George Turnbull (civil engineer)

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George Turnbull
George Turnbull (1809-1878).jpg
George Turnbull (civil engineer)
Born 2 September 1809
Luncarty, Perth and Kinross (then Perthshire)
Died 26 February 1889
Rosehill, Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire, England
Nationality Scottish
Education Perth Grammar School from 18 September 1819
Edinburgh University from 3 November 1824
Spouse(s) Jane Pope,
Fanny Thomas
Children 5
Engineering career
Engineering discipline Civil engineer
Institution memberships Institution of Civil Engineers 1838–1889
Significant projects East Indian Railway
George Turnbull, 1868

George Turnbull was the Chief Engineer responsible for construction from 1851 to 1863 of the first railway line from Calcutta (the then commercial capital of India): the 541-mile line to Benares en route to Delhi. He was acclaimed in the Indian Government's Official Gazette of 7 February 1863 paragraph 5 as the "First railway engineer of India".[1][2]

Early life[edit]

George Turnbull was born in Luncarty, 5 miles north of Perth, Scotland in 1809, the 11th child of William Turnbull and Mary Sandeman – they moved in 1814 to nearby Huntingtower village, where his father developed a bleachfield. His two grandfathers Hector Turnbull and William Sandeman had jointly developed linen bleachfields in Luncarty. Initially largely schooled by his older sister Mary, George in 1819 from age 10 rode a pony to Perth Grammar School. In 1824 he attended Edinburgh University learning Latin, Greek and mathematics.

Career in England[edit]

In 1828 he sailed from Dundee to London to train under the famous civil engineer Thomas Telford building St Katharine Docks. In 1830 he became Telford's draughtsman and clerk, living in Telford's house in 24 Abingdon Street. He became an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers at age 19 and eventually the oldest member.

In 1832, he helped survey the options for supplying water to London both from the north and south, gauging the north-side rivers Colne, Gade, Lea, Odess and Ver; and on the south side the River Wandle. He was involved in 1833 with experiments for fast passenger canal boats on the Paddington Canal with Cubitt, Dundas[disambiguation needed] and other prominent engineers.

In 1834 Telford died: Turnbull (Telford's clerk) made arrangements for his house and correspondence and was involved with his burial in Westminster Abbey.

Turnbull was promoted to be resident engineer building the Bute ship canal and Bute Dock (now West Bute dock) in Cardiff, reporting to William Cubitt and meeting Lord Bute regularly.

In August 1836 George was in Bristol to see the 1½-inch bar drawn across the river at Clifton for the future suspension bridge. Brunel visited him at the Cardiff works in 1839.

Amongst other journeys, Turnbull's January 1837 diary records travel from Cardiff to his parents' Perthshire home: the mail coach to Bristol (with no Severn Bridge or tunnel of course); all the next day Bristol to London "on Cooper's coach, sitting on the box seat outside with the coachman" (there was snow 10 feet deep near Marlborough); the steamer Perth for the 41-hour journey to Dundee; and then overland to Huntingtower, near Perth.[3]

From 1840 to 1842 Turnbull built Middlesbrough Dock which was later bought by the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In 1841 he travelled through deep snow to Stirling to agree a contract to supply sleepers for the railway. In 1843 he was responsible for the railway line from the Shakespeare Tunnel along the shore to Dover station (he entertained the Duke of Wellington, "pale, old and shaky on his legs", who visited the works) and built a pier and landing stages at Folkestone.

In 1845 he was the engineer in Birkenhead for the complex Seacombe Wall sea defence that helped drain the marshes behind the town of Seacombe.

In 1846-9 he was the resident engineer for the Great Northern Railway making cuttings and the South Mimms, Copenhagen and three other tunnels for the first 20 miles out of London, and making the first plans for Kings Cross station.

First train of the East Indian Railway, 1854

East Indian Railway[edit]

East Indian Railway built by George Turnbull
Boxed set of triangular ivory engineer's scales presented to George Turnbull (1856 or 1857)
George Turnbull's 1851 diary of four-night-and-day journey to Sone River and survey there.[4]
A page from George Turnbull's 1851 notebook detailing his determining the approximate width of the mile-wide Sone River at the point where he decided that the bridge should be built.

In 1850 he was appointed Chief Engineer of the East Indian Railway building 1851–1862 the first railway 541 miles from Calcutta to Benares (on the route to Delhi), 601 miles including branches. He designed Calcutta's terminus at Howrah which now has 23 platforms and the highest train-handling capacity of any station in India. The monsoon-ravaged Ganges tributaries such as the wide Sone River were particularly challenging to bridge: a major constraint for Turnbull was the lack of both quality clay and brick-building skills resulting in the change to importing much ironwork from England for the many bridges and other structures (all rails were imported from England as no Indian steel works existed). Another constraint was the difficulty of moving enormous volumes of materials from Calcutta up the Ganges on its primitive "country boats", particularly during the period of the Indian Mutiny when many boats were sunk and materials stolen. Cholera killed thousands.

Turnbull was offered a knighthood for his railway building in India, but declined it as he felt that he did not have sufficient money to live to the standard he felt was needed (he later regretted declining the knighthood, if only because it reduced his later earning power).

In February 1868, Turnbull was offered £2000 to settle the claim by contractors who had built part of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. He travelled via Marseilles, Alexandria, train to Suez, and on to Bombay. He and others had a private train for four days "getting down and inspecting every bridge and large culvert" and making copious notes for the 242 miles between Bhusawal and Nagpore.[1][5]

Personal life[edit]

In 1845 he married Jane Pope in St. Margaret's, Westminster. She died 1850 in Calcutta. In 1855, after leave in England and on his way again to India, he married Fanny Thomas, the engineer William Cubitt's niece (in Neuchâtel, Switzerland because of concern that UK marriage to his deceased wife's half-sister might not be legal in England). They had five children.

The family retired to Cornwall Gardens in London and then in 1875 to Rosehill, Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire, England.[6][7] He was the Vice-Chairman of the Assam Tea Company – his son (Alexander) Duncan Turnbull worked for the company in Assam and his granddaughter Doris was born there. Applying his engineering skills, he was involved with the Abbots Langley water scheme in 1885. He later wrote the prospectus for the Abbots Langley Water Company and was much involved with it. In March 1877, he also took a lease on 24 Collingham Place in London. His wife Fanny died in 1903.


  1. ^ a b Diaries of George Turnbull (Chief Engineer, East Indian Railway Company) held at the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University, England
  2. ^ George Turnbull, C.E. 437-page memoirs published privately 1893, scanned copy held in the British Library, London on compact disk since 2007
  3. ^ George Turnbull, C.E. page 27 of the 437-page memoirs published privately 1893, scanned copy held in the British Library, London on compact disk since 2007
  4. ^ Diaries of George Turnbull (Chief Engineer, East Indian Railway Company) held at the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University, England
  5. ^ George Turnbull, C.E. pages 230–235 437-page memoirs published privately 1893, scanned copy held in the British Library, London on compact disk since 2007
  6. ^ Rosehill: 51°41′55″N 0°25′58″W / 51.698586°N 0.432844°W / 51.698586; -0.432844
  7. ^ Hastie, Scott (1993). Abbots Langley—A Hertfordshire Village. Abbots Langley: Abbots Langley Parish Council. ISBN 0-9520929-0-5. Rosehill was built in the 1820's and demolished circa 1952. The house stood on Gallows Hill where the Gade View flats are today.<...>Between 1875 and 1887, the house was home to George Turnbull whose wife survived him and lived on there until 1899.