Cornwallis Street Muncipal Baths, Liverpool designed by James Newlands

Cornwallis Street Municipal Baths, Liverpool designed by James Newlands

James Newlands

1813 – 1871

James Newlands

the UK's first public health engineer

Engineering Achievements

When James Newlands started work in 1847 as the first Borough Engineer in Liverpool, the life expectancy there was 19 years. When he retired in 1871 it was double that figure. He therefore made a huge difference to the health of the citizens of Liverpool. Ten years later, Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891), the Chief Engineer of the London Metropolitan Board of Works made a similar contribution to the health of the people of London by engineering a sewerage system for London. But Bazalgette ‘stood on the shoulders’ of Newlands in that endeavour. 

86 miles (138 km) of new sewers were built in Liverpool's first phase. Between 1856 and 1862 another 58 miles (93 km) were added.

During the Siege of Sebastopol, the British government wrote to the Mayor and Corporation of Liverpool, asking that Newlands might be permitted to vacate his post and proceed to the Crimea as Sanitary Commissioner, to assist in relieving the 'pestilence' which was contributing to the high casualties among British and allied forces. Florence Nightingale later wrote to him, saying "Truly I may say that to us sanitary salvation came from Liverpool."

Newlands was an early proponent for a ring-road serving Liverpool (not realised for another 50 years, when Queens Drive was constructed by his successor as borough engineer, John Alexander Brodie). In addition to his sewerage projects, he also worked extensively on Liverpool's highways, designed the Cornwallis Street and Margaret Street Baths, and improved the city's lighting. Newlands believed that physical surroundings also affected mental outlook and moral wellbeing.

He was a very good draughtsman and a musician. He wrote copiously for Encyclopaedia Britannica and other publications. Several of his paintings were exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy. He was a ‘lad o’ pairts’.

James Newlands: "Having then glanced at the progress of sanitary matters….we arrive at the period when the publication of a masterly report by Dr Duncan, our present Medical Officer of Health, stirred up the authorities of Liverpool, and the report of Mr Chadwick, on the condition of the poor, roused all England from its death sleep. Immediately succeeding it the Commission on the Health of Towns published the result of its labours, and the public began to see that much of the misery, the moral degradation, the death and the crime of the land were preventable. The incubus of ignorance was removed and action in a right direction became possible."

In her paper on Newlands, Sally Sheard concludes: “James Newlands is a fascinating character. His work demonstrates what can be achieved under the duress of financial stringency, ratepayer and government opposition to public investment, and traditional subservience to fellow professionals. He was a politician, skilful in steering the best possible course, and always making evidence-based policy recommendations. The engineering profession can still learn a lot from him.” 

Sheard’s paper is a ‘must read’ for understanding the contribution made by Newlands. He was an engineer of the first rank.

His Life

  1. 1813 Born in Edinburgh on 28 July, son of Thomas Newlands, ropemaker and Janet McKay
  2. Teenage years Educated at Edinburgh High School and the University of Edinburgh
  3. 1827 Apprenticed to Edinburgh Corporation architect, Thomas Brown
  4. Early working years Worked at the School of Agriculture at Edinburgh University where he designed agricultural buildings and then was in private practice as an architect and surveyor
  5. 1845 Age: 32 Married Joanna Henderson at St. Cuthbert's Church, Edinburgh on 11 August
  6. 1847 Age: 33 Designed the Johnston's Free School in Kirkcudbright, Scotland
  7. 1847 Age: 33 Appointed as the first Borough Engineer at Liverpool in January. He carried out a detailed survey of the Borough and designed what is considered to be the first integrated sewage system in the world
  8. 1848 Age: 35 Elected Associate of Institution of Civil Engineers in June
  9. 1848 Age: 35 Death of his wife, Joanna.
  10. 1854-55 Age: 41-42 Travelled to Sebastopol on the invitation of the British Government to improve sanitary conditions for troops in the Crimea
  11. 1856 Age: 43 Published 'Report on the Establishment and present Condition of the Public Baths and Wash Houses in Liverpool'
  12. 1857 Age: 43 Transferred to Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (MICE) in January
  13. 1860 Age: 46 Published "The Carpenter and Joiner's Assistant" in print through five editions until 1890
  14. 1871 Age: 57 Retired from post as Borough Engineer of Liverpool in May
  15. 1871 Age: 57 Died on 15 July in Liverpool, and buried in the Liverpool necropolis

His Legacy

The provision of sewerage in towns and cities is one of the greatest contributions that engineering has made to mankind. In relation to health, it stands up beside the discovery of penicillin. James Newlands was the pioneer of transformational integrated sewerage systems for public benefit. That is a legacy of first order importance. He can be recognised as the ‘father’ of public health engineering, and of municipal engineering.

More Information

Newlands, J. (1848) Report to the health committee of the borough of Liverpool, on the sewerage and other works, under the Sanitary Act. Liverpool

Newlands, J. (1856) Report on the Establishment and present Condition of the Public Baths and Wash Houses in Liverpool. Liverpool

Anon (1871) Memoir of James Newlands Proc. ICE. 33, pp227–31

Hamlin, C. (1993) James Newlands and the bounds of public health, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 143, pp117–40

Sheard S, (2015) James Newlands and the origins of the municipal engineer. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers - Engineering History and Heritage, 168(2), 83-89. DOI: 10.1680/ehah.14.00008

Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland Volume 2 1830–1890 James Newlands. (Cross-Rudkin PSM, Chrimes MM,Bailey MR et al. (eds)). Thomas Telford, London.

ODNB (free to UK Library Members)

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