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Obituary - Sir Ralph Freeman

SIR RALPH Freeman, former senior partner at international civil engineering consultancy Freeman Fox & Partners and President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1966-67 has died aged 87.

His death comes just one month after his son Anthony died from injuries sustained in a falsework collape during construction of the Vasco da Gama Bridge across the Tagus in Lisbon, Portugal last year.

Sir Ralph was the son of Sir Ralph Freeman (senior), designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and founding partner at consultant Freeman Fox & Partners. He shared his father's passion for bridge design and construction - a passion that he also passed to his son Anthony.

Sir Ralph dedicated a vast amount of time to the profession through his work for the Institution of Civil Engineers - culminating with his presidency. He was involved in the construction of many major projects, including the Humber suspension bridge, Medway Bridge, Auckland Harbour Bridge, the Forth Road Bridge, and the Severn and Wye Bridges.

His work as consulting engineer to the Queen, responsible for the upkeep of Sandringham Park - a post he was first appointed to in 1949 by King George VI - was recognised by the award of a CVO in 1964. Sir Ralph was also responsible for project managing construction of the South Bank Exhibition, the showcase for the 1951 Festival of Britain, for which he was awarded a CBE. He was knighted in 1970 for services to the profession.

Born in 1911 and educated at Uppingham School, Rutland, he studied at Worcester College, Oxford, where he gained an honours degree in engineering science and later received an MA. As a student, Sir Ralph worked during vacations for steelwork fabricator Dorman Long, both in the firm's Middlesbrough steelworks and in London on the construction of Lambeth Bridge and widening of Putney Bridge across the River Thames.

After graduating, he moved to Rhodesia and South Africa with Dorman Long, where he spent seven years in contracting, building mainly long span bridges. It was here that he met his wife Joan Elizabeth whom he married in 1939.

While in Southern Africa his work included the 320m span steel Otto Beit suspension bridge across the Zambesi at Chirandu and the 330m steel arch Birchenough Bridge over the Sabi River.

Sir Ralph returned to the UK in 1939 to join his father's firm, Freeman Fox & Partners, but was interrupted by the war. He served initially in the Royal Engineers and worked as a captain in the Experimental Bridging Establishment in Christchurch, involved in the development of a special propped military suspension bridge using Bailey Bridge components.

He was then seconded to advise on the construction of Bailey Bridges in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. In 1945 he was awarded an MBE (Military) and made Knight of the Orange-Nassau (Netherlands) for his wartime efforts.

After the war Sir Ralph rejoined FFP and was made a partner in 1947. In 1949 the firm won the commission to design and co-ordinate construction of buildings for the South Bank Exhibition, which included the spectacular steel framed and aluminium clad Dome of Discovery exhibition hall. Following the sudden death of his father in early 1950, Sir Ralph assumed personal responsibility for the project.

He took over as senior partner at FFP in 1963, a position he held until he retired, aged 68, in 1979. During this time he led the firm's work on some of the biggest projects in the world. These included the M2 and M5 motorways, the Forth Road Bridge, the Severn Bridge, both Bosporous Bridges in Turkey and the cross-harbour tunnel and Mass Transit Railway in Hong Kong. He also led FFP's response after the collapse during construction of its box girder bridges at Milford Haven and across the Yarra River, Melbourne, in 1970.

His career was capped with construction of the Humber estuary crossing near Hull, which when it opened in 1981 was the longest span in the world at 1,410m. The steel deck set new standards for suspension bridge design and construction around the world.

Sir Ralph's abundant energy and enthusiasm meant he was always able to pack a vast variety of interests into his life around his engineering. He was also the engineering member of the Royal Fine Art Commission and served on the board of governors of Westminster School.

Even after his retirement Sir Ralph kept a very active interest in the profession particularly, through the work of his eldest son Anthony - until the accident at Lisbon in April last year.

He leaves his wife Joan, son Hugh and daughter Elizabeth.

Antony Oliver

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