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2000 years of civilisation

A SALARY of about £330,000 a year might seem excessive for a 27- year-old engineer in the rail industry. It's certainly more than today's equivalent could expect to earn.

Admittedly we are talking about IK Brunel, whose £2,000 for taking charge of the building of the Great Western Railway equates to something more than £330,000 in today's terms. We can be sure that the other engineers in his office received only a fraction of that princely sum.

Professor Alec Skempton has uncovered this fascinating glimpse into the finances of the Brunel household during his research for the forthcoming Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineering. Working with contemporary accounts, he has extrapolated the figures to arrive at a 1990s equivalent.

It will probably come as no surprise to discover that Brunel was the most lavishly remunerated of the great railway engineers. George Stephenson received a comparatively measly £800 (equivalent to £130,000 a year) as principal engineer on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Son Robert did considerably better as principal engineer of the London to Birmingham Railway. With expenses, he pulled in the equivalent of £250,000 a year.

These 19th century engineers were far more handsomely rewarded than their predecessors. In 1613 Edmund Colhurst, the man in charge of the construction of the New River which brought clean water from the Chadwell Springs in Hertfordshire to London, was only paid the equivalent of about £34,000 a year. This puts him on a level with an experienced water supply engineer working today. But most of them would probably feel grossly underpaid if their duties included taking sole charge of a project of this scale.

Engineers in the 17th and 18th centuries also seem to have been comparatively poorly rewarded. Joseph Nickalls, who was resident engineer for the construction of the Calder and Hebble Canal, was paid the equivalent of £33,000 a year - considerably less than he would be earning today. John Smeaton, the engineer for the project, was paid about £80,000. Seventy-seven years later, Thomas Page, resident engineer for the Thames Tunnel, was earning in the region of £50,000.

Specialist expertise clearly commanded a price, however. Cornelius Vermuyden, the Dutch drainage engineer who acted as director of works for the Great Level, the massive drainage scheme for the East Anglian fens, is recorded as being paid £240 a year in 1650. Today that would represent more than £105,000.

Eminence in the profession also brought rewards. In 1794 William Jessop and Robert Mylne were each charging the equivalent of about £1,300 for a day's consulting. The fee was of course computed in guineas.

Thomas Telford's fee in 1803 was a little more modest at £1,100. Highest of all was John Smeaton, whose five guinea fee in 1768 would today be worth more than £1,500. A rewarding day's work, you might say.

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