Guy Maunsell
Early life and career
Guy Anson Maunsell was born on 1st September 1884 in Srinagar, Kashmir, India. The Maunsell family were of Irish descent, originally from Ballywilliam in County Limerick, which was part of the UK until 1919.
Maunsell’s father, Edward Henry Maunsell (1837-1913), was an Irish Protestant and one among thousands of British officers serving in the Indian Army following the rule of the British Raj in India after the Indian mutiny of 1857. He joined the army in 1860, becoming a Lieutenant in the 17th Lancers in 1865, a Captain in the 5th Dragoon Guards and 15th Hussars, and retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in February 1897. Edward was apparently a severe character interested only in army life.
At some point he met Maunsell’s mother, Rosalie Harriet Anson (1852-1922), who was born in Guernsey, though her family had roots in Staffordshire. She was the younger daughter of Charles Anson, only son of the Honourable Edward Anson, who owned Bentley Hall in Staffordshire — a building famous for sheltering King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, though it was demolished in 1929.
Maunsell’s parents were married in Bombay Cathedral 0n 18th April 1878. They had three children — Olive Georgina (1881-1955), Guy Anson the only son and a younger daughter Muriel Aileen, who died in infancy. Olive married engineer Clarence Harold Louth and they settled in Durban, South Africa.
A distant relation, and another example of the strong military background to Maunsell’s life, is General Sir Frederick Richard Maunsell (1828-1916). He was an officer with the Royal Bengal Engineers and served during the Punjab War of 1848-49, was wounded during the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and was part of the Khyber Force in the Afghan War of 1878-80. He was created military knight commander (KCB) on 22nd June 1897, as part of the honours list for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
However, Maunsell wanted to break away from the military tradition of the men in his family, something that is evident from the outset of his studies and the development of his early career. The achievements of many of the now famous Victorian engineers were comparatively recent as the young Guy was growing up, and the exciting challenges that civil engineering offered over joining the army probably influenced his career choice.
Maunsell had no such choice over his early education. He was sent to school in England (typical of a son of the Raj) and attended Eastbourne College in Sussex between 1897 and 1903. The college was founded in 1867, with just 15 pupils, but by the time of Maunsell’s attendance it was a top all-boys public school. He was very successful academically, winning prizes in a variety of subjects.
In 1903 Maunsell entered the Central Institution of the City & Guilds of London Institute, South Kensington, (established 1884, known as City & Guilds College from 1910 when it was incorporated fully into Imperial College of Science & Technology) and graduated with First Class Honours in 1906. Despite his degree, Maunsell struggled to find work and spent time travelling around England with his sketch pad and watercolours — like many engineers of his era, recording his travels artistically. His accomplished artwork is now much sought after. Later in 1906 Maunsell returned to the Central Institution where he was employed as a technical demonstrator setting up experiments for the students.
In 1907, aged 23, he became an assistant to Swiss engineer Adrien Palaz (1863-1930), professor of Industrial Electricity at Lausanne University (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) and its Director 1898-1904. There are many unknowns in Maunsell's life in terms of what is documented and recorded, particularly about the early years of his career, but it is likely that he worked on hydroelectric installations in France and Switzerland.
Though Maunsell needed the practical experience and work, since completing his degree, an important aspect of his time in Europe was his exposure to the development of reinforced concrete. At the time, European engineers were leading the field and Maunsell's future understanding and ambitious use of reinforced concrete had its roots there, whether or not he met with the reinforced concrete innovators of the day.
François Hennebique (1842-1921), a French engineer who began his career as a stonemason and self-taught builder, patented the pioneering construction system he called béton armé in 1892. He had been impressed by Joseph Monier's (1823-1906) concrete gardening tubs strengthened with wire mesh, patented and on display at the Paris Exposition of 1867. Hennebique saw that the technique could be used in construction and his initial idea was to use concrete as a fire-resistant casing to loadbearing iron members. However, he realised that it would be cheaper and easier to use iron only where the member was in tension and so, in 1879, he tried concrete slabs with iron bars in the base to form the floors of an apartment block.
The Hennebique system was one of the first instances of the modern reinforced concrete method of construction, and he believed that concrete allowed beams, columns and slabs to be cast together as a single unit. However, Swiss civil engineer Robert Maillart (1872-1940) refined this idea and developed aesthetically pleasing thin curved forms, traditionally not feasible for bridges — three-hinged arch bridges and deck-stiffened arches. In 1901, in recognition of his talent, Maillart was invited to serve as secretary to the Swiss Society of Engineering & Architecture.
Meanwhile, Britain was catching up with Europe and the use of reinforced concrete was spreading rapidly, shown by the founding of The Concrete Institute in 1908. Hennebique granted a full license to use his reinforced concrete technique to Louis Gustave Mouchel, a close colleague, hailed as the man who introduced 'ferro-concrete' (as it was called at the time) to Britain. Structural engineering, as distinct from civil engineering, evolved from investigation of the structural and architectural possibilities of concrete — particularly reinforced (and later prestressed) concrete — and contributed to the transformation of The Concrete Institute into the Institution of Structural Engineers in 1922.
Between 1908 and 1909 Maunsell returned to the UK as agent for the contracting engineer D.G. Somerville & Co, founded by Daniel Gerald Somerville (1879-1938) in 1905. There he focused on reinforced concrete and structural steel contracts, and began combining his growing expertise in reinforced concrete with client liaison.
In June 1909 he moved to the Scottish firm of Easton Gibb & Son Ltd, main contractors for Rosyth Royal Naval Dockyard (1909-16). Easton's son, Alexander Gibb (1872–1958, knighted in 1918), who had joined the firm as a partner in 1900 at the age of 28, was Maunsell's managing director. Their relationship was not a straightforward one, and initially Gibb was far from impressed with the younger man.
He had approached Gibb in his Newport office and asked for a job. At the close of an unsuccessful interview, Maunsell turned to Gibb and said, "You know, you're are making a big mistake. I could teach you a lot about concrete." It appears that this was the strength of character Gibb needed to witness, and he quickly changed his opinion and granted Maunsell the post of assistant engineer. It was Maunsell's introduction to the realities of civil and structural engineering.
Easton Gibb & Son built the tidal basin and three graving docks at Rosyth between 1909 and 1916. By 1911-12 Maunsell had been promoted to sub-agent, in charge of the block-making yard and the monolithic foundations to the outer wall of the dockyard. Later, and until his departure from the company in 1914, he was chief sub-agent and staff manager responsible for outside operations.
The project encompassed land reclamation behind a sea wall, docks, a power station and a pumping station, plus workshops and stores. The 485 ha site had a 4km long water frontage, and up to 6,000 men worked there. Friction arose between client and contractor, the Admiralty believing its own plans for implementing the project could not be bettered, while Gibb disagreed, with Maunsell submitting a number of alternatives. The dispute lasted three years and final settlement was not reached until 1922.
During the Rosyth job Maunsell walked out of the office three times, always rejoining the firm later. Fundamental clashes of character between himself and Gibb seem to be the cause, exacerbated by the pressures of the work. Years later Maunsell wrote to Gibb's biographer, Godfrey Harrison (Alexander Gibb: The Story of an Engineer, 1950), revealing the adverse pre-war conditions in which they worked, a more reasonable side to his own character and a deep respect for Gibb, in the harsh political and practical conditions prevailing during the construction of Rosyth Naval Base.
Maunsell writes, "In the course of forty years subsequent experience I have never elsewhere encountered anything to compare with the desperate character of the engineering struggle which took place at Rosyth during these years, a struggle which Mr. Gibb had to make against time and harsh natural conditions on the one hand and against an unsympathetic lack of official understanding on the other."
He continues, "... owing to Admiralty intransigence, low contract prices and the great natural difficulties of the work, a successful issue was very much in doubt. That was, I suggest, the turning point of Mr. Gibb’s career; for, if he had not at that time mastered the difficulties before the outbreak of the 1914 war, the subsequent activities which made him famous would, in all probability, not have been invited by the authorities ... As the Duke of Wellington said about Waterloo, 'It was a damned near thing'."
The fact that Maunsell stuck by Easton Gibb & Son overall between 1909 and 1914, reveals his determined belief that he did indeed have a lot to teach Gibb about concrete. He was almost 30 years old by then, and his world was about to descend into the cataclysm of World War I. He had survived Rosyth in all its disputes with the Admiralty, cost restrictions and site challenges, and these experiences meant that he was far more prepared for the disasters and difficulties of war, and the work that followed.
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Everything built ... 1884 - 1961
portrait of Guy Maunsell  courtesy AECOM

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Guy Maunsell
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