Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Walker, James Thomas

WALKER, JAMES THOMAS (1826–1896), general royal engineers, surveyor-general of India, eldest son of John Walker of the Madras civil service, sometime judge at Cannanore, and of his wife, Margaret Allan (d. 1830) of Edinburgh, was born at Cannanore, India, on 1 Dec. 1826. Educated by a private tutor in Wales, and at the military college of the East India Company at Addiscombe, he received a commission as second lieutenant in the Bombay engineers on 9 Dec. 1844, and, after the usual professional instruction at Chatham, went to India, arriving at Bombay on 10 May 1846. The following year he was employed in Sind to officiate as executive engineer at Sakkar.

In October 1848 he was appointed an assistant field engineer in the Bombay column, under Sir H. Dundas, of the force assembled for the Punjab campaign. At the battle of Gujrat on 21 Feb. he was in command of a detachment of sappers attached to the Bombay horse artillery, and he took part under Sir Walter Gilbert in the pursuit of the Sikhs and Afghans. He was favourably mentioned in despatches (London Gazette, 7 March and 3 May 1849), and received for his services the medal with two clasps.

After the annexation of the Punjab, Walker was employed from 1849 to 1853 in making a military reconnaissance of the northern Trans-Indus frontier from Peshawar to Dehra Ismail Khan. He took part at the end of 1849 in the attacks on Suggao, Pali, and Zarmandi under Colonel Bradshaw, by whom he was mentioned in his despatch of 21 Dec. for the skill and ability with which he had bridged the rapid Kabul river. In 1850 he served under Sir Charles Napier in the expedition against the Afridis of the Kohat pass, and in 1852 under Sir Colin Campbell in the operation against the Utman Khels; he was thanked by Campbell in field-force orders of 10 May 1852 for his ingenuity and resource in bridging the swift Swat river. In 1853 he served under Colonel Boileau in his expedition against the Bori Afridis, and was mentioned in despatches.

But his active service in these frontier campaigns was but incidental in the work of the survey, which he vigorously prosecuted. It was attended with much danger, and in the country between the Khaibar and Kohat passes Walker was fired at on several occasions. With the aid of a khan of Shir Ali, who collected a considerable force, he reconnoitred the approaches to the Ambeyla pass, which ten years later was the scene of protracted fighting between the British, under Sir Neville Chamberlain, and the hillsmen. On the completion of the military survey of the Peshawar frontier, Walker received the thanks of the government of India, the despatch, 16 Nov. 1853, commending his ‘cool judgment and ready resource, united with great intrepidity, energy, and professional ability.’ Walker was promoted to be lieutenant on 2 July 1853, and, in recognition of his survey services on the frontier, was appointed on 1 Dec. second assistant on the great trigonometrical survey of India under Sir Andrew Scott Waugh [q. v.] He was promoted to be first assistant on 24 March 1854. Walker's first work in his new employment was the measurement of the Chach base, near Atak, and he had charge of the northern section of the Indus series of triangulation connecting the Chach and the Karachi bases.

On the outbreak of the Indian mutiny in 1857, Walker was attached to the staff of Brigadier-general (afterwards Sir) Neville Chamberlain, who commanded the Punjab movable column, and accompanied Chamberlain to Delhi, where he was appointed a field-engineer. On 14 July he was directed to blow in the gate of a serai occupied in force by the enemy, but could only obtain powder by applying to the nearest field-battery for cartridges. Carrying the cartridges himself, exposed to the enemy's fire, he succeeded in lodging them against the gate, lit the match, and retired. The port-fire burned out, and he again advanced and relit it. It again failed, and, procuring a musket, Walker went to the vicinity of the gate and fired into the powder, exploding it at once and blowing in the gate. The attacking party rushed in and slew the enemy within. Walker was severely wounded by a bullet in the left thigh, and, before he completely recovered from the wound, was nearly carried off by cholera. He was promoted to be captain on 4 Dec. 1857, and for his services in the mutiny received the medal, with clasp for Delhi, and the brevet rank of major on 19 Jan. 1858, with a gratuity of one year's pay on account of his wound.

Returning to his survey duties, he resumed work on the Indus series, which was completed in 1860, and he was afterwards employed in the Jogi Tila meridional series. In 1860 he again served under Sir Neville Chamberlain in the expedition against the Mahsud Waziris, and was present at the attack of the Barara Tanai. His services were noticed by the general in command and by the Punjab government, and he received the medal and clasp. Here again he made every effort to extend the survey, and sent a map which he had made of the country to the surveyor-general.

In September 1860 Walker was appointed astronomical assistant, and on 12 March 1861 superintendent of the great trigonometrical survey of India. In the next two years the three last meridional series in the north of India were completed, and Walker's first independent work was the measurement of the Vizagapatam base-line, which was completed in 1862. The accuracy achieved was such that the difference between the measured length and the length computed from triangles, commencing 480 miles away at the Calcutta base-line and passing through dense jungles, was but half an inch. He next undertook a revision of Lambton's triangulation in the south of India, with remeasurements of the base-lines.

On 27 Feb. 1864 Walker was promoted to be lieutenant-colonel, and went home on furlough by way of Russia, establishing very friendly relations with the geodesists of the Russian survey, which led to the supply of geographical information from St. Petersburgh and to a cordial co-operation between the survey officers of the two countries. On 27 Feb. 1869 he was promoted to be brevet colonel. About this time it was decided to undertake the great work entitled ‘Account of the Operations of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India,’ to consist of twenty volumes. The first nine were published under the supervision of Walker, and the first appeared in 1871. It contains his introductory history of the early operations of the survey, and his account of the standards of measure and of the base-lines. The second volume, also mainly written by Walker, consists of an historical account of the triangulation, with descriptions of the method of procedure and of the instruments employed. The fifth volume is an account of the pendulum observations by Walker. In 1871–2, when at home on leave from India, he fixed, in conjunction with Sir Oliver Beauchamp Coventry St. John [q. v.], the difference of longitude between Tehran and London. He was retained at home to make a thorough investigation of the condition of the plates of the Indian atlas, and wrote an important memorandum on the projection and scale of the atlas. In 1873 he began to devote his attention to the dispersion of unavoidable minute errors in the triangulation, with the result that no trigonometrical survey is superior to that of India in accuracy.

Walker's work as superintendent of the great trigonometrical survey was as much that of a geographer as of a geodesist. At his office at Dehra Dun explorers were trained, survey parties for every military expedition organised, and native surveyors despatched to make discoveries, while their work was reduced and utilised. Many valuable maps were published, and Walker's map of Turkistan went through many editions. To Walker also was due the initiation of a scheme of tidal observations at different ports on the Indian coast. He elaborated the system and devised the method of analysing the observations. In connection with these tidal observations, he further arranged an extensive scheme of spirit levelling, connecting the tidal stations by lines of levels sometimes extending across the continent.

On 2 June 1877 Walker was made a companion of the Bath, military division. On 1 Jan. 1878 he was appointed surveyor-general of India, retaining the office of superintendent of the great trigonometrical survey; on 31 Dec. of the same year he was promoted to be major-general, and on 10 May 1881 to be lieutenant-general. He retired from the service on 12 Feb. 1883, and received the honorary rank of general on 12 Jan. 1884.

Walker became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1859, and in 1885 was elected a member of its council. In 1885 also he was president of the geographical section of the British Association at Aberdeen. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1865, was made a member of the Russian geographical society in 1868, and of the French in 1887. In June 1883 he was made an honorary LL.D. of Cambridge University. In 1895 he took charge of the geodetic work of the international geographical congress at the Imperial Institute in London. In May of that year he contributed a valuable paper to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of the Royal Society (vol. clxxxvi.) entitled ‘India's Contribution to Geodesy.’ Walker contributed to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (9th edit.) articles on the Oxus, Persia, Pontoons, and Surveying. He also contributed to the ‘Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal,’ the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society,’ and the Royal Geographical Society's ‘Journal.’

Walker died at his residence, 13 Cromwell Road, London, on 16 Feb. 1896, and was buried in Brompton cemetery. He married in India, on 27 April 1854, Alicia, daughter of General Sir John Scott, K.C.B., by Alicia, granddaughter of Dr. William Markham [q. v.], archbishop of York. His wife survived him and four children of the marriage—a son Herbert, lieutenant in the royal engineers, and three daughters.

[India Office Records; Royal Engineers' Records; Despatches; obituary notices in the London Times, Standard, and other daily newspapers, February 1896, in L'Étoile Belge, in Nature, March 1896, in Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. lix., in the Geographical Journal, vol. vii., in the Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. xiii., and in the Royal Engineers' Journal vol. xxvi.; Vibart's Addiscombe, its Heroes and Men of Note; Porter's History of the Corps of Royal Engineers; Kaye's Hist. of the Sepoy War; private sources.]

R. H. V.