Sir James Walker (1781–1862)

In his youth James Walker worked with some of the outstanding civil engineers of the Industrial Revolution. In his adult years worked on many important projects in Britain and in Germany, and his contributions to the development of lighthouses were influential across the world.

He was born in Falkirk, Scotland, studied at the University of Glasgow and was apprenticed to his uncle, the civil engineer Ralph Walker (1741-1824). He worked with John Rennie (1761-1821) on the construction of the West India Docks in London. From 1803 he took responsibility for building Commercial Road one of the main highways to the newly-built docks through the East End of London. He surveyed the route of one of the first main line railways, between Leeds and Selby, in 1829, and its associated line from Selby to Hull from 1834. The following year he surveyed the line between Leipzig and Dresden, often regarded as the first long-distance railway in Germany.

He became engineer to the Surrey Commercial Docks, on the south bank of the River Thames in London, in 1810, and retained the position for the rest of his life. He also directed harbour works at Aberdeen, at the East Bute Dock in Cardiff, on the island of Alderney, and in Hamburg in 1845. He was consultant engineer for the construction of one of London’s best known landmarks, the tower of the Houses of Parliament universally known as ‘Big Ben’. His most important achievement was his work on lighthouses. He designed the West Usk lighthouse at Newport in South Wales in 1821, and during the rest of his career built 21 more lighthouses, including those at Trevose Head, Devon in 1844-47, Bishop’s Rock, in 1858, and The Needles off the Isle of Wight in 1859. He also served as Chief Engineer to Trinity House, the body responsible for lighthouses and lightships in the United Kingdom.

In 1834 he succeeded Thomas Telford as President of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He is commemorated by a bust at Greenland Dock, part of the Surrey Commercial Docks, erected in 1990.