Catalogue description THE MACKENZIE COLLECTION

This record is held by Institution of Civil Engineers

Details of MC
Reference: MC

The Mackenzie Collection forms one of the country's most important groups of papers on the construction of railways in the first half of the nineteenth century. Aside from the opportunity it gives to reassess the importance of the Mackenzies as contractors, it also provides much fascinating evidence on the organisation of railway finance and contracts in this critical early period.

Date: 1809 - 1893
Held by: Institution of Civil Engineers, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Mackenzie, William, 1811-1851, scientist and civil engineer

Physical description: Approx 1208 files
Immediate source of acquisition:

In the Summer of 1990, following two years of negotiations, the Institution were fortunate to acquire a large collection of papers and drawings relating to the life and works of one of the most important contractors of the first half of the nineteenth century - WILLIAM MACKENZIE.

  • Civil engineering
Administrative / biographical background:

Mackenzie was a Member of the Institution from 1828 until his death in 1851, when a fulsome Obituary appeared in the 'Minutes of Proceedings'.


William Mackenzie began his career in civil engineering on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in 1811 at the age of 17. In 1824, he was superintending the construction of the Mythe Bridge across the Severn, under the direction of THOMAS TELFORD and from 1826 to 1832, he was engaged as Resident Engineer (again under TELFORD) for the improvements to the Birmingham Canal, involving some of the heaviest excavation work hitherto carried out on a British canal.


Building on over 20 years of experience of canal and bridge projects, Mackenzie began to tender for railway work in the 1830's, beginning with the Edge Hill tunnel on the Liverpool-Manchester Railway (1833) and the Grand Junction Railway. By 1840 he had become one of the leading contractors in the country with considerable financial resources. At this time the French railway system was being planned, but considerable problems were being experienced in obtaining the necessary capital and expertise to construct the system. The interest of British capitalists and engineers was aroused. When tenders for the Paris-Rouen line were invited Mackenzie and Thomas Brassey joined forces to create the company of Mackenzie and Brassey. Over the next ten years they emerged as the largest contracting firm in the world, building much of the French railway network as well as fulfilling other contracts in Britain, France, Belgium and Spain.


During his early years as a contractor, William worked on his own, but as the scale of the enterprise increased he brought in other members of his family, notably his brother Edward. As William's health declined, Edward played an increasingly important role in the firm. Following William's death in 1851 and the dissolution of the partnership with Brassey, Edward completed the work on the French lines. Brassey went on to become the best known of railway contractors, while the name of William Mackenzie faded into obscurity and never received the recognition it deserved. Edward retired from railway work in the mid 1850's, and other younger members of the family died while working on some of the major railway contracts around the world.

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