[This passage has been excerpted from Dale H. Porter's The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London, which is reviewed eleswhere in the Victorian WebGPL.]

decorative initial I n the late 1850s, civil engineering was consolidating its status, gained during the previous three generations, as a recognized profession. It followed the path of other professions in the nineteenth century by establishing a formal association, regulating its membership, tightening apprenticeship and examination standards, seeking political and legal recognition of its avowed status, and adopting, through individual initiatives, the conventions of family, suburban life, and church. The eighteenth-century British engineers were "a motley crew," according to R. A. Buchanan: they were generally classed as skilled artisans along with mechanics, smiths, molders, and millwrights. But some, like Robert Mylne, John Smeaton, and Thomas Telford, rose to a higher position by designing, rather than it building, public works and large machines. The major canal, railway, and waterworks projects of the first half of the nineteenth century made engineering's reputation. In the great mid-Victorian period of prosperity following the Crystal Palace Exhibition, engineers enjoyed, as Buchanan has said, a unique self-assurance amounting almost to euphorias. The excesses of the railway mania, which led engineers into all kinds of adventure and mispresentation, were gradually being replaced by the conservatism of success.

Although many of the earlier practitioners had been indifferent to honors and social pretension, midcentury engineers eagerly sought social gentility, "with all the accoutrements of titles, estates, and the way of life to go with them." Samuel Smiles's Lives of the Engineers enshrined them as paragons of self-help, and their collective attitudes soon became stereotypically Victorian. By this time, an occupational hierarchy had emerged, led a by independent consulting engineers, with assistant engineers, clerks, and pupils ranged below. [166]

Engineers — a stained glass window panel by Stephen Adams (1877-80)


Porter, Dale H. The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1998.

Last modified 4 June 2016