Engitect Issue 4

How it All Started - The Years Between the World Wars - Your Feedback - CDM and All That - Partnership News - And Finally... - Post Script


Issue Four - March 1999


Welcome to the fourth edition of Engitect.  This edition celebrates our 90th year and chronicles some of the history of the practice and its founders.  We like to believe we are one of the oldest Structural Engineering consultancies concerned with buildings in the country.  Our archives certainly contain examples of many early 20th century forms of building engineering as the construction industry moved from the master builder approach, to embrace the technologies and materials developed during the mid to late 19th century.  Such materials include steel, reinforced concrete, etc.

How It All Started

It all started when Joseph Westwood was the principal guest at the prize giving at All Saints Choir School, Eastbourne, and offered an apprenticeship to one boy to whom he had handed a number of the prizes.  Thus it was that at the age of fifteen years and two weeks on 15th April, 1890, Bertram Hurst started work at Joseph Westwood's iron and steel works at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs.  Here he met men who had worked on Brunel's Great Eastern ship built on the site 35 years earlier, and learnt how to design, detail and fabricate iron and steel work.  Five years later he left Westwoods for 9 months with the GWR at Paddington and then returned to Westwoods for 9 months as Assistant Chief Draughtsman before returning to the GWR for nearly 3 years.  All this time he was learning civil and mechanical engineering and all aspects of building construction at The City of London College.  In 1899 he moved to The Admiralty, where he led the team responsible for the detail design of the breakwaters which still guard the entrance to the Grand Harbour in Malta.

Whilst at The Admiralty he was chosen to look after the design and drawing office at Portsmouth, where he met Sir Aston Webb and made a number of other contacts who consulted him when he was in practice on his own account, which started in January 1910, after two years in an unsuccessful partnership with C. W. Gray.

His first years, with a staff of two or three, including Norman Peirce who came down from Liverpool to join him in July 1910, saw work for Sir Aston Webb, who paid the first fee on 10th January, 1910 of �100 for advice on works to the Conservative Club.  Work was also carried out for the Rand Water Board and 102 bridges and other structures for the Great Western Railway, including Ladbrooke Bridge which carries Westbourne Grove over the main line just outside Paddington.

B. L. Hurst's first major project was to advise on the foundations and structure of the reinforced concrete framed Cunard Building, Liverpool, where Mewes & Davies were the consultant architects.  Site work started in 1913 and finished in 1917 and it was fee income from that project which saw his practice through the thin times of the First World War, until London County Westminster and Parr's Bank (now NatWest Bank) came with their new head office in Lothbury as well as their Threadneedle Street Branch, with Mewes & Davies as architects.

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The Years Between The World Wars

During the First World War J. N. Peirce served in the British Expeditionary Force in France in the Royal Engineers 87th Field Company, returning to the firm in 1919.  After the war, B. L. Hurst and J. N. Peirce worked hard in rebuilding the firm's practice which had severely diminished, however work slowly built up and by 1920, when J. D. Malcolm was indentured as a pupil there was a staff of three.

The firm continued to expand and when J. J. Taylor ( who as the firm's longest serving employee was to stay for 63 years) joined the staff in 1925 there was a total of six under J. N. Peirce.  The firm continued to grow and when B. L. Hurst took J. N. Peirce into partnership in 1930 the staff numbered ten; however the name of the firm remained B. L. Hurst for some years before becoming B. L. Hurst & Peirce.

In 1938, eighteen years after commencing his pupilage in 1920, J. D. Malcolm was taken into the partnership, joining B. L. Hurst and J. N. Peirce.  By then the firm had moved to offices in Gloucester House, Charing Cross Road.  The title, however, was to remain B. L. Hurst & Peirce until after the Second World War.

The number of jobs dealt with during the 1920s and 30s was very extensive and for reasons of space we will only refer briefly to three jobs of particular significance.

In August 1927 the Commercial Union building in Cornhill collapsed and B. L. Hurst was appointed to investigate the matter and take appropriate action.  The collapse was due to excavations carried out on the adjoining Lloyds Bank site.

Shoring details for Scottish Widows BuildingThe next building, the Scottish Widows Fund, was supported with steel shoring deliberately painted red, as a statement to regain confidence in the construction industry which, in the City, had been seriously eroded by the event.

In due course the Commercial Union building was rebuilt to the firm's designs with a four-basement sub-structure which involved excavations to over 50 ft. below street level in Cornhill.  The architect for this new building was Sir Aston Webb.

The successful resolution of the Commercial Union collapse established a reputation for dealing with such matters, and records show a rapid expansion of the firm's client and architect base during the subsequent Commercial Union Collapseyears.

  23rd November 1929. New Commercial Union Building

The firm were consulting engineers for Shell Mex House on the Embankment with architects Messrs. Josephs.  This large building was built remarkably quickly as the two photographs below show.  They were taken in 1931, only 18 weeks apart, and show an empty s15th November 1928. Scottish Widows Shoringite followed by an almost completed building structure.

12 June 1931.  Shell Mex House site  20 October 1931.  Shell Mex House building in progress

The 7,500 tons of steel were erected at an average rate of 400 tons per week, and of the 72,000 square yards of floor, 5,500 square yards (the size of a football pitch), were laid in one week.  This rate of progress is seldom achieved nowadays.

Summer 1935.  Peter Jones - Sloane SquareAmong the many projects for the John Lewis Partnership was the rebuilding of Peter Jones in Sloane Square with architects Slater and Moberly and consulting architects W. Crabtree and Sir Charles Reilly.  Work started in 1934.  The photograph shows King George V passing the site in the summer of 1935.  The still modern appearance of the building was achieved by the fa�ade being cantilevered some 8 ft. outside the main columns which allowed the innovative curtain wall and shop windows to run smoothly along elevations.

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Your Feedback

Stripping poisonous wall papersWe had a number of letters from readers in response to the back-page article in our last edition of Engitect on arsenic in wallpapers.  Michael Ney of Schroeders Begg & Co wrote:

"Turning now to the Victorian dwarves at their paperhanging, you may recall that Napoleon Bonaparte was taken into exile by the British after Waterloo in 1815 and incarcerated on the island of St Helena.  (It was more secure than Elba).  Even though he was a villain, he was an officer and a gentleman so was put under house arrest in a nice house that was, of course, wall papered.  It is said that the arsenic in the wallpaper was what did for him and hastened his demise.  Perfidious Albion got him in the end!"

Perhaps this was an early case of 'sick building syndrome'.

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CDM And All That

Michael Hurst has finally hung up his boots!

The article is recorded as an actual incident in a house in Halifax and is taken from a book by T. Pridgin Teale M.A., surgeon to the General Infirmary.  The book was published in 1879.

We quote from Mr. Pridgin Teale:

Under house soil pipe"In a gentleman's house the children were always ailing, and in consequence I ordered an inspection of the soil pipe which was supposed to run under the house and some outbuildings, and to join a main-drain in the road behind.  On the floor of the coal cellar being taken up, there was found a very large quantity of sewage, which had been accumulating ever since the house had been built, seven years before.

During the whole of this time all sewage from the w.c. had run under the floor of these cellars; for at the end of the coal cellar the soil pipe came to an abrupt conclusion against a mass of solid rock, twelve yards thick, at the other side of which a pipe was placed and connected with the main-drain in the road.  No doubt it was in order to save the expense of blasting through the rock that the contractor scamped the work."

"The authorities saw the junction"

"The Borough Inspector having received due notice from a builder of his intention to connect a house drain with a public sewer, came and 'saw the last pipe put in; with what security to the public may be judged from this Plate'".

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Post Script

We are conscious that this commemorative issue of 'Engitect' focuses on the early history of the firm.  We make no apologies for this, as history is important to us in that it assists in solving today's problems and because we need to know how yesterday's building's were put together in much that we do.  We are however, equipped for the 21st century and will continue to provide a personal service to all our clients.