Scots, it has often been said, made a conspicuous mark on the world in two vital domains of the British Empire and British trade in the Victorian era – organisation and administration on the one hand, and engineering on the other. This note reviews the experience of one engineering company (and in particular one family who worked for it) which, far from home, had a profound effect on the lives of others and benefitted their own country not inconsiderably.
William Alexander Parker 1879-1943
Born on April 27th 1879 at 158, Hill Street, Glasgow, William Alexander Parker was born to be an engineer and something of an adventurer, while his father, John Dunlop Parker (1844-1916) shaped not only his career but engineering practice in Chile. In 1862, aged only 18, John Dunlop (hereafter JD) entered the service of the North British Railway Company where he worked under James Bell, the ‘Engineer in Chief’. Headquartered in
, the Company expanded rapidly after
the 1846 opening and, following a series of amalgamations and take-overs, it
became the largest of the Scottish railways by the mid-1860s. By that
time, it had opened a number of branch lines, built a new main line from Edinburgh Edinburgh to Carlisle, taken over the , Perth & Dundee and Edinburgh &
Glasgow railway Companies, and absorbed numerous smaller railway operations.
In the 1880s, it built the (replacement) Edinburgh Tay
Bridge and the massive Forth Bridge
in a joint venture with its partner railway companies and, by the end of the
19th century, it had built the West Highland Railway from Glasgow
to . In fact, by the beginning
of the 20th century, the Company’s rail services stretched from Fort William Newcastle to Aberdeen on
the east and from Silloth in Cumbria
to and Mallaig in the west. Fort William
Logo of the NBRC
In 1871 JD joined the staff of the Clyde Trust, carrying out, during 12 years service important dock extensions and other works as Resident Engineer and Manager. By 1875-6 he is listed as a member of the ‘Assistant Engineers’ Department’ while residing at 16 Robertson Street, Glasgow in the Post Office Directory for Glasgow, working hard no doubt on many of the dock projects of the Trust. In 1883 he joined the consulting practice of Sir William Robertson Copland, M. Inst. C.E., (Copland & Foulis, gas, water & sewerage engineers,
Regent Street and, earlier, of 83 West Regent Street) and was associated
with many of the water supply, drainage and other undertakings carried out by the company.
Sir William Copland (1838-1907)
Experience with Copland’s firm was clearly valuable for more aspiring engineers than just John Dunlop Parker. For example Professor William Aitken Miller (1886-1958), the doyen of Australian work in experimental stress analysis and Professor of Civil Engineering at the
, began his
working life in the same engineering office and many other Scottish engineers
traced their practice development to the firm of Copland & Foulis. University
Among other things it was Copland & Foulis that designed the infrastructure for Glasgow’s gas supply in 1868, so that the mark they left on their own city was lasting. Many of the ‘Copland graduates’ went on to establish their own consulting practices. “After Sir William Copland's death in 1907 [says his IMechE. Obituary], J.D. Parker carried on an extensive practice in
with his son and Captain P. I. Whitton”. J.D. Parker
was elected a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers on the 2nd March, 1886
and elected a member of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow on 6th
November 1889 – signs of his being recognized as a one of the professional
engineers in a city thriving on engineering know-how at the time.
Copland must have introduced J.D. (and later his son) to the particular problems of water and waste engineering. George Eyre-Todd’s ‘Who’s Who In
in 1909’ described Copland thus: Glasgow
From 1862 to 1866 he [Copland] was Burgh Engineer for Paisley: then he began business in Glasgow as a civil engineer on his own account. Here he made special study of drainage and water supply, and designed and superintended the construction of water supply and drainage schemes for many Scottish districts. Among his larger works was a great water-supply system for the
province of Tarapaca
in Chile, which includes the
important town of Iquique.
Upon these subjects he was a recognised authority, and a frequent witness
before Parliamentary Committees and Royal Commissions.
It was Copland, then, that introduced the Parkers (father and son) to the problems of water supply in the Tarapaca region of Chile. Tarapaca was then, as now, a semi-arid, semi-desolate place. Water and the supply of it to towns such as
was a lucrative business, dominated
by an entrepreneurial Yorkshiremen called John Thomas North. North carried
water, expensively, by carrier overland to the cities. Iquique
John Thomas North
had been supplied with water transported from other parts of the coast or from the
interior of the country and was obtained from so-called "hangovers"
or brackish water distillers. From 1880 several projects to provide drinking
water to the increasingly prosperous city of Iquique were suggested. These initiatives,
however, did not succeed, either through lack of resources or by open or covert
opposition of the Tarapaca Water Company, owned by John North, who operated a
shuttle water tanker from Iquique .
In open opposition to North, Thomas Hart formed a corporation in
Britain to bring water to by pipe from the interior. North
organized a media campaign to discredit it, thus preventing the scheme from
immediate implementation. Hart in 1888 organized the Tarapacá North Waterworks
Company, which obtained permission from the Iquique
to establish water service in the city. Municipality of Iquique
North was not going to leave Hart a free hand. According to Howard Blakemore’s economic history of the nitrate trade of the region in the late nineteenth century, "At the end of September 1888 there was registered in
Waterworks Company Limited, with an authorized share-capital of £400,000 in
40000 shares of £10 each". The subscribers to the company originally set
their business in motion in London Glasgow with, the
Banker Magazine in 1894 noted, “the object of supplying water to the town of Iquique, in the . The syndicate incurred
preliminary expenses to the extent of £3000". Republic
It remains to be established whether Copland (or indeed J.D. Parker) was a subscriber, but it seems that Copland staff were involved in the original, and ongoing, work in connection with the project to establish water supply throughout the Tarapaca region. As if proof were needed of that, the picture below shows the name of Coplands on one of the great water storage tanks constructed during the 1880s:
One of the water storage wells in
to the left is clearly seen ‘W.R. Copland, Engineer’
At the end of 1884 Thomas Hart returned to his idea, aborted two years earlier, of piping water from Pica. As a result of this, his license was approved on January 23, 1885, entailing a new concession from the recognition of the rights he had acquired in June 1882. In March 1885 the engineer J. Parker arrived in
In this port he met with the engineer William Sterling who came from
and they prepared drawings and cost studies on the ground for almost two
In 1886 [Hart] returned to Scotland and created, in the city of Glasgow, the Iquique Water Company with a nominal capital of £350,000, leaving the majority of shares unallocated. In January 21st of that year the engineer John Inckwell [John Tuckwell?] began preparatory levelling in order to begin the laying of the pipes and [the Chilean] Congress authorised charges of 2 cents per decalitre.
J.D. was working in good company. William Stirling (1822-1900) was appointed Engineer with the responsibility of building the railways that sustained North’s nitrate companies. He was the son of the Rev. Robert Stirling, D.D. (1790-1878), the inventor of the Stirling Hot Air Engine and the brother of Patrick Stirling (1820-1895), successively Locomotive Superintendent of the Glasgow & South Western and Great Northern Railways, and of James Stirling (1835-1917), successively Locomotive Superintendent of the Glasgow & South Western and South Eastern Railways in
. (The Chilean nitrate
rail lines were completed in 1890). Great Britain
But it was North’s company that the Copland engineers ended up assisting. We know, from later evidence, that it was the Tarapaca Waterworks Company for which William, certainly, also worked.
Desolate and arid, the interior from which the water would be sourced from springs at places such as Pica is unforgiving to the mechanical engineer. One contemporary description of the engineering problems facing the railway engineers gives a sense of the challenges faced:
The interior of the Tarapaca region
“The original concessionaires transferred the lines in 1873 to a company known as the National Nitrate Railways of Peru, which was later, in 1882, reconstituted as the Nitrate Railways Co., Ltd. The system is worked under four separate concessions, the principal terminus being at
one of the chief ports of Northern Chile, with
a population of over 37,000. It hardly ever rains in Iquique, and water has to be brought sixty
miles from the oasis of Pica. The railway company has a condensing plant at Iquique capable of
supplying distilled water from sea water at a rate of 200 tons in twenty-four
hours. Water for the locomotives is also supplied by the Tarapaca Waterworks
through a pipe-line about fifty-seven miles in length from the . Andes Mountains
If water transportation was important for the engines in the marshalling yards of southern
how much more significant was the supply of fresh water to the towns? Schemes
came and went at the end of the nineteenth century; after the death of North
and the political machinations he seems to have engineered in Chile , commonsense
seems to have prevailed. In 1905 the Board of Trade Journal reported, Chile
The ‘Diario Oficial’ of
Chile of 7th
June contains a Decree authorising the construction of waterworks in Iquique, at a cost of
3,000,000 pesos (about £250,000).
For the Parkers, this was likely to have been the unique opportunity they were looking for. With the advantage of earlier experience via Copland & Foulis, and with the freedom after 1907 to establish a separate business based on those connections, it is likely that this was the point at which the father and son partnership took the step into the unknown. Waterworks engineering contracts would have been in the offing in Tarapaca, and the triumvirate had the connections and experience to make the most of them.
That they did so was in no small part due to a number of circumstances. First, the training and experience afforded by Coplands - and not least the connections - made entering the business of engineering consulting in Chile entirely possible. Secondly, the hard work on the Tarapaca Water Works had proven capability and determination in the face of almost overwhelming odds. Above all, perhaps, a schooling in engineering which supposed a fluency of technical command that come from engineering education grounded in practice in fields as varied as locomotive and rail engineering, drainage, water supply and storage engineering. Arguably it was the very British, or peculiarly Scottish, attitude to this fluency of skill that made it possible for the Parkers to succeed.
 Luis Castro. (2009), ‘Visión histórica
manejo de los recursos hídricos en el Norte Grande de Chile (fines del siglo XIX y
comienzos del XX)’ , Simposio “El acceso al agua en América: historia,
actualidad y perspectivas” 53 Congreso
Internacional de Americanistas, México, July 2009, p. 12. [My translation]