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British Industrial History

William Nairn Forbes

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William Nairn Forbes (1796-1855)

1820 William Nairn Forbes, Lieut. Bengal Engineers and Surveyor of embankments in Bengal and Orilla, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]


1861 Obituary [2]

MAJOR-GENERAL WILLIAM NAIRN FORBES, of the Bengal Engineers, sixth Son of John Forbes, Esq., of Blackford, Aberdeenshire, was born at that place on the 3rd of April, 1796.

He received his early education at home, under a private tutor, except during the winters of 1808 and 1809, when he attended the mathematical and the natural philosophy classes, at King’s College, Old Aberdeen. Before going to King’s College, and whilst there, his leisure hours were generally occupied in constructing models of various machines, in which he was very successful, notwithstanding the imperfect character of his tools.

In 1811, he was sent to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied mathematics and natural philosophy under Professors Leslie and Playfair. At that time, he resided with his relative, the Rev. Archibald Alison, and was the companion of his sons, the late Dr. William Pulteney Alison, Professor of Medicine, and Sir Archibald Alison, the historian.

In 1812, he went to Addiscombe, as a cadet, and was presented, in the next year, with a case of mathematical instruments for 'his superior attainments in mathematics, as exhibited at the public examination.'

On leaving Addiscornbe, at the end of 1813, he was attached to the Royal Engineer establishment, at Chatham, where his abilities and perseverance attracted the particular notice of the Royal Military Surveyor. Subsequently, he was employed on the Trigonometrical Survey, in Shropshire and in Wales.

In 1816, he was appointed to the Bengal Engineers, and for several years was Surveyor of Embankments in Bengal and Orissa.

In December, 1819, he was ordered to England, to superintend the preparation of machinery for the Royal Mint, at Calcutta. In 1823, he returned to India, in charge of the machinery, and with a recommendation from the Court of Directors, that he should be employed in superintending its erection, and in organising the department. He was, accordingly, appointed Superintendent of the Mint Machinery at Calcutta. Lieutenant Forbes frequently reported to the Government, upon different engineering projects. Amongst others, he prepared a Report on the best means of keeping open the navigation of the stream connecting the Hooghly and the Ganges, which elicited the approval of the Court of Directors.

In November, 1825, his request to be allowed to join the army before Bhurtpore, was granted, on account of his well-known scientific attainments. During this siege, he was temporarily disabled, from having had his right. arm and two ribs broken, whilst reconnoitring the works ; but he was still able to direct his attention to the mining operations, and he prepared the plans of the unusually large mines, by which the breaches were made, and the fortress was eventually stormed. Lord Combermere, in speaking of Lieutenant Forbes, says, 'he was a first-rate Officer of Engineers, and was of the greatest possible use to me during the Siege of Bhurtpore.' After the fall of the fortress he resumed his duties at the Mint.

In the years 1832 and 1833, Captain Forbes was employed, in conjunction with Colonel Macleod and Captain Fitzgerald, on a survey for a navigable canal from Rajmahal to Calcutta, for which he, subsequently, submitted an elaborate project; and in June, 1836, he was appointed Master of the Mint, at Calcutta.

In 1847, he acted, for five months, as Member of the Military Board, during the absence of the Chief Engineer. In December of t,he same year, he was specially instructed to proceed to England, in order to be appointed Member of a Commission assembled to inquire into the constitution of the Royal Mint. This duty being completed in April, 1849, he returned to India and resumed his duties at the Calcutta Mint, which office he continued tu hold, until he finally quitted India.

Up to 1854, his health had been remarkably good, having been but once absent on sick leave, and then only during two months in 1828.

In the course of 1854, he frequently complained of exhaustion, almost amounting, at times, to a complete prostration of strength ; still his mental energies never gave way, he attended daily at the Mint, and he drew the plans for the new Post Office.

In November, he was suddenly seized with spasm of the heart, and in the early part of 2855, he was compelled to obtain leave to return to England. He accordingly embarked on the 9th of April, on board the 'Oriental,' but he did not live to complete the voyage.

He died on the 1st of May, 1855, off the island of Tibble Teer.

His commissions bear date:- Ensign, 1816; Lieutenant, 1818; Captain, 1827; Major, 1839; Lieutenant-Colonel, 1841; Colonel, 1852; and Major-General, 1854.

In 1819, by order of the Marquis of Hastings, he prepared plans for a cathedral at Calcutta, but its erection was not sanctioned by the Court. Subsequently, at the request of the late Bishop of Calcutta, he undertook the construction of the present cathedral, of which the first stone was laid in 1839, and the building was completed in 1847. He expended much time and labour on this work, which he undertook in addition to his ordinary import,ant duties; and the gratitude of the late Bishop was unbounded.

The great esteem in which General Forbes was held by his fellow citizens, is proved by the erection in the cathedral, by public subscription, of a monument to his memory. A bust of him has also been placed by the Government in the Calcutta Mint, where he was beloved and respected by all the officers and workmen of the establishment.

General Forbes had been connected with the Institution of Civil Engineers for thirty-five years, having been elected a Corresponding Member in 1820, and transferred to the class of Members in 1828.

He was also a Member of the Geological Society, the Asiatic Society, the Institut d'Afrique, and other scientific societies., In addition to those branches of engineering, upon which, from his official duties, he was more immediately employed, he evinced a lively interest in many others, more especially in the progress of steam communication, and the question of town drainage.

He possessed indomitable energy and determination, and in whatever branch of his profession he had embarked, he would have been equally successful. He was highly esteemed in the service of which he was an ornament, and in the circle of his private friends his loss was deeply regretted.



See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1820 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. 1861 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries