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British Industrial History

Bryan Donkin (1809-1893)

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Bryan Donkin (1809-1893)


1894 Obituary [1][2]

BRYAN DONKIN was the fifth son of Bryan Donkin, F.R.S., the inventor of the first practical machine for making paper in a continuous web, and one of the earliest members of the Institution.

He was born in the neighbourhood of his father’s engineering works at Bermondsey on the 29th of April, 1809, and was educated at Bromley, Kent, at various schools near London, and at Paris and Nantes.

At an early age he entered his father’s works and gradually rose till he became the senior partner in the firm. From the first he was interested in all matters connected with the profession and he soon became an active and valuable assistant to his father.

He helped in the design and construction of paper-making-, printing-, pumping-, and other machinery, and was much occupied in valuation and arbitration cases. He well remembered the first triangular-bar lathes; three were made, one for the Bermondsey works, one for Maudslay’s, and the third for another firm. Before planing-machines were known it was necessary to make three lathes at a time, in order to get the bars perfectly true.

It was at this early period that he was brought into contact with several eminent engineers, among whom may be mentioned Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Sir Henry Bessemer,. John Penn the elder, John Hall, Joseph Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, and John Farey, author of the well-known work on the steam-engine, whose nephew, the late B. W. Farey, was afterwards a partner in the Bermondsey firm.

In 1820 Bryan Donkin was sent to France by his father, to superintend the erection of paper-milling and other machinery at Nantes, and while there acquired great proficiency in the language of the country. The French Revolution of 1830, which occurred during his stay abroad, left an indelible impression on his memory.

A few years later he surveyed the River Ebro in Spain and also made surveys for several railways in England. He had a distinct recollection of the first railway constructed.

On the death of his father he became a partner in the Bermondsey works, at first in conjunction with his brothers, John and Thomas, and afterwards with his nephews, Bryan Donkin, Junior, and E. B. Donkin, and B. W. Farey. He was an active and zealous worker and at all times keenly interested in every matter connected with engineering. He took out several patents for paper-making machinery and steam-engines, either alone or in conjunction with Mr. Farey, and assisted in the manufacture at Bermondsey of both Babbage’s and Schultz’s calculating-machines.

In 1841 he married Miss E. Day of Isleworth, by whom he had three children.

In 1858 the firm accepted an important contract from the Russian Government, to construct and set up in St. Petersburg a mill to supersede the existing hand-mill for the manufacture of State papers and Government bank-notes. The undertaking was on a very large scale. It was necessary not only to superintend the construction of all the buildings, but to erect works for pumping water from the Neva, a mile distant, with settling-ponds and sand-filters. The latter were the first established in St. Petersburg and proved very efficient. The carrying out of these works took Bryan Donkin several times to Russia, and on their successful termination in 1862 he received the personal thanks of the Czar through the Minister of Finance. He had the satisfaction of witnessing their completion in company with General Winberg, at that time head of the Russian State Paper Department.

Mr. Donkin retired from active work in 1881, but continued to take a great interest in all business affairs up to the time of his death, which occurred at Blackheath on the 4th of December, 1893.

His tact, business capabilities and many amiable qualities endeared him to those with whom throughout his long life he was brought in contact, and he ably sustained the reputation of the firm founded by his father.

He was elected an Associate on the 10th of March, 1835, was transferred to the class of Member on the 18th of February, 1840, and at the time of his death was the father of the Institution.


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Sources of Information

  1. 1894 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  2. The Engineer 1893/12/08, p525.