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Thomas Evans Blackwell

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Thomas Evans Blackwell (1819-1863)

1864 Obituary [1]

MR. THOMAS EVANS BLACKWELL was born at Devizes, on the 28th of July, 1819. His early mathematical training and his best impressions were derived from his godfather, the Rev. Thomas Evans, at that time Vicar of Froxfield - the 'Felix Ford' of the early numbers of the ‘Mechanics’ Magazine,’ and who was formerly connected with the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.

Young Blackwell having obtained a liberal education, commenced his professional career under his father, the late Mr. John Blackwell, who was for many years Engineer to the Kennet and Avon Canal Company. Thus he had the advantage of a large share of active out-door employment on the works of that navigation, and on the rivers Kennet and Avon, as well as a thorough training in mathematics and in the theory of the profession. His attention to the works intrusted to his care, and the talent he exhibited in design and construction, procured him many friends ; and on the death of his father, he was, at the early age of twenty-one years, appointed Engineer to the Kennet and Avon Canal Company.

In 1840-41, during the diversion of the canal, near Bath, for the purpose of forming a portion of the Great Western Railway, in an adjacent deep cutting, he shared a deep responsibility, in conjunction with the late Mr. I. K. Brunel, the Engineer-in-Chief, and Mr. Frere, the resident Engineer, in keeping open the navigation.

Mr. Blackwell’s practical sagacity enabled him to see, at an early period in the development of the railway system, that on such a line of country as that between London and Bristol, the railway must eventually supersede canal and river carrying; and he recommended the Directors of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company to convert it into a railway.

In 1845, he was instructed to prepare the necessary plans for an application to Parliament for this purpose. This scheme, which would have provided a second line of railway between Bristol and Reading, was strongly opposed by the Great Western Railway Company, who, for a time, postponed the construction of the new line by the purchase of the canal. Railways running through nearly the same line of country have since been made, of one of which - the Bradford and Bathampton Branch of the Wilts, Somerset, and Weymouth Railway - Mr. Blackwell was resident Engineer, until its amalgamation with the Great Western Railway.

In the year 1852, Mr. Blackwell was appointed Engineer to the Bristol Docks - an appointment he retained until his departure from England to take charge of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, in 1857. During his connection with Bristol, he was frequently consulted by the corporation of that city on general works ; and, in the year 1854, when an accident occurred, by which the cast-iron bridge, built by Jessop, for carrying the Bath and Wilts turnpike road over the river Avon, was destroyed, he met the emergency, by designing and carrying out, in a very short time, a new wrought-iron girder bridge of 100 feet span, and of an ornamental character.

In conjunction with the late Mr. Rendel (Past President Inst. C.E.), he designed, in 1852, plans for constructing a railway from Bristol to the mouth of the Avon, together with extensive docks at the mouth of the river for the accommodation of the largest class of ocean-going steamers ; and, in 1853, he was engaged to prepare plans for a railway between Bristol and the New Passage on the Severn, with a steam ferry to connect Bristol with South Wales. These works, postponed for a time, have, with some modifications, since received the sanction of Parliament.

He was a Member of the Geological, the Geographical, the Meteorological, and other Societies, and, having a good knowledge of mining, was frequently consulted on the probabilities of finding coal, and other minerals, and on the management of collieries, in the Bristol district.

In the practice of his profession, Mr. Blackwell’s attention was more especially given to works connected with canal navigation, and he was frequently engaged in arbitrations and cases of dispute connected with water rights. In cases involving the gauging of streams, or other waters, he felt, in common with many Engineers, the want of data on a larger and more practical scale than had been hitherto established for determining the coefficients to be used in formulae for such calculations ; and, in 1850, he undertook and carried out, on the Kennet and Avon Canal, an extensive 'Series of Experiments on the Discharge of Water by Overfalls or Weirs,' the results of which, and of some others, undertaken in conjunction with James Simpson (Past President Inst. C.E.), were communicated to the Institution of Civil Engineers, in a Paper for which he received a Council Premium.

Mr. Blackwell was for many years Consulting Engineer to the Severn and Wye Railway and Canal, Forest of Dean, and for some time Engineer to the Glamorganshire Canal, and was occasionally consulted on the Stourbridge, Market Weighton, and other canal works. He was also at different periods engaged in cases relating to the Birkenhead and Tyne Docks; the Bristol, Bath, Wolverhampton, and Gloucester Waterworks ; and the drainage of the towns of Reading, Sandgate, and Devizes, of a district near Harwich, and of the lower level of the county of Gloucester. He was also one of the three Commissioners appointed by Government, on the 31st December, 1856, 'to consider the plans for the Main Drainage of the Metropolis, as submitted to the First Commissioner (of Her Majesty’s Works) by the Metropolitan Board of Works.'

In 1857, Mr. Blackwell went to Canada, as vice-president and general manager of the Grand Trunk Railway, an appointment which he held until 1862, when, on his retirement, a handsome testimonial was presented to him by the working staff, with an expression of their warm attachment, and of their sincere and unanimous regret at his departure. Previous to returning to England, in June, 1862, he made an extensive tour in the United States, and formed a large acquaintance with American citizens eminent in their various departments.

When he arrived in England, he was then so much disabled, by the disease which was destined to prove fatal, as to be unfit for active employment, and during the greater part of the remainder of his life he was more or less an invalid.

In the spring of the following year, influenced probably by the listlessness and desire to escape from self which long continued and unrelieved suffering is apt to inspire, and partly also, perhaps, by the vague but vain hope of benefit from change of climate and scene, he carried out a wish he had long entertained of visiting Egypt, ascended the Nile, and spent some time, on his return, at Rome and Naples. But it became necessary to hasten home, as his illness had become much aggravated. The second day after his arrival, he took to his bed, which he never afterwards left, and he died on the 25th June, 1863, in the 45th year of his age.

The disease of which Mr. Blackwell died was chronic inflammation of the membranes of the spinal cord, extending to that part of the base of the brain in connection with it ; post-mortem examination showed the disease to have been both severe and of long duration. The symptoms during life had been extremely obscure and perplexing as to the real nature of the case, though of unusual severity in themselves. The form assumed by the symptoms was that of attacks of agonizing pain in the chest, resembling those of angina pectoris, lasting for some hours, and recurring at short intervals, until they passed off. The first attack occurred in February, 1860, and was of short duration. He did not experience another until the following December; but this was of such severity and continuance that his life was despaired of. After this, they returned at intervals of a few months, each series of attacks lasting for some days, and leaving him almost in his usual health during these intervals. They, however, gradually increased in frequency, and in his last illness they continued for a month, with only such short intermissions as the most powerful means of alleviation could afford, when he died apparently from exhaustion.

It has been suggested that the arduous, anxious, and harassing nature of the duties in which Engineers are so often engaged, especially in critical and important works, involving unceasing and trying attention, must be unfavourable to longevity. The special circumstances of Mr. Blackwell's case, which might be mentioned as having had a possible connection with his disease were, first, a railway accident, in which he was a sufferer in 1851, and which, though not apparently attended with any direct injury, was followed by symptoms indicating that a severe shock had been sustained by the nervous system; secondly, a large amount of railway travelling, which, as is known, has been ascertained to have a special tendency in many persons to the production of special disease ; and lastly, a large amount of professional wear and tear, especially during the period of his connection with the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. The first attack occurred during the third year of his management of that undertaking, and at a time when he was undergoing a great amount of work and anxiety.

In character, Mr. Blackwell united a kind, generous, and enterprising disposition, with intellectual powers of no common order. His scientific attainments were varied and extensive, and he used them well in the practice of his profession. He was a good geologist, had a considerable knowledge of the fine arts, and by his amenity of manner, possessed the happy tact of convincing those who were opposed to his views, as much by conciliation as by argument. In all the relations of life he was no less beloved than esteemed.

Before leaving Canada, Mr. Blackwell collected, at great expense, a large amount of information relating to the hydrology of British North America, particularly of the basin of the river St. Lawrence. That inquiry includes notes on the geology, topography, meteorology, rivers and waters, facilities for navigation, products and trade of the district investigated, and the results will even yet, it is believed, be published. He had purposed to present to the Institution of Civil Engineers a Paper on a branch of this subject-that relating to the river St. Lawrence, with an account of the navigation through the river, its lakes, and canals. He was also about to publish a comprehensive work on the iron-producing capabilities and districts of North America, the map to illustrate which was carefully made on a large scale, and was considered so valuable by the American Coast Survey Department, at Washington, that before its removal from that country, permission was sought and granted for a photographic copy to be taken of it.

Mr. Blackwell was the Author of several inventions, among which, an improved aneroid barometer, of extreme delicacy, takes perhaps the first place, and of it Mr. James Glaisher stated : 'I have compared the readings of two of Mr. Blackwell’s aneroid barometers with those of the standard barometer, at the ordinary pressure of the atmosphere, during the last three or four months, and I have found them to be exceedingly sensitive and accurate ; the most accurate aneroid barometer, perhaps, which I have ever examined. Briefly, I may add, that I am led to form a very favourable opinion of these instruments by their exceeding sensitiveness and accuracy.'

This was confirmed by Mr. W. Froude (M. Inst. C.E.), who, after a careful investigation of the instrument, summed up his remarks by saying : 'The instrument is at once more convenient, . more portable, and far less liable to injury and derangement than the ordinary aneroid; while its indications may be relied upon as confidently as those of the mercurial barometer.'

Mr. Blackwell joined the Institution of Civil Engineers as an Associate in 1843, and was transferred to the class of Members in 1349, and whenever he could visit London he always attended the Meetings, to the interest of which he occasionally contributed.

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