Obituary: Sir Angus Paton
Wednesday 14 April 1999
During his 22 years as senior partner at Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners, the distinguished British consulting firm founded by his uncle, he transformed the business from a largely home-based firm with 400 staff to an international organisation with over 1,500 engineers working in 63 different counties.
The pinnacle of Paton's global construction career was the construction of the vast Kariba dam and hydroelectric power station on the River Zambesi in southern Africa. Described by Paton as the "highlight of my professional career", the difficult Kariba project was completed in 1960, on time and within its pounds 75m budget, and he was appointed CMG.
It was this project and the reputation Paton and his team gained during its execution that led to the firm's involvement in many of the biggest dam construction projects around the world over the next two decades. These included schemes in the Sudan, Argentina, South Africa and two large dams, the Mangla and Tarbela, in Pakistan.
Born in the Channel Island of Jersey in 1905, Paton spent the first two years of his school life, until the age of seven and a half, in France. He then transferred to the mainland to complete his education at Cheltenham College. It was at Cheltenham that his love for mathematics and engineering was developed. The combination of a excellent mathematics teacher, a good memory and being "not much good at games" meant that he excelled at school and at 17 won a scholarship to University College London. He graduated with a first class BSc honours degree in civil engineering three years later.
Civil engineering was in his blood, through his uncle Sir Alexander Gibb. Paton spent the first three years of his career, from 1925, under Gibb's pupillage at his firm of consulting engineers. He went on to work on a variety of projects on site in the UK and abroad, notably maritime ones in Burma and Canada.
In 1934, two years after his marriage, Paton took on his biggest task thus far, acting as Resident Engineer in charge of the construction of the new Guinness brewery in Park Royal, north-west London. This pounds 2m project included seven large steel-framed buildings, a power station, storage silo, roads and railway sidings. Beer still flows from these premises today. The success of his work on the Guinness plant led to Paton's becoming a partner of the firm in 1938.
In the office Paton was renowned for his problem-solving ability. His colleagues were aware - and often in awe of the fact - that he was capable of doing "any job, quicker and better than anyone else". His depth of knowledge across disciplines allowed him to become involved with all aspects of contracts from design and construction to financial and legal. His vast knowledge, combined with a direct manner and piercing gaze, could put those around him from office junior to senior clients on their guard.
As a partner he took charge of many large UK-based industrial and trading estate developments in Wales, West Cumberland and London. At the outbreak of the Second World War he became a central figure in the British engineering war effort designing and constructing ordnance factories, underground aircraft assembly plants and a new turbine factory for British Thomson- Houston Co.
During the war, Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners secured a huge number of government contracts, causing their work force to leap by over 2,000 in a couple of weeks in September 1939. Paton was a key member of the team and his work included supervising construction of some of the massive concrete sections of the Mulberry Harbour scheme in the London Docks.
After the war Paton continued to work for the company, now with Sir Alexander Gibb's son Alastair at the helm. He spent the next 10 years developing the business overseas and upon Alastair Gibb's sudden death in a polo accident, took over as senior partner in 1955.
The appointment coincided with Paton taking charge of the Kariba dam and hydroelectric power scheme on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. This difficult project would see the construction of a 420ft-high double curvature arch dam - the biggest ever constructed - and a 600MW underground power station in a remote location 175 miles downstream from the Victoria Falls.
Working in partnership with the French dam-design expert Andre Coyne, Paton led the overall design of the project and the supervision of construction work by the Italian main contractor Impresit. Despite suffering some of the worst flooding on record halfway through the job it was completed on time and to budget.
The project acted as a springboard for Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners to win some of the biggest civil engineering contracts around the world. Paton continued to encourage the firm's expansion overseas and as the flow of work continued the size of the business grew. One of the biggest of these projects was to advise the World Bank during the construction of the massive and highly complex Tarbela dam in Pakistan.
In addition to his engineering responsibilities, Paton took an active interest in the profession as a whole - perhaps more so following the untimely death of his wife in 1964. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1969 and was President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1970-71. He continually pressed engineers around him to open their minds to other disciplines.
He published many learned papers on a variety of civil engineering issues and a book entitled Power from Water (1960), and he put much effort into pressing the industry and its clients to spend more money on valuable research and development; he was also central to the formation of the government-backed Construction Industry Research and Information Association.
In 1973 he was knighted for services to the construction profession and in 1976 was a founding Fellow of the Fellowship of Engineering - later renamed the Royal Academy of Engineering. In 1977 and 1978 he was one of the few practising engineers to be appointed vice-president of the Royal Society. He retired from Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners in 1977, though remaining a consultant.
His last two decades were spent in Jersey but he remained, until recently, in close contact with the profession and his former colleagues, retaining the sharp analytical mind and clear process of thought for which he was known throughout a distinguished career.
Thomas Angus Lyall Paton, civil engineer: born Grouville, Jersey 10 May 1905; partner, Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners 1938-55, senior partner 1955-77, senior consultant 1977-84; CMG 1960; FRS 1969; Kt 1973; married 1932 Joan Delme-Murray (died 1964; two sons, two daughters); died St Helier, Jersey 7 April 1999.
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