Father of lighthouses in Japan.


Richard Henry Brunton was born on 26th December 1841, the son of Richard Brunton, a retired 40-year old Royal Naval Officer, a writer of sea stories and Chief Coastguard Officer at Muchalls south of Aberdeen. His mother was Margaret Telford, aged 25, an English lady from the Parish of Crimond.The parents had married on 31st January, 1841, in the Parish of Fetteresso which spectacularly stretched from Stonehaven to include Newtonhill, Elsick, Cookney, Cammachmore (six miles away) - and Muchalls.


Where did Richard Henry Brunton carry out his early training? Almost certainly he spent some time in Edinburgh, possibly in association with coastguard and lighthouse services, or with the rail and ferry operations of Thomas Bouchís old firm, the Edinburgh Perth & Dundee Railway Company.Brunton married Elizabeth Charlotte Wauchope, daughter of a clerk in the railway companyís service, in 1865.When, in 1868, Richard Brunton was elected an Associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers, they considered he fulfilled all requirements and recommended him to the Board of Trade: this body in turn, two months later, appointed him Chief Engineer to the Lighthouse Department of the Japanese Government to advise them on lighthouse design and construction and to introduce the lighthouse system into Japan, a system modelled on the Scottish one. To this work Brunton was admirably fitted by ability and temperament.


This was the moment when Japan had decided to open its routes to the West to promote foreign trade. In the face of increasing shipwrecks the Japanese Government decided to light up the coastline to protect rapidly expanding foreign shipping from untrustworthy seas "with such lights as may be necessary to render secure the navigation of the approaches" to the treaty ports of Yokohama, Tokyo, Kobe and the newly opened port of Osaka.


Brunton at once began a crash course in lighthouse technology in the Edinburgh office of Britainís specialist lighthouse engineers, the Stevensons, and also visited many lighthouses and lightships along the coast of the United Kingdom, obtaining a vast practical knowledge of their construction and working details.


Thomas Blake Glover (1838-1911)

Soon after arriving in Japan in 1869, Brunton met another north-east Scotland man, Nagasaki-based Thomas Blake Glover from Fraserburgh.Like Brunton, the son of a navy officer, and three years his senior, Glover was also a key figure in opening Japan to Western ideas and trade, contributing to the industrialisation of the country by introducing the first railway locomotive, the first mint, the first dry dock, modern warships and the first mechanised coal mine.


Brunton, meanwhile, set about the construction of a series of 28 lighthouses.

Kashinozaki 1869†††††††††††††††††††††††††† Tsunoshima 1876

Richard Henry Bruntonís first and last lighthouses in Japan



Yokohama modernised

The Lighthouse Department to which Brunton was appointed was based in Yokohama with workshops and store-rooms put up in a four-acre compound. Here there was an experimental three-floor lighthouse 40' high used to train young Japanese lightkeepers.Yokohama became a centre for modern engineering techniques introduced by Brunton. He made an immeasurable contribution to the development of the city, improving Yokohama's infrastructure and making what is now Japan's second city a modern one for the first time.Bruntonís contributions to the improvement of the city touched on almost every aspect of urban planning and civil engineering: he was responsible for the plan to improve the central Kannai district in the early days of the Meiji period, and the later development of this district still clearly reveals his legacy. The Yokohama museum today shows examples of Bruntonís pipework for the city, and his bust nearby is a recognition of his achievements.


Yokohama School for Mathematics

Brunton's surveys for the lighthouse service awakened a Japanese desire for further trigonometrical work, and a vessel was obtained to accompany H.M.S. Sylvia on marine surveying service. Orders were given to bring out theodolites, quadrants and other drawing instruments from Britain. Asked to demonstrate their use, Brunton emphasised the need for fuller training in mathematical skills to make the most of them. By November, 1870, therefore, the Japanese resolved to form a school for mathematics and related subjects, and under Brunton's guidance a large building for this purpose was erected in Yokohama with such educated men as could be found as teachers. Among publications which Brunton was asked to obtain were two copies of the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Hebridean Colin Alexander McVean was employed by the Imperial Government to carry out surveys. He had married Mary, daughter of the Penicuik papermaker Alexander Cowan, in 1868.Trained by MacCallum & Dundas civil engineers of Edinburgh, McVean had spent some years on the Admiralty Survey of the Hebrides, giving his name to McVean Rock off Eriskay, and had also gained engineering experience in the Ottoman Empire in the Black Sea port and telegraph hub of Varna.Invited to Japan by the Meiji Government, his surveying expertise was needed to assist in the lighthouse-building activities of Brunton his fellow Scot.


Yokohama harbour in 1870


Mary and Harriet, the two daughters of Richard and Elizabeth Brunton, were born in Yokohama. So too were most of the ten children of Colin and Mary McVean.McVean's autobiographical "Little Journal" is now in the care of Rutgers University. On returning to Britain by 1881, McVean was based in Cheshire with an advisory post in the Queen's service: his sons were sent to Mostyn School run by Grenfell of Labrador's father in the Wirral.The McVeanís link with Japan continued when their eldest daughter married John Harington Gubbins of the British Legation in Tokyo, and their children in turn were brought up in Japan. One of them, Colin Gubbins, became well known as director of Special Operations in Europe from 1940.


The Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, Volume III, Part II, 1875, Yokohama, includes a paper on "Constructive Art in Japan" by Richard Henry Brunton, along with "Notes of a Journey from Awamori to Niigata and of a visit to the Mines of Sada" by John Harrington Gubbins.


Like McVean, Brunton was back in Britain by 1881. He had returned to become manager of Young's Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Co. of Bathgate, the leading lamp oil manufacturer at the time and almost certainly the supplier to the Japanese, Scottish and other lighthouse services around the world.

James Young, friend and supporter of David Livingstone and founder of Youngís Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Co. Based at Bathgate and Addiewell, the companyís operations were managed by Brunton in James Youngís later years


A man who could turn his hand to construction, mechanics and lighting on a grand scale, Brunton later worked as an architect designing theatres and hotels. For the Edinburgh-based Mossís Empire group he designed Dublinís elaborate Empire Palace Theatre of Varieties in 1897 (a reconstruction of Dan Lowrey's Palace of Varieties, since 1977 restored as the Olympia Theatre).

Dublinís elaborate Olympia Theatre designed by Richard Henry Brunton


Finally, in London, he was in partnership with a friend in an architectural ornament manufacturing business.


Despite his dogged determination and far-sightedness, his energy, conscientiousness, toughness and courage, Richard Henry Brunton amazingly passed into obscurity in the years leading up to death. He died at 45 Courtfield Road, Kensington in April 1901 and an obituary appeared in The Times on 20 May (p 11). He left just £813 in his will. His is the only interment in the grave in West Norwood Cemetery (no. 29641, square 77) where Bruntonís original monument was deliberately demolished along with others in the 1970s.


Though remembered in Japan, Brunton has never achieved the recognition he deserves in Britain. Yet here is a great pioneer, a civil engineer who brought lighthouses to Japan.Here is the founding father of one of the world's greatest international trading ports.Here is someone who accelerated Japanís coming of age and drive towards modernisation.Here is a teacher not only of technological skills but also of the attitudes of mind needed to tackle ambitious new tasks.In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of this great manís birth, a new stone was put up in West Norwood Cemetery in 1991.







childhood photographs of Sir COLIN MCVEAN GUBBINS


More LIVES & fragments


Link to Cargill Gilston Knott FRS (1856-1922) mathematician seismologist in Japan





< next one up

NUMBER 64 of the 3
most visited KOSMOID& MAKERSwebpages

next one down >