Remembering a great King’s engineer who helped connect London

Tower Bridge, London

Built between 1886 and 1894, Tower Bridge is a symbol of London known throughout the world. But many do not know that King’s engineers created its iconic ‘drawbridge’-style movement. In this article, we hear from Jemima Atkinson, whose great-grandfather was one of those engineers. Here, she shares why he inspired her to leave a legacy to King’s.

Taking its name from the nearby Tower of London, Tower Bridge is a bascule bridge across the River Thames (‘bascule’ comes from the French for ‘see-saw’). At the time it was built, a traditional fixed bridge at street level wasn’t suitable because it would prevent tall sailing ships from accessing the port facilities in the Pool of London, which was situated between London Bridge and the Tower of London.

A team of engineers – led by several King’s engineering alumni – worked together over a number of years to create a bridge that solved the problem. They devised a hydraulic system so that the bridge could be raised to allow ships to pass through. The bridge is famous for this, as well as its distinctive ornate Victorian Gothic façade.

Jemima Atkinson
Jemima Atkinson

Jemima’s Story

Jemima Atkinson is the great-granddaughter of Professor Henry Robinson (1837–1915), a King’s engineering alumnus who was known by his family as Herbert. She recalls hearing about the proud moment when Herbert started work on Tower Bridge, explaining: ‘It was an exciting and ground-breaking project to work on at the time, which would connect one side of London to the other. His team were given a picture of the bridge and told to make it work, so it’s a good job they were fixated on solving problems.’

During Herbert’s career, he worked on many important projects, including railways, water supply, sewerage and electric lighting. He became Professor of Civil Engineering at King’s in 1880 and was an expert on hydraulics and sewerage, contributing to academic literature on these subjects.

This passion for engineering continued to run in the family, as Herbert’s daughter, Irene, went on to marry another King’s engineering alumnus called Arthur Bartlett, who was taught by Herbert.

Jemima remembers her grandfather Arthur working on the engineering of London Underground’s Bakerloo line, proffering: ‘I think Henry and Arthur would have been over the moon with the new Crossrail, which will, like Tower Bridge, help further connect our capital city.’

Jemima now has four grandchildren, whom she has taken on trips to visit Tower Bridge. They all have enjoyed exploring the viewing gallery, including her nine-year-old grandson who already aspires to be an actor rather than an engineer.

‘I’m sad that no one else in the family has gone on to study engineering, but I’ve told my grandchildren that they can do whatever they choose,’ Jemima reflects. ‘And if the girls do decide they want to become engineers, it’s great that they are able to do so now. It’s not just for boys!’

With Jemima’s generous legacy, more young people out there will be supported to study engineering at King’s, and some may well be part of the world’s future innovative engineering projects. She says: ‘I am pleased to leave a legacy to King’s, as it’s the least that I can do to support the next generation of engineers.’

The future of engineering at King’s

The Department of Engineering was first opened in 1838, making it one of the oldest in England.

Nowadays, it is quite different from before. Although the department closed in 2013, the research and teaching of engineering has continued in the three separate departments of Informatics, Physics and Biomedical Engineering. There is a big focus on enrolling more female students onto engineering courses, with a range of scholarships and funds available to aid the diversification of the profession.

King’s is planning to relaunch a wider range of engineering courses in the coming years, with project- based taught programmes to prepare students for careers in industry.

Did you know?

King’s has nurtured many notable engineers over time. As well as Henry Robinson, a number of other alumni worked on Tower Bridge:

  • Sir John Wolfe Barry (1836–1918) was the structural engineer for Tower Bridge and from 1887 had sole responsibility for its design.
  • Henry Marc Brunel (1842–1903), the second son of celebrated engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, worked for Sir John Wolfe Barry.
  • James Edward Tuit (1860–1903) managed the building of the bridge from 1889, on behalf of the construction contractor.
  • Kenneth Alfred Wolfe Barry OBE (1879–1936), son of Sir John Wolfe Barry, was the ongoing Consulting Engineer to the owners of Tower Bridge.

Thanks to Graham Raven (Civil Engineering, 1963) and Keith Newton (Civil Engineering, 1958) for contributing to this article, on behalf of the King’s College London Engineers’ Association (KCLEA).

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This article is from the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of InTouch, your alumni magazine.