The following account of Eugenius Birch's life comes from the Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, an earlier volume of which carries his brother John's obituary too (see details in the bibliography). It has been illustrated from our own website, and is followed by supplementary comments.

Illuminated initial E

UGENIUS BIRCH was born in London in June, 1818, his father being an architect and surveyor.

He was educated at [in] Brighton and at Euston Square. At a very early age he showed considerable mechanical and artistic talent, and was rarely seen [414/415] without a pencil in his hand. He watched with much interest the cutting of the Regent’s Canal, and indeed frequently played truant to assist (!) at the construction of the various great engineering works then in progress in the north of London, particularly the Primrose Hill tunnel of the London and Birmingham Railway.

When quite a boy, he submitted a model of a railway carriage to the authorities of that line, who had offered a premium for an improvement in this direction, and the Greenwich Railway Company at once adopted his mode of putting the wheels under the carriages.

At the age of sixteen, being then employed at Messrs. Bligh‘s engineering works, Limehouse, Eugenius Birch planned a marine steam-engine, which so pleased Dr. George Birkbeck, that the latter strongly advised the youthful designer to join the local Mechanics’ Institute. This he did, and to such purpose that, the master falling ill, he undertook the entire charge of the drawing classes for some time, to the satisfaction of all concerned.

In 1837, he received a Silver Isis Medal from the Society of Arts, for his drawing of a marine steam-engine, and in the following year a Silver Telford Medal and a premium of books from this Institution for his drawings and description of Huddart’s rope-machinery. This subject was continued in a subsequent communication descriptive of a "Machine for Sewing Flat Ropes,” for which he likewise received a premium.

The encouragement thus given seems to have determined Mr. Birch to adopt the profession of a civil engineer. On the 19th of February, 1839, he was elected a Graduate of the Institution, in which class he remained till he was transferred Member on the 5th of May, 1863, and shortly afterwards he entered into partnership with his elder brother, the late Mr. John Brannis Birch [1813-1862; see headnote]. He was actively engaged in works of varied character until 1845, when the Railway Mania absorbed his whole faculties.

Old Yamuna Bridge, Delhi, no. 249 on the Calcutta-Delhi route, providing the last link in the line. Photo credit: Anu Pushkarna, in The Hindu of 19 June 2016, by kind permission of THG Publishing Private Ltd. [Click on this and the following images for larger pictures and more information.]

On the bursting of the railway bubble in England, Mr. Birch and his brother were engaged in laying out the East Indian Railway from Calcutta to Delhi, designing the whole of the bridges and viaducts, and it was upon the material thus furnished that the guarantee of the line was obtained.

Between 1847 and 1851, he designed and carried out the Kelham and Stockwith bridges in Nottinghamshire. But Mr. Birch’s claims to recognition are chiefly based upon the system of promenade-piers which he and his brother initiated, and which now form a feature of nearly every watering-place on the English coast. The first, and [415/416] for many years, single example of screw-pile pier, was the well-known Margate jetty, which was completed in 1853, and formed a new departure in marine construction. It was from the first a most successful work, and has since been considerably improved and extended.

Piers at Seaside Resorts. Left: Margate Pier in its heyday. Right: The skeleton of the famous but equally ill-fated West Pier, Brighton.

Similar piers were subsequently erected from Mr. Birch's designs at Aberystwyth, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton (West), Deal, Eastbourne, Hastings, Hornsea, Lytham, New Brighton, Plymouth, Scarborough, and other places. Many of these structures form part only of extensive works of improvement.

The truncated Royal Pier, Aberystwyth.

Mr. Eugenius Birch was also the first to construct a large sea-water aquarium with recreational adjuncts. Of such buildings, those at Brighton and Scarborough are types which have been followed at many other watering-places. The tanks were of much larger dimensions than those previously used, and their construction involved some interesting problems on the pressure of water against large surfaces, and the thickness of material (glass) required to withstand it.

Birch's Brighton Aquarium and its Gothic interior.

But though provision for the delectation of visitors to the sea-side formed a large part of Mr. Birch's business, it was by no means the whole of it. He carried out the Devon and Somerset Railway, the Exmouth Docks, Ilfracombe Harbour, the West Surrey Waterworks, and was the first engineer of the Scarborough and Whitby railway, which he laid out, although the construction of the works was for long in abeyance, and is now being completed by other parties.

His last great design was for a marine kursaal to be erected at the end of the chain pier, Brighton, for which Parliamentary sanction had been obtained; but he did not live to carry out this important work. The design represents a huge ship arranged and fitted up as a first-class hotel.

Had he not chosen to be an engineer, he might have risen to eminence as an artist, being possessed of high talent in that direction. The beauty of his drawings of Huddart's rope machinery, submitted when he was a Graduate, attracted considerable attention, and the artistic faculty remained with him through life.

During a tour in Italy, Egypt, and Nubia in the winter of 1874-75, he made a series of more than a hundred water-colour drawings and sketches of such merit that a special exhibition was made of them. After his death, these drawings realized high prices, being assisted, no doubt, by the interest felt at the time in all concerning Egypt.

Mr. Birch was a pleasant and genial companion, and a thoroughly honourable man. He died after a long and painful illness on the 8th of January, 1882.

Supplementary Comments

Photograph thought to be of Eugenius Birch and his wife Margaret Birch, kindly contributed by Brian Morris.

Much has been omitted here, perhaps because it was not known at the time, or perhaps because it was tactfully ignored. John Birch, for instance, had been struck by mental illness, and committed suicide (Ferry 5), something not mentioned in his own obituary, while Birch himself, described here as a "thoroughly honourable man," had two illegitimate children by his wife's niece (Ferry 7).

Most pertinent to Birch's fame as a builder of seaside piers was his and his brother's experience of planning bridges and viaducts for the East India Railway. According to Neil Darlington, they went out to India themselves in the late 1840s, working on the route of the proposed Calcutta to Delhi Railway "where they designed the numerous bridges and viaducts required to cross the numerous tributaries and inlets at the river estuary. They appear to have left India before construction commenced and were certainly back in England by 1853." Undoubtedly the challenge of designing structures to withstand unusual geological and climatory conditions proved useful to them later, and they clearly developed a fondness for the oriental.

One factor in this tendency is likely to have been home-grown — Brighton's Royal Pavilion was already casting an Eastern glow on London's favourite seaside resort (see Dobraszczyk 143-44). But elsewhere, the influence seems more direct: Kathryn Ferry suggests that Eugenius's north pier pavilion at Blackpool, for example, was modelled on a particular Hindu temple (7). One thing is certain: seaside ironwork would forever be stamped by the Birches' exotic taste. — Jacqueline Banerjee

Related Material


Darlington, Neil. "Eugenius Birch." Architects of Greater Manchester, 1800-1940. Web. 28 June 2020.

Dobraszczyk, Paul. Iron, Ornament and Architecture in Victorian Britain: Myth and Modernity, Excess and Enchantment. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

"Eugenius Birch." Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol. 78 (4/1884): 414-16. The ICE [Institution of Civil Engineers] Virtual Library. Web. 28 June 2020.

Ferry, Kathryn. "The Genius of Eugenius." The Victorian (The Magazine of the Victorian Society). No. 58 (July 2018): 4-7.

"John Brannis Birch, FGS, 1813-1862." Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol.22 (1/ 1863): 640-41. The ICE [Institution of Civil Engineers] Virtual Library. Web. 28 June 2020.

Created 28 June 2020