By James Catmur, IET guest blog
James Catmur had been in touch with the IET Archives whilst researching his great grand uncle who had been a member of the IEE (Institution of Electrical Engineers). More research ensued which led to the discovery that this interesting character, a student in electrical engineering working in London, ended up on the Amazon River. This is his fascinating story.
Herbert Braithwaite Johnson
Herbert Braithwaite Johnson was born on 16 August 1877, in Brocklesbury, Lincolnshire, England, to John Henry Johnson and Anna Braithwaite Savory. Herbert died on 6 September 1960, aged 83 years, in Jalisco, Mexico. Herbert was buried in 1960 in Ajijic, Mexico.
I first heard of ‘great uncle Herbert’ in 1973. At the time we lived in Mexico City, and returning home from a trip to Baja California we were due to go near to Ajijic. My grandmother suggested we go via Ajijic to try to find the house. After some questioning, we managed to locate the house, but could only look at it over the garden wall. We also found his very dilapidated memorial stone in the local graveyard. I remember being told by my grandmother (his sister in law) that ‘he had laid the telegraph cable up the amazon’.
The next encounter I had with Herbert Johnson was when his wife Georgette died with no heirs and there was a long process required to wind up a significant and complex estate in Mexico, USA and UK, which is another long story best told by my cousin Julia Johnson.
The cable expedition
After that I heard nothing more about him until my mother died and among her possessions we found photos of the cable laying expedition. As a FIET (Fellow of The Institution of Engineering and Technology) this all intrigued me, so I set off to learn a bit more about the expedition and his work.
I quickly found the Amazon River Cable website run by Bill Burns, which had some information on the cable laying that I could supplement so I sent him scans of the photos of the CS Faraday trip in 1895-1896 which he added to the website. Herbert would have been 18 when on the trip.
I then contacted Tony Burton, who has written several books about the artists who lived in Ajijic, including chapters on Herbert and Georgette Johnson. We worked together to see what we could piece together about Herbert the engineer and realised that there was a gap between the Amazon cable project and his life in Ajijic, Mexico.
Tracing Herbert Johnson through his application forms
Searches showed that Herbert was sponsored for admission as a student to The Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE, formerly The Society of Telegraph Engineers). The application form states that he was “Employed by Siemens Bros & Co and is attending evening classes at the City and Guilds of London Institute, Finsbury.” Once the application had been approved, Howard signed his student registration with IEE on 27 Nov 1898.
We know that he worked as Resident Engineer, County of London Electric Supply Company’s Wandsworth Generating Station and lived in Wandsworth. He remained an IEE member until 1930, when he retired and emigrated to first France and then to Mexico.
Working on the Amazon cable laying ship must have been a memorable event for the 18 year old Herbert, as the family retained a memory of it in our folklore and, as I found out, photos from the trip.
Want to read more?
There is more information on Herbert Johnson, who with his wife Georgette settled in Ajijic, Mexico in 1939, on this website:
For more information on the Amazon cable laying trip visit:
Thank you to Bill Burns and Tony Burton for their help in piecing together what we know about Herbert Braithwaite Johnson. All photos are from the James Catmur, FIET collection
About the Author
James Catmur, FIET has lived in numerous countries and worked in many more. He comes from a family of engineers and has an interest in engineering matters. His work has focussed on risk management in the rail and highways sectors. Since his semi-retirement due to ill health, he has been researching his ancestors and was intrigued by Herbert Johnson.