A Notable Northamptonshire Engineer:
The life and work of Professor Sir Alec Skempton

Judith Niechcial

14th October 2006

St Andrew's Hospital, Billing Road, Northampton

In 2004, Imperial College, London University named the Civil Engineering building after Professor Skempton. The College and the Institute of Civil Engineers also hosted a large international conference in London in his memory. Although he reached great eminence in the field of Soil Mechanics, he was a Northampton boy born and bred.

His grandfather, Samuel Skempton, was Secretary of the Northampton Building Society, and was active in the building and setting up of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, where he was a deacon for no less than 60 years. His father, also called Alec, played with the Northampton Rugby Football Club, and was a leather merchant with Hamisch and Co until his early death from the after-effects of mustard gas from the trenches of Passchendaele. Skem, as everyone called him, took on the values of hard work and perseverance instilled in him at Northampton Grammar School, particularly by a strict Maths master, which stood him in good stead all his life enabling him to achieve such a great deal. He kept in close touch with an aunt who lived in Abingdon Avenue until the 1980s.

Much of his work is technical, concerning the properties of clay, the effects of pressure on foundations and so on, but he also was involved in major works such as the construction of reservoirs in the Lea Valley supplying water to London, and the huge Mangla dam in Pakistan. He was also a pioneer in the study of the history of engineering, writing and editing books on John Smeaton and William Jessop, amongst others.

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