UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering



In 1827 the founders of UCL appointed Prof John Millington to teach civil engineering, the first such appointment in England. Two centuries later, CEGE is still at the cutting edge of the discipline.

Overview of CEGE's history

Civil Engineering has been taught at UCL since its earliest days. The first Prospectus, published in 1826, offered a “system of academical education” to the “young men intended for the scientific profession of Civil Engineer”. To fulfil this promise, the College Council appointed John Millington, Professor of Mechanics at the Royal Institution, to the Chair of Civil Engineering. However, financial considerations forced his resignation within a year. 

In 1841 the Chair was accepted by Charles Blacker Vignoles, whose name is associated with the introduction of the flat-bottomed rail track. His work took him to both America and Russia, and his suspension bridge over the Dnieper in Kiev was the largest in the world at the time of construction. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1855 and elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1870. 

Victorian engineers became the heroes of the 19th century, and it was in this atmosphere that William Pole was appointed to the Chair in 1859. He was involved with the survey of the great Indian railway, consulted by de Lesseps on the proposed Suez Canal, and was an expert on harbours and waterways. His “Theory of Whist”, based on the theory of probability, ran into 20 editions. 

The real beginning of academic engineering came with the appointment of Alexander Blackie William Kennedy as Professor of Engineering in 1874 at the age of 27. He established laboratory courses and coined the term ‘engineering laboratory’. Lab experiments became an essential part of the students’ work, and continue to do so today. In 1887 he was made FRS, was knighted in 1905, and elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1906. 

Several years after Kennedy’s arrival, Leveson Francis Vernon-Harcourt was appointed Professor of Civil Engineering. The son of an admiral and grandson of the Archbishop of York, he was an acknowledged authority on harbours, docks, rivers and canals, water supply, and sewage disposal, on all of which subjects he published books. The Institution of Civil Engineers organises an annual Vernon Harcourt Lecture to acknowledge his contribution, and the department awards the L.F.Vernon-Harcourt Prize annually to a student who demonstrates overall outstanding excellence.

Read the full history here.

Sir Edwin Chadwick

CEGE is housed in the Chadwick Building, and we also have a Chadwick Professor of Civil Engineering (currently Prof Nick Tyler). Why is this?

Edwin Chadwick was born near Manchester in 1800. At the age of ten he moved to London and later entered the legal profession, eking out his income with journalism. He wrote about the contemporary social conditions and political issues which interested him - in particular, the appalling living conditions of the working classes, and the influence that environment appeared to have on health. His writings attracted the attention of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the Utilitarian philosopher and founding member of UCL. Chadwick became Bentham's secretary, and was greatly influenced by his philosophy and judicial reform proposals.
In 1832, a Royal Commission was set up to enquire into the working of the antiquated and inefficient Poor Laws, a collection of poverty-relief statutes that dated back to 1601. Chadwick was appointed Assistant Commissioner, with the task of investigating the operation (and abuses) of the Poor Law in London. He was a tireless investigator, who insisted on seeing with his own eyes the horrors of slum life in Victorian London - decrepit housing, disease, no sewerage, no clean water, poverty, and intolerably high levels of mortality. He was also an aggressive man of action and his final report to the Commissioners led to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which recommended the formation of a centralised administration and uniform regulations for relief. A central Poor Law Board, comprising three Commissioners, with Chadwick as their first secretary, issued rules and orders to reform relief.

Did you know?

Edwin Chadwick's younger half-brother, Henry (1824 - 1908), is known as the 'Father of Baseball' thanks to his reporting on and promotion of the game in the 19th century.

The eradication of poverty was seen as an economic issue but the Poor Law Commissioners quickly learned that poverty was often the direct result of ill health. They concluded that the relief of destitution was not in itself sufficient: apart from reducing suffering, it was essential on economic grounds to take steps for the prevention of disease by removing its physical causes. Chadwick began to press for public health measures and to research in detail the lives of poor people.

In 1842 Chadwick's three volume report "An Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain" became a landmark in social history, with its graphic descriptions of how the filth in air, water, soil and surroundings was a major factor in the spread of disease, especially in urban areas. Eventually, and after much opposition from non-interventionists and those who believed that poverty and disease were matters for individual concern, not public legislation, the Public Health Act and the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act were passed in 1848.

Chadwick worked tirelessly for the new Board of Health (est. 1848), but the enemies of centralised administration and intervention were vocal and determined. In 1854, he was pensioned off from public service but continued to campaign for sanitary and social reform. His wide knowledge of government departments, administration and statistics, public health engineering and building construction made him a formidable lobbyist for the last years of his life. He was awarded the KCB (a knighthood, enabling him to use the title ‘Sir’) in 1889.
After his death in 1890, his determination to reform society through sanitary science was continued in perpetuity by a charitable trust in his will. In 1898 Sir Osbert Chadwick (Edwin’s son) was appointed the first Chadwick Professor of Municipal Engineering at UCL. To this day, the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at UCL has a Chadwick Professor of Civil Engineering, and a focus on the ethical and individual impact of engineering is a feature of our research and study.