James Henry Greathead

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James Henry Greathead
James Henry Greathead.png
James Henry Greathead
Born (1844-08-06)6 August 1844
Grahamstown, South Africa
Died 21 October 1896(1896-10-21) (aged 52)
Streatham, London
Nationality British Overseas National (Cape Colony)
Education St Andrews College, Diocesan College, Grahamstown, Cape Town, South Africa; in 1859 he came to Westbourne Collegiate, part of Kings College, London.
Occupation Engineer
Spouse(s) Blanche Emily Caldecott Coryndon
Children John Coryndon, James Henry, Nancy, Mary Coryndon
Parent(s) James Henry Greathead and Eliza Julia Wright
Engineering career
Discipline Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineer
Institutions Institution of Mechanical Engineering
Practice name Chief Engineer for City and South London Railways
Projects Tower Subway
Blackwall Tunnel
Waterloo & City line
Significant design Greathead Shield, Greathead grouting machine, injector hydrant and other patented designs
Awards Elected to the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1884

James Henry Greathead (6 August 1844 – 21 October 1896)[1] was a civil engineer renowned for his work on the London Underground railway.

Early life[edit]

Greathead was born in Grahamstown, South Africa;[2] of English descent, Greathead's grandfather had emigrated to South Africa in 1820. He was educated at St. Andrew's College, Grahamstown,[3] and the Diocesan College private school in Cape Town. After migrating to England in 1859,[2] he completed his education from 1859 to 1863 at the Westbourne Collegiate School, Westbourne Grove. He returned briefly to South Africa before finally moving to London in 1864 to serve a three-year pupillage under the civil engineer Peter W. Barlow, from whom he became acquainted with the shield system of tunnelling.[2] He spent some time (around 1867) as assistant engineer on the Midland Railway between Bedford and London (working with Barlow's brother, William Henry Barlow).


Soon after, in 1869, he rejoined Barlow and they began work on designs for the Tower Subway, only the second tunnel to be driven under the river Thames in central London. Barlow was the engineer for the tunnel and Greathead was in charge of the actual drive. The tunnelling shield for driving the Tower Subway, while designed by Greathead, was inspired by Barlow's ideas for a circular tunnelling shield which he had patented in 1864 and 1868. The so-called Barlow-Greathead shield consisted of an iron cylinder 7 ft 3 in (2.21 m) in diameter fitted with screw jacks which enabled it to be jacked forward. In use, the shield was inched forward as the working face was excavated, while behind it a permanent tunnel lining of cast iron segments was fitted into place, itself an important innovation.[4] Greathead patented many of his improvements including the use of compressed air and forward propulsion by hydraulic jacks, both of which are now standard features of tunnel construction.

He was also a consultant in relation to the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel.


In 1873 Greathead became resident engineer on the Hammersmith extension railway and the Richmond extension of the District Railway, a post which he held for four years. After this he assisted in the preparation of the Regents Canal Railway (1880), the Metropolitan Outer Circle Railway (1881), a new London-Eastbourne line (1883) and in various light railways in Ireland (1884).

Also in 1884, Greathead resumed his involvement in tunnelling, being engaged as engineer on the London (City) & Southwark Subway, later the City & South London Railway[2] (and now part of the Northern line) which was, when it opened in 1890, the world's first underground electric railway. In 1888, he became joint engineer with Sir Douglas Fox on the Liverpool Overhead Railway[2] and also worked with W.R. Galbraith on the Waterloo & City Railway. His final work was on the Central London Railway with Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker.[5]

Inventions and patents[edit]

  • Greathead Injector Hydrant: (c. 1879) was a precursor to the modern sprinkler systems to pump water into a building or attach hoses externally to the mains system of underground water networks.[6]
  • Greathead Shield: derived from Marc Isambard Brunel's original idea, and was, according to Robert Vogel, obviously inspired by Barlow's 1864 and 1868 patents.[7] However, there were considerable design changes to make it distinguishable from Brunel's shield, allowing a patent application for Greathead's design. Brunel's shield was rectangular and comprised 12 separate, independently moveable frames; the Barlow-Greathead solution was circular, and the "reduction of the multiplicity of parts in the Brunel shield to a single rigid unit was of immense advantage and an advance perhaps equal to the shield concept of tunneling itself",[7] though the face was still dug out by manual labour to begin with. Greathead's patented Shield for Tunnelling Soft Earth used pneumatic compression in the tunnel to ensure better safety for workers. The 'second edition' of his shield used hydraulic action at the face to create slurry (this slurry then hardened and led to his next invention: the Greathead Grouting Machine). Brunel may be credited for the idea of using a shield, but Barlow patented a one-piece circular shield, and Greathead designed the prototype circular shield that has since been used in most tunnelling projects, with other engineers advanced and improving the shield design.
  • Greathead Grouting Machine: mentioned in the repair of Winchester and Lincoln Cathedrals.[8]


Greathead's statue in the City of London
Blue Plaque at 3 St Mary's Grove
  • An English Heritage blue plaque marks his home in Barnes, south-west London, 3 St Mary's Grove, where he lived between 1885 and 1889. This was his third home as the his second residence had been demolished prior to placement of the English Heritage plaque.
  • In January 1994 a statue was erected outside the Bank station next to the Royal Exchange in the City of London. It was unveiled by the Lord Mayor of London and is positioned on a plinth which hides a ventilation shaft for the Underground. While Bank Station was being refurbished a section of the Barlow-Greathead shield was discovered in a passageway between the Underground and the Waterloo and City Railway. The section has been painted red and a brass plate erected as a further memorial to his achievements.


  1. ^ Taylor & Green 2001, p. 96.
  2. ^ a b c d e Encyclopædia Britannica 1902, p. 90.
  3. ^ Laurie 1914, p. 111.
  4. ^ West 2005, pp. 116–118.
  5. ^ "Biographies of Civil Engineers, Architects, etc.". Steamindex. 1 February 2016. Retrieved 23 June 2009. 
  6. ^ "Greathead Injector Hydrant – London, England". Firehydrant.org. Retrieved 29 January 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Vogel 1966, p. 221.
  8. ^ "Fox, Sir Francis 1844–1927, civil engineer". The Peerage. Retrieved 2 August 2014. 


Further reading[edit]