The World of Benjamin Baker: A Chronology

  • Benjamin Baker
  • The World
  • Frome
  • Drag the scrollbar! »
  • 1840
  • 1841
  • 1842
  • 1843
  • 1844
  • 1845
  • 1846
  • 1847
  • 1848
  • 1849
  • 1850
  • 1851
  • 1852
  • 1853
  • 1854
  • 1855
  • 1856
  • 1857
  • 1858
  • 1859
  • 1860
  • 1861
  • 1862
  • 1863
  • 1864
  • 1865
  • 1866
  • 1867
  • 1868
  • 1869
  • 1870
  • 1871
  • 1872
  • 1873
  • 1874
  • 1875
  • 1876
  • 1877
  • 1878
  • 1879
  • 1880
  • 1881
  • 1882
  • 1883
  • 1884
  • 1885
  • 1886
  • 1887
  • 1888
  • 1889
  • 1890
  • 1891
  • 1892
  • 1893
  • 1894
  • 1895
  • 1896
  • 1897
  • 1898
  • 1899
  • 1900
  • 1901
  • 1902
  • 1903
  • 1904
  • 1905
  • 1906
  • 1907
  • Benjamin Baker born in Keyford, Frome

    Born in Keyford, Frome, Somerset to Benjamin Baker & Sarah Baker (neé Hollis). His father is recorded as a ‘gentleman’ in the 1841 census and is a foreman at an iron works in Frome, possibly the Butts Hill Ironworks.

  • Living in Cheltenham

    Living in Cheltenham with his widowed mother. The census lists Baker & his sister Fanny Maria as scholars attending Cheltenham Grammar School.

  • Neath Abbey Iron Works

    Is articled to Mssrs Price & Fox at the Neath Abbey Iron Works, home of cutting edge Victorian technology. This would have been the standard form of engineering education at the time, the profession was relatively new and few degree courses had been established.

  • Moves to London, works on Victoria Bridge & Station

    Moves to London and becomes assistant to Mr. W. Wilson – works on the erection of Victoria Bridge and Station.

  • Starts working for John Fowler

    Starts working for John Fowler – designing the construction of the Metropolitan Railway. This is the beginning of a friendship (and later partnership) that will last until Fowler’s death in 1898.

  • Elected Associate of Institution of Civil Engineers

    Elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

    On ‘Long Span Bridges’ appears in ‘Engineering’.

  • "On the Strength of Beams and Columns"

    ‘On the Strength of Beams and Columns’ appears in ‘Engineering’.

  • "On the Strength of Brickwork" Published

    ‘On the Strength of Brickwork’ appears in ‘Engineering’.

    Started working in Egypt on various engineering projects.

  • "On Urban Railways" Published

    ‘On Urban Railways’, published in ‘Engineering’. Baker analyses the heavy loading on urban railways and the high percentage of acceleration and decceleration the trains experience over short distances. Puts forward the idea of the undulating track first proposed by Robert Stephenson Snr. in 1837 but never adopted.

  • Fowler makes Baker his partner

    Fowler makes Baker his partner.

  • Designs Cleopatra’s Needle vessel

    With John Dixon designs a vessel ‘The Cleopatra’ to transport Cleopatra’s Needle from Alexandria to London. ‘The Cleopatra’ is cut free from the towing ship, ‘The Olga’, during a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay. It is found days later and, after a salvage fee has been paid, is towed to England and up the Medway. The obelisk is mounted on the embankment using a timber scaffold designed by Baker & Dixon.

  • Design for Forth Bridge accepted

    Messrs. Fowler and Baker’s design for the Forth Bridge – accepted.

  • Work commences on the Forth Bridge

    Work commences on the Forth Bridge.

  • Speaks in Montreal

    Speaks on the subject of the Forth Bridge in Montreal.

  • Speech to Royal Institution

    Delivered his ‘Bridging the Firth of Forth’ speech to the Royal Institution.

  • Hudson River Tunnel

    Uses a Beach pneumatic shield which enables work on the Hudson River Tunnel in New York to continue. The project had been started in 1874 by Mr. Dewitt Clinton Haskin who used the compressed air method of tunnel contruction. This resulted in a number of ‘blow-outs’ killing workers who were trapped in the tunnel as it filled with water.

    Made honorary member of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers.

  • Prince of Wales opens Forth Bridge

    Prince of Wales officially opens the Forth Bridge on 4th March.

    Knighted by Queen Victoria.

    Became a fellow of the Royal Society.

  • Became President of Institution of Civil Engineers

    Became President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

  • Construction of the Central Line commences

    Construction of the Central Line commences - Baker as Consulting Engineer puts into practice his theories of 25 yrs earlier.

  • American Society of Civil Engineers

    Made honorary member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

  • Work commences on the Aswan Dam

    Work commences on the Aswan Dam. Baker acknowledges that the Temples at Philae will be submerged when the dam fills and includes their strengthening and underpinning in the project cost. Cancels the building contract when he realizes that if the dam is finished a year early any additional cost of building faster will be more than compensated by increased profits to farmers and subsequent tax revenue.

    Sir John Fowler, Baker’s colleague and partner of 37 years dies.

  • Becomes member of IME

    Became a council member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

  • Central Line completed

    Central Line completed.

  • Aswan Dam opened

    Aswan Dam opened by the Duke & Duchess of Connaught.

  • Became Vice-President of the Royal Society

    Became Vice-President of the Royal Society.

    Visits Egypt to plan further construction and enlargement of Aswan Dam.

  • Baker dies in Berkshire

    Baker dies at Bowden Green, Pangbourne, Berkshire on May 19.

  • 'Penny post' stamp introduced

    'Penny post' stamp introduced.

  • Modern photography processes patented

    Calotype negative on paper introduced by Fox Talbot. This positive/negative process of modern photography - patented by Talbot - differed from previous attempts at photo-sensitive imagery in that by producing a negative multiple copies of an image could be made. Fox Talbot also developed methods of fixing & developing which were revolutionary.

  • The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

    The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx is published.

  • Invention of Frederick Scott Archer’s wet collodion on glass process of photography (moving on from the calotype, this cut exposure time enhanced detail and enabled exhibition scale prints). Great Exhibition, London, exhibits photographs (This was the first substantial display of photographs).

  • Exhibition at the Society of Arts, London - the first exhibition devoted purely to photography (this exhibition of 779 photographs went on to tour Britain and was enthusiastically reviewed in The Times, 31 December 1852).

  • ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

    ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens is published. The book is a searing critique of industrialization and the philosophy of utilitarianism.

    The Crimea War photographed by Roger Fenton (Described as the ‘first’ war photographs, Fenton was commissioned by Thomas Agnew. Using an old wine merchants van as his travelling darkroom, Fenton increasingly came under enemy fire and returned suffering from cholera. Thus he was unable to answer the summons of Queen Victoria to show her his prints).

  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel photographed by Robert Howlett (this is the iconic image of Brunel standing in front of the launching chains of the Great Eastern).

  • Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’

    Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ is published.

  • Francis Frith photographs ‘Egypt, Sinai and Jerusalem’.

  • Invention of the Woodburytype.

  • Gardner’s ‘Photographic Sketchbook of the American Civil War’.

  • Secular school boards introduced (Great Britain)

    New law introduces secular school boards.

  • Thomson’s ‘Illustrations of China and its People’

  • Alexander Bell patents the telephone

    Alexander Bell patents the telephone.

  • Tay Bridge (Dundee) collapses

    Thomas Bouch’s Tay Bridge collapses killing 75 people. Wind loading and poor quality construction are blamed for the disaster. Bouch is relieved of the commission to design the Forth Bridge and dies 10 months later.

    Klic invents photogravure process.

  • Education becomes compulsory (Great Britain)

    Education becomes compulsory for children under ten.

  • Natural History Museum (London) is completed

    Natural History Museum designed by Alfred Waterhouse is completed. Originally the collection had been housed in the British Museum but when it outgrew it’s home land was purchased in South Kensington in order to construct a purpose-built museum. The Glazed terracotta façade was designed to withstand the London smog.

    Gelatin-silver chloride paper introduced.

  • Brooklyn Bridge (New York) completed

    John Augustus Roebling’s design for the Brooklyn Bridge is completed by his son Washington Roebling. John Augustus Roebling died following an accident on site. The bridge used techniques gleaned from European engineering, specifically the use of pneumatic caissons.

  • Eastman produces flexible negative film.

  • First motorized vehicle

    First motorized vehicle the Benz motorwagon demonstrated.

  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson is published

    ‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson is published. Baker used the dramtic passage of the crossing of the Firth of Forth to illustrate the position of the bridge in his lecture to the Royal Institution in 1887.

  • Eiffel Tower (France) completed

    Eiffel Tower completed as an entrance to the Exposition Universelle.

  • First house to be lit electrically

    Cragside House near Newcastle becomes first house to be lit electrically.

  • First telephoto lenses.

  • Marconi awarded patent for radio communication

    Marconi awarded patent for radio communication.

  • Edward VII crowned

    Edward VII crowned.

  • First aeroplane flight & Women's suffrage

    Wright brothers first aeroplane flight.

    Women’s Social and Political Union begin campaign for women’s suffrage.

    Pierre and Marie Curie awarded nobel prize for their discovery of radium.

  • Invention of off-set lithography.

  • Pont de Quebec bridge (Canada) collapses

    Pont de Quebec, the first bridge to mimic the style of the Forth Bridge, collapses killing 75 workers. Miscalculation by the engineers meant that the bridge was not strong enough to carry its own weight. Before completion several members were seen to be buckling but no action taken.

    Autochrome colour process introduced by Lumiere brothers.

  • William Langford sets up small printing shop to produce labels.

  • Baker baptised at St. John’s (Baker Snr described as a ‘gentleman’ on the baptismal entry).

  • Frome literary Society opens on Palmer Street (founded largely through the enthusiasm of Thomas Bunn).

  • William Butler joins Langford in his printing business.

  • Frome Almanac founded

    Frome Almanac founded.

  • John Webb Singer starts his casting business.

  • Frome Railway station opens

    Frome Railway station opens (designed by Brunel).

  • Singer exhibits at the Paris Industrial Exhibition.

  • Christina Rossetti, Poet, lives & teaches in Frome for one year.

  • Singer establishes his brass foundry & bronze casting business on Eagle Lane

    First edition of the ‘Frome Sentinel’, Frome’s first local newspaper.

  • Butler establishes, W.T Butler’s Steam Printing Works, on Selwood Road.

  • Fussells awarded gold medals at the Vienna Exhibition, for reaphooks & scythes (Situated in the Wadbury Valley on the outskirts of Frome. Fussells Iron Works was, at this time, one of the biggest manufacturers in the world of agricultural implements).

  • Butler & Tanner is born, when Butler recruits Joseph Tanner (they first meet at Rook Lane Chapel).

    Gas Engine installed to run town’s supply.

  • J.W. Singer exhibits at the London Exhibition.

  • Frome School of Art re-located to new premises on Park Road.

  • Frome’s first, Art & Industrial Exhibition held.

    Butler retires (but printing business retains his name).

  • Butler & Tanner awarded bronze medal at at the Paris Exhibition for ‘block & letterpress printing’

  • Frome’s Literary Institute opens on North Parade (thanks to the generosity of John Sinkins).

  • Through railway to Bristol opens.

  • William Gladstone stops at Frome Railway Station.

  • J.W. Singer awarded silver & bronze medals at the Paris Exhibition.

  • Gasworks rebuilt at Welshmill.

  • Frome Sewerage Works open.

  • Victoria Park opens.

  • Singer builds a new statue foundry (on the recommendation of three leading London sculptor’s, Alfred Drury, Onslow Ford & Hamo Thorneycroft).

  • Production ceases at Fussells works in Mells.

  • Boadicea cast in bronze at J. W. Singer (The statue was started in the 1850’s by Thomas Thorneycroft. After his death in 1885, Thorneycroft’s son.

    John gave the plaster model to London County Council who raised the sum of £2,400 to have it cast in bronze. In 1902, Boadicea was eventually placed on the Embankment close to Cleopatra’s Needle).

  • J.W. Singer made a Private Ltd Co. (Singer relinquished control to his sons and some shares were offered to the working craftsmen)

    Victoria Baths open.

  • Frome Victoria Hospital opens.

    Frome Selwood Motor Co. producing the ‘Achilles’ car.

  • J.W. Singer dies (6th May).

  • First Motor Omnibus Service from Frome to Bath.

The Life And Times of Benjamin Baker

1. The Early Days

Engraving taken from a photograph by Alexander Bassano of Sir Benjamin Baker

Benjamin Baker was born in Frome, Somerset, on the 31st of March 1840. It appears that working with iron was ‘in his blood’, as his father had been principal assistant at ironworks in Tondu, Wales before moving to Frome. In Frome, Baker Snr. became a manager at one of the many ironworks in the town, most possibly the Butts Hill Ironworks, close to the family home in Keyford.

In the entry for Baker’s baptism at St John’s Church his father is described as a ‘gentleman’, and Baker was later sent to Cheltenham Grammar School, where he must have received a solid mathematical education. On leaving, he set out on a career path which was to be his making in later years. He served a four-year apprenticeship at the Neath Abbey Iron Works, which gave him a thorough grounding as an engineer. His combination of practicality and theory was recognized by the already well established and eminent engineer, John Fowler who drafted him into his office in 1861, not long after Baker started work in London. Thus began a lifelong association. Fowler made Baker his partner in 1875 and they were close friends despite a difference in age of twenty-three years.

St John the Baptist, Frome [circa 1870] just below the Butts, where Benjamin Baker was born in 1840.

Having established himself in Fowler’s office, Baker soon became responsible for some of the most remarkable and exciting projects of the nineteenth century. On some of these his name may have been forgotten - the tunneling systems for the London Underground and the transportation of Cleopatra’s Needle for instance - but time has not diminished the ingenuity of his designs, nor lessened their usefulness. From his twenties onwards Baker was writing papers based on his various practical studies. These appeared in ‘Engineering’ magazine. The ideas they expounded were recognized worldwide and re-printed many times - often translated into other languages. What is remarkable is that later in his life almost all these early theoretical ideas came to be realized in some way in his projects.

In his early paper ‘On Urban Railways’ (1874), it was his suggestion that the ideal urban railway should ‘undulate’, with the stations being placed at each summit. This simple idea means that gravity assists the engine in starting and supplements the brakes in stopping, thus aiding fuel consumption and longevity of equipment. This was put into practice on the construction of the Central Line (1896-1900) and is still in use today. It is interesting to note that this clever idea is also a very ‘green’ one before it’s time. His series of papers on ‘Long Span Bridges’, written in 1867, was republished in England and America and then translated, and printed in Germany, Austria and Holland. It was in these articles that Baker came to the conclusion that by using cantilevers supporting an independent girder, an ‘opening might be bridged that could not be spanned by any of the systems previously examined’. Thus the Forth Bridge was born - on paper - sixteen years before it was made real.

2. Egypt: Cleopatra’s Needle & the Aswan Dam

An imaginative and dramatic engraving from the March 1877 issue of the Illustrated London News, showing the cylinder containing Cleopatra's Needle adrift in the bay of Biscay.

From 1869, Fowler started advising the Khedive Ismail Pasha on various engineering projects that would help to develop the resources of his country. So began Baker’s long relationship with Egypt that was to last until his death in 1907.

Some of his many studies for railways and canals were not realized due to lack of finance, but in 1878, he designed the vast iron cylinder that brought Cleopatra’s Needle from Alexandria to London. The cylinder was fitted with metal bulkheads which held the obelisk in place, and the whole contraption was rolled into the water for towing to England. This was not an easy task, yet in contrast to the seven years it had taken the French to remove the Luxor obelisk to Paris, Cleopatra’s Needle was erected on the embankment only eighteen months after the initial plan was drawn up. Even more remarkable is the fact that en route, a storm in the Bay of Biscay caused a panic amongst the crew, who abandoned the Needle at sea. Baker’s ingeniously designed tubular vessel was never in any real danger. After being found, it was towed to Ferrol in Portugal before the adventurous journey commenced again.

The Aswan Dam.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Baker had already advised on repairs and additions to the Delta Barrage in Northern Egypt built by French engineers, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the water supply in middle and lower Egypt was insufficient for irrigation in the winter months. A massive reservoir needed to be built to store water from the summer flood to then enable an increase in the flow of the Nile at it’s lowest ebb. This was an enormous project, but if successful it would make an annual profit to the Egyptian Government of £750,000. Baker was appointed the chief Consulting Engineer and the project was carried out successfully in less than the contract time. It was opened in 1902, by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught. The proceedings of the Royal Society show how highly Baker’s work was perceived:

“The success of an immense work of this kind must depend on the energy, the ability, and the resourcefulness of a great number of persons, and in speaking of it at the Institution of Civil Engineers, Sir B. Baker gave unstinted praise to his colleagues in Egypt who carried out the operations in a trying climate. But undoubtedly the reliance placed by Lord Cromer and those in authority on Sir Benjamin Baker’s experience and judgement was an important factor in undertaking the work; he spent every winter on the works; he provided beforehand, by careful foresight and consideration for difficulties which might arise, and his wise direction, resourcefulness, and courage were essential elements in the success achieved.”

3. The Forth Bridge

The Forth Bridge engineering team, photographed by Evelyn George Carey on site, South Queensferry. Probably taken in December 1885, Benjamin Baker, seated left, to his left William Westhofen, centre with Alan Douglas Stewart, right.

Of all Baker’s projects, it is undoubtedly the Forth Bridge which remains the most iconic and memorable to this day. The facts and figures relating to it are astounding. It cost £2,500,000 to build (£120,000,000 today) and employed over 4,000 workmen.

The 65,000 tons of steel it used required nearly seven million rivets! Baker once impressed a London audience with the sheer scale: ‘stand in Piccadilly and look towards Buckingham Palace, and then consider that we have to span the entire distance across Green Park’. In Frome, this would be the same distance as standing on the hill at the Fire Station (the site of Baker’s birth) and looking out across the whole valley of the town centre to the high land on which Frome College stands. This is the length of Baker’s 1.5 mile Forth Bridge.

The Forth Bridge Company had been formed in 1873, born out of what can only be described as the ‘railway wars’ to see who could get from London to Aberdeen by the fastest route. The competition was between The North British Railway and The Caledonian Railway, and for the former this meant having to cross the vast Firth of Forth. Plans were submitted by many engineers, and those for a suspension bridge by Sir Thomas Bouch, were chosen. Unfortunately for Bouch, his earlier and much heralded Tay Bridge collapsed due to the stress of side-wind pressure in December 1877, taking with it the Edinburgh to Dundee train, with the loss of 75 lives. After the Inquiry into the disaster, Bouch’s design for the Forth Bridge was abandoned. Messrs. Fowler and Baker then won the competition to design a different way of bridging the Forth, with their ‘steel cantilever and central girder bridge.’ Having for so long expounded his theories on cantilever bridges and after much painstaking research into the stresses and strains of iron versus steel, Baker could now realize his ideas of building his first cantilever bridge. It was also the first ever steel bridge and the longest cantilever in the world at that time (and until 1917).

On the night of 28th December 1879 during a violent storm, the Tay Bridge collapsed beneath a train carrying 75 passengers: it fell into the murky waters of the River Tay leaving no survivors.

Baker’s engineering assistant and photographer, Evelyn George Carey’s images give us some idea of the different stages of work and the vast undertaking it was. Work commenced in 1883, with the site constructed for the day-to-day living of the huge workforce. William Arrol, ultimately the main contractor throughout, began by building an enormous new jetty and a sixty-acre open air manufactory. Then came the preparatory work for the foundations of the three main piers (known as the Fife, Inch Garvie and Queensferry Piers respectively) upon which are built the central steel towers. This meant the extremely dangerous work of sinking caissons into the sea. Remarkably, Carey managed to capture photographs of men working within these pressurized sealed chambers deep under the waters of the estuary. Building the steel towers and constructing the cantilevers commenced in 1887.

Scaffolding was impossible because of the depth of the Forth, so the bridge was built in such a way that the structure itself became the scaffold. Stretching both ways from the towers, successive bays of the cantilever were added, balancing each other out. The whole structure was alive with hydraulic lifting rams, cranes and men. On the ground, in specially designed ‘drilling yards’ the steel plates for the great tubes making up the cantilever, were heated in furnaces, bent and drilled (by a newly invented machine devised by Arrol).

The successful completion of the Forth Bridge really depended on the workmen or ‘briggers’. These hardy men slaved away at heights of up to 360 feet and in the latter stages of work, often at night too, when hundreds of electric lights lit up the structure. Baker was immensely proud of his ‘zealous and plucky workmen’, but he was also aware that ‘familiarity with danger breeds contempt’. Accidents did occur, and of the sixty three men who lost their lives, most of those were killed by falling from a height. Nine were killed by a falling object – sometimes as small as a spanner. Some men fell all the way into the waters of the Forth and many survived the fall. But it was thanks to the ingenuity of the workmen that the Inch Garvie and South Queensferry cantilevers were finally joined in the Autumn of 1889. Cold weather had frequently delayed work and the girder in the shade could not be made to meet it’s counterpart, by a matter of inches. A fire made up of waste material was lit and it warmed the metal sufficiently for it to expand, and be fixed. One can only imagine the joy of those present to witness this moment. The complicated steel structure weighing 65,000 tons and known as the Forth Bridge was complete.

By the time the Prince of Wales drove in the last rivet at the opening ceremony on the 4th March 1890, the Forth Bridge was already famous. In the months leading up to it’s completion, hoards of visitors came to not only view it, but also to be conveyed to it’s highest point.

Gustav Eiffel was one of many dignitaries who attended the opening ceremony. It was at the banquet luncheon following the ceremony – held in the engineers Model Loft - that the Prince of Wales announced that Baker was to be made Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George; Sir Benjamin Baker.

4. Baker’s Legacy

Not only did Baker ‘bridge the world’ in a physical sense with his numerous and impressive structures but he attracted a workforce from all over the world, drawn to make real the ideas of a visionary global genius.

The Forth Bridge had been built by a team of French, Italian, Belgian, Austrian, German, as well as British workmen. A young Japanese Engineer in Baker’s team even went on to become Head of Engineering at Tokyo University. Baker was not only an outstanding civil engineer, but he also possessed great his skills as a communicator. He was always ready to listen to others, whether it be their ideas or difficulties. He was generous in acknowledgement of help, and unstinting in praise to all – be they workman, contractors or fellow engineers. The plaque marking his birthplace in Frome quotes from his obituary in The Times: ‘Cool, quiet judgement and a restrained strength were his marked characteristics’.

Baker could well be described as an ambassador for good practice, and ‘Bridging the World’ an apt title for the world of 2009, when Barack Obama said ‘I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers’.


Click a venue to find out more...

Christ College, Brecon: Bridging the World Exhibition

3 April – 29 May 2010

Christ College,
Brecon Powys

Visit Christ College Brecon website

The Building Centre: Bridging the World Exhibition

Mon 7 Sept – Sat 10 Oct 2009

The Building Centre
Store Street

Visit The Building Centre website

Rook Lane Chapel: Bridging the World Exhibition & Events

Sat 13 June - Sat 24 July 2009

Rook Lane Chapel
Bath Street
Frome, Somerset
BA11 1DN

Visit Rook Lane Arts website

Interested in hiring the exhibition for your venue? Click here to download the Touring Sheet (PDF)

This project was made possible thanks to the generous donations of