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Obituary | Will Howie

After losing his seat in Parliament, Will Howie was recruited in 1973 to New Civil Engineer, which had been founded by the ICE the previous year.

Galleryview i25 copy crop

Galleryview i25 copy crop

Will Howie

His brief from editor Sydney Lenssen was “to translate what politicians were doing and saying into what engineers needed to know to optimise the future”.

His role was to prove stormy. The ICE was determinedly apolitical, yet had been bold enough to establish New Civil Engineer with editorial independence, though a number of influential members remained wary and watchful. And at a time when building industry nationalisation was still on the Labour Party’s agenda, the appointment of a former Labour MP caused more than a little consternation among the staunchly right-wing construction establishment.

Will was well able to ride the conflicts which inevitably arose. His articles were always reasoned, balanced, kind and delivered with great good humour, even when critical.

In 1978 Will was made a life peer by his old friend, prime minister Jim Callaghan. We at New Civil Engineer were astonished to be working alongside a noble lord, but were pleased and proud too. He made clear that he did not want to be treated differently, and remained “Will” to everyone in the office and outside.

He was also able to raise in the Lords issues of concern to the profession. One of his (later) successes was to secure the listing of Marc Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, thwarting London Undergound’s plans to shotcrete the original cast iron lining.

Around the same time, he was appointed a member of the Finniston Committee inquiring into the future of the engineering professions. This put Will in a difficult position, as the ICE did not welcome the inquiry, in part because it was addressing the ills of manufacturing industry, not construction. Will proved an effective conduit between the committee and the Institution as the inquiry progressed.

Will was active in the formation in 1980 of the engineering disaster relief charity RedR, which he supported through the rest of his life.

Later, in 1987, he edited and wrote another book commemorating 150 years of ICE Proceedings, together with a supplement in New Civil Engineer, which revealed a talent and enthusiasm for engineering history.

His 1994 supplement commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Mulberry Harbours built for the Normandy Landings was one of the finest works which New Civil Engineer has ever produced.

In 1997 the Institution awarded Will its Garth Watson Medal for his services to the profession: the following year he retired. His colleagues and friends will remember a man of many passions, ready to compromise on anything other than his principles, (almost) always cheerful, compassionate, loyal and supportive.

Born and raised in Troon in South Ayrshire, Will graduated from the Royal Technical College in Glasgow and worked as a civil engineer in Glasgow before moving to London. In 1963 he won the marginal seat of

Luton, which he held at the subsequent General Election – older workers at the local Vauxhall plant respect him for helping to save their jobs. As an MP, he was Senior Whip, and Comptroller of the Royal Household.

  • Lord Howie of Troon – civil engineer, politician died in May, aged 94.






Hugh Ferguson, who was editor/editor-in-chief of NCE from 1976 to 1990, looks back at Will’s life and career.




The book included his brief, elegant and accurate comparison of the three great Victorian railway engineers, all of whom were born and died within a few years of each other: “Of the triumvirate, Brunel was flamboyant and daring, and these characteristics led him to dazzling successes and striking failures; Robert Stephenson was safe and steady, but he never shrank from the grandiose when it called to him; (Joseph) Locke was precise and workmanlike and, above all, he was careful with other people’s money. If all these characteristics are necessary to some degree in an engineer, it was mainly Locke’s example that the profession later followed’.



The mid-1970s was the time when trade unions came closest to attracting significant numbers of chartered engineers, and the engineering institutions were worried – not just because  of the potential conflict between strike action and professional obligations, but also because many younger members believed the institutions were dominated by employers and, as such, anti-trade union. Will wrote a definitive book on the subject Trade Unions and the Professional Engineer. In 1976 he became general manager of Thomas Telford Ltd, the ICE subsidiary company which ran New Civil Engineer, giving him a management as well as a journalistic role.


Although the 1980 report’s main recommendation, for a new statutory engineering authority to regulate the profession, was rejected, the report did lead to the replacement of the ineffective Council of Engineering Institutions with the Engineering Council, and to the widespread adoption of four year MEng degrees.





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