Sir Benjamin Baker

Sir Benjamin Baker

Sir Benjamin Baker 150 150 Frome Heritage Museum

Recent exhibitions about J W Singer and Sir Benjamin Baker have been called ‘Casting the World’ and ‘Bridging the World’. Both men reached out globally and received commissions from far-flung places, in Baker’s case from Egypt and America.  But there are not too many other similarities. Baker, born 30 years after Singer, was knighted; he was born in Butts Hill, Keyford, Frome, but moved when young to Cheltenham and never returned; he was a brilliant practising civil engineer but also an influential writer on the topic.

Baker’s most famous creation is, of course, the Forth Rail Bridge, opened in 1890 and declared to be ‘Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder’ in 2016. He and Sir John Fowler were only offered this commission after the original designer, Thomas Bouch, was turned away following the disastrous collapse of his Tay Bridge. Interestingly, at the subsequent Court of Inquiry, Baker provided expert testimony about the effect of wind pressure on girders, and maybe it was this calm assurance and authority that won him the contract to construct the largest cantilever bridge in the world at that time. It was made of steel rather than cast iron, weighs over 50000 tons and required the staggering figure of 6.5 million rivets. The expression ‘It’s like painting the Forth Bridge’ has entered the English language to describe a task that never finishes!

The Forth Rail Bridge, almost a symbol of Scotland, was a monumental achievement, and Baker’s desire to employ young engineers from around the globe, and then later to write and talk about the enormous challenges faced and overcome during the project, undoubtedly led to further rapid developments in civil engineering. The plaque marking his birthplace in Frome quotes from his obituary in The Times: ‘Cool, quiet judgement and a restrained strength were his marked characteristics’. The museum owns a wealth of material relating to Sir Benjamin Baker, not least his work on such projects as the Aswan Dam, the Central Line in London and the Hudson River Tunnel.