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John Sewell

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John Sewell (1804-1887)


1888 Obituary [1]

JOHN SEWELL was born at Henderson Knowle, Teviot Head, Cavers, N.B., in 1804, being the eldest of a large family who lost their parents early in life.

He served an apprenticeship to a smith and millwright in his native place, and after plying his trade at various places in Scotland, made his way to London. Here he obtained employment at the Woolwich Arsenal, and at Messrs. Rennie and Co.’s Engineering Works at Southwark, until 1837. Having received the excellent common school education of Scotland, and being endowed with all the native shrewdness and push of his countrymen, he rapidly bettered his position.

At the beginning of 1838 he was fortunate enough to get a post in the Locomotive Department of the Great Western Railway, under Mr. (now Sir Daniel) Gooch. He remained at the works, which were then at Paddington, until 1841, when, as he was testing the well-known “Etna” locomotive, he had the misfortune to have part of his left hand torn off by the connecting-rod. As soon as he had recovered from this accident, he was appointed to an office in the Company’s Stores Department, holding the post, first at Swindon and then at Paddington, up to 1855, when he resigned.

Soon after this he commenced business as a commission agent in coal, iron, and timber, in which commodities he had large contracts with the leading railway companies. He carried on this undertaking with considerable success until 1872, when heavy losses, consequent to the sudden and unprecedented rise in the value of iron, induced him to contract his engagements, and finally to withdraw altogether from the business.

Although now within two years of the allotted span of life, Mr. Sewell was as full of energy as most men ten or fifteen years his junior, and his activity found vent in examining different parts of the country for railway routes, where the accommodation did not exist. In this way he became the promoter of the Swindon and Marlborough Railway, as well as acting as Engineer and Secretary, until the Company was fairly launched, when the engineering works were carried out by Mr. Bidder, Past-President Inst. C.E. This was the last professional work upon which Mr. Sewell was actively engaged, and from it to his death, on the 30th of July, 1887, his time was mainly occupied in writing on various engineering topics. From his first connection with the Great Western Company he took great interest in the steam-engine, especially in its locomotive form, and was a. constant contributor to the technical press. Besides ephemeral articles of this nature, he wrote several works, of which the following is a list :-

  • “ A complete set of rules and regulations for the practical management of a locomotive engine and for the guidance of engine-drivers.” 4to. plates. 1848.
  • “Elementary treatise on steam and locomotion, based on the principle of connecting science with practice, in a popular form.” 8vo. Plato and cuts. London, 1852-53. (Weale’s series.) An extension of this, editcd by D. K. Clark, published in 1885.
  • “On steam-boiler explosions, and the explosive force of highly-heated water.” Tract 8vo. London, 1852.
  • “Thames Embankment. A few reasons why a low-level self-made 64-mile Thames thoroughfare should be preferred to a high-level tax-made 1.5 or 1.75 mile Thames thoroughfare ; addressed to the Thames Embankment Commissioners.” Tract 8vo. Plate. London, 1861.
  • “Railway economy, how to restore confidence in railways, &c.” 8~0. London, 1868.

Mr. Sewell also occasionally contributed to "Notes and Queries" (2nd and 3rd series), and gave solutions and details relating to many subjects of interest.

Latterly Mr. Sewell devoted much study and attention to the Biblical narrative of the Creation, and embodied his reflections on the subject in a little work entitled, “Theology and Geology reconcilable; or the Biblical Records of the Birth of the Earth much as it is, and of the Deluge as it was, Virtually Verified,” but, at the age of eighty-three, death intervened before the book was published.

Mr. Sewell’s career was an illustration of what can be attained by force of character, when allied to indomitable perseverance and moral probity. Entirely by his own efforts, he raised himself from the rank of an artisan, wherein he was born, to a position which was at one time one of considerable wealth and influence ; and in doing this his common sense and genial manners enabled him to procure for himself immunity from most of those petty slights and annoyances which so often wound the pride of the self-made man.

Mr. Sewell was elected an Associate on the 2nd of May, 1854.



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Sources of Information

  1. 1888 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries]]