Penarth Dock, South Wales - 150 years - the heritage and legacy  
Penarth Dock, South Wales - the heritage & legacy . . .

Index to Volume Seven - The People - Dock Family Trees - Engineers, Artisans & Doers . . .


Engineering has already had its representatives in the Chair of the British Association, Sir William Fairbairn was president at Manchester in 1861, and Sir William Armstrong at the meeting held two years later at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The president-elect for the gathering which takes place at Bristol during this present month of August is Sir John Hawkshaw, whose scientific eminence in his profession, together with, the important practical services he has rendered to the community in connection with so many great and useful public undertakings, will entitle him to the honourable position he has been called upon to occupy.

John Hawkshaw was born at Leeds in the year 1811, and was educated at the grammar school of the town. On leaving school he became a pupil of Mr. Charles Fowler, celebrated at that time as a maker of roads, and was engaged with him in the construction of turnpike roads in Yorkshire. Next he became the assistant of Mr. Alexander Nimmo, who was employed by a number of capitalists in Lancashire to design a scheme of railways between Manchester, Leeds, and the Humber. Mr. Hawk-shaw took an active part in this work, and doubtless at this time laid the foundation of that profound knowledge of railway engineering which afterwards brought him into large professional employment.

He remained with Mr. Nimmo until the death of that gentleman in 1831. After this event, and at the instance of some of the capitalists for whom Mr. Nimmo acted, and when little over twenty, Mr. Hawkshaw went to South America to act as engineer to the Bolivar Copper Mines in Venezuela. He had there opportunities of acquiring a consider-able knowledge, alike of the country and of the natives. As little accurate information was then to be had of that part of the world, he published, for the benefit of others, his own experiences in a little work entitled "Reminiscences of South America, from two and a half years' residence in Venezuela." Impressed with the ignorance and moral degradation which. prevailed in that land, he says, in the preface to the volume, that "he would re-joice if his book should be the means of inducing some of the missionary societies to send the light of the Gospel to a country over which thick darkness is brooding."

Having returned from America in 1835, he was, in that year, appointed the engineer of the Manchester and Bolton Railway, a work which he duly carried to completion. In the excavations for this railway, we may mention, certain fossil trees were discovered, a description of which Mr. Hawkshaw brought before the British Association, at Birmingham, in 1839. The further scientific papers not immediately bear-ing on his own professional work, communicated by Mr. Hawkshaw, of which we have a record, are, "Notice of the Fossil Footprints in the New Red Sandstone Quarry at. Lymm, in Cheshire," and "Some Observations on the Geological Inquiry as to the Origin of Coal."

The younger Brunel, it is well known, designed the Great Western Railway upon a broad or seven-foot gauge. The directors of the company, uncertain whether or not to follow the lead of their original and inventive engineer, called upon Mr. Hawkshaw, in the year following his return to England, to report upon the desirability or otherwise of maintaining that gauge. Mr. Robert Stephenson had previously been invited to report, but had declined, on the ground that his opinion was already well known as being strongly opposed to the system of Mr. Bunel. Mr. Hawkshaw and his coadjutor Mr. NicholasWood submitted to the directors separate reports on the question, which had however, a substantial agreement. Mr. Hawkshaw's clear and decisive opinion was that Mr Brunel's seven-feet gauge ought to be discarded and the original gauge of the Stephenson's (four feet eight and a half inches), in use on the Liverpool and Manchester and nearly all other railways adopted in its place. Not only was the narrow gauge, as he demonstrated, the cheaper and the better adapted of the two for working the general passenger and goods traffic, but its adoption was necessary to prevent the isolation of the Great Western line from the entire railway system of England. At this time the broad gauge had only been laid between Paddington and Maidenhead, and had Mr. Hawkshaw's opinion prevailed with the directors of the Great Western Company, capital to a large amount would have been saved to the share-holders.

It may be mentioned, as an instance of the immaturity of ideas on railway matters at that time that some of the directors seriously maintained that the severance of their line by the broad gauge from the network of the kingdom would, instead of an injury, be rather an advantage. The battle of the gauges is a celebrated episode in the history of English railways, and although for the time being Mr. Hawkshaw 's views did not prevail, he had the satisfaction of having on his side the majority of the leading men of his own profession, and he has lived to see the complete reversal of Mr Brunel' s broad gauge system. After the fatal policy had been finally adopted, a large public meeting was held at Birmingham to protest against it as a commercial evil of the first magnitude.

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