Public Works Department

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Also includes Engineers generally.

The Public Works Department was a government department that was responsible for buildings, roads, irrigation and railways.

Public Works in India, such as the construction of roads, water tank, etc. was originally conducted by the military. This started with the Pioneers and then by the Public Works Department of the Town Major's List (Bengal & Bombay) or the Effective Supernumeraries (Madras). Much of the responsibility for public works was then passed over to a special section of the Indian Civil Service in the mid-19th century. Later, the military once more took responsibility for much of the public works.

Drawing attention of the Government to the unsatisfactory management and state of affairs in public works, the Court of Directors of the East India Company, in early 1850, instituted a Commission in each Presidency for investigation. The members of the Commission were unanimous on the inability of the Military Board in the management of public works. Lord Dalhousie founded the Public Works Department (PWD) through which roads, railways, bridges, irrigation and other public utility works were undertaken [1].

The Commission proposal, which was implemented in 1854, set out the following basic features [1]: -

  • The Control of PWD was removed from under the Military Board and placed under the Chief Engineers.
  • The PWD came under the control of respective provincial Government
  • Chief Engineers to be assisted by the Superintending Engineer & Executive Engineer.

Departmental Structure

The PWD was headed by the PWD Secretary to the Government of India – a Consultant Engineer and advisor to Viceroy and Council Deputy Secretaries were responsible for the each branch

In 1866-68 the PWD was divided into three branches namely[1]:-

  • Civil Branch - PWD (Roads, Building & Irrigation),
  • Railway Branch - PWD (see seperate page) - which was disolved in 1905 on the creation of the Railway Board
  • Military Works Branch - which detatched from the PWD and became the Military Works Service under the Indian Army in 1899.

Local Government had its PWD Secretary who was

Under him, Superintending Engineers were responsible for District, or a major project ie: a railway line.

Executive Engineers reported to the Superintending Engineers and were project managers for the single project. they would control:

  • 2 or 3 Assistant Engineers,
  • 5 or 6 European Overseer (NCO’s)
  • 8/10 Native overseers and
  • Office staff


  • School of Military Engineering at Chatham, UK (1812) Colonial expansion resulted in a centralised establishment to teach civil engineering and architecture to officers destined for the colonies.
  • The Royal Indian Engineering College at Cooper’s Hill, UK (1871) specifically trained Civil Engineers heading out to India to join the PWD.
  • Thomason College, Roorkee. From around 1870 Assistant Engineers are drawn from civilian staff or the Royal Engineers, Artillery or line Officers were trained at Roorkee. New Engineering Officers to India spent a year at Roorkee serving with the Bengal Sappers and Miners, to acclimatise and become linguistically fluent.

Thomason College was a small training college, with a staff of five. It offered a two year Engineering Course for potential Assistant Engineers.

Graduates from Cooper’s Hill joined the imperial service, while those from Thomason College were destined for provincial service. Those specialising in Military Building including architecture would be based in a town, while those choosing the Irrigation, or the Railways would find themselves in a remote rural hinterland. Some students became members of the Survey Dept.

Those students with a particular interest in architecture were encouraged to specialise, as there was a great demand for architects.

At the time Indian Universities were formed (1860 onwards) they took inspiation from home, where Universities taught Engineering (full-time architectural education did not begin in England until 1892 at King’s College) so they copied the existing educational model.

English trained PWD engineers endorsed the training of Indian engineers at local colleges. Architectural critics (echoing the UK's Design Reform Movement suggested that engineers had insufficient design education - allowing them to copy European styles, but not innovate designs for Indian conditions. This was voiced in the 1868 Bombay Builder magazine - arguing that it was only in India that engineers were employed to design landmark buildings (Law Courts, Government buildings etc).

Arguably, Engineers adversely stagnated the training of Indian technicians, and this continued until Indian Universities, captivated with Modernism, offered Architecture Courses - in the run up to Independence. A result was several generations had not studied India’s rich architectural history. Accepting this the JJ School of Art Bombay looked forward, visioning the use of concrete a new material that would in time house India's masses.

As well as Thomason College, Roorkee housed:

  • Headquarters for the Bengal Sappers and Royal Engineers in Bengal
  • Foundry
  • Quarter Master Course - seven month course

FIBIS Resources

  • Hugh Wilding, "M.I.C.E. in the branches: a family history work in progress" FIBIS Journal No 23 (Spring 2010), pages 28-38. M.I.C.E. stands for Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. An account of researching a civil engineer in the Public Works Department. For details of how to access this article, see FIBIS Journals
  • Hugh Wilding, "Building the Beas Bridge" FIBIS Journal No 24 (Autumn 2010), pages 50-53. For details of how to access this article, see FIBIS Journals.


  • The following India Office Records held at the British Library may help researchers:
    • PWD Civil Lists 1861-1940 IOR: V/13/195-226
    • Once the whereabouts of your ancestor in a given year has been established, a useful next step is the IOR V/12 Service Histories.There are an alarming 434 volumes of Service Histories, and as well as whole sequences of volumes for the 3 Presidencies, there are more sequences for India, Assam, Bihar & Orissa, United Provinces, Punjab, North West Frontier, Central Provinces, Burma and Hyderabad! The earliest date from 1879 and the latest 1948, though dates for particular regions vary. The later you can get in your ancestor’s career the better, as the information appears to be cumulative.
    • Records of Staff and Students of Cooper's Hill Engineering College 1871-1906 are held in series IOR/L/PWD/8 with those of students also on FIBIS database. "Engineering a career in India" 20 May 2014 British Library untold lives blog.
  • The publication Indian Engineering is held by the British Library. For comments about this publication, refer the online editions, below. The British Library catalogue shows the following issues are held: UIN: BLL01013927488 "[1], etc (7 Jan.1888 - Jan.1952)". However, for the catalogue entry UIN: BLL01012090738 it is advised Deficient: vol.64, no.17 - vol.67, 1918-20.
  • The publication Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland is held by the British Library, UIN: BLL01009537566 . Published by ICE Publishing 2002-2014, currently (August 2020) in three volumes: Volume 1: 1500-1830. Volume 2: 1830–1890. Volume 3: 1890–1920. Limited sample pages: Vol.1, Vol.2, Vol.3. Sample page, Volume 3 with entry for Harold Edward Byrne, Federated Malay States. For more sample pages, see Individuals below.
  • From c June 2013 the following records have been availble on the pay site
  • ICE Library Institution of Civil Engineers, London. Includes an Archive service. Guide to the ICE Archives 2010. Previously the ICE Virtual Library could be searched for an obituary of an ICE member, which often gives details of a person's work history, but it is unclear if this facility is now only available to ICE members.
  • Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History. The website advises “Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in the UK”. Includes Biographies of selected Engineers. As an example Thomas S. Thorpe a Mechanical and Marine Engineer worked in both Ceylon and India from 1897 until 1917, including the tea industry.
  • See also L/F/10 Records of Service 1702-1928

Related Articles

Individuals version
  • Lieutenant John C Harris of the Bengal Engineers was involved in flood mitigation work following a major flood at Cuttack in 1855. See Cuttack for details.
  • Life of Lieut.-General the Hon. Sir Andrew Clarke, Colonel-Commandant of Royal Engineers edited by Col. RH Vetch 1905 "Member of Council of the Viceroy of India 1875-1880" page 193-221. He was head of the Indian Public Works Administration.
  • Village, Town, and Jungle life in India 
by A.C. Newcombe 1905 He was in India 1874-1902 as a Civil Engineer in the Public Works Department
  • Tom Salkield , was Engineer to the Municipality of Delhi 1905-1922. He was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind decoration for public service in India .He was also in the Punjab Volunteer Rifles for 16 years. There are further details in his obituary ICE Proceedings Volume 16, Issue 3, 01 July 1960 , pages 348 –349. [2] Details of Tom Salkield Delhi Photograph Album 1905-1916 Janus (Archives in Cambridge)
  • "East African Campaign 1914 – 1918: Faridkot Sappers & Miners" by Richard Sneyd html version, pdf Robert (Robin) Thomas Stuart Sneyd was working as a civil engineer in Madras Presidency when he joined the Indian Army Reserve of Officers in March 1915 and joined the Faridkots at Voi in British East Africa in October 1915 as a Lieutenant.
  • Charles Spedding, Engineer, of the road making contacting company Spedding & Co, making the road from Gilgit to Kashmir c 1891, and W.P. Appleford, an engineer employee - refer Punjab Rifles
  • Colonel Frederick Charles Temple, C.I.E., C.B.E., V.D., 1879-1957 Obituary ICE Virtual Library. He came to India c 1905 and served in various capacities with the Military Works Services and with the Public Works Department. In 1919 he was appointed Chief Town Engineer and later Administrator, for the Tata Iron and Steel Co., being responsible for the design and building of the town of Jamshedpur. Later, he became Relief Engineer and Supply Officer to the Government of Bihar and Orissa after the January 1934 earthquake and was responsible for the reconstruction of the towns, roads and bridges destroyed.
  • Sample pages from Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland: Volume 3: 1890–1920, published 2014 by ICE Publishing.

External links

  • Developments in Public Works, British India from History of India, Indianetzone
  • "How our British rulers 'legalised' bribery" by M B Lal September 11, 2011. The, now an archived webpage.
  • Heritage tag for 110-yr-old power project by Majid Jahangir. The second oldest power project, the Mohura [Mohra] Power House located in the Uri area of north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, was commissioned in 1902. This article also mentions the first power house set up in 1901 by the Maharaja of Mysore. The Tribune Saturday, September 1, 2012, Chandigarh, now an archived webpage. The Mohura Power House was situated midway between Uri and Baramulla.
  • The Public Works Department of Burma 1910 – 1947 A Project by Vivian Rodrigues. Includes transcriptions from the book History of Services of Gazetted and other Officers serving under the Government of Burma July 1931 Vol I Part II . This Volume is titled Officers of Public Works Department, and is available online, refer below. The Anglo –Burmese Library. Retrieved 11 September 2014

Historical books online

Volume 1 1863-64, Volume 2 1865, Volume 3 1866, Volume 4 1867, Volume 5 1868, Volume 6 1869, Volume 7 1870 Google Books.
Second Series Volume 1, 1872 Public Library of India Collection. Second Series Volume 2, 1873-(1873 Google Books), Second Series Volume 5, 1876, Second Series Volume 7, 1878, Second Series Volume 8, 1879
Volume 9, 1880 is available to download as a pdf from Rare Books, (scroll down to letter P)