NCE at 50 | Why the ICE needed NCE

Why the ICE took the radical step of setting up a magazine for its members and how New Civil Engineer was born.

In the late 1960s ICE secretary Garth Watson was beset with two connected problems: the first was communicating with members and the second was cost.

Communications at that time were solely through ICE Proceedings which combined Institution news with technical papers and was sent monthly to all members. The news section was one-way traffic. The object was to inform the members but the opportunity it provided for members to air their views was little used.

Cost of ICE Proceedings

The cost of this approach was high. The Institution was spending more than a third of its income on producing, printing and distributing the ICE Proceedings. It was bleeding the ICE dry.

In 1969 Watson approached the Thompson Organisation, publishers of Construction News – which is now a sister publication to NCE under Emap’s ownership, as well as The Sunday Times. Thompson advised that a new magazine could be viable and wanted to help produce it. There was no response at the time, but two years later Watson called the editor of Construction News, Sydney Lenssen, seeking advice on who best to appoint as editor of The Civil Engineer – the new magazine. A couple of dinner meetings later and Lenssen was seriously interested in the job.

Lenssen was a dangerous choice. He was an aeronautical engineer who had switched into civil engineering and then into technical writing. He had acquired a reputation for investigative journalism at CN which had upset parts of the construction industry. And, at the time when most of the industry’s leadership was staunchly right-wing, he was suspected of running a group of communist sympathisers – a charge he always strenuously denied. 

Lenssen had acquired a reputation for investigative journalism which had upset parts of the construction industry

The new magazine was approved by Council in June 1971. Lenssen and Construction News’ production editor Alan Dawson joined in September with an office at Great George Street. They were given six months to launch a monthly magazine. The ICE’s commercial company Thomas Telford was formed as a platform for the new magazine, offices were found in Farringdon Road and around 20 staff were recruited – half editorial and half advertising.

But there was already a magazine called Civil Engineering and the owner sued Thomas Telford, and at Watson’s suggestion, The Civil Engineer was changed to New Civil Engineer as an acceptable compromise.

The first issue was published on schedule in May 1972 and featured Alec Merrison – who was later knighted. His commission was charged with studying a run of failures during construction of three steel box girder bridges leading to the deaths of 52 men in 18 months. It was also to check the state of similar bridge types already in use.

Aim was to report and comment

“The aim is to report, interpret and comment on matters which affect and interest the professional civil engineer,” said Lenssen’s leader in that first issue. “Although owned by the Institution this magazine will not be the mouthpiece of the Council, its committees or Great George Street. Another hope is to make each article readable and provocative, tailored to appeal to the majority of readers.”

And provocative it certainly was, right from the start. Interspersed with some very positive comments in the letters pages of the second issue were: “I have awaited the arrival of the NCE with misgiving, but I now find it is far worse even than I feared” from JM Hinchcliffe of Sevenoaks; “I am writing to express my disgust – a brash publication quite unworthy and one that will not improve our image with the public” from LV Watson of Bromley. And others.

Fortunately for NCE, the magazine had some resolute defenders among the Institution hierarchy, and publication continued. Indeed, within a few months a bold decision was taken which would secure its future.

Job adverts were key to success

The key to the magazine’s long term success was job adverts. NCE had to be more frequent than monthly to be a vehicle for recruitment, even if the production costs would increase. The first weekly NCE appeared on 31 August. “For an eight week period, through September and October 1972, we churned out our first thin weekly issues and lost more money,” says Lenssen. Again, strong nerves were called for, and Lenssen remembers Sir Kirby Laing (ICE president 1973-1974) for his tough, firm resolve and the strength of his backing.

Fortune sometimes favours the brave, and the critical period coincided with a buoyant construction industry. By the first quarter of 1973 the magazine was in profit and the crisis passed before Britain was hit later that year by an oil crisis, the three day week and severe recession.

By the mid-1980s, NCE was gradually becoming part of the Institution establishment. “The magazine was launched with a freshness and forthrightness which shook some of the pillars of the establishment,” said Watson looking back in 1982 to NCE’s first decade.

It was evident that those who objected to it, read it. How else could they catalogue its
shortcomings? This was all to the good

“Many senior members thought the medicine too bitter to swallow. It was evident that those who objected to it, read it. How else could they catalogue its shortcomings? This was all to the good. Ten years ago [in 1972] members used to ask what they got for their subscription. Latterly the question is seldom asked. This is because a magazine through the letterbox every week is a constant reminder that the Institution is there to serve them in their profession, whether they suffer from compulsive reading of it, as I do, or just enjoy scanning it.”

In 1978, the monthly NCE International was launched for members outside Europe with air mail delivery instead of the long delays of sea mail for the weekly.

The successful business of publishing NCE was transforming the Institution’s accounts. Thomas Telford’s revenue overtook that for the rest of the Institution in 1982 and was double that within another five years. The continued success allowed Thomas Telford to contribute more than £4M to the refurbishment of One Great George Street, completed in 1991.

  • This article is a shortened version of the New Civil Engineer chapter from the book “The Civil Engineers” written by Hugh Ferguson, who followed as NCE’s second editor, and ICE librarian Mike Chrimes. Thanks to Sydney Lenssen for the abridged version.

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