NCE at 50 | Editors’ key moments: Hugh Ferguson 1976-1989*

Hugh Ferguson

On 23 May 1984, an explosion tore apart the Abbeystead valve house at the recently-completed Lune-Wyre water transfer scheme in Lancashire, killing 16 of a party of visitors and leaving many more seriously injured. It is the only incident I can recall of a civil (or structural) engineering failure in Britain causing death to members of the public during NCE’s 50 years (if we exclude fire).

From the start, NCE had prioritised reporting of disasters, anywhere in the world. Such reports were loved by readers – how better for an engineer to learn than by understanding mistakes leading to failures? They also provided rapid feedback, often years before a redacted official report. 

Media profile

Also, we had been working for several years to cultivate relations with press and politicians, to raise the profile of both the magazine and civil engineers, who at the time felt particularly unrecognised and undervalued. This resulted in frequent appearances in national newspapers and broadcasting. There was even a period when the Cabinet Office was sending a car every Wednesday morning to our Old Street offices to collect a pre-publication copy of NCE, so its staff were properly briefed.

So our team – Ty Byrd (who was editor in 1984, while I was editor in chief), David Hayward and Mike Winney – were on the scene at Abbeystead within hours. Their report appeared at length in the next issue, a remarkably accurate analysis given the short time available. Ty then appeared in the prime 8.10am slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, with a concise explanation. 

Attack on NCE

Later that morning then Conservative Party chairman John Gummer arrived at Abbeystead. He was bombarded with questions about NCE’s report. Unprepared and unbriefed, he responded (naturally enough) by attacking NCE for irresponsibly pre-empting a proper investigation. 

Meanwhile, North West Water was furious and demanded a right of reply from the BBC. The next morning its chief executive was interviewed on Today where he launched a tirade against NCE. When he paused for breath the interviewer Peter Hobday said: “But New Civil Engineer has an excellent reputation…”  “It did have an excellent reputation” was the sharp rejoinder.

The week’s events did more than anything before or since to raise NCE’s profile as the “turn-to” authority on matters of construction or civil engineering. 

The subsequent inquiry confirmed the cause of the explosion as an unexpected build-up of methane in the tunnel and valve house. This had been ignited by a spark from one of the visitors. A Court of Appeal ruling four years later found the designers Binnie & Partners wholly to blame for the disaster, a decision which most knowledgeable commentators – including NCE – thought grossly unfair. 

A week after NCE’s Abbeystead report, I had a phone call from Don Reeve, the chief executive of Severn Trent Water Authority (STWA). They had a little problem with their dam at Carsington, which had failed during construction – fortunately, with no casualties – and they didn’t want to repeat the public relations fiasco of Abbeystead. The call was to ask NCE to visit and prepare an exclusive report before the failure was made public. The resulting independent article was central to STWA’s public announcement the following week. It didn’t save STWA from some hostile press, but did ensure that subsequent reporting was well-informed.  

* Hugh Fergusson held the role of editor from 1976 to 1980 and was editor in chief of NCE from 1980 to 1989

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