Having finished my mega-thesis on Riccarton Junction for my degree course, my next trick was to have been to carry on with a project I have had on the go for some time - my book on the Tay Bridge disaster and the vindication of Sir Thomas Bouch. But while I was plugging away in the National Archives on the Tay Bridge disaster report, a gentleman by the name of James Brunlees came bursting out of the pages.
Shortly after the collapse of the first Tay Bridge he had been asked by the North British Railway to inspect the ruins, and on 28 April 1880 he gave evidence of his observations to the Committee of Enquiry into the disaster. His visit to the ruins and indeed his evidence to the Enquiry was in the guise of that of an expert witness, in that he knew everything that there was to know about the the construction of cast-iron girder bridge. However, his performance in the witness stand can be best described as disappointing and he was easily trapped in a corner by counsel on numerous occasions, so much so that counsel abandoned any attempt to elicit any form of useful information from him. His cross-examination descended more-or-less into trivialities.
I cannot in all of my experience recall any encounter with a less-satisfactory or less-convincing expert witness.
With all of this in mind, I undertook some research into his antecedents following some of the clues that he had given during his witness statements. He had been born in Kelso, Scotland in 1816 and it is true that he had been a civil engineer for a considerable number of years throughout the halcyon days of Victorian engineering, having been heavily involved in many important projects. He was responsible for the pier at Southport - the first iron leisure pier in the UK - the docks at Avonmouth and Whitehaven and also a rack-and-pinion railway over Mont Cenis Pass in Switzerland.
If that wasn't enough to be going on with, he had also been consulting engineer for the original Channel Tunnel project in the 1870s and 80s, and in 1883 he was president of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He died in 1892.
He certainly seemed to have had all of the right kind of experience to have been put forward as an expert witness so I was intrigued to see how his projects were bearing up in the 120 or so years following his death. Did his skill match his experience, and had his projects outlived him?
Amongst his many projects was the responsibility for the construction of a great deal of railway architecture in the Furness area of Britain. Almost as if the whole affair had been deliberately planned, a couple of events that I needed to attend back in the spring of 2008 were taking place right on the doorstep of some of these feats of engineering. It was too good an opportunity to miss so at times alone, or accompanied by Liz Ayers on one trip, by Carole and Adrian on a couple of others and by the Pentax on all of them we set off to see the works of James Brunlees and see if his reputation of 1880 had withstood the test of time.
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