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Benjamin Hall Blyth (1819-1866)

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Benjamin Hall Blyth (1819-1866), civil engineer, of B. and E. Blyth

1848 Announcement. '... Benjamin Hall Blyth, Civil Engineer, Edinburgh, ceased, on or about the 7th October last, to have any interest in the Isle of Man Commercial Banking Company, having at that date sold and transferred his shares therein'[1]

1851 Living in Edinburgh: Benjamin H. Blyth (age 31), Mary D. Blyth (age 29), sons Benjamin H. Blyth (age 1) and Robert B. Blyth (age 4 months)[2]

On the death of Benjamin Hall Blyth, his brother, Edward L. I. Blyth, and George Miller Cunningham reformed the partnership as Blyth and Cunningham.



1867 Obituary [3]

MR. BENJAMIN HALL BLYTH was born at Edinburgh, on the 14th of July, 1819, and was the son of Mr. Robert Brittain Blyth, an extensive iron and metal merchant, a native of Birmingham.

He early showed signs of great power in mental arithmetic. One of these occurred when he was only six years old, when, walking early one morning, he asked his father the exact hour of his birth, and what o’clock it was at the time of his question. He then walked on for a few hundred yards, and turning to his father, said that he had been so many seconds in the world. His father noted the figures, checked the calculation at home, and found that the child, having allowed for the additional days of two leap years, was perfectly correct in the result.

He received a good general and classical education at various schools in Edinburgh; always stood high in his class, but showed a special talent for mathematics, solving mentally problems in geometry and algebra, as well as in arithmetic. For various reasons his education was arrested at the too early age of fifteen years, and, in 1834, he became a pupil of Messrs. Grainger and Miller (MM.Inst.C.E.)

It was soon perceived that he had made choice of a profession suited to his tastes and acquirements; he rose rapidly in the estimation of Mr. Miller, to whose work he was specially attached, and during the second year of his pupilage he was intrusted with important business.

About the year 1841 he received from Mr. Miller the appointment of Resident Engineer on the Kilmarnock branch of the Glasgow and Ayrshire - now the Glasgow and South Western Railway. This line was finished under his superintendence within the specified time, and in a few months after the completion of the works he closed and settled all the Contractor’s accounts, receiving from his friends, and from professional men connected with him at that time, many private marks of their regard and esteem for him as a business man.

About the period of his leaving this situation, he was so convinced that Civil Engineering was likely to become a precarious profession, that he tried hard to obtain the appointment of Secretary to the Glasgow and Ayrshire Railway, at a salary of £200 per annum. In this he was disappointed, standing only second in the choice of the Directors; and he often used to allude, in after years, to his good fortune in having by this defeat been prevented from forsaking a profession of which he was so proud, and for which he showed such aptitude.

Soon after this, the busy engineering years of 1844 to 1846 having arrived, he returned to Mr. Miller’s office, where he rose to be the principal assistant. He was there intrusted with many important and extensive schemes, including the laying out of the extension of the Glasgow and Ayrshire Railway from Kilmarnock to Carlisle, with numerous less important branches of that Company - the North British, the Direct Northern from London to York, &c. The extent of the work he had to do at this time will be best estimated by the fact that, in November 1845, Mr. Miller, his chief, deposited plans for schemes comprising upwards of 1,500 miles of railway, on most of which Mr. Blyth was engaged in consequence of the high estimation in which he was held and the implicit confidence placed in him.

In the beginning of the year 1850 he commenced business on his own account, his first work being the Slamannan and Bo’ness Branch of the Monkland Railway.

In 1852 he was appointed Engineer-in-chief to the Great North of Scotland Railway, then about to be commenced ; from that time his business continued to increase so rapidly that in 1854 he admitted his younger brother, Edward Blyth, as a partner.

He acted as adviser and Engineer, at various times, to most of the principal Railway Companies in Scotland, including the Caledonian, Great North of Scotland, Glasgow and South Western, Monklands, Scottish Central, Dundee and Perth, Port Patrick, and others. For these Companies he constructed many important lines and branches; but they represented only to a small extent the laborious and extensive employment which he received.

As a Parliamentary Engineer, Mr. Blyth was very extensively employed, and there was rarely an opposed Scotch case in which he was not engaged. He lodged numerous plans for railways which were witlhdrawn or failed to pass through Parliament, but he was generally successful in his contests. As a witness he was much sought after by English, Welsh, and Irish, as well as Scotch Companies, having acted in that capacity for the Great Western, Great Northern, Midland, and many other Railway Companies.

One of the most eminent living engineers said of him, "I have always looked upon him, in his professional position, as one to be admired and imitated, not only for his ability, but for the honest and straightforward conduct which he always showed as a professional witness, never allowing himself to be swayed from his own opinion; and I believe this was the opinion entertained of him generally by his brother engineers." He was, indeed, peculiarly earnest and upright in all his actions. He possessed the rare quality of avoiding even exaggeration; and if counsel in their questions hit upon a weak point in his case, he would at once admit it. He often said that, apart from this being in accordance with true principle and his oath as a witness, it was good policy, as Committees more readily believed a witness who would admit that his side was not always in the right.

An eminent barrister having one day remarked to him that it must be very difficult for engineers to reconcile to their consciences much of their evidence, he answered, "Not at all; our evidence consists of selected truth given in our proofs; but if, in cross-examination, adverse truth is elicited, I never shrink from it."

He was not only valued by his employers as a witness, but was held in great esteem by his professional brethren and by counsel; many of the latter delighted to examine him in chief, while they had little hope of aiding their cases by his cross-examination. He had a remarkably accurate and acute memory, and while he could cast aside entirely a case which was concluded, any reference to it, years after, seemed to recall all the details vividly and correctly.

He took special pleasure, when about to be examined in any case involving numerous figures, in glancing over his notes, so that he could give all his evidence without reference to them when in the witness-box; and often his answers, apparently the result of memory, where in reality mentally worked at the moment so rapidly as to escape detection.

Of late years this extensive professional employment told upon his frame; he frequently complained of fatigue, and constant mental strain was the origin of the disease which sapped his life while yet in its prime. He was thorough in all he did, having a subtle and thoughtful mind, to which new modes of arriving at a result constantly presented themselves, and he had scarcely developed an idea ere another arose. During the last two winters this activity of mind was sorely taxed, as he had numerous schemes to prepare, of plans for Parliament, besides advising continually in matters of policy. He spent restless, wakeful nights, frequently occupying the greater part of them in mentally calculating and designing. On such occasions he would appear early at his office, and with great celerity develop by figures or sketches the ideas he had matured, instructing his assistants to carry them out by detailed plans.

In private life, Mr. Blyth was bright and joyous in hours of happiness, full of sympathy, and ever ready to help in times of sorrow ; charitable in his judgment of others, lowly in his estimate of himself, he was wise as a counseller, true and generous as a friend, and tenderly affectionate in all his domestic relations.

This is not the place to enlarge upon such points, but it would not be truthful to omit to remark upon his religious convictions, as governing his business transactions. A relation thus writes of him:

"For many years of his life he was guided by strong religious principles; even before these gained the mastery in him, his conduct was marked by the highest honour and integrity; but they opened his heart and hand in a may unknown before, inspiring him with new sympathies, and prompting him to acts of liberality, alike for general philanthropic purposes and for more purely spiritual objects. Recognising himself as only a steward of all that he possessed, he felt it his duty faithfully to apply all his mental powers to his profession, and equally so to honour the Giver of them, by devoting the first-fruits of all his gains to purposes of beneficence and Christian enterprise, dedicating a fixed proportion of all his means, and carefully selecting the objects to which it was to be applied. This systematic beneficence was the secret of a liberality which surprised some, and seemed lavish even to extravagance to others, while he considered it only as a privilege."

Such was the man who has passed away - combining eminence in his branch of the profession, with piety and active benevolence; leaving a memory which will long be honoured, and an example which it would be well to follow.

Although for a considerable time it was evident to his friends that his health was failing, he always cheerfully alluded to a little relaxation in summer as all that he needed; and it was not till the beginning of May, 1866, that he became alarmed by the representations of his medical advisers, and he agreed, at their urgent request, to give up entirely, for a time, all attention to business. He then recognised the precarious tenure by which he held his life, and often alluded to its uncertainty and probable brevity, made all necessary arrangements of his affairs, and lived daily as if each were to be his last.

As usual, he went with his family in August to North Berwick, a watering-place on the east coast, near Edinburgh ; there returning vigour and strength raised hopes of his ultimate recovery, only to be suddenly and sadly disappointed. On the evening before his decease (August 21, 1866) he attended a meeting of the managers of the United Presbyterian Church at North Berwick, and made them a liberal offer for the purpose of building a new church, conditionally on certain specified efforts being made by the congregation; he closed his offer by stating that, if not accepted, his health was such as to forbid dependence on its ever being renewed. A few minutes after uttering these words (only having time to receive an unanimous acceptance of his offer) he fell into the arms of his brother, was carried home, and in a few hours passed gently away, in the 48th year of his age, leaving a widow and a large young family to mourn their irreparable loss.

Mr. Blyth joined the Institution of Civil Engineers, as an Associate, in the year 1844, and was transferred to the class of Members in 1851. His residence in Scotland precluded frequent attendance at the meetings ; but he was much attached to the Society, and did everything in his power to promote its objects.


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