In the 19th century, the Somerset town of Frome was bustling with iron foundries — the Butts Hill Ironworks, Fussells, Cockies and the newly established Singers. Ideally located close to the Somerset coal mines and on the river Frome, the town was revived by these industries after the decline of the weaving workshops that had lead to its wealth in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was in Frome that two famous London statues were cast — Boadicea on the Embankment and Justice atop the Old Bailey building. Frome was packed with itinerant male workers and young families who had moved there seeking work.
Benjamin Baker was born into this vibrant, if noisy and dirty, environment in 1840. He was descended from British settlers in Ireland. His father, Benjamin Baker senior and his mother Sarah (née Hollis) had recently moved to the outlying village of Keyford, his father having been appointed foreman at the Butts Hill Ironworks.
Benjamin had one (older) sister, Fanny Maria, to whom he was close all his life. Ambitious for their son, the Bakers sent him to be educated at Cheltenham Grammar School but by 1851 disaster had struck his father died leaving the young Benjamin and his sister as scholars in Cheltenham and his mother Sarah occupied as a dressmaker.
At the age of 16, Baker was articled (a type of apprenticeship) to Messrs Price & Fox at the Neath Abbey Ironworks on the south coast of Wales, where he would stay until 1860. This ironworks was the home of cutting-edge Victorian technology, where pumping engines, locomotives and marine engines were built. It was here that he received a thorough engineering education and acquired his deep understanding of the material qualities of iron and its fabrication processes.
During these formative years away from home, Baker had an affair with a young Welsh woman who fell pregnant and was spirited away to America by her outraged parents. Baker knew nothing of this until some eight years later, when he finally discovered that he had a daughter. He never married or had any other children.
On completion of his articles he moved to London to work for civil engineer William Wilson (1822-1898) for a period of two years. Wilson had a long association with John Fowler (1817-1898, later Sir John Fowler) and had worked under him on various railway projects. In London, Wilson was working as co-adjudicator on Fowler's Victoria Station & Pimlico Railway — London's only terminus railway company and essentially a speculative project, with two main engineering elements: a major bridge across the Thames and the train shed roof. It was through Wilson that Baker met Fowler, an established engineer 23 years his senior, who was to have a profound influence on his life.
So, Baker's first major engineering contributions were connected with the Victoria Station & Pimlico Railway project. Both elements are attributed to Fowler but it seems Baker worked on the bridge. Then named Victoria Bridge
, it's site is now occupied by Grosvenor Bridge
(1963-1967). Victoria Bridge (1860) consisted of four arched spans and was the first rail bridge to cross the Thames in central London — though these days Barnes Rail Bridge
, which dates from 1849, is counted as the first London rail bridge on the Thames as Barnes is now part of London.
At this time, he was living with his mother and sister, and the family income was supplemented by his mother running a boarding house.
main references BDCE2
portrait of Baker
courtesy Institution of Civil Engineers