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James Mansergh (1834–1905)

by Suzanne G. Mellor

This article was published:

James Mansergh (1834-1905), civil engineer, was born on 29 April 1834 at Lancaster, England, second son of John Burkitt Mansergh, draper. Educated locally and at Preston, in 1847 he entered Queenwood College, Hampshire, an advanced institution reputed for mathematics. He was first apprenticed to McKie & Lawson in 1849 and by 1866 was in partnership with his brother-in-law, John Lawson, after whose death he practised alone until his sons joined him. His first works were railways, particularly in Wales and Brazil, and he then specialized in waterworks and sewerage. He designed the scheme which cost £6,000,000 and was to supply Birmingham with over 100,000,000 gallons (454,609,000 litres) of water a day. He also designed and constructed water supply and sewerage plans for other major English cities and was a consultant on hundreds of parliamentary and municipal committees. He was president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a councillor of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and a fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1889 after the appalling reports of the royal commission on Melbourne's sanitary conditions and a vigorous press campaign with public protest demanding reform, Mansergh was invited to advise on a deep-sewerage scheme for Greater Melbourne. He arrived with his son Ernest as assistant on 18 October and left on 13 December. The contour plans of the whole area which he had requested did not arrive in England until April 1890. His figures were provided by H. H. Hayter, government statistician, who from the population of 427,200 in 1889 estimated a total over 1,680,000 by 1934. This growth seemed reasonable to Mansergh and induced him to propose the high figure of seventy-five gallons (341 litres) of water a head each day for sewerage and domestic use because of 'the almost universal and very free use of baths'.

Mansergh found the level of pollution in Melbourne disgraceful. 'Open gutters conveying chamber slops and other foul liquids in the open' into the Yarra and Hobson's Bay were standard. Heavy rain often overflowed from gutters into low-lying houses and yards, while the subsoil was 'permanently besodden and stinking' from this overflow and from disused cesspits. He was also disgusted by industrial waste from tanneries and other factories and by the disposal methods for domestic refuse. His aim was 'to remove all human refuse from the proximity of human habitations without the assistance of human labour': all cesspits and pails were to be replaced by water closets which were to drain into underground channels; street gutters were to carry only rain water to the rivers and all other water was to be carried by pipes to two land treatment plants to be installed at Werribee and Mordialloc. These plans, submitted in August 1890, were to cost over £7,000,000. The press attacked his high estimates and the plan was modified but as implemented was 'substantially his', though at a greatly reduced estimate and without the Mordialloc plant.

Mansergh's later projects included waterworks for Toronto and sewerage schemes for Colombo and the Lower Thames valley. He married twice: first, in July 1859 to Mary, daughter of Robert Lawson of Skerton, Lancashire, by whom he had two sons and two daughters; and second, in September 1898 to Harriet, née Branford, widow of Nelson Irons of Tunbridge Wells. He died in Hampstead on 15 June 1905.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1890, 4 (182)
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 June 1905.

Citation details

Suzanne G. Mellor, 'Mansergh, James (1834–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 April, 1834
Lancaster, Lancashire, England


15 June, 1905 (aged 71)
London, Middlesex, England

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