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Ignoring pigeon poo to celebrate a Tyne Bridge engineer

27 February 2019

Stuart Anderson's great uncle Sir David Anderson, past President of ICE from 1943-44, inspired three subsequent generations of his family to become engineers. Surprisingly perhaps, he had some very 21st century views on engineering.  

Ignoring pigeon poo to celebrate a Tyne Bridge engineer
Family likeness? Portrait of Sir David Anderson at One Great George Street with two of his great nephews, also engineers, Ian Anderson and Stuart Anderson.

I never actually knew Sir David Anderson, my great uncle and a past president of the ICE from 1943-44, as he died before I was born. He’s perhaps best known for his work on the Tyne Bridge between Gateshead and Newcastle in the north east of England.

But he definitely had a significant influence on both my dad’s life and - indirectly - on my life. If you include my brother who became an engineer in a different domain and my eldest son too, that makes five engineers and four generations of ICE members!

Missing the bird poo

His portrait may be found on the back staircase of the ICE building at One Great George Street, but a few years back when I was searching for it, it wasn’t there!

“Oh, it’s been removed as it got slightly damaged, and needs touching up,” advised one of the admin staff at ICE, “but we can get it out of storage if you'd like to see it”.

The damage done to the painting was actually very minor but gave the appearance of a bird poo on his shoulder.

"But how appropriate,” I thought. "Arguably, he jolly well deserves having bird poo on his best suit!"

Anyone who’s walked along Quayside underneath the big green arch suspension bridge between Newcastle and Gateshead will know exactly what I mean ...

An iconic structure for the North East – and gulls

October 2018 marked the 90th anniversary of the opening of this wonderful arch-suspension bridge. Indeed, it’s become one of the key icons of the north east of England. Exactly what Great Uncle David's role was in the detailing of the bridge, I’m not quite sure, but he seems to have been overall responsible for the design.

However, he didn’t appear to have designed for the rather significant environmental factor of preventing gulls from perching on the exposed high girders of this bridge.

The piles of guano (commonly known as bird poo) at street level can be quite a health hazard, and you definitely risk an eyeful if you dare to look upwards at the wrong places.

As recently as August last year, the local press has been complaining about continuing guano problems from the roosting gulls on this bridge. I suppose that environmental risk management for major civil engineering projects in those days would have been minimal, or more likely non-existent.

Now, with many decades’ experience of building extremely tall structures, we recognise that they’re valued by both humans and gulls.

For the latter, an extremely tall structure is a quasi-cliff. So now we can design with this in mind. But Great Uncle David didn’t know that then.

An ICE president thinking ahead of his time

However, in some ways David Anderson appears to be have been quite an environmentalist - even ahead of his time then in his thinking.

In his Presidential Address to the ICE back in November 1943, he demonstrated that he had much more than ‘just’ post-war reconstruction in mind:

"Such sources of power as the tides, the sun, and the wind are largely untouched...It is sincerely to be hoped that the newly set up Hydro-Electric Development Board for Scotland will now lead to an orderly development of the water-power resources of the Highlands.”

How different it is today with our multitude of wind turbines and solar farms!

Furthermore, he went beyond environmental aspects of civil engineering to what he called the spiritual side of human progress - in those dark days (18 months before the ‘Victory in Europe’ day in May 1945 that marked the end of hostilities in Europe), there was clearly a yearning for creating a new world.

Building on the ICE’s definition of engineering as the “art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man”, he suggested:

“Now within our powers to create if unselfishness and goodwill upon earth became universal... Mere pious hopes will not bring about a better world. Action and sacrifice are needed.”

Perhaps a bit optimistic, but I suggest he has an important challenge to make to civil engineers today, even if he didn’t fully appreciate the long-term risks from perching gulls.

  • Stuart Anderson, ICE member 1972-2015