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Thomas Wicksteed

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Thomas Wicksteed (1806-1871)

1837 Thomas Wicksteed of the East London Waterworks Co, a Civil Engineer, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

1863 Thomas Wicksteed, Engineer, 4 Great Queen Street, Westminster.[2]

1871 November 15th. Died.[3]


1872 Obituary [4]

MR. THOMAS WICKSTEED was born on the 26th of January, 1806, at Shrewsbury. He was the fourth son of John Wicksteed, of that city-well known in his day as a man of high literary attainments, combined with singular simplicity of character-the friend of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Hazlitt.

Thomas Wicksteed was educated at Shrewsbury School, under Dr. Butler, afterwards Bishop of Lichfield ; and at sixteen years of age he was sent to London, to reside with his father’s old friend, Arthur Aikin, Secretary of the Society of Arts, with whom he lived for some years in the Society's house in the Adelphi; and where he made the acquaintance of many of the leading literary and scientific men of the day.

By Mr. Aikin's advice he was articled to Mr. Alexander Galloway, the well-known mechanical engineer, of West Street, Smithfield, where he obtained a knowledge of mechanical details, afterwards of much aid to him in his professional avocation as a civil engineer ; and at this early period he displayed, in various ways, that energy of character for which he was remarkable through life.

On the termination of his pupilage with Mr. Galloway, he became an assistant to Mr. Henry R. Palmer, Vice-President Inst. C.E., the Engineer to the London Docks, and remained with him until September, 1829, during which time extensive additions were made to the docks and warehouses.

The office of Engineer to the East London Waterworks Co becoming vacant in 1829, Mr. Wicksteed was selected for the post out of thirty-two candidates.

In the autumn of the same year he married Eliza, the third daughter of the late Mr. John Barton, of London, by whom he had seven children, five of whom survive.

He devoted himself with zeal to the interests of the East London Waterworks Company; and with such economy and success did he manage the works that, although costly additions to the reservoirs and pumping-engines had to be made, yet the company became increasingly prosperous from the date of his appointment. This was brought about by the large saving he effected in the consumption of fuel, partly by his strict watchfulness over details, but principally by his introduction of the Cornish engine, in place of the less economical pumping-engines previously in use.

It was in the year 1835 that his attention was first directed to this form of engine; and after he had visited the Cornish mines, conducted experiments, and published the results obtained, the directors of the company, in 1837, were induced to transplant an engine from Cornwall to their works at Old Ford. So great was the economical result that it was received with incredulity; and Mr. Wicksteed, therefore, acting upon the advice of the late Mr. James Walker, President Inst. C.E., entered upon, and carried out a set of most careful experiments upon the engine, extending over upwards of a year, to establish the correctness of his views. He communicated these experiments and his conclusions to the Institution of Civil Engineers, in a Paper entitled 'An Experimental Inquiry concerning the relative power of, and useful effect produced by, the Cornish and Boulton and Watt pumping-engines, and cylindrical and waggon-head boilers' but as some of the details were not completed in time to allow of its being read in the session in which it was sent in, the Author was permitted by the Council to withdraw it for publication, in 1841, in the form in which it is now so well known, as a trustworthy, and almost the only text-book on the subject of which it treats.

The erection, at Old Ford, of the engine from Cornwall was soon followed by a new and much larger one, upon the same principle, which the directors, out of respect to their Engineer, named the 'Wicksteed.' The applicability of the Cornish engine to the purposes of waterworks being now fully established, several large engines upon this plan were erected far the various water companies about London, under the direction of Mr. Wicksteed.

The principal additions to the reservoirs and other works of the East London Waterworks Company carried out by Mr. Wicksteed were those needed to remove the source of supply from Old Ford, on the tidal part of the river Lee, to Lee Bridge above the influence of the tide. They consisted of an open canal about 2 miles long, crossed by several occupation bridges; a cast-iron main 3 feet 6 inches in diameter, laid under the bed of the river; and a reservoir about 14 acres in extent for compensating certain tidal mills affected by the Company’s abstraction of water above them. This reservoir adjoined the tideway at a point where the rise at each flood was small and of short duration; in consequence of which the openings from the river into it had to be designed so as to enable it to receive as much water as possible during the short period of flood, and to discharge its contents rapidly towards the end of the ebb. These purposes were accomplished - First, by putting down a pair of self-acting flood-gates, 30 feet wide, opening into the reservoir at the end nearest the rising tide, allowing the water to flow in freely, and closing by the first reflux of the stream, so as to impound all that had passed in. Secondly, by the construction of three exit channels each 38 feet wide at the end where the compensation water had to be discharged, each fitted with a pair of balanced gates. Each leaf of each pair of gates was 20 feet in width, fixed upon a vertical shaft, or axis, placed exactly in its middle, and opened or shut by means of a quadrant rack and pinion placed horizontally on the upper framework of the gate and worked by hand. When closed each pair pointed inwards to the reservoir, their meeting posts coming together at an obtuse angle in the centre of the channel, and their outer posts shutting against the hollow quoins of the masonry on either side. A vertical shaft, with eccentric cams placed in each hollow quoin, was then turned round SO as to jam each outer post against the quoin and tighten each leaf against its iron sills and the opposite gate. The gates being evenly balanced on their central axis, were capable of being easily opened when the pressure of water was on one side, as would occur when the reservoir was full and the river low. The entire operation of opening all the six gates could consequently be performed at any time by one man, with great quickness and ease.

Mr. Wicksteed also reconstructed the Lee Bridge Mills and the Stratford Mills, in order to adapt them for pumping water to the East London Waterworks Company’s district.

Between the years 1838 and 1845, while still Resident Engineer to the East London Water Works, Mr. Wicksteed became the Consulting Engineer to the Grand Junction, Vauxhall, Southwark, and Kent Waterwork Companies, and carried out extensive additions to their several works, being thus, at one time, Engineer to five out of the then nine London Water companies. During the same period he constructed new waterworks at Hull and Wolverhampton, and made considerable additions to those at Brighton, and subsequently to those at Scarborough. He was also consulted by, and made Reports upon the waterworks of the towns of Leeds, Liverpool, Dewsbury, Lichfield, Leamington, Cork, Kingston in Jamaica, Valparaiso, Boston, in the United States, and other places.

In 1841 he was consulted by Major Baeyer, on behalf of the King of Prussia, upon the waterworks and sewerage of Berlin, and received a gold medal and autograph letter from the King, in acknowledgement of the value of his Report. He was also, about the same period, consulted by the Pacha of Egypt in reference to the barrage of the Nile.

Having been led to investigate the questions of the sewerage of towns, and the disposal of the sewage, he, in 1845, began to experiment upon the use of lime for disinfecting sewage, assisted by the best chemical opinions he could obtain, namely, those of Mr. Aikin and Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor.

In 1847 he became the Engineer to the London Sewage Company, formed for the purpose of purifying the sewage of London, and manufacturing manure therefrom. The Parliamentary plans for an intercepting sewer along the North bank of the Thames, to a pumping station and reservoir at Barking Creek, in conformity with his views, were prepared and deposited by him for the company ; but the scheme required more capital than, in the state of the money market, could then be raised, and the company was subsequently dissolved.

To Mr. Wicksteed is, however, due the inception of the idea of constructing an intercepting sewer parallel to the Thames, at a depth below all the existing sewers, and the creation of an adequate fall, by artificial pumping at its outlet. He had previously, in 1841, proposed the same plan for Berlin, and subsequently both proposed and executed the design at Leicester. Following up his idea of purifying the sewage of towns, and making valuable manure from it, he succeeded at length in forming a company for this object, called the Patent Solid Sewage Manure Company. So much time and attention did he devote to this business, that he, being Sanguine of success, eventually gave up his connection with all the London water companies, resigning his post as Engineer to the East London Waterworks in 1851.

The Patent Solid Sewage Manure Company, acting under his advice, established their works at Leicester, and carried them on for some years with success so far as the purification of the sewage was concerned-the River Soar being restored to nearly its pristine purity-but without the same good fortune in the production of saleable manure. Large quantities were produced; but the quality was not strong enough to compete with other manures already used by farmers; so that eventually the works failed commercially, and were given up by the company to the corporation of the town, who, however, continued to use them for purifying the sewage.

Mr. Wicksteed, besides carrying out a complete system of drainage for Leicester, was consulted on the sewerage of Leeds, Leamington, Maidstone, and Scarborough ; and gave evidence before the Special Committee on the Sewage of the Metropolis ; but his health had been affected by the want of success in his sewage scheme at Leicester, and he was therefore retiring from professional practice, when, in 1865, he had a slight attack of paralysis, and gradually failing afterwards, he gave up work altogether.

Mr. Wicksteed strenuously upheld the several views he entertained upon professional subjects that were matters of controversy during the active portion of his career, especially in connection with waterworks and sewerage. In addition to his advocacy of the Cornish Engine for waterworks’ purposes, he became known as one of the foremost supporters of the system of distribution designated as the 'intermittent supply,' against 'constant supply;' and he contended for his opinions in reference thereto by means of arguments drawn from his practical experience in the management of some of the largest waterworks in the kingdom. He also strongly opposed the eirrigatione methods of purifying and utilizing sewage, as extravagant in their cost and profitless in their results.

In designing sewers for the drainage of towns, he was one of the first to advocate the necessity of taking into consideration the ordinary rainfall upon the district to be drained, before determining the dimensions of the sewers, and he objected, on the one hand, to the theoretical conclusions of those who had promulgated the notion of using very small tubes, just capable of carrying off the actual refuse water, while, on the other hand, his love of economy in construction led him to discard the older fashion of making all drains large enough to be traversed by workmen. Above all, he upheld the opinion that an Engineer should so plan the works entrusted to his care that they might prove either reasonably remunerative or permanently useful, and he looked with little favour upon engineering projects whose chief merit consisted in their monumental appearance.

Mr. Wicksteed was elected a Member of the Institution on the 7th of February, 1837. He was a contributor of several Papers on the Cornish engine, which appeared in the Transactions and in the first volume of the Minutes of Proceedings, and for which he received a Telford medal in 1839. He had a seat on the Council from 1840 to 1843, but for many years before his death he had ceased to attend the meetings and to take part in the discussions.

Mr. Wicksteed's energy of character was remarkable, and he would frequently spend a considerable portion of the night in writing reports, and devising engineering details. He was generous and liberal to those about him, and, although at times somewhat variable in his manner towards his dependants, and impatient of contradiction, he was always pleased to further their prospects. With him there were no half measures ; and if he advocated a man at all, he did so with all his heart and powers.

He died at Headingley, near Leeds, on the 15th of November, 1871, aged sixty-five years.


1872 Obituary [5]

THOMAS WICKSTEED was born at Shrewsbury on 26th January 1806, and after residing some years with Mr. Arthur Aikin at the Society of Arts, London, was articled to Mr. Alexander Galloway.

On the termination of his pupilage he became an assistant of Mr. Henry R. Palmer, the Engineer to the London Docks, with whom he remained until 1829, during the construction of extensive additions to the docks and warehouses.

Being then appointed Engineer to the East London Water Works, he managed these works with such economy and success, that although costly additions had to be made to the reservoirs and pumping engines, yet the company became increasingly prosperous. Important economy in working was due to his introduction of the Cornish pumping engine in place of the less economical engines previously used. His attention was first directed to this form of engine in 1835, and after visiting the Cornish mines, conducting experiments, and publishing the results obtained, he succeeded in inducing the waterworks company in 1837 to transplant an engine from Cornwall to their pumping station at Old Ford, London. So incredible at first appeared the extent of economy attending the working of this engine that he conducted a set of most careful experiments extending over upwards of a year, in order to establish the correctness of his views; and in 1841 he published these experiments with his conclusions derived from them. A second and much larger engine upon the same principle was shortly afterwards erected by him at Old Ford.

Between 1838 and 1845, while still resident engineer to the East London Water Works, Mr. Wicksteed became the consulting engineer to the Grand Junction, Vauxhall, Southwark, and Kent Water Works, and carried out extensive additions to these several works.

During the same period he constructed new waterworks at Hull and Wolverhampton, and made considerable additions to the waterworks at Brighton, and subsequently to those at Scarborough. He also reported upon the waterworks of Leeds, Liverpool, Lichfield, Leamington, Cork, Kingston, in Jamaica, Valparaiso, Boston in the United States, and other places.

In 1841 he was consulted upon the waterworks and sewerage of Berlin, and also about the same period in reference to the barrage of the Nile. Having been led to investigate the subject of the sewerage of towns and the disposal of the sewage, he began in 1845 to experiment upon the use of lime for disinfecting sewage, and in 1847 became engineer to the London Sewage Company, which was formed for the purpose of purifying the sewage of London and manufacturing manure from it by his process. The plans were prepared for an intercepting sewer along the north bank of the Thames to a pumping station and reservoir at Barking Creek; but the scheme required more capital than could then be raised, and the project was subsequently abandoned.

To Mr. Wicksteed however is due the origination of the idea of constructing an intercepting sewer parallel to the Thames, at a depth below all the existing sewers, and of creating an adequate fall to the intercepting sewer by pumping at its outlet. He had previously proposed the same plan for Berlin in 1841, and subsequently both proposed and executed the design at Leicester. So much time and attention did he devote to this subject, that he neglected to some extent his reputation as a waterworks engineer, and eventually gave up all his connection with the different London waterworks, resigning his position as engineer to the East London Water Works in 1851.

Works for the manufacture of manure from sewage having been established under his advice at Leicester were carried on for some years with success, so far as the purification of the sewage was concerned, the river Soar being restored by this means to nearly its original purity ; but without the same good fortune in the production of saleable manure. Large quantities of manure were produced, but the quality was not strong enough to compete with other manures already used by farmers; so that eventually the works became a commercial failure, and were handed over to the corporation of Leicester, by whom however they continue to be used for purifying the sewage.

At Leicester Mr. Wicksteed carried out a complete system of drainage ; and be was also consulted respecting the sewerage of Leamington, Maidstone, and Scarborough. His health having suffered from the unfavourable commercial result of the sewage works at Leicester, he was gradually retiring from professional practice, when in 1865 he was affected by an illness which never afterwards left him. This led him to give up work altogether, and caused his death on 15th November 1871, in the sixty-sixth year of his age.

He became a Member of the Institution in 1863.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1837 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. 1863 Institution of Mechanical Engineers
  3. 1863 Institution of Mechanical Engineers
  4. 1872 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  5. 1872 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries