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50th Anniversary of the Society

The council of the Insitution of Civil Engineers decided to form a British national society of the International Society of Soil Mechanics & Foundation Engineering in October 1948. It was constituted early the following year, holding its first formal meeting in October 1949 under the chairmanship of WK Wallace. Before this the Society had its origins in an earlier ICE committee on soil mechanics and foundations and a British national committee of ISSMFE which prepared papers for the second international conference in 1948.

The president of ICE had earlier urged that any new organisation in the geotechnical field should be closely linked with, or affiliated to, the Institution. ICE also took on responsibility for publishing Geotechnique in 1949.

From the Society's inception, the ICE agreed to undertake its secretarial work and this has always been the modus operandi, though in recent years there has been a division in activities between an administrative secretary at ICE (currently Grace Chen) and a technical secretary (currently Neil Smith). The Society has since remained intimately linked to the ICE and to the journal Geotechnique, which celebrated its own 50th anniversary in June of this year.

The Society changed its name in 1954 from the British Section of the ISSMFE to the British National Society of Soil Mechanics & Foundation Engineering. In late 1963 it was agreed that rather than form a separate group to further the interests of rock mechanics in the UK, there should be a widening of coverage. Affiliation with ISRM brought a change in name from 1 January 1964 to the British Geotechnical Society.

Over 50 years BGS has operated in parallel with the ICE and is one of more than a dozen groups enjoying Associated Society status.

For each group the Institution provides varying degrees of secretarial and administrative support. Although the Society makes a payment from its subscription income, this does not truly reflect the cost of rooms provided for committee meetings, technical meetings and the like, or of the secretarial and financial services provided.

Since 1981 the Institution has had a separate Ground Board which has run in parallel with BGS. However, these are not the only organisations with a geo-technical interest in the UK. There are others whose activities are complementary, ranging from other professional institutions, notably the Institute of Mining & Metallurgy and the Geological Society of London (particularly the Engineering Group) to specialist or trade groups such as the Association of Geotechnical & Geoenvironmental Specialists, the British Drilling Association, British Tunnelling Society, Federation of Piling Specialists and International Geosynthetics Society, of which ICE, EGGS and IMM are formally represented on the current BGS committee.

Recognising the proliferation of such organisations and the need to avoid excessive duplication of function and cross-representation, industry- wide groupings have been formed in recent years. Ground Forum, formed in 1993 and currently chaired by the BGS vice chairman Professor Quentin Leiper, is an umbrella group for virtually all the above and that in turn has an input to the Construction Industry Council, formed in 1988, which represents the construction industry on the broadest of fronts.

Over the years the Society has developed its activities enormously. On the publication front Geotechnique and recently Geotechnical Engineering have been published by the Institution while Ground Engineering, recently reorganised by Emap, is the official organ of BGS. Each has an identifiable position in the market place and each is seen as complementary to the others.

The premier event in the calendar is the annual Rankine Lecture, given alternately by overseas and British lecturers to an audience that regularly exceeds 600. The 1999 lecture by Professor Serge Leroueil will be the 39th. A look back over the list of past lectures justifies the sub-title of the first collection of the series as 'Landmarks in soil mechanics', with recognition that we are now encompassing more than 'soil'. While we may all have own favourite, it will be a querulous member of the community who denies that there are many major new statements of significance in this sequence.

The Society has always recognised that younger engineers and scientists need support and encouragement and the prize in this area, that has always been open to both BGS and ICE members, commemorates the pioneering efforts of Leonard Cooling. His daughter Christine, herself a geotechnical specialist, writes elsewhere in this issue and continues to support the competition. Many of its winners, and indeed many of the other competitors not destined to win, are now found in senior positions in the geotechnical industry in the UK and beyond.

Another area where the Society has had an impact is the development of national gatherings of young engineers, initiated by Professor John Atkinson. After holding a number of these meetings at City University, he handed them over to BGS to run on a biennial basis. The idea has spread and there are now regional meetings of young geotechnical engineers - that in Europe, to which BGS sponsors two people, being held annually. As our contribution to the millenium celebrations, we will be hosting the first fully international meeting of this type in Southampton, with the support of the International Society and others.

The BGS prize for the best paper written by a member in any calendar year celebrates many published landmarks. A majority of the winning papers have been published in Geotechnique but the reviewers each year scan the wider literature and there is increasing consideration of papers with members co-authoring with colleagues from abroad - recognition of the impact of multi-national co-operation, both in authorship and in engineering activity.

Over the years BGS has organised conferences of its own and co-sponsored others. Of particular note, the ICE and BGS hosted the fourth ICSMFE in London in 1957 and BGS hosted the 7th ECSMFE in Brighton in 1979. More recently, we have had a joint conference with French colleagues on ground improvement in London and a geo-environmental conference in Cardiff - both in 1997. We are currently planning a second Geo-environmental conference in London in 1999 and are to co-sponsor the 8th international symposium on landslides in Cardiff in 2000.

The passage of 50 years finds the British Geotechnical Society lively and active. Geotechnical engineering has advanced a long way since the immediate postwar days when the first generation of pioneers laid the basis of modern practice in this field, introduced the subject formally to university courses and enthused others to follow up their early work. There seems no doubt that advances will continue.

In the period from July 1993 to May 1996 lengthy discussions took place between BGS and the Ground Board with a view to merging the two bodies. A considerable level of agreement was achieved at that time, though the discussions ultimately foundered on operational and financial problems and were discontinued. Subsequently the ICE president established a Future Framework Presidential Commission to review the way forward for that body. The report to the Institution, recommendations of which are now being implemented, envisaged a new widening of access to and membership of the ICE, incorporating specialists in areas such as geotechnics, but many others as well, who have not to date been qualified for membership. This is the situation of many of the 1,400 subscribing members of BGS.

Following an initiative by ICE president David Green in summer 1997, a small ad hoc working party, chaired by Professor John Burland, has been looking to develop a vision, mission and objectives for a single body that might represent geotechnics and ground engineering in the UK.

This working party was welcomed by both BGS and the Ground Board and the recent outcome is a document now actively under debate, though it has implications well beyond these two organisations. There is considerable support for a coalescence of the two, which have enjoyed a close relationship since the spawning of the Society 50 years ago. The period immediately ahead may see changes that are the most significant for the Society since its birth.

The 25th anniversary of the BGS was marked by the publication of a history in Geotechnique with contributions from Cooling, Skempton, Glossop and Golder (published in 1975) which provides a detailed account of this phase of the Society's history.

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