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Charles William Pasley

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Charles William Pasley (1780-1861)

1820 Charles William Pasley, Lt-Col of the Royal Engineers, Chatham, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

1824 November 14th. Birth of son Charles Pasley

1862 Obituary [2]

GENERAL SIR CHARLES WILLIAM PASLEY, K.C.B., F.R.S., &C., was born on the 8th September, 1780, at Eskdale-Muir, Dumfries, where he received the rudiments of a good useful education ; and in the year 1796 he was appointed to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich where he pursued his studies with energy, and obtained a commission in the Royal Artillery on the 1st of December, 1797.

He was transferred to the Royal Engineers on the 1st of April, 1798, and on the 2nd of August, 1799, he received a commission as first lieutenant in that corps.

For the next ten years he was actively engaged in Minorca, Malta, Naples, and Sicily, and other places, and was intrusted with several confidential missions, and employed in many important services ; among others, conveying communications between General Villette and Lord Nelson, in 1804.

Having attained the rank of second captain on the 1st of March, 1805 ; he was still more actively employed, and served, in 1806, under the Prince of Hesse-Philippsthal in the defence of the fortress of Gaeta, when it was besieged by the French. In the same year he was with Sir John Stuart at the battle of Maida, in Calabria.

He was at the siege of Copenhagen, under Lord Cathcart, in 1807, and was transferred to the division of Major-General Leith, at Oviedo, in September, 1808 ; where he was employed on dangerous reconnaissance duties for some time, until he was appointed extra aide-de-camp to Sir David Baird, in consequence of his knowledge of the Spanish language, in addition to his professional attainments. He was soon after attached, in the same capacity, to the staff of Sir John Moore, of whom he was a devoted admirer ; but he blamed the general principles of his retreat, and he advocated his turning upon his pursuers before his arrival at Corunna, whence, in case of being worsted, there was no retreat save by sea.

His next service was in the expedition to Walcheren; and in 1809 he took part in the siege of Flushing, where he was seriously wounded whilst leading his men to the attack of a battery.

During the forced temporary 'inglorious ease' consequent upon his wound, he occupied himself in acquiring a knowledge of the German language, and in reading up his former studies.

In November, 1810, he produced the 'Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire,' which by the plain common sense view which it took of public matters, at a period of unnecessary despondency, and its manly and cheerful tone, deservedly attracted the attention and elicited the encomiums of the best men of the day.

At this period the Duke of Wellington made strong representations to the home authorities respecting all branches of the army ; but more especially as to the defective condition of the Engineer Department in the field. This had long been perceived by Captain Pasley, and whilst in command at Plymouth, he had commenced a system of education of the royal military artificers, which had proved most advantageous to the service. In spite of the usual routine opposition, the system of education advocated by him, and laid down in a treatise written at the time for the use of that department of the service, was adopted at Chatham ; and he was appointed Director of Field Instruction with the rank of Brevet-Major, which was followed by the steps of Brevet-Lieutenant-Colonel in 1813, and Lieutenant-Colonel in 1814.

In this latter year he commenced the publication of his useful work on 'Military Instructions,' which was completed in 1817 ; and in 1818 he published a volume of 'Standing Orders,' containing a perfect code of military rules for the duties of all ranks in the army.

At this period his pen was scarcely ever idle, and he produced a number of very valuable treatises for the use of the army, some of which have been reproduced abroad.

In 1831 he brought out a volume entitled 'Observations on the Expediency and Practicability of Simplifying and Improving the Measures, Weights, and Money used in this Country without materially altering the present standard,' wherein he advocated the decimal division ; but, he strongly opposed the introduction of the unit or the denominations adopted in France.

The peculiar nature of his; military duties almost naturally directed Colonel Pasley’s attention to civil constructions, and in 1838, he published his very useful and well-known work 'Observations on Limes, Calcareous Cements, Mortars, Stuccos, and Concrete, and on Puzzolanas natural and artificial,' which has run through many editions, and has been translated into most of the modern languages. It has also powerfully contributed to the foundation of large commercial establishments for the production of Portland and other cements.

The experience he had attained of exploding gunpowder under water led to his being consulted by the Conservators of the Thames, respecting the removal of two wrecks which materially affected the navigation. Colonel Pasley undertook, and successfully accomplished the work, for which he received the thanks of the Municipal Authorities, and the Freedom of the City of London in a gold box.

This Success led to his undertaking the removal of the wreck of the 'Royal George,' at Spithead, and the 'Edgar,' at St. Helens.

During portions of six successive summers, between 1839 and 1844, he devoted himself to these labours, which were ultimately completely successfu1, not only in clearing the anchorage-ground, but in recovering such a quantity of valuable material, that the operations cost nothing to the nation ; for all these services, however, Colonel Pasley neither asked nor received any reward from the Admiralty.

The following characteristic note was written to the compiler of this Memoir, when seeking, for a foreign correspondent, information on firing charges of gunpowder under water.

'MY DEAR SIR, 9th February, 1855.

'My operations against wrecks will be found in what is now called The United Service Magazine, but was formerly styled the United Service Journal. The numbers for September, 1838, and the Editor’s Portfolio, for October, 1838, page 271, contain the account of my operations for blowing up and removing the wrecks of the brig ‘William,’ and schooner ‘Glamorgan,’ the former sunk in the Thames near Tilbury Fort, the latter nearly opposite to East Tilbury Church, towards the eastern extremity of Gravesend Reach. In June, 1839, of the same journal, page 183, are further observations on my subaqueous explosions in the Thames. In November, 1839, is a Paper by Captain Basil Hall, R.N., on the capstan of the ‘Royal George’ recovered by me in September of that year. In January, 1840, page 72 ; and in February of the same year, page 149 ; and in March of the same year, page 164; my first operations in the removal of the wreck of the 'Royal George' are described, which were continued every summer till the end of 1843 ; but no more of my operations were published in the ‘United Service Journal,’ because the Editor made difficulties about the length of them, and I would not curtail them, as I always noticed the Royal Engineers’ officers and privates, of the sappers and miners, as well as the civil divers, and the riggers, or dockyard-men who were more useful, as well as the excellent officers of Engineers Captain Symonds and Hutchinson, which was a great incentive to zeal and activity on the part of all the workmen thus distinguished. In 1844, I removed the wreck of the ‘Edgar,’ blown up and sunk by accidentally catching fire, off the Mother Bank, at Spithead, in the early part of the last century when not a man was saved of those on board. Lieutenant (now Captain) Barlow, R.E., with the same excellent military workmen, dockyard-men, naval pensioners, and riggers were employed in 1841 ; but no civil divers were employed a.s in the commencement of our operations at Spithead. Your correspondent must not attempt simultaneous explosions, or to make use of one conducting wire, trusting to the water for completing the circuit. These expedients were tried repeatedly, in 1843, by Captain Hutchinson, who was very zealous about them; but we lost a great deal of powder by the first, as we never succeeded in firing more than two charges simultaneously out of a greater number, and the cases containing a second charge were generally burst, and the powder spoiled, by the explosion of the first that happened to prove successful. The second of those expedients gave more trouble, and required a battery of double the power to produce the same effect. We, therefore, in all cases, used a separate voltaic battery, and two conducting wires to every charge in our operations against the ‘Edgar ’ in 1844.

'I remain, my dear Sir, yours very faithfully, C. W. PASLEY.

'P.S. My operations from 1840 to 1844, inclusive, were published in a Portsmouth weekly paper, of which I think Harrison was the editor, but I have no copy of them.'

In the year 1841 he was removed from Chatham, and was appointed Inspector-General of Railways, the somewhat invidious duties of which he performed with great uprightness and conscientiousness, if not always for the benefit of the public service.

He had some 'bloodless encounters' with his civil brethren, in which controversial opinions were stoutly maintained on both sides ; but amidst all that occurred, Colonel Pasley was universally respected and esteemed, and he certainly did his utmost to perform his duties as well in his civil as in his military capacity.

He resigned the post in the year 1846, when he was made a K.C.B. for his services, and henceforth devoted himself to re-editing his various works, and to the introduction of useful apparatus for the Military Engineering service, as well as in advocating the Decimal Coinage system.

His higher steps in the army were Brevet-Colonel in 1830 ; Colonel of Engineers in 1831 ; Major-General in the army in 1841 ; Lieutenant-General in 1851, and General in 1860. The degree of D,.C.L. was conferred upon him at Oxford in 1844.

He had been a fellow of the Royal Society since 1816, and he belonged also to the Astronomical, the Geographical, the Zoological, the Statistical, and other Societies; and of the Institution of Civil Engineers, he became an Honorary Member so early as the year 1820, on the proposition of Mr. Telford, seconded by Messrs. Palmer, Field, Maudslay, and Jones - four out of the five founders of the Institution. He was a constant attendant at the meetings, and frequently took part in the discussions, exhibiting a pertinacious determination not to be out-manoeuvred, or to be beaten in a fair stand-up fight, if by any tactics or strong argument he could prevent defeat.

Among the Civil Engineers he was almost universally popular; and he devoted himself to his civil duties with as much energy as he had previously done to the practice of his own profession.

He was equally popular at the East India Company’s Military College of Addiscombe, where he held the position of Public Examiner for sixteen years, up to the year 1855 ; and the high standard which was reached and maintained by that establishment may, in some degree, be attributed to the energy infused into the officers, and others connected with it, by the good example of Colonel Pasley.

His constitution began to give way for only a short time before his decease, and he may be said to have been well up to within a week before his death, which occurred at his residence, in Norfolk Crescent, Hyde Park, on the 19th of April, 1861, deeply regretted by his relatives ; and his memory will long be cherished by his numerous friends, as a most useful and worthy member of society, and a very distinguished and meritorious officer.

As mentioned above, Pasley was prolific with his pen, and the following brief extract from a long letter to the London Evening Standard in 1843[3] is included as an example of his technical knowledge and his keenness to ensure that credit was justly given where it was due:-


'Sir,— Having had frequent questions put to me in conversation respecting the great explosions near Dover, by which Rounddown Cliff, an immense projecting mass of chalk in the proposed line of the South Eastern Railway, was thrown down, I request your insertion of the following statement, in order to correct several inaccuracies in my own letter to you of the 23d of January last, which I wrote in haste, that it might appear in time to remove the impression which I found generally prevailed, that the whole operation was under my direction, but which I considered only a vague report, until I saw it quoted from an article in the Railway Times; which quotation did not come to my knowledge until three days before the time appointed for the firing of those great mines.

'To Mr. W. Cubitt, the engineer in chief of the South Eastern Railway, is justly due the merit of having conceived the idea of removing a mass of chalk rock, nearly 300 feet in length, but of still greater height, and averaging 70 feet in thickness, by simultaneous explosions of gunpowder, instead of employing labourers to scarp it away, which would probably have cost nearly 11000l., and the merit of success also belongs to him, inasmuch as he took the most judicious measures to insure it ; but, as he informed me that he never would have contradicted the reports which ascribed the entire superintendence of that great operation to me, and as he is not likely to publish anything on the subject, I am desirous not only of correcting the inaccuracies in my first letter to you, but also of supplying the omissions in the printed accounts, by noticing the useful labours of those who contributed to his success, which I have always made a point of doing, in every similar operation that has taken place under my own direction, and which, I am sure, that Mr. Cubitt would do if he wrote himself, as I know from the able resident and assistant engineers of the same railway, that instead of assuming the whole merit of the works in which they have been employed under trim, he has always been ready to acknowledge their services in the most liberal manner, both officially to the directors of the company and personally in conversation, as I have witnessed myself.

'The general impression, that the mines near Dover were to be superintended by me, no doubt arose from its being known that Mr. Cubitt always intended to consult me, and that he would not, and did not, decide upon his plan of operation until after he had taken my opinion ; and it was also known that he relied entirely upon my assistance for firing his mines simultaneously by the voltaic battery, of the use of which, as applied to mining, neither he nor his assistants had had any practical experience. Accordingly I went to Dover by his request, and introduced Lieut. Hutchinson,of the Royal Engineers, who had been employed two summers under me in the operations against the wreck of the Royal George, and who happened, fortunately, to be on duty at that place at the time, so that I recommended him as the most proper person to superintend the firing of the proposed mines by the voltaic battery, provided that the permission of the Master General of the Ordnance could be obtained to enable him to undertake this service, which was readily granted, on application being made to Sir George Murray by the railway company. Accompanied by this officer, I examined the drawings of Rounddown Cliff, that had been prepared under the superintendence of Mr. John Wright, the resident engineer of this portion of the railway, to whom Mr. Cubitt referred me on the 10th of November last, and went with him into a drift, or small gallery, cut entirely through the cliff, and about 248 feet in length, which had originally been intended for the commencement of a tunnel through which the railway was to pass; a design that was abandoned afterwards on discovering that this part of the cliff was likely to give way sooner or later, and the plan of removing it by gunpowder was adopted in consequence. Shafts about 17 feet deep had been sunk from this gallery, and branches driven from the bottom of them further into the chalk, in order to obtain greater lines of least resistance, on the level of what would have been the bottom of the proposed tunnel, and agreeing with the position of the rails. .......

'.....The whole of the arrangements for firing these great charges by the voltaic battery were made by Lieut. Hutchinson, assisted by Lance Corporal John Rae and private Thos. Smith, of the Royal Sappers and Miners, and by two naval pensioners, John Leary, a blacksmith, capable also of working in tin or copper, and William Gordon, a rigger, all of whom had been employed under the same officer at Spithead, and who in their several capacities understood thoroughly everything relating to the preparation of charges and to the mode of firing them by the voltaic battery. Leary, who is an excellent workman, and who distinguished himself some years ago whilst under the command of Captain Dickenson of the Royal Navy, by converting ships' tanks into a diving-bell, by means of which that enterprising and intelligent officer recovered the treasure sunk in the Thetis frigate on the coast of Brazil, was employed on his arrival at Dover in making voltaic batteries for the proposed explosion, nine in number, each consisting of six cells of Professer Daniell's constant battery, such as had been used by me in all my mining operations, and he also put together the wires for three conducting apparatuses, each 1000 feet in length, and consequently composed of 6000 feet of copper wire. Each apparatus consisted of a pair of wires attached to a strong rope, and secured and insulated by Pensioner Gordon in the same substantial manner that had been adopted by us at Spithead, for though there was very little necessity for guarding against the action of water, yet the letting it down and dragging it up the high chalk cliffs exposed this apparatus to a good deal of wear and tear; and it might also have been injured by the hob-nailed shoes of railway labourers to which it was continually exposed, as I observed particularly on the day it was used, when every person that came near it trod upon it, and which, had it not been thus protected, might have destroyed the connection and prevented the explosion, of which I have known instances in the course of our former experiments. As soon as the batteries and conducting apparatuses were complete, Lieut. Hutchinson tried experiments to ascertain whether he could fire all the three charges simultaneously by one powerful battery, as had been done by Dr. Hare, of Philadelphia, who first applied voltaic electricity to practical purposes, by using it for blasts in rocks to obtain stone for building in 1831, as minutely described in Silliman's "American Journal of Science," vol. xxvi., page 352, and also briefly noticed in the transactions of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Bristol in 1836. From his own experiments, tried with this object, Lieutenant Hutchinson drew the same inference that I had done about three years before — namely, that one cannot depend upon more than two charges exploding simultaneously, for though by a battery of extraordinary power he succeeded in firing 13 small experimental charges at the distance proposed for the great mines under his direction, yet there was a perceptible interval of time between the reports, which resembled a volley of musketry rather than the discharge of a single gun. He therefore determined to adopt the plan which I had proposed to use in 1839, had it proved advisable to fire four subaqueous charges simultaneously against the wreck of the Royal George, namely, to have a separate voltaic battery for every charge, and a person at each, with one conducting wire fixed to a pole of the battery, and the other in his hand ready to complete the circuit, according to the time marked by the chief, who was to give the words — one — two — three — with an interval of about one second between each, and then the word fire, which was to be the signal for completing the circuit; and by this mode I expected that the explosions would all take place simultaneously, on the principle of marking time in music. The powder in each of the three chambers prepared for the several mines at Dover was contained in bags, placed in a large box, the former expedient having first been adopted in the practice of the Royal Engineers at Chatham ; but we never used box and bags also, which I considered superfluous. As these boxes formed what may be called double cubes, Lieutenant Hutchinson very judiciously had a couple of short branches forking out from the lower extremity of each conducting apparatus into two central points of the oblong charge. Very short and fine pieces of platina wire were placed, according to custom, near the closed ends of strong tin tubes fixed to the outside, and leading into the centre of the powder boxes, in which tubes bursting charges of fine powder were introduced, surrounding the platina wires, on the same principle that had been used at Spithead, but without those extreme precautions that had been found necessary to resist the great pressure of water to which our charges there were subject. In the course of Lieutenant Hutchinson's experiments an unforeseen difficulty occurred, owing to Daniell's batteries, which had been very promising, losing their power after the first frosts set in. This difficulty had never embarrassed us before, because in our experiments at Chatham we always took the battery out of a warm room, and it required a longer time to impair its power than our experiments there ever occupied; and at Spithead, where Lieutenant Hutchinson first used the battery, it was generally kept in the cabin of one of our lighters; besides which the work was only carried on during the summer months. He was therefore obliged to have a small wooden shed built for his batteries at Dover, and to keep fires lighted whilst using them, by which he got rid of the difficulty.

'I have since been informed, that in experiments tried at Calcutta a very energetic battery lost half its power when the temperature fell from 120 to 60 degrees of Fahrenheit. When this difficulty occurred, a prejudice was naturally excited against Daniell's battery, and four very powerful plate batteries were ordered at Dover in consequence, which were made by an intelligent tradesman or that town. The trough of each of these contained 20 cells, according to Dr. Woolaston's construction, with zinc and copper plates, measuring 7 by 10 inches, the latter of which only were let down into the trough when the battery was about to be used ; and these plate batteries were combined with the batteries made by Pensioner Leary as before mentioned, so that one very powerful battery, consisting of 40 plates of the common system, and of 18 cells of Daniell's constant battery, was to be used for each of the three great charges. But here I must remark upon a great inaccuracy in my letter to you of the 23d of January last, in which I stated that the length of conducting wires about to be used at Dover was far greater than had ever been used by me either at Chatham or at Spithead, instead of which the contrary was the fact; for on referring back to the journal of our experiments at Chatham, I find that we fired an experimental charge on the 7th of July, 1839, at the distance of 1950 feet, by 14 cells only of Daniell's constant battery, as recorded in the United Service Magazine for January, 1840, being more than twice the distance at which the great mines at Dover were afterwards fired by batteries of three times that magnitude, and at a temperature which could not have been less than that of our experiment. I said twice the distance, because the conducting apparatuses for the charges at Rounddohn Cliff, originally each 1000 feet long, were afterwards reduced to less than 900, their former length being unnecessarily great. I thought it right to rectify this error, lest a prejudice should be excited against Daniell's constant battery by its supposed inferiority, which led to the employment of plate batteries at Dover, in addition to those of his pattern, which were first made. At the same time l am now of opinion that the plate battery is the most convenient of the two for firing gunpowder, and the simplest that I have seen is that which is now being used by Mr. R. Davidson, of Aberdeen, in his interesting exhibition of electro-magnetic power at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, which I visited lately in company with Dr. Faraday and Mr. Brand. This battery, which contains 20 cells, differs from Dr. Woolaston's in using amalgamated zinc, and in substituting plates of iron instead of copper, all the plates measuring 8 by 11 inches, and the action being produced by diluted sulphuric acid, upon the purity of which, Mr. Davidson says, the efficiency of his battery chiefly depends. On inquiring who first adopted iron plates instead of copper, Mr. Davidson assured me that he had used the former metal himself for about 10 years, but that the merit of this arrangement was disputed by Mr. Sturgeon and Mr. J. Martyn Roberts, with whom he himself had not thought proper to contest it. Dr. Faraday observed, that articles published in any public or scientific journal afforded the only genuine grounds for deciding upon priority of inventions, for the same idea might occur to several persons, and the individual who worked in private must give way to those who published. On this plea, I advise those who ascribe the merit of applying the voltaic battery to the purposes of blasting in earth or rock, or the peculiar construction and management of the first plate battery, well calculated for this purpose, to any of our own countrymen, to refer to the documents before quoted, and they will find that they are doing an injustice to Dr. Hare, of Philadelphia. But it must not be forgotten, that Mr. William Snow Harris, of Plymouth, was prior even to Dr. Hare, having fired gunpowder by electricity in March, 1823, which he effected to the astonishment of numerous spectators by a common electrical machine, from the cabin of a small vessel at anchor in that port, whilst the charge was placed in another at a considerable distance, and separated from the former by the water, through which his conducting apparatus passed. But the electrical machine, though perfectly efficient, never would have superseded the common modes of firing mines, as the voltaic battery has done, because the former not only requires a much more delicate manipulation than could be expected either from civil or military miners, and would be more easily broken or deranged ; but it also requires artificial heat at all times, even in summer; whereas the voltaic battery can always dispense with this very inconvenient arrangement, even in the depth of winter, excepting in the case of very long exposure to a low temperature, which can seldom occur.

'To return from the disgression.....'

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