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Remembering Thomas Hawksley: The Visionary Water Engineer of the 19th Century

    Author: Lana Piskorowski

    In July, we celebrated the birthday of the earliest founding name of MWH: Thomas Hawksley. But who was this innovator from 216 years ago?

    In the annals of engineering history, few names shine as brightly as Thomas Hawksley. Born on July 12, 1807, Hawksley’s legacy as the preeminent water engineer of the 19th century remains an indelible mark on the world of infrastructure and innovation.

    Hawksley’s journey into the realm of water had humble beginnings. He cut his teeth as an apprentice under the guidance of architect and surveyor Mr. Edward Staveley at the tender age of 15 with limited formal education. Hawksley’s innate curiosity and determination propelled him forward, leading to a path of self-guided learning that would ultimately define his exceptional career.

    Just eight years later, at age 23, Hawksley was appointed Chief Engineer of the Trent Waterworks Company. It was a role that would prove pivotal in shaping the trajectory of his contributions to the world of water infrastructure.

    During his lifetime, many engineers resigned themselves to the belief that pressurized water supply systems were an untenable dream due to the seemingly unavoidable occurrence of heavy leaks. However, Hawksley’s unyielding determination and innovative spirit led him to collaborate with an ironworks company and local plumbers. Together, they devised a series of robust and easily repairable pipe fittings, effectively tackling potential leakage.

    At age 25, Hawksley’s celebrated his first major achievement with the realization of the Trent Bridge Pumping Station—a groundbreaking project that birthed the country’s inaugural pressurized water system. This system, serving the City of Nottingham, stood as a triumph of Hawksley’s persistence and forward-thinking approach. Little did he know, this achievement would be a saving grace for the city in the coming years.

    Bestwood Pumping Station watercolor – one of Hawkley’s major projects

    Sixteen years later, when the specter of cholera reared its deadly head in Nottingham, the city remained remarkably untouched. Thanks to Hawksley’s visionary pressurized water system, Nottingham’s residents were spared from the devastating effects of the disease.

    Hawksley’s impact spread far beyond his homeland as he led the design and construction of over 150 waterworks systems in the United Kingdom and abroad. His influence earned a knighthood from Austria, Denmark, Brazil, and Sweden—a testament to his global contributions to water infrastructure.

    At 59, Hawksley joined forces with his son Charles to establish T&C Hawksley, a partnership that would later merge with JD & DM Watson, ultimately giving rise to Watson Hawksley—the namesake of the “W” that now graces MWH. Hawksley also became the president of both the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers—a testament to his stature within the engineering community.

    As we reflect on Thomas Hawksley’s life, we honor a man whose indomitable spirit and visionary contributions have left an enduring legacy that we continue to uphold today at MWH. His innovations continue to ripple through time, a source of inspiration for our work, reminding us that the boundless horizons of human achievement are limited only by our imagination and determination.

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