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Charles Beyer: Obituary

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Note: This is a sub-section of Charles Beyer

1877 Obituary [1]

Charles Frederick Beyer, who died at his residence, Llantysilio Hall, in the county of Denbigh, on the 2nd of June, 1876, was the head of the well-known firm of Messrs. Beyer, Peacock, and Co, of Gorton, Manchester.

He was born at Plauen, in the kingdom of Saxony, on the 14th of May, 1813, and his parents, who were in humble circumstances, supported themselves by hand-loom weaving. They were unable to give their children more than the usual education demanded by the State; and as they intended to train up their son Charles to follow their own occupation, he was, in due time, bound to a three years’ apprenticeship.

Early in life the lad had amused himself by making little models of buildings, to the delight of his mother, who imagined an architect in her son Charles. It happened, when he was about twelve years of age, that a young architect settled in Plauen, and, in order to nourish the taste which the boy exhibited, the hours not devoted to school were spent with the architect, who, in addition to giving lessons in drawing, taught arithmetic and geometry at a charge of about 4s. per quarter.

So great was the progress made, that in a short time a drawing of a head was taken home and framed, being the first picture that adorned the wall of his father’s parlour. The young architect removed from Plauen, and it chanced that, whilst the experiment was being made of training his pupil to the loom, the drawing above referred to was seen by a Mr. von Seckendorf, an eminent medical gentleman who had been called in to prescribe for an elder brother.

“Who was the artist?” asked this gentleman. “My son Charles,” replied the father. “And what may your son Charles be doing?” "Oh, he is a weaver.” “A weaver!” “Yes, a weaver; and I am very well content for he is a good lad, and pleases his master well.” "But,” continued Mr. von Seckendorf, “he should go to Dresden to the Academy; there is a school just established - a Polytechnic School. I will see about it; I will speak to the Kreishauptmann” (the chief officer of the county).

The youth‘s sketches and papers were accordingly sent to Dresden, and his name given in as soliciting to be admitted into the Polytechnic School. The father did not approve of this, for he knew not where the means were to come from to sustain his son in the capital for a period of four years; and great was his consternation when he received a summons to attend the chief officer, who wished to learn his intentions regarding his son.

As the sum of #30 (£4 10s.) per annum was given by the State towards educating each boy, he said that Charles might go and try for six months; the dread of offending, rather than his son’s interest, prompting the reply. The apprenticeship was resigned when it became the wish of the high official, and Charles was sent to Dresden. It was here that the sort of metal of which he was made was first put to the test, and a severe test it was. He studied hard; and, as no pecuniary aid came from home, the pittance was small upon which he had to exist. On many days his dinners cost him the sum of three pfennigs (less than one halfpenny), and as the six months drew to a close, he contemplated returning home.

On consulting one of the professors, he was advised to struggle on, and as a small assistance he prepared papers for the use of the workshops and kept some of the time-books, for which service he received pay at the rate of 0.75d. an hour.

To this period of his life belongs an incident which forcibly illustrates the severe training under which the future engineer grew up. “A benevolent lady of Dresden,” Mr. Beyer said, “was in the habit of giving every Friday a good dinner to the two or three pupils of the Polytechnic School who had distinguished themselves most during the preceding week; and I can still recall how eagerly I strove week after week to be one of the chosen few, that I might not lose a meal which was almost necessary to my sustenance, so hardly was I obliged to live.“

He continued the struggle through the course of four years, and completed his studies; and during that period his expenses, including the stipend of #120, did not exceed #410, or £15 7s. 6d. per annum.

From Dresden he removed to Chemnitz, where he remained two years, and worked in the machine shop of Mr. Haubold, receiving for the first year 6s., and for the second, 9s. per week as wages. It was whilst employed at this establishment that he got into trouble through having unwittingly violated a rule of the works, by making a sketch of some machine which was in course of construction. This led to his being sent back to Dresden. On the journey, which he had to make on foot, he passed through a small town in which lay a criminal awaiting capital punishment. The harrowing tale was told to young Beyer, and such was his distress that (as he himself related) he passionately wished that it had been his own lot to suffer instead.

Through the influence of friends in Dresden, his little fault was condoned: he returned to Chemnitz to complete his term of service; and so satisfactory was the progress which he had made, that on its completion, which was in the summer of 1834, he received a sum of #300 (£45) from the Saxon Government, to enable him to visit England, and to report upon the improvements in machinery - chiefly with regard to the spinning of cotton.

Of this sum he expended £25 in a suitable outfit, and the remainder for the expenses of the journey. He made the desired report upon cotton-spinning, and received for the information £10 from the mill-owners of Chemnitz, and some additional payment from the Saxon Government.

A joint-stock company for cotton-spinning was formed in Chemnitz, and he was solicited to undertake the management.

A company was also formed for the like object in Dresden, and there, too, his services were sought. Both offers were however declined, and in the latter part of the year (1834), being then twenty-one years of age, he removed to Manchester, accompanied by Professor Schubert, of Dresden, by whom he was introduced to S. Behrens and Co, the well-known merchants.

Through Mr. Behrens, but not till after some delay, he obtained an appointment with the firm of Sharp, Roberts and Co, in a subordinate capacity as draughtsman, at a rate of wages which, during the first year, was little more than nominal, and did not exceed 30s. per week in the second year.

Mr. Sharp appears to have been at once struck with the signs of character and ability shown by the young applicant, and told him to come again on the following day. In the interval, however, he found that the proposal to introduce a foreigner into the works roused such a storm of opposition that he did not venture to persist; and when Beyer appeared he was obliged to tell him that he could not offer him an engagement. The deep chagrin of the young German was so evident that Mr. Sharp, partly mistaking its meaning, opened his purse and offered him a sovereign. Young Beyer respectfully but somewhat indignantly declined to receive it, saying, “It is work that I want.” Mr. Sharp was so impressed by the words, and the look which accompanied them, that he resolved to brave all consequences, and engaged him on the spot. The anecdote is characteristic at once of the times and of Mr. Beyer’s original and manly nature.

Here, notwithstanding his difficulties with regard to the English language, the readiness with which, as a mechanical draughtsman, he could put his ideas upon paper, speedily attracted the notice of Mr. Roberts, whose fertile inventive genius often outran his power to do the like. So strong was this faculty, that on one occasion Mr. Beyer, who happened to be present whilst Mr. Roberts’s draughtsman was endeavouring, but without success, to sketch out a mechanical arrangement which Mr. Roberts had, just conceived, showed by a few strokes of his pencil that he grasped his master’s meaning; upon which Mr. Roberts exclaimed, “There is a man (speaking of his draughtsman) who can tell every word I say, but cannot put my ideas upon paper; and here is another (Mr. Beyer) who scarcely knows English, but who can not only understand but also put into shape all that I mean.”

Mr. Roberts now began to find out his great and valuable qualities, both as a mathematician and as a quick and true draughtsman; and as about this time Messrs. Sharp, Roberts, and Co. commenced to turn their attention to the manufacture of locomotive engines, it fell to Mr. Beyer’s lot to carry out, under Mr. Roberts’s instructions, this branch of their business, and in this way to lay the foundation of a reputation as a builder of locomotive engines which has become world-wide.

Mr. Beyer had not the reputation of being an inventor, although he is believed to have been the first to suggest, in the construction of locomotives, the single straight plate inside framing; but his sound knowledge of elementary principles, his refined taste, his readiness as a draughtsman, his probity, and his untiring industry not only showed his fitness for his office, but soon secured for him a better position with his employers, and led to a close intimacy between Mr. Roberts and himself, which was greatly to their mutual advantage, since each had special qualities not possessed by, but exceedingly valuable to, the other.

A large number of locomotives of a distinctive character and of excellent workmanship soon made their appearance upon the Dublin and Kingstown, Grand Junction, Great Western, and other English railways, and also upon various French and German lines, which proved to be eminently satisfactory in their performance.

In the summer of 1843 Mr. Roberts retired from the partnership, and from that time until the spring of 1853, when Mr. Beyer’s connection with the firm (then known as Sharp, Stewart and Co) also terminated, he was the mechanical head of that establishment.

It was during this period he was able to bring to bear upon locomotive design, that innate perception of mechanical fitness and that refined taste which have been so prominently shown in all his designs.

After retiring from the service of Messrs. Sharp, Stewart, and Co., Mr. Beyer travelled for six or eight months in England, and on the Continent.

During this interval he conceived, and for a time seriously entertained, the notion of abandoning the profession, at least for a time, and embracing the career of a student: and it was with this object that he visited both Oxford and Cambridge on his tour. The masculine good sense, however, which (notwithstanding a vein of romance which he certainly possessed) was his chief characteristic, preserved him from what would at his age have probably proved a real mistake. He said to himself, as he sat on a gate from which he was watching the towers and roofs of Cambridge, “Beyer, you are a fool,” and once for all gave up the pleasing dream.

Shortly after his return from the latter, he entered into partnership with Richard Peacock, who was until then Locomotive and Mechanical Engineer to the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company. Thus was established the eminent engineering firm of Beyer, Peacock and Co, which, possessing the advantage of Mr. Beyer’s special qualities as above enumerated, and Mr. Peacock‘s practically acquired knowledge of the requirements of railway working, coupled with no ordinary share of ability in commercial matters, speedily took a position among the first to be found in this or in any other country.

Referring further to Mr. Beyer’s special qualities as an engineer, it was said that "he had a highly developed perception of what was correct and suitable for the purpose in hand, which, combined with a natural taste for the beautiful and simple, gained for the engines which he turned out that well-merited renown which they enjoy; and when the engine 'Don Luiz,’ was exhibited in London in 1862, the critic of the Art Union spoke in the highest terms of eulogy about its graceful and pleasing shapes."

In designing the workshops at Gorton Foundry, Mr. Beyer’s powers of adapting means to the ends required were again prominently displayed, and leave but little room for doubt, that if he had chanced to follow his early bent he would have distinguished himself as an architect.

The various sections of these works are almost exact counterparts of each other so far as the buildings are concerned, and have been so arranged as to admit of the gradual expansion and enlargement of the whole by the simple addition of other sections, without disturbing or altering the portions previously erected.

In the production of most of the details of locomotive engines he also designed and adapted many special tools, with the well-known result of at once improving the character and reducing the cost of the work done. With these advantages the business of the firm rapidly increased in magnitude.

Engines bearing Mr. Beyer’s well-known impress are to be seen in nearly all parts of the civilised globe, and are in no small degree operating to refine the taste and instruct the skill of the mechanical engineering world. The results in other respects, it is to be presumed, were no less satisfactory. That this was so may be inferred from an entry in his diary on the anniversary of his fiftieth birthday, in the following words: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, and grant that the goods Thou hast intrusted to my keeping may bear fruits to Thy honour and glory, through Christ Jesus;” and from the benefactions which he distributed so liberally during his lifetime, and which he has provided shall by no means cease now that he is gone.

The severe hardships with which Mr. Beyer had to struggle during his early career, made, it is believed, a considerable impression upon his character, and gave it an appearance of harshness, much more apparent, however, than real, which was sometimes keenly felt by youths who were seeking to be launched upon the world through him as an employer. He did not spare himself, and had but little forbearance with those who showed a disposition to shirk duty; “his bark was,” however, worse than his bite,” and beneath this exterior was a kind and beneficent nature, which it may be said was often "generous to a fault," and was doubtless frequently imposed upon.

Mr. Beyer was never married, and his nearest living relative at the time of his death was an only sister. Besides replacing at his own cost the old parish church at Gorton by an entirely new one, and rebuilding, almost unaided, the schools and rectory connected therewith, he contributed largely towards the cost of erecting St. Mark’s Church, West Gorton (the schools belonging to which were also built at his cost), and defrayed the greater part of the cost of rebuilding the church upon his estate at Llantysilio.

By his will he left £3,000 for the augmentation of the income of the Vicarage of Llantysilio, and the sum of £10,000 for the erection of another church and parsonage not far from the Gorton Foundry, the schools for which he built upwards of twelve months before; and in addition to these sums he left legacies to various public institutions and charities, amongst which may be named the Manchester Infirmary, Manchester Grammar School, Manchester City Mission, Ardwick Industrial and Ragged School, British and Foreign Bible Society, &C., and also to some of his draughtsmen and domestic servants, amounting in all to about £25,000.

After the disposal of his property in Denbighshire to his godson Henry Beyer Robertson, he left the residue of his estate for the benefit of Owens College, Manchester, towards the ‘foundation and endowment of professorships in science, one at least of which shall be a professorship of engineering in the said college.”

Here it may be mentioned that about sixteen years ago Mr. Beyer obtained an introduction to Professor Greenwood, now Principal of the College, and stated that, being familiar with the successful working of some of the German Polytechnic Schools, it had occurred to him that Owens College might with advantage develop such a school or department in connection with its scientific chairs; and he even then urged that a movement should be begun for extending and rebuilding the College on a larger and more appropriate site.

He was thus the first to suggest the Extension movement, which has had such unexpected results, and was a munificent contributor to the Extension Fund, as the following list will show:- General Fund, £1,500; Engineering Fund, £1,000; Endowment Fund (Physical Laboratory), £3,000; Jurisprudence Fund, £500. It will thus be seen that he did not exclusively limit his interest to subjects with which he was himself connected.

Professor Greenwood states that, from personal intercourse, he knows that Mr. Beyer shared the opinion that the prosperity of such institutions was best secured when all the various branches of liberal and scientific knowledge were pursued in common.

In his annual report of June last, speaking of Mr. Beyer, he observes that “his munificent gifts towards the Extension Fund were not more conspicuous than the warm personal interest which he always showed in the growth and prosperity of the College; and by those who enjoyed his friendship his loss will long be severely felt.”

For some time before his death, Mr. Beyer’s health showed symptoms of failure, which however did not assume a serious character until the early part of 1876. It was then found that he was suffering from great prostration of the nervous system, arising, as is now frequently the case, from too close an application to business, and which would probably have disappeared if he could have yielded to the wishes of his medical advisers, and rested from his labours for a time.

Like too many of the members of the profession, he did not find it an easy matter to follow this advice, and he gradually became worse till the time of his death.

He was an earnest inquirer after truth, both in science and in religion. He was not unfamiliar with some of the most important aspects of modern religious controversy; but he lived and died a sincere and enlightened Christian, reposing with child-like confidence upon the merits of his Saviour.

Mr. Beyer became a Member of this Institution on the 7th of March, 1854. He was one of the founders of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, one of the Governors of Owens College, Manchester, and of the Manchester Grammar School, and a member of several scientific and charitable institutions, and shortly before his death was appointed a magistrate.

This brief sketch of Charles Frederick Beyer will have gained its end, if it serves to keep alive the memory of a man of singular purity and simplicity of character; whose history shows what great results may be achieved under circumstances the most unpromising, when great parts are united to untiring industry, and are directed by high principles and noble and unselfish aims.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1877 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries