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date: 01 March 2021

Brunton, (Richard) Henryfree

  • Ann Waswo

(Richard) Henry Brunton (1841–1901)

by Maull & Fox

special collections and university archives, Rutgers University Libraries

Brunton, (Richard) Henry (1841–1901), civil engineer, was born at Muchalls, Aberdeenshire, on 26 December 1841, the son of Richard Brunton, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and his wife, Margaret, née Telfer. In 1856, after private schooling in Scotland, he trained as an engineer, completing his articles under John Willet of Aberdeen in 1860. He worked for Willet for the next few years as an assistant on the construction of railways in the Scottish highlands and then moved to London in 1864, where he continued to work in the surveying and building of railways. He married, at Bonnington, Edinburgh, on 22 December 1865, Elizabeth Charlotte (b. 1843), daughter of George Wauchope, a clerk for the North British Railway Company; they had two daughters.

Keen to rise in the world, the 26-year-old Brunton applied for an executive engineering post in India early in 1868, but he was rejected as too young and inexperienced. His next application for an overseas post a few weeks later was successful. On the recommendation of David and Thomas Stevenson, the engineers to the Northern Lighthouse Board, Brunton was appointed chief engineer to the lighthouse department of the Japanese government, which was to be located in the newly opened port of Yokohama. After a few months of intensive study with the Stevensons in Edinburgh, visits to lighthouses and lightships along the coast of Great Britain, and election as an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers (April 1868) he embarked from Southampton on 13 June, accompanied by his wife, their first-born daughter, and two assistant engineers. Their ship arrived in Yokohama on 8 August 1868, and the young but ambitious civil engineer swiftly set about establishing himself in the newly formed Meiji government of Japan as one of its first oyatoi gaikokujin (foreign employees).

By the time Brunton left Japan in 1876, just eight years later, he had overseen the construction of more than thirty lighthouses at strategic points along Japan's rugged coastline and the creation of an effective lighthouse service. He had also provided advice on the construction of railways and telegraph lines, encouraged the accurate surveying and mapping of Japan, supervised the construction of Japan's second iron bridge (in Yokohama, 1870) and drafted plans for the provision of safe water and lighting in that same foreign enclave as well as for the development of harbour facilities there and elsewhere in the country.

Brunton was one of more than 2500 westerners hired by the Japanese government in the decades following the Meiji restoration of 1868 to provide technical assistance in modernizing the newly unified nation after two centuries of isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate. The largest number of the westerners, some 1000, came from Britain, but there were contingents from France, Germany, the United States, and several other countries as well. These foreign employees were well paid, generally earning at least double the salaries they might have expected to receive in their home countries. It has been estimated that as much as 5 per cent of total government expenditure during the Meiji period (1868–1912) was devoted to covering their salaries, travel allowances, and local housing costs. Large sums were also spent on sending young Japanese abroad to master the knowledge and skills that had necessitated hiring foreigners in the first place. Considerably more was spent, of course, on building the new institutions and facilities—among them universities and other educational establishments, a modern army and navy, a nationwide postal service—on which these foreign employees gave advice.

There was no overseas development aid at the time, and on the basis of reports from China and elsewhere in Asia the Japanese government was keenly aware of the risks of securing loans in the private money markets of the West, for which considerable collateral was required. Unsuccessful clashes with one or more Western powers, as had happened in China since the 1840s, would lead even more swiftly to the ceding of territory, assets or income streams. Indeed, one of the new Japanese government's main aims in modernizing the country was to achieve equality with the West so that the encroachments on Japanese sovereignty already agreed to by the Tokugawa shogunate in the ‘unequal treaties’ signed in the late 1850s could be removed and Japan's independence assured. The Japanese government was determined to pay for development itself—including the high cost of foreign employees—and it proved able to do so, largely by means of a new system of taxes on agricultural land, implemented in the 1870s, which provided a substantial and reliable source of revenue. Burgeoning exports of raw silk and machine-woven cotton cloth, two domestic industries in which some useful advice from foreign employees had been received, helped in earning the foreign exchange needed to pay for the imports of Western technology that underpinned Meiji Japan's development strategy.

Brunton's position as an employee of the Japanese government was unusual in one sense: his services were not sought by the Japanese authorities on their own initiative, but were mandated by the tariff convention of 1866, signed by Japan, France, Great Britain, and the United States at the instigation of the three western powers. Article 11 of that convention stated that the Japanese government 'will provide all the ports open to foreign trade with such lights, buoys, or beacons as may be necessary to render secure the navigation to the said ports' (Brunton, Building Japan, 23). The concern of the western powers was with the safety of their ships, which dominated Japan's trade with the outside world at the time and were playing an increasingly important role in coastal shipping within Japan. By the 1880s, however, the system installed under Brunton was also benefiting Japanese steamships and a nascent Japanese international shipping industry.

Brunton attempted with only limited results to use the treaty obligations to enhance his decision-making authority within the lighthouse department and the Ministry of Public Works, but he met with the same resistance as did other foreign employees. Policies were to be made by Japanese officials, and the foreigners were there simply to carry them out. That he chafed under this regime is clear from the memoir of his time in Japan that he drafted toward the end of his life, 'The awakening of a nation, being a description of the entry of Japan into the sisterhood of nations, with an elucidation of the character of the people, from personal experience'. He complained that 'Instead of having free scope for their talents, the foreign servants of the Emperor were swathed round so tightly with the cramping bonds of suspicion and jealousy that they were unusually helpless' (Brunton, Building Japan, 105). They had little communication with the heads of government, and instead were controlled by officials, who decided whether suggestions were worthy of being put before the head of the department.

Nor was Brunton pleased with the calibre of the young Japanese men, presumably of samurai origin, who applied for posts as lighthouse keepers. He itemized some of their 'delinquencies', including sleeping on their watches, threatening European lightkeepers with their swords, letting the lights become extinguished, drunkenness, 'falsification of returns and attempts at bare-faced deception' (Brunton, Building Japan, 143–4). On this occasion he attributed their defects to factors other than the 'Oriental culture' that some other westerners cited in their accounts of their experiences in Japan. Instead he saw them as consequences of undeveloped institutions, such as a public school system, a civil service, or training of the army and navy, which would have inculcated modern work discipline. In their absence,

there appeared to be ingrained in the nature of the applicants for salaried positions an apathetic indifference to routine duty. Their old habits did not permit of their giving that punctual and systematic attention to routine so necessary in a lighthouse.

Brunton, Building Japan, 143

Although Brunton had high praise for a few of the Japanese officials who were briefly given oversight of the lighthouse service, most notably Inoue Kaoru, Sano Tsunetami, and Ito Hirobumi, it cannot be said that he developed anything approaching a liking for Japan and the Japanese. He probably saw more of the country, especially its nearly 18,500 miles of coastline, than other foreign employees, but his gaze was that of a civil engineer, and his focus was on finding solutions to the problems he encountered in the landscape. On his return to Britain he delivered a paper on 14 November 1876 to the Institution of Civil Engineers (of which he had been elected a member in 1873) entitled 'The Japan lights', describing the technical details of his work in Japan.

Brunton worked in private industry for a few years after his return to Britain in 1876. From 1878 he became manager of Young's Paraffin Oil Company of Glasgow. In 1881 he bought a business producing architectural ornaments and practised as an architect and engineer in London, providing the ornamental detail for theatres, hotels, and large houses. He died at his home, 45 Courtfield Road, South Kensington, London, on 24 April 1901 and was buried at West Norwood cemetery. He left only a modest estate and his widow sold the manuscript of his memoirs to the American scholar William Elliot Griffis.

Celebrations in Yokohama in 1991 to mark the 150th anniversary of Brunton's birth and his contributions to modern engineering in Japan attracted renewed attention to his career, which had been largely forgotten in Britain. His memoir, which a few years earlier had been published in a Japanese translation, was finally published in two English editions, one edited by Sir Hugh Cortazzi and the other edited by Edward R. Beauchamp. Several of Brunton's technical papers are included with Cortazzi's edition. An unexpurgated version of the final chapter of Brunton's memoir, 'Personal judgments', appears in Beauchamp's edition. Writing that chapter about 1900, in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–5 and the run-up to the signing of the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, Brunton not only expressed alarm at widespread British admiration of the Japanese, but also made some rather sweeping statements about the defects of Japanese culture and the residual 'barbarity' of the Japanese people. The final chapter was not in keeping with the critical, but generally balanced, tone of the rest of the memoir, which gives an intriguing insight into the challenges facing both the Japanese government and its foreign employees during the Meiji era.


  • PICE, 145/3 (1901), 340–41
  • The Times (20 May 1901)
  • R. H. Brunton, ‘The Japan lights’, PICE, 47 (1876), 1–27
  • H. J. Jones, Live machines: hired foreigners and Meiji Japan (1980)
  • R. H. Brunton, Schoolmaster to an empire: Richard Henry Brunton in Meiji Japan, 1868–1876, ed. E. R. Beauchamp (1991)
  • R. H. Brunton, Building Japan, 1868–1876, ed. H. Cortazzi (1991)
  • bap. reg. Scot., Fetteresso
  • census returns, 1881, 1891, 1901
  • m. cert.


  • Rutgers University, William Elliot Griffis collection


  • photograph, 1868, repro. in Brunton, Building Japan, 86
  • Maull & Fox, photograph, repro. in Brunton, Building Japan, 22
  • Maull & Fox, photograph, Rutgers University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£813 19s. 8d.: administration with will, 13 June 1901, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers