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Josiah Parkes

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Josiah Parkes (1793-1871)

1823 Josiah Parkes, Manchester, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]


1872 Obituary [2]

MR. JOSIAH PARKES was born at Warwick on the 27th of February, 1793.

His ancestors were yeomen living on their own land at Netherton, in Worcestershire, from the time of Queen Elizabeth. The family removing, gradually sold the land, which has since proved of great value in mines of coal and ironstone. The grandfather of Josiah Parkes was a wealthy draper and banker in Warwick (not an unusual combination of trades in those days), issuing the banknotes of Parkes and Sons. The two sons of the banker, William and John, carried on a mill at Warwick for carding and spinning wool.

Josiah, the third son of John, was educated at the school of Dr. Eurney, at Greenwich.

At seventeen years of age he went into his father’s mill, and there devoted himself chiefly to the machinery department. During this period of his life he had the advantage of the literary and scientific society of which his father’s house was the centre : amongst the guests and visitors being Mr. Sergeant Rough, Mr. Basil Montagu, the accomplished family of the Greatheads of Guyscliff where the genius of Mrs. Siddons was first discovered, and Dr. Parr of Hatton, who brought many of his literary and political friends to the hospitable house of Mr. Parkes.

In 1820 the manufactory at Warwick was unsuccessful, and discontinued. Mr. Josiah Parkes removed to Manchester, where he was on intimate terms with Dr. Henry, and the great quaker chemist, John Dalton, and occupied himself with inventions for the prevention of smoke, which he abandoned, to carry out, near Woolwich, a new process for refining salt.

In 1825 he removed to Puteaux on the Seine, and there formed an establishment where he was often visited by Louis Philippe, then Duke of Orleans. When the Revolution of 1830 broke out, Mr. Parkes, who had been educated in the religious and political opinions of Dr. Priestly, fought on the popular side at the Barricades, and had a workman killed at his side. The Revolution triumphed, but his business was ruined, and he returned to England, fortunately for the cause of agriculture all over the world.

His next work was carrying out for one of the Heathcotes, of Tiverton, a plan for draining and reclaiming a part of Chat Moss, in which he employed steam power for cultivation. The steam cultivation was a failure; but it was here that the great principle of deep systematic drainage dawned upon him, which has been described in an article contributed to the 'Quarterly Review' in 1858, by Mr. S. Sidney, at present the Secretary and Manager of the Agricultural Hall Company, from which the following statement has been condensed :-

His observations of the effect of the deep cuttings on the bog led him to make experiments, and by these experiments he discovered the principles of agricultural drainage, which were previously not only unknown but misconceived. The vulgar idea was, and is even with educated men who have never thought about the subject, that agricultural land suffers from rain falling on the surface. Mr. Parkes found that a deep drain began to run after wet weather, not from the water above, but from the water rising from subterranean accumulations below, and that by drawing the stagnant moisture from 3 or 4 feet of earth next the surface it was rendered more friable and porous, easier to work and more easily penetrated by the rain, which carried down air, which is full of ammonia and manure, made it much warmer, and therefore more genial to the roots of the various crops. Without drains a retentive soil is saturated with stagnant water, which remains until evaporated by a warm season, and then leaves the soil hard-baked.

Mr. Parkes came to the conclusion that 4 feet, which left a sufficient layer of dry warm surface earth, after allowing for the rise of the moisture by capillary attraction above the water level of the drain, should be the minimum depth. This is now the universally accepted opinion of the best agriculturists in England, France, and Germany. Smith, of Deanston, a very clever man, had previously devised a system of shallow drains, made of broken stones in the gridiron shape. But he missed the principle; he devoted his ingenious mind to devising expedients for getting the surface water into his drains. After a few years of contest the Deanston plan was entirely superseded by the Parkesian plan.

In 1843, Mr. Parkes gave evidence before a committee of the House of Lords on agricultural distress and its remedies. He was warmly supported by the Earl of Lonsdale, whose experience as a commissioner of highways had proved the soundness of the system; but nothing could be done without drain-cutting tools and pipes. A Birmingham manufacturer, on Mr. Parkes’ suggestion, produced, in 1844, the first set of drain-cutting implements, which have since been brought to such extraordinary perfection.

A cheap conduit was still a difficulty. Stones choked up in many soils, and where they had to be broken up and carted to the ground, their cost became enormous.

At the Derby show of the Royal Agricultural Society in 1843, Mr. Parkes showed Lord Althorpe a cylindrical clay pipe, saying, 'With this pipe, my lord, I will drain all England.' This pipe had been made by wrapping a lump of clay round a mandrel, by John Reade - a self-taught mechanic-inventor of the stomach-pump, who was a gardener by trade, and used these hand-made pipes for draining his hot-beds. The council of the Royal Agricultural Society awarded John Reade a silver medal for his pipe, and offered a prize in the following year for a pipe-making machine. This prize was won by John Scraggs, at the Shrewsbury show in 1845. Drainpipes can now be manufactured quite as fast as kilns can bake them.

In 1846, Sir Robert Peel, as an aid to the distressed and frightened agriculturists, passed an Act by which four millions sterling were advanced in loans charged on lands to be drained under Government inspection, on the Parkesian principle. The first loan was nearly entirely taken up by Scotch landowners. A second loan of four millions was granted in 1856; but these eight millions only formed a small proportion of the amount invested in the systematic deep drainage by the private enterprise of landowners and of companies formed for the purpose. By drainage, hundreds of thousands of acres of stiff clay soils, previously condemned to poor pasturage or uncertain crops of corn and beans, have been rendered friable, fit to grow roots, carry sheep, and fall into regular rotation.

In Yorkshire, Mr. Parkes, for Lord Lonsdale, at an expense of from £10 to £20 an acre, reclaimed moor land not worth a rent of 1s. an acre, and raised its value to £2 an acre. Increased fertility of soil was not the only result. Systematic drainage led to general agricultural improvements; hedgerows and useless timber were cleared away, undulating ridges were levelled, roads made, and buildings erected to accommodate the production of meat as well as corn.

It is also in evidence that the idea of pipe instead of brick sewers was first taken from the operations of Mr. Parkes in a Gloucestershire village to which he adapted his system.

One of the curious incidents during the introduction of the Parkesian, or scientific system of deep drainage, was the virulent opposition of that able chemist, Baron Liebig, so malignantly prejudiced against everything English. The baron, about the time of the introduction of Mr. Parkes’ principles and plans, introduced his patent universal manure, which proved so complete a failure, and seriously damaged the fortunes of the Liverpool chemists who undertook its manufacture. In order to push the sale of the patent manure, Dr. Liebig wrote a letter in its praise, and at the same time solemnly warned English farmers, that deep drainage would reduce their lands to permanent sterility, by driving into the drains the principal elements of fertility. This theory has since been retracted.

Mr. Parkes, like other men of original genius, had his foibles. He had not the art of managing men, and consequently a good deal of his early work on sound principles was very badly executed, and brought his system into disrepute. He was intolerant of advice and jealous of opposition, and consequently never adopted the improvements introduced by Mr. Bailey Denton and others, who took advantage of the natural porosity of any tract of soil to diminish the cost of the series of uniform gridiron drains, to which Mr. Parkes adhered to the last. He would never admit that any improvement on his original plan was possible.

Still, it must be admitted, it was a great triumph to introduce an entirely new system, to be executed with entirely new tools and machines against the stubborn prejudices of the farmers, within the short space of thirteen years. Mr. Parkes, for his services, was elected an honorary member of the Royal Agricultural Society.

Mr. William Bundy, who was Mr. Parkes’ assistant for over twenty years, says in a letter to the secretary of The Institution of Civil Engineers, that Mr. Parkes told him on several occasions, that he had got his first ideas of deep draining when a schoolboy at home. A servant of his father’s was digging deep drains to dry a very wet part of a paddock. He asked the old man why he dug so deep - to which he replied, 'You see, Mr. Josiah, unless you drain off deep down this stagnant water, there is no room for the rain water to get in.' This is the whole of Mr. Parkes’ principle in a few words. Since 1860, the general introduction of steam cultivation, which is very deep, has made Mr. Parkes’ system of deep drains a necessity, and what farmers, with their natural love of compromise, call moderate depths impossible.

Mr. Josiah Parkes was elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 11th of March, 1823, when residing at Manchester, on the recommendation of Messrs. Joshua Field, Henry R. Palmer, and James Jones, three of the six founders of the Institution, and of Mr. Bryan Donkin.

Three years afterwards he presented an 'Account of the Eruption of Water and Bog-earth at Crow Hill on the 2nd of September, 1824,' and two sessions later an 'Account of the Manufacture of Salt in Bengal,' both of which exist in MS. in the archives, the publication of the Papers read and of the discussions upon them, not having been commenced at that early date.

He was transferred to the class of Members on the 26th of December, 1837, and in the four following years he contributed five communications, all of which appear in abstract in the Minutes of Proceedings, and in extenso in the Transactions.

The first of these was, 'On the Evaporation of Water from Steam Boilers,' for which a Telford Medal, in silver, was awarded. This was followed by two others 'On Steam Boilers and Steam Engines,' and 'On Steam Engines principally with reference to their consumption of fuel,' for which a Telford Medal, in gold, was awarded; the Council, in their Report, for 1841, stating that the benefits conferred on practical science by these communications, 'exhibiting so much originality, labour, and research,' had induced them to confer on Mr. Parkes the highest honour which the Institution has in its power to bestow.'

The succeeding Papers were 'On the Action of Steam in Cornish Single Pumping Engines,' and 'On the Percussive or Instantaneous action of Steam and other Aeriform Fluids.'

Mr. Parkes served as a Member of the Council in the sessions, 1840 and 1941, and in addition to the communications and to the subjects already referred to, he, during the years 1838 to 1843 inclusive, joined in the discussions on canals and canal boats, the Hamoaze floating bridge, fuel, lighthouse lenses, the 'Great Western' steam-ship, agriculture, Moseley’s indicator, and the performances of the Old Ford engine artillery, brick-making, the manufacture of iron, pump-valves, and railway axles, and his opinions on these varied questions are contained in the first and second volumes of the 'Minutes of Proceedings.'

He was likewise a frequent donor to the Library at the period alluded to; but active participation in the affairs of the Institution then ceased.

His contributions to agricultural literature are, 'Fallacies of Land Drainage,' (1840), 'On the influence of Water on the Temperature Soils,' and 'On the quantity of Rain-water, and its discharge by Draining up from Tiles and Drainage,' 'On reducing the permanent Cost of Drainage,' 'On the Philosophy and Art of Drainage, 1868,' all of which appeared in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, as well as his Reports as Engineer of the Society on the Implement Shows between 1840 and 1846.

In 1854 Mr. Parkes began to retire from his extensive business as a land-drainer, in which he had employed a thousand men.

In 1860 he resigned his appointment as Consulting Engineer of the Enclosure Commissioners, and in 1869 finished his last contract, and altogether retired from business. His last important work was for the War Department. The draining, forming, and fixing soil-sliding, broken-down sea slopes, in part of the proposed fortifications at Yaverland and Warden Point, Isle of Wight, was commenced 1862, and completed in 1869.

He died at Freshwater in that island on the 16th August, 1871. He left behind him a mass of papers, containing the results of experiments on the temperature of soil and other effects of deep systematic drainage, but it is not known whether any of these are in a fit state for publication, as Mr. Parkes’ later years were passed in complete retirement from the scientific and engineering world.



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