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Neville and Cameron: pioneers of life-saving sanitation

16 November 2020

In the second of our three-part series on public health and infectious disease, we consider life-saving developments in sanitation in Dublin through the biographies of Parke Neville (1812–86), civil engineer, architect and surveyor and medical officer Sir Charles Cameron (1830–1921).

Biographies introduced by Turlough O'Riordan, DIB

Human society has been responding to infectious disease for centuries. Urbanisation brought crowded housing conditions which, in combination with poor sanitation and inadequate water supply, engendered repeated outbreaks of infectious disease across the world.

Improvements in sanitation through the course of the twentieth century, have arguably saved more avoidable deaths than any other intervention or policy. While scientific and medical advances aided the identification and treatment of infectious disease, the provision of clean drinking water, and the removal of sewerage from urban areas, were the bedrock of subsequent major public health achievements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Two figures were integral to improvement of water quality, sanitation, living conditions and food safety in Dublin. Parke Neville (1812–86), a fully qualified architect, engineer and surveyor, established public urinals, improved the supply of clean drinking water and the evacuation of sewerage from the city. Sir Charles Cameron (1830–1921), in a variety of local government and academic roles, did much to promote public health in Dublin. Initially improving the conditions under which processed food was manufactured, Cameron championed a range of public health interventions for Victorian Dublin.

Parke Neville (1812–86)

by Stefanie P. Jones

Neville, Parke (1812–86), civil engineer, architect, and land surveyor, was born in Dublin, son of Arthur Neville, engineer and surveyor; his mother's name is not known. The Neville family had been associated with engineering and surveying in Ireland for at least four generations. His great-great-uncle was Jacob Nevill of Co. Wicklow, a professor of mathematics and land surveyor in both Dublin and Wicklow (1773–82); his grandfather Arthur Richards Nevill surveyed the counties of Carlow, Cork, Monaghan, Wicklow, and Wexford, and Yorkshire in England, eventually settling in Dublin, where he was city surveyor for Dublin corporation (1801–28) and ran a private surveying and valuing business (1807–23) with his son Arthur Neville. It was Parke's father who added the ‘e’ to the surname. As well as working as a surveyor with his father, Arthur junior was an engineer and worked on the Grand Canal; on his father's death, he assumed the role of Dublin city surveyor (1828–57).

Neville served part of his apprenticeship under his father, who taught him the technique of surveying. He was later a student of Charles Blacker Vignoles, civil engineer and one of the fathers of British railway engineering, and completed his training under the tutorship of William Farrell, architect to the ecclesiastical commissioners for Ireland. As a result, he was a fully qualified surveyor, engineer, and architect, and he combined all three professions with remarkable success. His early endeavours included surveying Co. Louth, Co. Wicklow, and Co. Dublin, working on the Dublin & Kingstown, Great Southern & Western, and Midland Great Western railways, and assisting on several projects in England. He aided in the design and construction of various prisons, asylums, houses, and churches across Ireland, including the enlargement of Woodbine Cottage, Blackrock (1838), alterations to Glenart Castle, Co. Wicklow (1846–7), and a new hotel in Malahide (1853). In 1836 he settled in Dublin to take up private practice with his father (1836–57) and was eventually appointed joint city surveyor (1846) alongside Arthur, but his engineering skills meant that he proved himself useful beyond his post – in 1848 he was asked to design a new waterworks scheme for the city, using the Royal Canal.

His career really got under way when he was appointed Dublin's first city engineer in 1851, a post he held for thirty-five years. He served the city faithfully and capably, and from his first day approached the improvement of Dublin with characteristic proficiency and energy. He made paving the streets a priority, organised and rationalised the street cleansing system, and – ignoring Victorian sensibilities – ensured the erection of many public urinals. He surveyed the city's entire sewerage system, and in 1853 drew up complex plans for a main drainage scheme; in order to fund the endeavour, it was Neville who pushed the implementation of a sewer rate. In 1869, with the help of eminent London engineer J. W. Bazalgette, he finalised the sewerage plans, but owing to lack of finances the main drainage scheme was not completed until the 1880s. He was perhaps best known for the central role he played in the history of Dublin's waterworks. At the corporation's request, he surveyed and designed seven separate plans, utilising a variety of water sources from the canals to the Liffey and Dodder rivers (1848–60). When the city council finally decided to promote a scheme using the Vartry water, it was Neville who drafted the parliamentary plans (1860). He designed the entire Vartry scheme, including the reservoirs at Roundwood and Stillorgan, and served as chief engineer on the project (pictured above). Although it was a difficult process and met with vehement opposition, it was eventually completed in the early 1870s and ultimately proved to be one of the cheapest and most successful water schemes ever built in the British Isles. Sir John Gray, chairman of the waterworks committee, often publicly stated that its achievement was due in large part to Neville's commitment and hard work. He later designed a smaller waterworks for the city's brewers and distillers, using the Grand Canal.

Neville was responsible for many lesser improvements that nonetheless had lasting repercussions beyond his lifetime. His 1853 plans for two intercepting sewers to prevent refuse from flowing into the Liffey were eventually completed in 1906. The Bohernabreena water reservoirs, constructed in 1887 for Rathmines and Rathgar, were based on his earlier designs. He also designed and supervised the construction of the Dublin corporation cattle market on the North Circular Rd (1862–3), which convinced him of the need for a new general market in the city. He spent many years researching markets, scouting locations, and urging the corporation to fund the endeavour; the Dublin corporation market on Mary's Lane (pictured above) is the culmination of his labours. He took a great interest in Dublin's scientific and literary community and was a member of the RIA (1854) and the RDS. On 2 March 1840 he was elected an associate member of the RIAI, eventually becoming a fellow (elected 30 June 1843) and serving as honorary secretary (1853–61), vice-president (1867–70; 1874–5), and on the council (1846–51, 1864–5). He was elected to London's Institution of Civil Engineers (5 December 1865) and was a member (from 1846) and president (1882) of the ICEI.

While touring Great Britain's civic markets in October 1886, Neville became ill. He returned home to die at his residence on Pembroke Road on 30 October 1886, and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery. He never married and was survived by his two nephews.

Sir Charles Alexander Cameron (1830–1921)

by Helen Andrews

Cameron, Sir Charles Alexander (1830–1921), medical officer, chemist, and writer, was born 16 July 1830 in Dublin, one of two sons and a daughter of Capt. Ewen Cameron (1787–1846), a Scottish soldier, and his Irish wife Belinda (née Smith). He was educated in Dublin and Guernsey (1844–6). Forced by his father's death to relinquish his aspiration to join the army, he entered the laboratory of the apothecaries Bewley & Evans, Dublin. He read widely, studied chemistry in Germany, and studied at the School of Medicine of the Apothecaries' Hall, the Dublin School of Medicine, and the Original School of Medicine (Ledwich Medical School), graduating MD (Dublin, 1865), becoming licentiate (1868) and member (1880) of the RCSI, and gaining a diploma of public health (Cantab., 1877).

On the founding of the Dublin Chemical Society, he was elected ‘professor of chemistry’ though still a student, and gave his two-hour inaugural lecture (12 December 1852) – the first of 8,000 lectures – without notes before a distinguished audience. His lectures and practical demonstrations aroused great interest and were widely reported in the press. He subsequently lectured throughout Ireland in several institutions including the Original School of Medicine (1857–74), Dr Steevens' Hospital Medical School (1858–74), and the Agricultural Institution, Glasnevin, Co. Dublin (1874–1902).A happy instance of his acumen in chemistry was his claim to have discovered kaolin on the estate of J. C. Bloomfield – a claim also made by Bloomfield. In his autobiography, Cameron describes how on a shooting expedition with Bloomfield at Castle Caldwell, Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh, he noted a white patch of clay, tested it, and informed Bloomfield that it was good porcelain clay. Though the news led to a controversy (known as the ‘china war’) in Saunders' News Letter, led by J. A. Galbraith, who doubted the claim, the discovery led to the founding (1857) of the renowned Belleek porcelain factory. Cameron received the first article – a saucer – made from the clay.

His interests extended to public health and he was appointed professor of hygiene and political medicine (1867–1920) and chemistry (1875–1920) of the RCSI. As president (1885) he presided over the admission of women students to the college; he also became hon. secretary (1892) and emeritus professor (1920–21), the first person in the college to be so honoured. On the death of his wife (28 November 1883) after ‘twenty-one years of unalloyed happiness’ (Cameron, Autobiography, 28), he retired from social engagements for three years. In this period the centenary of the RCSI occurred (1884), in celebration of which he wrote the History of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and of the Irish schools of medicine (1886). Though marred by inaccuracy – he completed 790 pages in two years, while ‘his literary gifts [were] not equal to his industry’ (Widdess, ix) – it remains an indispensable contribution to medical history. His revised edition was published in 1916.

He made useful contributions to pure and applied chemistry, but is best known for his contribution to hygiene and public health. The first appointed public analyst for Dublin (1862–1921), he made effective use of the powers provided under the adulteration of food act (1860). Among other measures, he closed many slaughter houses, established an abattoir, and condemned over 161,000 cwt of diseased and unsound food. He was subsequently chosen as public analyst for many Irish counties and towns and was often referred to as the ‘The public analyst of Ireland’ (Davis, 313).

Appointed Dublin medical officer of health (1874) and medical superintendent officer of health (1879), a post which in 1881 was combined with that of chief sanitary officer, he was responsible for numerous reforms in public health administration, particularly in the provision of public housing (begun 1881 in Barrack (Benburb) St.). He effectively advertised the plight of the poor by ensuring that when the prince of Wales came to Dublin (1885), he visited not only the model houses of the working classes but also the slums, which the prince stated should be condemned. Believing that public health begins with decent accommodation, Cameron campaigned repeatedly for greater provision of public housing, and in How the poor live (1904) argued that municipalities should confine their activities exclusively to housing the poorest in the community with money raised by ratepayers.

Convinced that adequate sanitation would diminish the incidence of infectious diseases, he undertook many measures including the improvement of the water supply and drainage system, the introduction of widespread sanitary inspections on domestic and industrial buildings, and the free provision of disinfectant, as well as the training of female sanitary officers to educate the poor in domestic hygiene. In December 1902, fearing a serious outbreak of smallpox after six cases had been reported in Dublin, Cameron was responsible for the establishment of the Pigeon House Isolation Hospital (opened in March 1903 with accommodation for fifty patients and later converted into a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients) and designed an ambulance for fever patients, which was copied by sanitary authorities throughout Europe. Presiding over a period of improved public health, he witnessed the death rate from infectious diseases decline from 9 per 1,000 in 1879 to 1.3 in 1919. Among other posts, he was scientific adviser to the government in criminal cases (1870–81) and external examiner in sanitary science at RUI and Cambridge University.

Joint proprietor and founding editor of the Agricultural Review (1858–63) and editor of the Dublin Hospital Gazette (1860–62), he revised the tenth (1877) and twelfth (1881) editions of J. F. W. Johnstone's Elements of agricultural chemistry and geology. He published twelve books, including the Chemistry of agriculture (1857), Elementary agricultural chemistry and geology (1896), The prevention of contagious diseases (1871), and Manual of hygiene (1874), thirty-eight annual reports on The state of public health of Dublin, and numerous articles in professional journals, newspapers, and magazines. He also wrote his Reminiscences (1913), Autobiography (1920), and Short poems translated from the German (1876).

He received numerous honours and distinctions including a knighthood (1885), a CB (1899), and the freedom of the city of Dublin (1911); a street, square, and housing estate were named after him, and an engraving is preserved in the NLI. Conferred with an hon. MD (RUI) (1896) and hon. FRCPI (1898), he was the recipient of the Henry Harben gold medal for public health (1902). Member and honorary member of many Irish and foreign learned societies, he was president of several including the Public Health Medical Society (1880–90), the State Medicine Section of RAMI (1882), the Royal Institute of Public Health (1889–93), the Irish Medical Association (1891–2), the Society of Analytical Chemistry (1893–4), and the Society of Public Analysts of Great Britain and Ireland (1893–4); an original member (1877), he was elected vice-president of the Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland (1884–90) and of the RDS (1906–21).

A freemason, he was initiated into Lodge 125, Dublin (1859); the Charles A. Cameron Lodge 72, Dublin, was named after him (1907). He was deputy grand master of the Great Priory of Ireland, sovereign grand commander of the supreme council of the 33rd degree, and was elected deputy grand master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland (1911–20).

Staunchly protestant – he was, nevertheless, a leading member of the ecumenical movement in Ireland – and a strong unionist, he records in his diary (preserved in the RCSI library) watching the British troops marching into Dublin during Easter week: ‘The Lincoln's [sic] came in singing. Annie [his housekeeper] supplied some of the soldiers with tea and sandwiches’ (28 April 1916). At the request of the home secretary, he inspected (16 December 1916) the South Camp Sinn Féin internment camp at Frongoch, north Wales, where inmate W. J. Brennan-Whitmore described him dressed in his tall silk hat, as a white-bearded ‘immensely old man . . . bent over on a walking stick . . . yet . . . his sharp, intelligent face and keen piercing eyes gave indications of a mental alertness and acumen far above the ordinary’ (191). He believed that Cameron's sympathetic hearing of the prisoners' complaints led to their release days later.

An ardent admirer of drama and a friend of leading actors, Cameron became a noted theatre critic, writing for the Agricultural Review and the Irish Times. A member of many clubs, he founded (1899) and was president of the fashionable Corinthian Club and ‘appeared to be a permanent feature of Dublin life’ (Lyons, 52); he revelled in dinner parties, writing his last article on ‘How to live long and happily. The excellent habit of dining out’ (London Daily Express, 20 December 1917). He died 27 February 1921 at his home, 27 Raglan Rd, and is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. He married (1862) Lucie Frances MacNamara, cousin of William Gorman Wills; they had six sons and two daughters. One son, aged 8, died from scarlet fever, two others from phthisis (TB) during their twenties, another committed suicide, and his eldest son drowned aged forty-seven.

Sources for Neville

City of Dublin water supply. eport of the commissioner appointed to inquire into the state of the present supply of water to the city of Dublin, the necessity which exists for an improved supply, and also as to the best source from which such improved supply could be obtained; together with the minutes of evidence and appendix (1860); Parke Neville, Report to the right hon. the lord mayor, aldermen, and councillors of the city of Dublin on the general state of the public works of the city under their control (1869); Freeman's Journal, 1–3 Nov. 1886; Ir. Builder, xxviii (1 Nov. 1886), 294; Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, lxxxvii (1886–7), 424–7; Transactions of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland, xviii (1886–7), 1; Dublin Medical Press, 3 Oct. 1906, p. 368; Mary Clarke, The book of maps of the Dublin city surveyors 1695–1827 (1983); J. H. Andrews, Plantation acres: an historical study of the Irish land surveyor (1985); Mary Clarke, ‘Dublin surveyors and their maps’, Dublin Hist. Rec., xxxix (Sept. 1986), 140–48; Dictionary of land surveyors and local mapmakers of Great Britain and Ireland, 1530–1850 (2nd ed., 1997); R. C. Cox and M. H. Gould, Civil engineering heritage (1998), 52–3, 85, 124–6; IAA, Index; RIA members list

Sources for Cameron

Grand Lodge of A. F. & A. Masons of Ireland, archives; A catalogue of graduates who have proceeded to degrees in the University of Dublin (1869); J. Leyland, Contemporary medical men and their professional work (1888); Men and women of the time (1899); Allibone; C. A. Cameron, History of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (rev. ed. 1916); W. J. Brennan-Whitmore, With the Irish at Frongoch (1917); C. A. Cameron, Autobiography of Sir Charles A. Cameron (1920); RCSI: Council Minute Book 1916–21IBL, nos 10–12 (May–July 1921), 142; Eamonn Mac Thomais, ‘Sir Charles A. Cameron’, Dublin Hist. Rec., xxii, no. 2 (1968), 214–24; W. J. Davis, ‘In praise of Irish chemists’, RIA Proc., lxxvii, B (1977), 309–16; Med. Directory, 1920; James Meenan and Desmond Clarke, The Royal Dublin Society 1731–1981 (1981); J. D. H. Widdess, The Royal College of Surgeons and its medical school 1784–1984 (3rd ed. 1984), viii–x; J. B. Lyons, ‘The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and its worthies’, Dublin Hist. Rec., xlviii, no. 1 (spring 1995), 52


'Grey Day' (Vartry Reservoir) by Denis Moynihan licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0

'Dublin fruit and vegetable market' by infomatique licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0

Sir Charles Cameron, courtesy of Royal College of Physicians, licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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