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John Kelk

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1867. Alexandra Palace, Muswell Hill - Kelk and Lucas Brothers.

Sir John Kelk (1816-1886).


1887 Obituary [1]

SIR JOHN KELK, Bart., of Tedworth, in the county of Hants, died on the 12th September, 1886.

He was one of those men who, without any adventitious aid from powerful or wealthy connections, or from any extraordinary good fortune, or by any commanding abilities or eloquence, have, by a combination of industry, intelligence and integrity (to use the language of Dr. Johnson) 'been enabled to find or to make their way to employment, riches, and distinction.'

He was born in London on the 16th of February, 1816, of parents in the middle rank of life, and, after a good commercial education, was apprenticed to Thomas Cubitt, the builder, who had then commenced the struggle which, in his case, was pre-eminently successful, of raising his trade to the dignity of a profession. A better school could not have been chosen for young Kelk.

On the termination of his apprenticeship he entered into partnership as a builder with a Mr. Newton, who had for many years carried on, in Margaret Street, Westminster, a respectable but not very extensive business, from which, however, he retired in the year 1845, leaving his more energetic partner at liberty greatly to extend it, by availing himself of the knowledge of affairs which he had rapidly acquired. This he did by taking alone, or in partnership with more experienced persons, contracts for large railway and other public works. He was thus associated at times with Mr. Brassey, Messrs. Peto and Betts, and others, and speedily took a high position in the commercial world.

This enabled him, shortly after the close of the Great Exhibition of 1851, to afford material assistance to the Commissioners for that Exhibition in the disposal of the large amount of profit which arose from it. At the close of the undertaking there remained a surplus exceeding £150,000, and in the discharge of their duties the Commissioners determined to devote this amount (in conjunction with Government, which was to contribute a like amount) for the purchase of land in the metropolis available for the erection of buildings to be used for national purposes in connection mainly with science and art.

It happened that, at this particular time, there was in the market the valuable Gore House estate, situate at Kensington, nearly opposite to the Exhibition building, and consisting of about 21.5 acres. Had it transpired that the Exhibition Commissioners wished to purchase, the price asked for the estate would have been greatly increased, and it was therefore determined to secure the services of some capitalist to treat for it who might reasonably be supposed to require it for his own purposes.

On the introduction of Mr. (afterwards Sir Wentworth) Dilke, one of the Commissioners, Mr. Kelk undertook this duty, entered into the requisite negotiation and signed the contract for purchase, without the vendors of the estate having the slightest idea for whom he was purchasing or of the object which he had in view, beyond the fact of his being known to be an enterprising and extensive builder. The price of this property was £60,000, and it formed the nucleus for the larger estate at South Kensington on which so many public buildings stand. For the assistance thus given Mr. Kelk neither asked, received, nor expected any pecuniary remuneration whatever. In the second Report of the Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 to the Home Secretary will be found a more detailed statement of this transaction, with a due recognition of Mr. Kelk‘s services.

The good understanding thus established between Mr. Kelk and the Commissioners doubtless led to his tendering, in conjunction with Messrs. Lucas Brothers, for the buildings used for the Exhibition of 1862. This tender was accepted, and the contracts for the buildings were completed by the combined firm. Unfortunately the success which attended the previous undertaking was not extended to that of 1862, and at its close there was a considerable deficit to be made up. The Commissioners had acted under a formal guarantee, signed by many noblemen and gentlemen, including, in fact, most of the important public men of the day, and, it is needless to say, Mr. Kelk himself. A call upon the guarantors would have doubtless met the difficulty; it was, however, considered by those who had been most influential in its promotion, particularly Mr. Kelk himself, that such a step would be a national discredit.

On the 16th September, 1862, Mr. Kelk wrote to Earl Granville, the Chairman of the Commissioners, in which he said: 'I am induced to address your lordship in consequence of the conversation I had yesterday with Her Majesty’s Commissioners respecting the proposed alteration of the terms with the contractors for the Exhibition building. It may be that this arrangement will not be sufficient fully to relieve the guarantors, and upon closing the accounts it may be found that a responsibility still rests upon them. As I feel this would be a very sad termination to a great national undertaking, and perhaps fatal to the principle of International Exhibitions, I am willing to offer some further assistance, and shall be prepared to guarantee a sum not exceeding £15,000, if such sum will entirely free the guarantors. I submit this offer to your lordship as Chairman of Her Majesty’s Commissioners for the Exhibition.' In the sequel Mr. Kelk sent a cheque for the £15,000 thus patriotically offered. Of this a sum of £4,000 was subsequently returned as not being required on finally closing the accounts.

Another most important work, and one in which Mr. Kelk took an equal interest, was committed to his charge at a somewhat later period, viz., in the year 1864, when he had the high honour of being nominated and selected as the fit and proper person under Sir Gilbert Scott, the Architect, to carry out the works connected with the erection in Hyde Park of the Memorial to the Prince Consort. This work he undertook and carried out on the express condition stipulated for by himself, that personally he should derive from it no pecuniary benefit whatever, directly or indirectly. This condition was strictly adhered to.

In conjunction with Messrs. Aird, Mr. Kelk constructed the Millwall Docks.

But of all the public works upon which Mr. Kelk was engaged, the one upon which he had the most cause to pride and congratulate himself was the completion of the Victoria Station and Pimlico Railway. The idea of bringing the Southern and Eastern Railways immediately into the Metropolis, by the building of a bridge over the Thames at Charing Cross or some other convenient locality, had long been discussed in railway circles; and it was well known that Mr. Schuster, then Chairman of the Brighton Company, much wished to advance the Brighton Railway from the south side of London Bridge to Charing Cross by crossing the Thames at Hungerford, but that he was afraid of the expense. Mr. Kelk, who had now had considerable experience in railway business, having on former occasions worked under Mr. (now Sir John) Fowler as Engineer and with Mr. (now Sir Henry) Hunt as Surveyor, and had acquired considerable financial as well as engineering and local knowledge connected with railways, conceived the idea of bringing the Brighton Railway and also the East Kent Railway, now the London, Chatham and Dover (which was then wholly without a London station), into the most fashionable part of the Metropolis, viz., a locality near Buckingham Palace. This was accomplished by using for a railway the Grosvenor Canal, throwing a bridge over the Thames at Battersea, and making a short line to join the Crystal Palace Railway, the terminus of which was situate near to the river on the Surrey side. In this way not only the Brighton and the East Kent Railway but all the other southern and eastern railways, and, in fact, the Great Western Railway also, were brought into connection with a terminus at Victoria.

The Act of Parliament authorizing the construction of the Victoria Station and Pimlico Railway received the Royal Assent on the 23rd of July, 1858, and the Victoria Station was opened in October 1860.

The association with Mr. Fowler thus commenced lasted through the remainder of Sir John Kelk’s business life. He enlarged the Farringdon Street Station of the Metropolitan Railway in 1863, and was successively occupied, either singly, or in conjunction with partners, on works for that line and its extension, the Metropolitan District, until 1871. He also, between the years 1866 and 1869, built the great Smithfield Goods Depot and Meat Market for the Corporation of London, the Great Western, and the Metropolitan Railway Companies.

At the close of his professional career, however, he met with a reverse of fortune in connection with an undertaking from which he had anticipated not only fair profits but a considerable degree of credit, by extending for the public benefit the stock of harmless amusement. This object it was fully expected might be effected by establishing at the north-east of London a place of entertainment on a plan somewhat similar to that which the residents of the south of the river enjoy from the Crystal Palace, but even on a larger scale, viz., the construction and working of the too well-known Alexandra Palace. This magnificent building was burnt to the ground in June 1873 within a few days after its opening. The expenses of the purchase of the land, and the erection of the structure and other incidental expenses connected with the undertaking, had been paid at first in thirds by the London Financial Association, Messrs. Kelk and Lucas, and Mr. Rodocannchi, but after the retirement of the last-named gentleman, by the Association and Messrs. Kelk and Lucas in moieties.

The Palace was rebuilt, but proved to he an utter failure; the loss incurred was in itself a very heavy one, but this was not the worst; certain dissatisfied shareholders in the Financial Association having displaced the Directors who had acted in the conduct of the business, caused an action to be brought in the name of the Association against their co-adventurers and the ex- Directors, the charges against the ex-Directors being founded mainly upon the allegation of their having acted ultra vires in embarking in the undertaking, but against Messrs. Kelk and Lucas they were based upon matters connected with them a contractors for the works. In giving judgment the Vice-Chancellor declared the action to be wholly without foundation, and dismissed it with the fullest amount of costs which he could in5ict upon the plaintiffs.

Sir John Kelk was in politics a Conservative, and sat in the House of Commons as Member for the Borough of Harwich from July 1865 to November 1868, in conjunction with Colonel Jarvis, but when by the Reform Bill of 1867 the borough was deprived of the right to return a second member, he gave place to his colleague, who had first represented the borough, and he did not again offer himself for election by any other constituency. Sir John was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 5th of February, 1861.



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Sources of Information

  1. 1887 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries