James Newlands (1813-1871), civil engineer who laid out the sewer system in Liverpool in 1848 some years before London's system.
1813 July 28th. Born in Edinburgh, the third of nine children of Janet Mckay and Thomas Newlands, a ropemaker.
After studying mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, Newlands became apprenticed (c. 1827) to Edinburgh Corporation architect, Thomas Brown, and then worked for Professor Low of the University's school of agriculture.
1845 Married and was widowed in 1848 and never remarried, living in his later years with his sister, Jessie.
He made a careful and exact survey of Liverpool and its surroundings, involving somewhere about 3,000 geodetical observations, and resulting in the construction of a contour map of the town and its neighbourhood, on a scale of one inch to 20 feet (6.1 m). From this elaborate survey Newlands proceeded to lay down a comprehensive system of outlet and contributory sewers, and main and subsidiary drains, to an aggregate extent of nearly 300 miles (480 km). The details of this projected system he presented to the Corporation in April 1848.
In July 1848 James Newlands' sewer construction programme began, and over the next 11 years 86 miles (138 km) of new sewers were built. Between 1856 and 1862 another 58 miles (93 km) were added. This programme was completed in 1869. Before the sewers were built, life expectancy in Liverpool was 19 years, and by the time Newlands retired it had more than doubled.
1861 Living at 4 Duke Street, Liverpool: James Newlands (age 47 born Edinburgh), Civil Engineer. Borough Engineer of Liverpool. Widower. With his brother Alexander Newlands (age 37 born Edinburgh), Ship Master. Single. Two servants.
1871 July 15th. Died.
1872 Obituary 
MR. JAMES NEWLANDS was born on the 28th of July, 1813, at Edinburgh, where his father carried on business as a rope manufacturer.
He was educated at the High School, under the late Mr. Benjamin Mackay, and subsequently applied himself to the study of mathematics and natural philosophy, under Professor Wallace and the celebrated Professor Leslie, in the university of that city.
At the same time he acquired great facility as an artistic and mechanical draughtsman, and much skill as a theoretical and practical musician.
About the year 1827, Mr. Newlands entered the office of the late Mr. Thomas Brown, then architect of the Edinburgh corporation ; and, after various changes, he was engaged from 1833 to 1836 as assistant to Professor D. Low, who, at that time, filled the chair of Agriculture in the university.
While thus engaged he drew on wood the illustrations for a large work on agriculture and agricultural implements; he designed farm buildings, and illustrated, by descriptions, the principles upon which they should be designed; drew out the designs for the classes, and superintended the making of models of farm buildings and agricultural implements now in the University Museum.
During this period, also, Mr. Newlands practised writing on subjects connected with his work, studied mechanics and mathematics, and in 1838, acquired some knowledge of chemistry.
He also gradually obtained practice as an architect, and by indomitable perseverance, energy, and sheer hard work, he laid the foundation of the varied knowledge he possessed, and which ultimately was of such service to him. As a proof of his energy, it may be mentioned that he, one afternoon about 3 o’clock, undertook to have an article on a certain subject in the printer’s hands by 6 o’clock on the following morning, with wood-cuts drawn ready for cutting, which he accomplished in time by never leaving his chair till the work was completed.
Mr. Newlands’ position as an accomplished writer was recognised so early as 1838, as he was engaged to write for the seventh edition of the “Encyclopedia Britannica.” He wrote, chiefly in the evenings, the articles “Ropemaking,” “The History of Steam Navigation,” and others of minor importance.
From 1844 to 1847 he was engaged, to some extent, on railway works, in addition to his ordinary business, connected with designing and superintending the erection of farm and other buildings, valuing land, and damage claims resulting from railways passing through estates, &c.
Whilst thus working himself upwards to a distinguished and honoured position, the attention of Mr. Newlands was drawn, towards the close of 1846, to an advertisement for an efficient person to act as borough engineer for Liverpool, and he determined to enter the field as a candidate, seeing in the opening a wider sphere for the exercise of his enlarged and enlarging capacities.
The town had been visited by an epidemic of a very fatal character, traceable, it was thought, in some degree. to defective sanitary arrangements; and Mr. Newlands having given proof of his intimate and extensive acquaintance with sanitary science, he was selected from five candidates, and on the 26th of January, 1847, was appointed the first borough engineer of Liverpool.
Immediately upon entering into office, he set about a searching investigation of the causes which regulate or determine the hygiene of large and populous towns, with a view of applying the principles to the benefit of Liverpool. His examination showed that the means of effecting physical cleanliness in the town were very defective. The sewerage had been carried out in a desultory and unsystematic manner, and only to a very imperfect extent. The methods of removing the solid refuse, which inevitably accumulates among a large population, were also defective; and he at once betook himself to laying out a complete system of sewerage, whereby the liquid impurities of the town might be rapidly and effectively carried away, and so disposed of as not to be detrimental to the surrounding neighbourhood.
To secure this object he made a careful and exact survey of the town and its surroundings, involving somewhere about three thousand geodetical observations, and resulting in the construction of a contour map of the town and its neighbourhood, on a scale of one inch to 20 feet. From this elaborate survey Mr. Newlands proceeded to lay down a comprehensive system of outlet and contributory sewers, and main and subsidiary drains, to an aggregate extent of nearly 300 miles. The details of this projected system he presented to the Corporation in April, 1848, in a lucid and comprehensive report, which was adopted by that body in July of the same year.
Armed with this approval, he at once set himself to carry the system into practical operation; and, by laborious industry he succeeded in completing a system of sewerage in every respect adequate to the great and still growing requirements of this large and rapidly expansive community.
The carrying out of this vast, and in many respects difficult undertaking, involved much mental labour, as well as a great expenditure of physical exertion; the combined effects of which, without doubt, contributed largely to the exhaustion of a bold and vigorous intellect, and the physical prostration prematurely of a robust constitution. In addition to the development of thorough and systematic drainage, the report referred to, which may with safety be said to exhaust the subject of sewerage in all its principles and details, also enters with minuteness into nearly every department of physical hygiene, including water-supply for public and private purposes, laying out of streets and thoroughfares, construction of domiciles, lighting and cleansing streets, and regulating traffic. In point of fact, it elucidates with clearness and precision almost every matter connected with the sanitary arrangements of a great population, and includes well-digested estimates of the cost of construction and maintenance of the system which it recommends for adoption.
Indeed, so comprehensive and minute is the information concentrated in this manual, that up to the present hour it remains the text-book for all the sanitary improvements connected with the borough. Besides attending to the great branches of sanitary regulation, Mr. Newlands was indefatigable in carrying out improvements in the paving and management of the streets, which, under his direction, were changed in numerous instances from tortuous and narrow alleys into convenient and handsome thoroughfares, suited by their admirable construction to the traffic by which they are continuously occupied.
He designed and carried out the Cornwallis Street and the Margaret Street Baths, besides modifying and improving the previously existing public baths belonging to the town. Under his superintendence the lighting of the streets and thoroughfares of the borough has been established on a system so effective as to compare favourably with that of any town in England, and to hare served as a model to many other places.
Mr. Newlands was a steady and consistent advocate for the maintenance of open spaces for the recreation of the people; a favourite project of his in this direction having been the construction of a boulevard round the town, coincident with the parliamentary boundary, with streets radiating towards it from the central and crowded districts. In his endeavours to carry out this object he expended much thought and no small amount of labour. The scheme, however, did not meet with the approval of the Council ; but had it been executed, a great belt of open road would have encircled the town, equidistant from every part. Already, by the expansion of Liverpool, it would have been actually within the town proper, forming a great playground for the people, and serving, in fact, as a park running through the town.
Mr. Newlands was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 6th of June, 1848, and was transferred to the class of Members on the 20th of January, 1857. When in London he frequently attended the meetings, and occasionally took part in the discussions.
During 1853 Mr. Newlands, in the evenings, after his official labours, revised his articles for the eighth edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” and wrote that on “Birkenhead.” He afterwards also wrote works on “Carpentry” and “Perspective,” illustrating the latter by applying its rules to so intricate an example as bevel gearing. These two works were published by Messrs. Blackie, of Glasgow.
A most gratifying testimonial to the professional ability and practical skill of Mr. Newlands was given during the Crimean war. During the siege of Sebastopol, the camp at Balaclava became a huge seat of pestilence, which spread disease amongst the troops, and greatly increased the difficulties felt by the Allies in their proceedings. The British Government wrote to the mayor and corporation of Liverpool, asking that Mr. Newlands might be permitted for a time to vacate his official post, and proceed to the Crimea as a sanitary commissioner, with the view, as far as possible, of removing the evils under which the British army was suffering. The request was cheerfully complied with.
He went forth to new duties, and so effectually did he remedy the evils complained of, that in a complimentary letter which he afterwards received from Miss Nightingale, acknowledging his services, she remarked, “Truly l may say that to us sanitary salvation came from Liverpool.”
Mr. Newlands continued to fill the office of Borough Engineer till May, 1871, when, his health being greatly impaired, he retired from the active duties of the office, his services being retained by the Liverpool Corporation as consulting engineer.
Mr. Newlands had a strong, firmly-knit frame, rather under middle-height, and had an unusually large head. He was always known as a hard worker, and had untiring energy and perseverance.
His reading was extensive, considering the time at his disposal; and having great observant powers and a good memory, he was an interesting companion. He had a versatile genius, being architect, engineer, author, musician, and artist. Of the two former it is unnecessary to speak farther than to remark, that his sanitary works especially have always been highly approved. His writing was terse and vigorous, the ideas being conveyed in language so well arranged a,nd appropriate, that it seems as if any alteration would impair the whole structure. His penmanship was good, being small and distinct. He was an accomplished musician, playing the flute skilfully ; and he accompanied singing on the piano readily, reading even difficult music at sight. His sketches, of which he made some hundreds, attest his powers as an artist; but his large pictures, of which he painted three or four, were better, although painted in early life. They were exhibited in the Royal Scottish Academy’s Exhibition, and sold readily.
Mr. Newlands’ manner was affable, and he was most punctual in all his engagements. He had genial social feelings, and was much liked by his assistants ; while his high-toned morality and deep religious feeling made his example a safe one to follow. He married in the year 1845, but lost his wife in 1848, and never had any family.
Although Mr. Newlands got through so much work, he had not for many years enjoyed good health, suffering as he did from chronic bronchitis, with acute attacks frequently in winter or spring.
The first time Mr. Newlands was attacked was in 1843, when his life was despaired of; and in 1846, as the result of overwork during the railway mania, he was ordered by his physician to go to the Continent.
Almost every year afterwards he was laid aside for a time, and had often to go abroad for his health. After his retirement from the active duties of the office of borough engineer, his health gradually became worse, and he died at his residence in Liverpool on the morning of Saturday the 15th of July, 1871, being then scarcely fifty-eight years of age.
Sources of Information
- 1861 Census
- 1872 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries