Jeff Broxholme has long been intrigued by a large and unusual Victorian grave consisting of a cross rising from four arches in Idbury churchyard. The monument is to Sir Benjamin Baker and Jeff determined to find out more about him. His researches uncovered a remarkable man.
Benjamin Baker was born in Somerset in 1840. He was educated at Cheltenham and later was apprenticed at an ironworks in Wales. It was in Wales that he was reported to have had an illegitimate daughter by a Welsh woman who subsequently emigrated to America. Benjamin himself never married and had no further children. At the age of 20 he came to London and worked for Sir John Fowler who was involved in building the first London Underground and Victoria Station. Thanks to his earlier apprenticeship and work for Sir John, Benjamin became a master of civil engineering with expertise in the structure and strength of metals and masonry.
His best known achievements in his field were the design of the Forth Bridge on the cantilever principle, at the time the largest span of any bridge in the world, and the construction of the first Aswan Dam in Egypt. Another Egyptian connection was his design for the special vessel which brought Cleopatra’s Needle to London. He contributed to the completion of the Hudson River Tunnel in New York through the invention of a pneumatic shield and when the roof of Charing Cross Station collapsed, Benjamin Baker traced the problem to a broken rod that had covered the fault for more than forty years.
He was knighted in 1890 and became President of the Institute of Civil Engineers and a fellow of the Royal Society. He died aged 67 in Pangbourne in 1907. There is a memorial to him in the form of a stained glass window in the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey. It was presented by the Earl of Cromer on behalf of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
However Sir Benjamin was not buried in Westminster Abbey but in the churchyard of the Norman church of St Nicholas of Idbury. Why this occurred is not completely clear but it is probable that his burial place was a family plot. His monument was designed for four burials but only three graves are occupied, that of Sir Benjamin himself, his mother Sarah and his sister Fanny Kemp.
Alan Vickers with Jeff Broxholme
February – March 2017