Born in Kelso on 5th January 1816, James Brunlees
attended the Parish School before transferring to Mr Scott’s
private school. There he excelled in arithmetic and basic
measuring. He left school at the age of 12 to follow his
father’s profession as a gardener and steward with a view to
becoming a landscape gardener at Broomlands. However he
had a natural taste for engineering work.
Broomlands at that time was occupied by Mr Innes, agent to the Duke of Roxburghe. Through Innes, Brunlees met the civil engineer Alexander J. Adie, who was carrying out work on the Roxburghe Estates. Brunlees picked up a considerable knowledge of surveying, and was eventually employed to make a survey of the estates. During this time he saved money to pay for classes at Edinburgh University, where he studied for several sessions. Mr Adie continued to employ James, and in 1838 engaged him in the construction of the Bolton and Preston Railway. It was in Bolton he met Elizabeth Kirkman who became his wife.
Brunlees moved on to construct a section of the Caledonian Railway from Beattock to Carstairs. He then moved to the Stalybridge branch of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway under Sir John Hawkshaw. In 1850 Brunlees set up his own practice, becoming engineer to the Londonderry and Coleraine Railway in Ireland. This involved the construction of embankments under difficult conditions across Rosse’s Bay in the River Foyle. Brunlees’s success here helped him obtain the appointment as engineer to the Ulverston and Lancaster Railway.
His reputation had gained universal acclaim and Baron de Maua, principal concessionaire in Brazil, engaged him in the survey and construction of the San Paulo Railway in 1857. On completion of this work the Emperor of Brazil presented James Brunlees with the Order of the Rose.
Despite his international fame James Brunlees never forgot his native soil. He frequently returned to Kelso for holidays, to fish and shoot. A skilful and successful angler, he had an outstanding record for catching salmon at Sprouston and Hempseedford. In 1854 the police commissioners asked him to design new sewerage and water systems for the town of Kelso and this he did for the cost of the outlay on plans and specifications, declining payment for much of the work. The first drains were laid from Horsemarket along Shedden Park Road to the Tweed. For many years, James Brunlees was President of Kelso’s Mechanics Institute and took a keen interest in it, giving frequent donations of books and, on occasion, sums of money for essay prizes.
The Channel Tunnel Railway Company was incorporated in 1872 and Brunlees once again worked with Sir John Hawkshaw, planning a railway link between England and France. The Company folded in 1886, a full hundred years before the tunnel became a reality. However a deviation of no more than a few inches was the result when Brunlees along with Douglas Fox, the resident engineer started work at Liverpool and Birkenhead and met almost exactly in the middle to form The Mersey Tunnel.
Throughout his career, the design of iron structures for tidal waters was a continuing theme. Brunlees was responsible for impressive examples of seaside piers, at Llandudno, New Brighton, Southport, and Southend, the longest pleasure pier in the world at 1.33 miles. As engineer to the Solway Junction Railway he designed an iron viaduct across the firth 1¼ miles long.
Brunlees became a Council member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1865 and President in 1882-3. Queen Victoria awarded him a knighthood in 1886. Brunlees died at his home, Argyle Lodge, Wimbledon on 2nd June 1892.
Find out about the contribution people from Kelso have made through the ages. Biographies of characters with Kelso connections who have made their mark throughout the world.View Storyboard: James Brunlees