Turtle Bunbury

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Sir John Purser Griffith (1848 –1938)

'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyagewas published by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority in 2008. The following tale represents research I undertook for the project which may or may not have been used in the final book.


Sir John Griffith was born in Wales and schooled in England. He went on to spent the vast bulk of his professional life in Ireland where, by the time he died aged 90, he could long claim to rank as the doyen of Irish engineers. For fifteen years he was Engineer in Chief to the Port and Docks Board. His son, John William Griffith, succeeded him in that post but both father and son resigned from the Board in protest against their economic policies. Sir John went on to become one of the pioneering forces behind the turf and hydro-electric power stations in Ireland. His wife Nina hailed from the enterprising brewing dynasty of Purser and was a first cousin of the artist Sarah Purser.

Welsh Origins

He was born on October 5th 1848 at Holyhead, where his father was Congregational minister. His parents, the Rev. William Griffith (12 August 1801 - 1881) and Alicia Griffith Evans (d. 21 March 1865) had been married in the Moravian Chapel in Bristol in 1843.[1] He had one sister, Dorothy. He attended Dr. Bigg’s school at Devizes and Fulneck School at Leeds before going to stay with the Pursers, close family friends, in Dublin. Trinity College Dublin where he took his License in Civil Engineering in 1868; the degree of B.A.I not being instituted until 1873.

Nina, Lady Griffith & Rathmines Castle

Sir John Purser Griffith owed his second given name to a longstanding friendship between his father and John Tertius Purser, owner of Rathmines Castle. His great-grandfather John (Primus) and father John (Secundus) both worked as senior brewers with Guinness in Dublin and became partners in 1820. Tertius Purser joined the Brewery in 1830 and, by the time he retired in 1882, possessed a considerable fortune from his participation in the brewing enterprise. A religious man, Tertius objected to Sunday drinking in pubs and consequently left the business, barrel money in hand, and relocated to San Francisco. His subsequent venture into flour milling ended in failure.

Tertius’s brother Edward Purser was General Manager and Chief Engineer of the Ottoman Railway, and father to Dora Purser (who married Henry de Jongh of Smyrna).[2] Another brother Benjamin Purser, born 1815, was father to the artist Sarah Purser (1848-1943). A further connection was through Tertius’ sister, Sarah Bigg, wife of the Sir John’s headmaster at Devize.

In 1871, Sir John married Tertius Purser’s daughter, the marvellously named Anna ‘Nina’ Benigna Fridlezius Purser (1837 – 1912). She was half-Swedish and eleven years his senior. She bore him two sons, John William and Frederick, and a daughter, Alice (Elsie). Nina posed for her cousin the artist Sarah Purser several times and was clearly a formidable and humorous character. For pictures of Nina, see the excellent Whytes Irish Art Auctioneers website. John Tertius Purser died in 1893. Nina inherited Rathmines Castle when her brothers – both university professors and unmarried – predeceased her. When Dame ‘Nina’ Purser Griffith died on May 18th 1912, The Times computed her personal estate to be worth £170,681 of which £52,080 was in England. She left the whole of her estate to her husband.[3]

The ‘Engineer in Chief’

After Trinity, John served a two year apprenticeship under Bindon Blood Stoney, the Engineer in Chief of the Dublin Port and Docks, before working as assistant to Alexander Tate, County Surveyor of County Antrim in 1870. He returned to Dublin in 1871 and again worked as Dr. Stoney's assistant, being at his side throughout the successful North Wall Extension. When Stoney retired due to ill health in 1898, Griffith inevitably succeeded him as ‘Engineer in Chief’, retaining the post until his own retirement fifteen years later in 1913. His achievement at Dublin Port included the deepening of the approaches to the quays, many of which were rebuilt. In 1903 and 1907, he proposed improving the Custom House Docks by the demolition of ‘the Queen’s Timber Yard, Stack A, Georges Dock outer, Stack C and the old dock’. He maintained they were ‘obsolete and unsuited to the present day requirements of the port’. Fortunately for Stack A, the project did not go ahead. Like the George Halpin's of the previous century, John Griffith was succeeded by his 38-year-old son, John William Griffith (1875 – 1936).

A Knighthood

In the Coronation Honours of June 1911, John Purser Griffith received a knighthood from George V for his valuable services to the Port and Docks Board, and to the Royal Commission on Canals.

The Resignation

Sir John was one of the most outspoken critics of the Board’s financial policies, in particular their penchant for cutting staff in order to save money. His close connections with the commercial sector in the City qualified him for election to the Board as a traders’ representative. He was duly elected to the Board in January 1915. Over the next 18 months, his disagreement with the Board over their port development policy grew increasingly bitter. When the Institution of Civil Engineers selected him to give the James Forrest Lecture in 1916, his treatise on the mechanical handling of raw materials and merchandise at ports and large centres of traffic, included a plea that the appliances used for such purposes should be spoken of as ‘labour-aiding’ rather than ‘labour-saving’. In July 1916, Sir John resigned from the Board and, the following day, his son tendered his resignation as ‘Engineer in Chief’. The younger John was succeeded by Joseph H Mallagh.

The Consultant Engineer

Following retirement Sir John worked in private practice as one of the Empire’s foremost Consulting Engineer, and devoted much time and knowledge to the services of his profession. He was invited to join the board of the shipyard company. In 1915, he and two other directors formed an associated company to manufacture shells. A factory was erected for the purposes within the shipyard premises but has long since been demolished; the port board’s new head office, Port Centre, is located partly on this site.

Presidencies & Other Commissions

Sir John’s principal achievements extended beyond the Dublin Docks. The Institution of Civil Engineers awarded him the Mamby Premium in 1879. Sir John was President of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland in 1887-1889 and of the Institution of Civil Engineers (London) in 1919-20 and contributed valuable papers to the Proceedings of both bodies. He was advisory engineer to the Government on harbour and foreshore works at Wicklow and on Arklow Harbour. He was a member of the Vice-Regal Commission on bridges over the Suir at Waterford and the Shannon at Portumna. From 1906 to 1911, he was a member of the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways. He was elected Commissioner of Irish Lights in 1913 and Senator of the Irish Free State in 1922.

turf's up dude!

In 1917-18 Sir John was appointed chairman of the Irish Peat Enquiry Committee. The Commission reported on the practical possibilities of turf production. Both the British Government and the Free State Government failed to act on his recommendations. In 1924, Sir John took the bull by the horns, purchased two bogs at Ticknevin and Turraun in the Bog of Allen and set up the Leinster Carbonising Company. The venture cost over £70,000 of his own money and was to prove a massive inspiration to Irish peat industry. He drained the bogland and built a peat fuelled power station which drove an Wielandt excavator. His aim was to develop on a large-scale, the production of power from peat with recovery of products of tar, and of fertilisers. He carried out at his own expense for many years industrial research into the economics of the Peat Resources of Ireland, and on his former property at Ferbane is to be seen one of the most modern continental type of automatic peat-winning and sod-spreading plants. The excess peat was then taken by the Grand Canal for sale in Dublin. In 1934, the Irish Free State launched the Turf Development Board (later Bord na Móna), sending delegations to study production methods in Russia and Germany. In 1936, the TDB purchased the Turraun site which they used as the basis for all of their later peat fuelled power stations. The area is now the Lough Boora Parklands nature reserve.[4]

The Water Man

In 1918, he was also appointed a Member of the Commission on the Water Power Resource of the United Kingdom sub-committee appointed by the Board of Trade. He was Chairman of the Water Power Resource of Ireland Sub-Committee, 1919-21. He had a considerable stake in the Liffey Hydro-Electric Scheme and, during the 1920s, used his position in the Senate, to speak out against the State-sponsored Shannon Scheme and their Siemens-built Ardnacrusha power station which was designed to kick-start the rural electrification of the west. He lambasted the scheme as a socialist interference in what was essentially a private enterprise preserve. In 1925, he famously conjured the image of the ‘poisonous virus of nationalism’, leaving the way open for comparisons with the Soviet Union.[5] In later life he had the satisfaction of seeing his ideas come into fruition when the Poulaphouca Reservoir was created by damming the River Liffey as part of a collaboration between the Electricity Supply Board and Dublin City Council to build a second hydroelectric station in Ireland while the reservoir could be used to supply water to the Dublin region. His son, John William Griffith carried out the Poulaphouca survey.

Honours & Recognition

The Corporation of Dublin recognised his contribution by conferring the Freedom of the City on him. He also served as Honorary Professor of Harbour Engineering in Trinity College, Dublin, and received the Degree of M.A.I. Hon. Causa from the University of Dublin in 1914. In 1921, he was one of fourteen men appointed by the Lord Lieutenant to sit alongside the Peers, Privy Councillors and Representative so the Church of Ireland on the short-lived Senate of Southern Ireland. Sir William Goulding and the 2nd Baron Rathdonnell were appointed to the same Senate. In 1922, he was elected by the Dail to serve as a member of the first Irish free State Senate (Seanad Éireann) and remained a Senator until it's abolition in 1936. In 1922, he became vice-president of Royal Dublin Society under the 2nd Baron Rathdonnell.

The Purser Griffith Prize

In the 1930's Sir John and his late wife’s cousin, Sarah Purser, endowed the Purser Griffith Travelling Scholarship and the Purser Griffith Prize to the two best performing students in European Art History at University College Dublin.

Death at 90

The veteran engineer died at Rathmines Castle in Dublin on 21 October 1938. He was 90 years old. The Times published his obituary next day calling him ‘the doyen of Irish engineers’.

John William Griffith (1875 – 1936)

He was predeceased by his eldest son John William Griffith, Engineer—in-Chief to the Docklands from 1913 to 1916. He died on 16th August 1936. In October 1903, John married Hilda Frances Mary Alexander and had a son and three daughters. John and Hilda’s only son William Alexander Griffith married Patricia Wallace and had five children - * 1 John William Griffith; * 2 Anne Margaret Griffith; * 3 Mary Benigna Griffith; * 4 Sarah Catherine Griffith; * 5 David Alexander Griffith. John and Hilda’s eldest daughter Dorothy married Ernest Joseph Jobling-Purser and was mother to Caroline, Timothy, Juliet and Johnny Jobling Purser. Their second daughter was Evan Purser Griffith. The youngest daughter, Hilda Elsie Alexander Griffith married Patrick Remnant. They have two sons, Peter and Richard Remnant.

Frederick Griffith (b. 1878)

Sir John’s second son Frederick Griffith was born in Dublin on 23rd March 1878. He was married at Howth on 27th April 1907 to Marie June Campbell Wilson. They had one daughter, Margaret Benigna Purser Griffith. Frederick died on 22nd March 1939. Margaret was seven years of age when her distant cousin Sarah Purser painted her picture, a charming expression of the empathy Sarah Purser showed children.

Elsie Purser (1876 – 1965)

Sir John’s daughter Alice Benigna Griffith was known as Elsie to the family. A talented musician, she studied violin at the Berlin Imperial Academy of Music through the mid 1890s. She met Brahms and described him as ‘a quiet, gently-spoken man and very kind to his pupils’ which, as Dr John O’Grady noted in August 2006, were ‘characteristics echoed in Elsie herself, a shy person, but much loved by children’. Once back in Dublin, she involved herself in musical affairs both as a performer on violin and viola, and as a patron. From 1908 she helped to organize the annual Feis Ceoil, was honorary secretary for a decade, and on retiring in 1939 was made vice-president. She was equally active in arranging Royal Dublin Society concert presentations, a task later taken up by her niece Margaret. Kind and hospitable, Elsie always invited Feis Ceoil adjudicators and RDS recitalists to be her guests at Rathmines Castle. There she also hosted memorable Christmas parties for children every year, at which Santa Claus distributed generous gifts. Elsie was in her later thirties when she sat for a sympathetic portrait by her cousin Sarah, who herself at an early age briefly contemplated a career in music rather than in painting. Sarah had drawn a pencil sketch of Elsie about the time she went to Berlin, and at the same period had painted an informal likeness, long kept rolled up in a family attic. Sarah’s exhibits at the 1915 RHA included Sir John’s portrait and those of Elsie and Margaret. All three paintings remained with various family members until auctioned by Whytes in 2006.


John Purser Griffith 1848-1938: "Grand Old Man of Irish Engineering" by Ronald C. Cox (Trinity College School of Engineering, 5 Oct 1998)


[1] The Rev. William Griffith was son of the Rev. John Griffith and Janet Williams. Alicia Evans was the daughter of William Evans and Dorothy Griffith (1773 – 1836) of Dolgynfydd.

[2] Levantine Heritage - The story of a community.

[3] Deaths – Wills Proved, The Times, Wednesday, Aug 28, 1912; pg. 7; Issue 39989; col C

[4] New Plans Turf BY Michael McInerny, The Times, Monday, Jan 31, 1966; pg. ix; Issue 56543; col D

[5] 'A History of Water’ (2006), by Terje Tvedt, Eva Jakobsson, Richard Coopey, Terje Oestigaard, p. 83.

Thanks to Johnny Jobling Purser, Chris Horner, Fiona Remnant and others.



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