probate, 15 Nov 1862, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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James Walker (1781–1862): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/45714