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date: 05 July 2022

Society of Civil Engineersfree

(act. 1771–2001)

Society of Civil Engineersfree

(act. 1771–2001)
  • Mike Chrimes

Society of Civil Engineers (act. 1771–2001), the first group of non-military engineers in the English-speaking world, was founded at a time when civil engineering was moving from a formative phase to a recognizable professional specialism. The inaugural meeting of the society took place at the King's Head tavern, Holborn, London, on 15 March 1771, when seven engineers met and 'agreed that the civil engineers of this Kingdom do form themselves into a Society consisting of a President, a Vice-President, a Treasurer and Secretary and other members'. The founder members were Thomas Yeoman, who took the chair, John Smeaton, Robert Mylne, Joseph Nickalls (1725–1793), John Grundy, John Thompson (d. 1795), and James King (d. 1781). Later that year they were joined by John Golborne (1724–1783), Robert Whitworth (1734–1799), Hugh Henshall (1734–1816), and William Black. With the exception of Black, who was a client of Smeaton's from the Holderness drainage board, they comprised the majority of the leading civil engineers of the country at the time. The most notable omission was James Brindley: by then seriously ill, he was effectively represented by Henshall, his brother-in-law, who completed much of Brindley's work after his death in 1772, and by Whitworth, a surveyor turned canal engineer, who carried out much of his early civil engineering work with Brindley.

Of the founder members the most influential were Smeaton, Mylne, and Grundy. Grundy was arguably the first British-born engineer to be trained as a civil engineer. He was based in Spalding and much of his work involved fen drainage and land reclamation. Mylne, the youngest of the founders, made his reputation with his winning design for Blackfriars Bridge. Engineer for many years to the New River Company, the largest of London's water supply companies, he practised, also successfully, as an architect and building surveyor. Smeaton made his civil engineering reputation with the successful design and construction of the Eddystone lighthouse (1759), but was also well known in scientific circles for his papers to the Royal Society and work as an instrument maker. Of the others, Thompson worked with Grundy in the fens, while King, hailing from Daventry, was almost certainly a surveyor friend of Yeoman. Nickalls had been trained as a millwright, and then worked for Smeaton as resident engineer on the Calder and Hebble Navigation before becoming engineer to the Thames commissioners, for whom he carried out major improvement works in the 1770s. Yeoman, the most senior member, had developed his practice in the Northampton area, where he designed an important water-powered cotton mill in 1743, the world's first. In the 1760s he was heavily involved with navigation works. Of the other early members, John Golborne had established his reputation with improvements to the Dee Navigation.

Although civil engineering works had a long history in Britain, its practitioners could hardly be described as a profession in the 1740s when Yeoman and Grundy were active. Engineers in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries included gentlemen with a scientific and technical interest who wished to develop their property; skilled mechanics and men like Brindley who developed their inventiveness and financial resources to a more sophisticated level than that of tradesmen; mathematical practitioners whose scientific knowledge and expertise led to their employment by clients on their improvement schemes; émigré engineers like Charles Labelye, engineer for Westminster Bridge, who brought continental ideas and practice to bear in Britain; and finally engineer-contractors like John Perry who provided design and build services for their clients. Their work rarely gave opportunities to meet other engineers.

The term ‘engineer’ itself was still largely the preserve of military engineers in the service of the crown. This situation changed rapidly in the 1760s when the growth in trade and desire for land improvement created a demand among clients—harbour authorities, canal companies, turnpike trusts, and landowners—for the services of ‘civil engineers’, described as 'a self-created set of men, whose profession owes its origin, not to power or influence; but to the best of all protection, the encouragement of a great and powerful nation;—a nation become so, from the industry and steadiness of its manufacturing workmen, and their superior knowledge in practical chemistry, mechanics, natural philosophy, and other useful accomplishments' (Mylne, v).

The term ‘civil engineer’ itself was being used by Smeaton and Yeoman from the early 1760s. In that decade they and others met from time to time in parliament as they supported their clients' private bills through the legislative process. One or other suggested to Smeaton the idea of meeting 'in a friendly way … That thus, the sharp edges of their minds might be rubbed off, as it were, by a closer communication of ideas' (Mylne, vi). It is not known who initiated the idea—possibly Yeoman or Grundy—but Smeaton embraced it, and thus the first meeting took place in 1771. The decision to elect Yeoman president was no doubt a tribute to his seniority; Mylne was vice-president. Yeoman kept the early minutes, frequently subsidized the society's early activities, and helped maintain the momentum. The first intention was to meet fortnightly on Saturday evenings, at the King's Head, from when the ‘country’ members came up to London on parliamentary business until the end of the parliamentary session. At the second meeting it was decided to meet weekly on Friday, and a subscription of 3d. a week was introduced. In 1774 William Jessop, previously Smeaton's pupil, and a rising star in the profession, assumed the role of secretary, which he continued until 1777.

Attendance fluctuated widely. Some elected members never attended, or only attended one meeting; in some cases, such as that of Robert Mackell (d. 1779), resident engineer of the Forth and Clyde Canal, remoteness from London was the reason, but others were evidently not interested. A low point was reached in the mid-1770s. No meeting was held in 1775 or 1777. At the last meeting of the 1774 session, on 27 May, only Jessop and Christopher Pinchbeck, the instrument maker and inventor, were present. Although not a civil engineer, Pinchbeck regularly took the chair and was elected president in 1781 on Yeoman's death, holding the position until his own death in 1783, when he was succeeded by Joseph Nickalls. Pinchbeck's election no doubt owed much to his regular attendance, but it is curious that a society of civil engineers should have had as its head one who was not a civil engineer. The membership in fact reflected the amorphous nature of the profession at the time. Of the sixty-seven early members elected between 1771 and 1792 at least twenty-two would now be considered civil engineers, five mechanical engineers, five clock or instrument makers, four contractors, five surveyors, three scientists, three map makers, three architects, two manufacturers, one painter, and one publican (of the King's Head). There was one military engineer—Henry Watson, who was responsible for early harbour works at Calcutta. They represent about two-thirds of the known civil engineers practising in the period, and the only groups under-represented are arguably the contractors and military engineers.

In 1791 the society was disrupted by a personal dispute which resulted in Nickalls, the president, making a formal apology to Smeaton for some undisclosed offence. This episode heralded a major reform of the society's constitution, implemented in 1793 following Smeaton's death. Three classes of membership were created. The first class was limited to those who were actively involved in the design and construction of engineering works, and invitations were sent out to some of the previous membership to ask if they would accept nominations. The first four nominations were of the committee responsible for the reorganization—Mylne, Whitworth, Jessop, and John Rennie. To these four were added James Watt, James Golborne (1746–1819), nephew of John Golborne and a distinguished fen engineer, Sir Thomas Hyde Page, a well-known, if controversial, military engineer, and John Duncombe (d. 1810), at that time associated with Jessop on the Ellesmere Canal. There were some curious omissions, notably John Holmes, Smeaton's kinsman and a member since 1772, and a remarkable exclusion in the case of the land surveyor Joseph Hodgkinson (d. 1812), a member since 1771 and vice-president since 1781.

The second class, comprising those whose professions and employment were closely associated with engineering, were designated ‘artists’. Precise numbers were prescribed for each category of the artists' class—a geographer, time-keeper maker, two instrument makers, two land surveyors practising levelling, two millwrights, a printer, and an engine maker. Those elected were: William Faden, a geographer; Samuel Phillips, engine maker; George Young (1750–1820) and Thomas Milne (1768–1809), land surveyors; Jesse Ramsden and John Troughton (c.1739–1807), instrument makers; John Torr Foulds (1742–1815), millwright, and Samuel Brook, printer. Faden and Phillips were longstanding members, Phillips being previously regarded as a civil engineer.

The third class, 'men of science and gentlemen of fame and fortune', included only two of the previous class of such gentlemen, Joseph Priestley, member since 1773, and Matthew Boulton, elected in 1780. The new honorary members were Sir Joseph Banks, Colonel Samuel Bentham, Major James Rennell, and the land surveyor George Maxwell (c.1744–1816), a distinguished group indeed, of whom Banks was to be the most important in relation to the society's activities over the next two decades. The gentleman were subsequently recategorized as the second class and the artists as the third.

The reorganization of the society in 1793 was seen by some as a clear break with the previous incarnation, though in fact much of the pre-existent society was carried forward in its manner of business, including the adoption of the same toasts, with the addition of 'To the memory of our late worthy brother, John Smeaton'. The publication of Smeaton's papers, made available by their purchaser Joseph Banks, was a major achievement of the reconstituted society. A committee for publication was set up comprising Banks, Jessop, Mylne, and Rennie, and two newer members, Charles Hutton, professor at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, elected an honorary member in 1794, and William Chapman, the distinguished civil engineer who spent much of his early career in Ireland and the north-east, and who was elected in 1795. The works appeared in four volumes between 1798 and 1814. The reconstituted society did little to attract new blood. Only nine civil engineers were admitted as members between 1793 and Rennie's death in 1821, and all of those admitted in the period 1811–22 were sons of past members—William Chadwell Mylne, Josias Jessop (1781–1826), George Rennie and John Rennie junior, and James Watt junior. Neither Thomas Telford nor Robert Stevenson, the lighthouse engineer, was elected to membership: both had aroused the animosity of the elder John Rennie.

Such a society could be little more than a clique rather than a broad-based body, and did not represent the sort of learned forum where younger engineers could benefit from the exchange of ideas relating to their profession. In these circumstances it is unsurprising that a group of young engineers led by Henry Robinson Palmer determined to establish the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818. With the election of Thomas Telford as its president in 1820 this society provided the profession with the leadership and the forum it required. The Institution of Civil Engineers secured its royal charter in 1828, and began publishing in 1836; its position as the home of the profession was clear. This was effectively recognized in 1845 when the Smeatonian Society, as it increasingly became known, gave its collections of plans and reports to the Institution of Civil Engineers. In 1914 membership of the society was restricted to forty-eight engineers and twelve gentlemen. The society continues to meet for dinner, at the Institution of Civil Engineers, and over the years has included in its membership many of the leading engineers in the United Kingdom. On 7 November 1994 the society was responsible for the dedication of a memorial to its most famous member, John Smeaton, in Westminster Abbey.


  • R. Mylne, preface, in Reports of the late Mr. John Smeaton, F.R.S. (1797)
  • ‘Society of Civil Engineers’, A. Rees and others, The cyclopaedia, or, Universal dictionary of arts, sciences, and literature, 45 vols. (1819–20)
  • A. W. Skempton, The Smeatonians: duo-centenary notes on the Society of Civil Engineers, 1771–1971 (1971)
  • A. W. Skempton and E. C. Wright, ‘Early members of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers’, Transactions [Newcomen Society], 44 (1971–2), 23–47
  • A. W. Skempton, ed., John Smeaton, FRS (1981)
  • A. W. Skempton and others, eds., A biographical dictionary of civil engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, 1 (2002)
  • Westminster Abbey evensong and dedication of a memorial to John Smeaton, 7 Nov 1994, Smeatonian Society
  • S. Smiles, Lives of the engineers, 2 (1861)
  • G. Watson, The civils: the story of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1988)
  • G. Watson, The Smeatonians: the society of civil engineers (1989)
  • A. P. Woolrich, ‘The printing of Smeaton's report’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 35 (1980)
  • A. P. Woolrich, ‘John Farey and the Smeaton manuscripts’, History of Technology, 10 (1985), 181–216


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Institution of Civil Engineers, London