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William Alexander Provis

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William Alexander Provis (1792-1870)

Son of Henry Provis

1820 Became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]


1871 Obituary [2]

MR. WILLIAM ALEXANDER PROVIS was born at Wimpole, in Cambridgeshire, on the 5th of May, 1792.

His father, Mr. Henry Provis, was one of the resident Engineers to the Grand Junction Canal Company, and in his office he entered as pupil at a very early age, and continued there until the year 1814, when he accepted an engagement as assistant to the late Mr. Telford.

At the commencement of this engagement the improvement of the leading turnpike-roads in the kingdom had become very urgent, and a large portion of this work being put into Mr. Telford's hands rendered the efficient assistance he received from Mr. Provis highly valuable. Amongst the first duties assigned to Mr. Provis was to assist with the designs and drawings for the works of the Caledonian Canal then in progress, and in the survey for improving the mail-coach route between Carlisle and Glasgow: the line selected gave much satisfaction to Mr. Telford, and the improved road is now one of the finest in the kingdom.

In 1817 he assisted Mr. Telford in the examination and survey on which he was then engaged, for the improvement of the road between London and Holyhead, and during the execution of the work acted as Resident Engineer on the most difficult part of the road, that between Shrewsbury and Holyhead. The improvements included the making of large sections of new road, the thorough reconstruction of the old line where made available, and the building of several important bridges, and other works of a minor character.

But the most formidable difficulty on this line of road was the necessity of bridging the Menai Strait. "It so happened," says Mr. Telford, in his Autobiography, "that in the year 1814 I had been called upon to consider the best mode of crossing the river Mersey at Runcorn, with a view of shortening the London road to Liverpool; and, under all the circumstances of the case, I recommended a bridge on the suspension principle." He then goes on to mention "several hundred experiments upon malleable. iron" which he made on that occasion.

In the conduct of these experiments Mr. Provis assisted; and when it was decided to adopt the suspension principle for the bridge over the Menai Strait, to Mr. Provis, as Resident Engineer, was confided the care of the work. In this capacity he laid "the first stone of this great work," on the 10th of August, 1819.

In consequence of Telford's overwhelming engagements, the settling of many of the details of the bridge were left to Mr. Provis; and under his advice several alterations were made from the original design. The bridge was opened in 1826; and in 1828 Mr. Provis published an elaborate account of the work, with numerous engravings.

During the progress of the works on the Holyhead road, Mr. Provis also superintended, under the direction of Mr. Telford, the improvement of the line of road from Chester to Bangor. This involved the construction of a bridge over the river Conway, in which the suspension principle was also adopted. Care was taken, in this design, to harmonize the bridge with the old castle of Conway, immediately beneath which the bridge crosses the estuary.

In the year 1825 Mr. Telford was consulted with reference to a project for improving the canal communication between Birmingham and Liverpool; and in the following year an Act was obtained for carrying into execution the scheme devised by him for this purpose. "The Birmingham and Liverpool Junction canal" (as the line was named) leaves the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal at Autherley, near Wolverhampton, and joins the Ellesmere and Chester canal near Nantwich. The system included also a branch from this line at Norbury to the Shrewsbury canal in the township of Wappenshall. A line was also laid out from Barbridge, on the Ellesmere and Chester canal, to Middlewich, on the Trent and Mersey navigation. Docks, warehouses, etc., were also to be constructed at Ellesmere Port, where the former canal joins the river Mersey.

Mr. Provis was actively employed in the preparation of all these plans, in promoting the passing of the Act, in the preparation of the designs, drawings, and in setting out the lines for their formation. He was afterwards engaged in the execution of the work, which occupied his attention for some years.

In addition to the employments before enumerated, Mr. Provis was from time to time professionally engaged in the improvement of roads in North and South Wales, Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Herefordshire; in laying out lines of mineral tramways and railroads, the improvement of river navigations, drainage works, and other engineering business.

After the death of Mr. Telford, in 1834, Mr. Provis took the house formerly occupied by that gentleman, which continued to be his London residence until the close of his professional life.

About this time he prepared plans for a bridge over Poole harbour, which was erected in the years 1835 and 1836. A swivel bridge was necessary to allow the passage of vessels, and this, in the original design, was placed near the end of the structure, where the ground was sound, and where foundations for abutments of masonry would not have involved a great cost. In consequence of opposition in Parliament, the opening was removed to the centre of the structure, where the depth of water, and unsoundness of the ground, would have greatly increased the expense of the proposed piers of masonry, and a timber structure was therefore substituted for one of masonry with cast-iron arches.

During the passage through Parliament of the Act for the construction of the South Eastern railway, in the Session of 1836, Mr. Provis assisted in framing the estimates. He strongly represented to the directors the expediency of altering portions of the line so as to give a more direct route between the termini; and, although his advice was not taken, the soundness of his judgment has been confirmed by what has since taken place.

Towards the end of the same Session, Mr. Provis was appointed Engineer to a company which had adopted a project for a railway to Brighton, branching from the then authorized South Eastern line.

The length to be formed was short and inexpensive, compared with others at that time before Parliament, and Mr. Provis was enabled to give such evidence in its favour as materially to assist in throwing out a line which had made much progress, and for which the promoters appeared likely to succeed in obtaining Parliamentary powers. After a thorough examination of the district in the following summer, he made several amendments on the former line (which formed part of the original South Eastern scheme, and had been laid out previous to his connection with the company), and he added a branch passing the town of Lewes to the harbour of Newhaven. In the lines elected by Mr. Provis, the stations for the several towns, but most especially that of Brighton, were placed on more convenient levels than those which have since been adopted.

Several competing lines were before Parliament in the following Session of 1837; and in a protracted contest a compromise was entered into, by which portions of the lines laid out by Mr. Provis and by Sir John Rennie were sanctioned; and in the following Session the arrangement was confirmed.

Soon after this compromise, Mr. Provis's connection with the railway schemes to Brighton ceased.

During the year 1836 he was also employed in laying out a branch railway from the South Eastern line near Tunbridge to Maidstone, which scheme was, however, deferred for a future Session.

In the same year he was likewise engaged in a project for completing the railway communication between Edinburgh and Glasgow, by an extension of the Glasgow and Garnkirk railway to a junction with the Union canal near to Falkirk, and the conversion of that canal into a railway.

Mr. Provis's attention had been directed for some time to the improvement of the canal communication between Birmingham and Manchester. With this view, plans were prepared by him, and notices given for an intended application to Parliament in 1838, for more direct line from the Trent and Mersey canal near Middlewich to the Duke of Bridgewater's canal at Timperly, near Altrincham.

The scheme was strongly opposed by existing companies ; and as canal projects were not favourably received by the public at that time, the proposed canal was not carried further than preparing and lodging the documents for proceeding with an application to Parliament.

In the great storm of January, 1839, the roadway of the Menai bridge suffered much injury. Its repair and improvement were put into the hands of Mr. Provis.

In 1839 Mr. Provis undertook the execution of extensive works at Ellesmere Port, where the Ellesmere and Chester canal joins the tideway of the river Mersey. These works were, in fact, the completion of the original design made out and partially executed by him years before for Mr. Telford. They are admirably adapted for the large tran-shipments which are there effected between the Mersey and the canal.

In 1845 the proprietors of the Ellesmere and Cheater canal, and the Liverpool and Birmingham Junction canal (under the title of the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company), entrusted Mr. Provis with the preparation of a scheme for the conversion of such parts of their canals as were suitable into railways; together with the laying out of such supplementary lines as seemed necessary for furnishing the district with a complete system of railway communication. His intimate knowledge of the canals, and of the adjoining country, eminently qualified him for this task. Accordingly, plans were prepared by him for several lines for which Acts of Parliament were obtained in the Session of 1846.

In consequence, however, of the monetary crisis which shortly afterwards occurred, the execution of the work was delayed, and eventually an arrangement was entered into with the London and North Western Railway Company, which was subsequently confirmed by Act of Parliament, under which the proposed conversion of the canals was abandoned, and a guarantee was given to the canal companies, securing to them dividends of one half those paid by the London and North Western Railway Company. To this business Mr. Provis gave his unremitting attention for a long period; and the consequence of the anxiety and overwork was a sudden and severe illness, the effects of which induced him to decline any new professional engagements.

Having, however, formerly been consulted by the River Dee Company, as to the improvement of their navigation, he again became their adviser during their protracted disputes with parties who were interested in the navigation of that river, as to the correctness of the standard by which the Company measured the depth of the water they were bound to maintain under their Act. After several inquiries conducted by the Admiralty, the matter was at length settled by an Act of Parliament in 1851, under which an adjustment of the standard was agreed upon. With this contest Mr. Provis closed his professional engagements.

Mr. Provis, being chiefly engaged in carrying out designs and improvements in roads, bridges, and canals, his connection with this class of engineering subjects led to his being frequently employed as an opponent to railway projects in the early stage of those undertakings. This circumstance probably accounts for the small amount of railway work on which he was employed.

During the latter years of his life he spent most of his time on his estate - The Grange, near Ellesmere, which he greatly improved; and so long as his strength was sufficient, he took great pleasure in geological rambles, for he was a good walker, in the course of which he made a large and fine collection of fossils.

By his will he bequeathed a sum of £500 to the Benevolent Fund of the Institution, of which he had been a Member since the 6th of April, 1819.

He died on the 29th of September, 1870, at The Grange, in his seventy-ninth year; and on the 5th of the following month he was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.



See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1820 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. 1871 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries