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Robert Burton Buckley

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Robert Burton Buckley (1847-1927)

1927 Obituary[1]


A few weeks ago it was our painful duty to record the death of Sir John Benton, a past Inspector-General of Irrigation for India, and now it becomes necessary to perform a similar task for one who, though connected with the same branch of engineering in the same country, was a predecessor in point of time, and may therefore, not incorrectly, be described as a pioneer in the great work which Sir John brought to successful fruition, in so far as finality is ever reached in these matters. We refer to Mr. Robert Burton Buckley, who died on December 19, in his eighty -first year. Mr. Buckley, like Sir John Benton, had devoted most of his working life to the development of the irrigation systems of India, and in so doing had assisted materially in increasing the prosperity and stabilising the development of the principal industry of that country.

Mr. Buckley was born at Brighton on August 23, 1847, being a son of the Rev. John Wall Buckley, vicar of St. Mary’s, Paddington. He was educated at Merchant Taylor’s School and served as a pupil for five years with Messrs. Samuda Brothers, of Poplar. He gained a Whitworth Exhibition in 1868, becoming a Scholar in the following year. He was, therefore, one of the oldest living members of that select band, who have succeeded in qualifying for Whitworth’s generosity, and for that reason became, after Dr. H. S. Hele-Shaw, the founder, the first president of the recently-formed Whitworth Society. It is a little pathetic to have to mention that his death almost coincided with the fifth commemoration dinner of that body last week, at which function fitting tribute was paid to his memory.

In the same year that he became a Whitworth scholar Mr. Buckley proceeded to Bengal and took up an appointment as assistant engineer in the Public Works Department of that province. At first he was employed in the Dehree workshops, where he constructed and designed several girder bridges, and also had charge of the locomotive, portable and stationary engines employed about the factories. He was promoted to the rank of executive engineer in 1876. From 1875 onwards he was entirely engaged on the development of the irrigation system of India, a work with which his name will always be connected, being first in charge of the Buyar and then of the Patna canal construction. He also executed some 300 miles of distributaries of various sizes, from 3 ft. to 20 ft. base, for the design of some of which he was responsible, in 1887 he became under-secretary of the Department for Irrigation, Roads and Buildings, and later filled the same position under the Government of India for two and a half years. He rose to be chief engineer to the Bengal Government in 1898 and was subsequently secretary to the Government of that province, while he was for a time member of tho Council of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Star of India in 1901 and retired from the Indian Service in 1902. When he finally left the Public Works Department, he was offered but declined the official chairmanship of the Calcutta Corporation. Incidentally, he was the only non-Indian civilian to have been selected for this position. After his return to this country he kept closely in touch with professional work for a time, and was consulted on many irrigation projects, notably in Dongola, Spain and South America.

To give such a record of Buckley’s life, set out deliberately in the dry form of the usual book of reference, and to leave it at that, would be largely I to ignore the real importance of what he did whether those deeds be regarded as mere engineering feats or as a contribution to the welfare of a dependency, the prosperity of which, fortuitously or by design, has been placed in the hands of members of the British race. No one, whatever their politics or whatever views they hold on the relationship of white and coloured races, can deny that India is a great responsibility nor, whatever their prejudices, can do other than agree that the work of such men as Buckley and Benton is a strong support of the argument that those responsibilities are being more than adequately borne. It will not be out of place here to elaborate this thesis by referring to the meteorological conditions of India, conditions which it is well known have imposed on the Government the task of constructing extensive irrigation works. It is the more appropriate since a short discussion of the problem, and of the means which have been adopted to solve it, will show, more clearly than any biographical details, the contribution which the subject of this memoir and those who "worked with him have made to civilisation, and to the prosperity of a large portion of mankind.

The rainfall in India is very variable, both in amount and in distribution, a state of things which is of great importance in a country the welfare of which depends to so large an extent on the yield of the harvest. In the south-east of the country the precipitation occurs from October to December, but elsewhere it is confined to the period from June to October. During certain times of the year there is a drought, and the problem is therefore to conserve, store and distribute the rainfall so that it can be most generally useful. Work to achieve this object has been going on under the British Raj since the western Jumma canal was reopened in 1821, but by far the greater part of the development has taken place since 1866 almost simultaneously, be it noted, with the arrival of Mr. Buckley in the country. These works have included the Sirhind, Lower Ganges, Agra, Lower Swat and Mutha canals and to give an idea of their extent it may be stated that the first of these comprises 3,733 miles of channels irrigating 1,600,000 acres. As engineering is closely bound up with finance, it will not be out of place to add that a return of some 11 j per cent, has been obtained on the capital expended on this development.

This is not work that can be carried out without careful planning, nor is it work that is unaccompanied by engineering difficulties. For instance, the Upper Swat canal leaves the river valley by a tunnel some 2 miles long, which penetrates the Malakand range, while subsequently the waters flow down the Dargai nullah where the fall is 300 ft. in 5 miles. The engineering difficulties in taking this canal along slopes cut by ravines and torrents were enormous, and these were not alleviated by the fact that the course includes seven tunnels aggregating a mile in length. On the Patura canal, to Mr. Buckley’s connection with which we have already referred, there are 13 locks in a length of 83 miles, and one of these locks has chamber walls 37 feet high. Many other examples of similar work could be quoted, which have either been carried to a successful conclusion or are still proceeding, and all of which have meant careful consideration and that adaptation of means to an end which forms the true work of the engineer, no less than political negotiations demanding patience and a varied knowledge of the psychology of other races. In all of these, Buckley played a great part. But to view the task in its true perspective it is better to consider, not what has been done, but what remains to be done. This remainder is in fact enormous. For as Mr. Frederick Palmer pointed out in his Presidential Address to the Institution of Civil Engineers two years ago, even now only about 11 per cent, of the cultivable land in India is irrigated by canals, about 5-3 per cent, from mills and 6-2 per cent, from reservoirs, leaving 77| per cent, unirrigated.

It is not going too far to say that it is on this enormous future task that what Buckley did will have the most profound influence. Many engineers have erected great works, frequently in the face of apparently insuperable difficulties. But too few of them have set out the results of those struggles and, what is more important, the deductions which their successes and failures have enabled them to draw. This may have been due to pre-occupation in other work or, to a dislike of literary effort. There remains nevertheless a gap, a gap which is too often unfilled. Buckley took the other course. As long ago as 1880 he published a book on “ The Irrigation Works of India and their Financial Results,” and this was followed in 1893 by “ The Irrigation Works of India and Egypt,” a treatise which has been revised more than once and still remains an invaluable work of reference, both to the student and to the practising engineer. It has in fact greatly influenced the practice of irrigational engineering not only in India, but in America and other countries. During his retirement he published “Facts, Figures and Formulse for Irrigation Engineers,” in 1908; “ Design of Channels for Irrigation and Drainage ” in 1911; and the “ Irrigation Pocket Book,” in 1911 and 1920. A paper, which he read before the Royal Society of Arts, may be referred to among numerous other pamphlets as an instance of the view he took that the mass of information, which he had collected during his professional career, might be of service to those who came after him. It is a view which might with advantage be held more widely in engineering circles.

By way of epitaph it may be recalled that an inhabitant of Brobdingnag “ gave it as his opinion that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground, where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.” These words were written by Swift before India had become an Imperial problem. But it is a country whose problems are as huge as the stature of the inhabitants of that land of imagination in which Gulliver travelled and those who have done, and are doing, something to solve them deserve a meed of praise. Among these, Buckley occupies a high place, not only as an engineer but as a man of high ideals of which though he has gone, posterity will surely witness the realisation.

Mr. Buckley was a member of the Institutions of Civil and Mechanical Engineers. He contributed valuable papers on “ Keeping Irrigation Canals Free from Silt,” in 1878, and on “ Movable Dams in Indian Weirs,” in 1880, to the Proceedings of the former, while his communications to the latter included “ The Construction and Working of a Vertical Action Steam Silt Dredger in India,” in 1879.

Mr. Buckley married in 1880, Ada Marion, daughter of Major B. K. Finnimore, R.A., and had a family of one son and three daughters.

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