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Sir William Cubitt (1785-1861) was an eminent English civil engineer and millwright who was employed in many of the great engineering undertakings of his time.
1785 October 9th. Born at Dilham in Norfolk, son of Joseph Cubitt (1760-1829), miller, and his wife Hannah Lubock (1765-1831). A younger brother Benjamin Cubitt was born in 1795; another brother, Joseph, became a stockbroker .
His father moved to South Repps, where Cubitt was employed at an early age in the mill, but later was apprenticed for four years to James Lyon, a cabinet-maker, at Stalham.
1804 Returned to work with his father at Bacton Wood Mills.
1807 Patented a self-regulating windmill sail. He also devised machines for draining the marshes.
Partnership with Cook, of Swanton, producing horse threshing-machines and other agricultural implements.
1807 Settled at Horning as a millwright
1812 Moved to Ransome and Son of Ipswich, becoming first chief engineer, a position he held until about 1817. During this period he invented the human treadmill as a means of grinding corn; it was adopted in the principal prisons in the United Kingdom but for punishment; he also used his experience of pattern-making to broaden the work of the company to include cast iron bridges.
1820 January 24th. Married Elizabeth Jane Tiley (1791-1863), second daughter of William Tiley of Reading. They had a son, William, who appears to have died in infancy.
1821 Became a partner in the firm; undertook consultancy work on water supply, harbours, and gas works.
1822 William Cubitt, Ipswich, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
1826 Moved to London where he established a consultancy, covering a wide range of technologies; he was expert witness at many parliamentary inquiries including as a witness for George Stephenson on the feasibility of making a railway line across Chat Moss.
1830s Effectively took over the supervision of construction of 2 canals from Thomas Telford.
1833 Advert: 'FOR SALE. Capital STEAM ENGINES and CAST IRON BRIDGE.
TWO capital Six-horse STEAM ENGINES, made by Messrs. Fenton and Murray, Leeds, with eight-horse boilers complete, and two pair of 18 inch force pumps attached to them, in the best style of workmanship. The engines have been in use but a short time for pumping at the Navigation Works at Lowestoft, and are as good as new; they may seen at work at Lowestoft from the 12th to the 17th August instant.
Also a Two-horse Trevithick ENGINE BOILER, in excellent order.
Five 22 feet SCREW PUMPS, 18inches diameter.
Four Square Wooden LIFT PUMPS, 14 and 15 inch.
An entire CAST IRON BRIDGE, recently taken from the abutments at Carrow, near Norwich; span 80 feet, arch elliptical, width of roadway 20 feet— in excellent order, and complete for refixing. The Bridge is now lying by the river side at Norwich, from where it can be shipped in one bottom to any part of the kingdom.
For particulars apply to Wm. Cubitt, Esq., Civil Engineer, 2, Derby-street, Westminster; Mr. Edmund Newton, Company's Offices, Surrey-street, Norwich; or Mr. Geo. Edwards, Resident Engineer, Lowestoft, Suffolk.'
1837 Engineer-in-chief of the South Eastern Railway where he made his reputation by demolishing the cliff near Folkestone to open a passageway for the line. His design was one of the first to use transverse sleepers, using the Ransomes and May patented fixings. He also worked extensively on canals, docks, and railways.
1844 Appointed consulting engineer to the Great Northern Railway, where he worked with his son, Joseph who was chief engineer for the construction of the southern section. The terminus at King's Cross was designed and built by the architect Lewis Cubitt, who was no relation but was brother of the building contractors Thomas and William Cubitt.
1851 Supported Paxton's design for the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition, and supervised construction in Hyde Park, after which he was knighted.
He was president of the Institution of Civil Engineers between 1850 and 1851.
1858 Retired from business.
1861 Died at home on Clapham Common, on 13 October 1861.
Cubitt's structures that still exist include:
1862 Obituary 
SIR WILLIAM CUBITT, F.R.S., was born in the year 1785, at Dilham, in Norfolk, where his father was a miller.
The small amount of early education afforded to him was obtained at the village school ; and subsequently, when his father removed to Southrepps, where he rented the mill, young William ingratiated himself with the Rev. Erasmus Drury, the curate of the parish, and, obtaining access to his library, and afterwards to that of the Rev. J. Humphrey, of Wroxham, he well stored his mind with useful information.
At an early age he was employed in the mill, and having exhibited considerable aptitude in the repairs of the machinery, he was in the year l800 apprenticed to one James Lyon, a cabinetmaker and joiner at Stalham, from whom, after a rude service of four years, he gladly parted, having, however, acquired great dexterity in the use of tools, as is evidenced by the neat construction of several articles of furniture still in the possession of some of his old friends in Norfolk.
During the period of the apprenticeship of the son, the residence of the father was once more changed to Bacton Wood Mill, where, in the year 1804, young William joined him, and in his leisure hours commenced his first practical invention by an attempt to construct a machine for splitting hides; this machine, although unsuccessful, exhibited considerable mechanical talent.
Determined, at length, to commence life on his own account, he joined an agricultural machine-maker named Cook, who resided at Swanton, where they constructed horse threshing-machines, and other agricultural implements, with some success. At this period he became celebrated for the accuracy and good finish of the patterns made by him for the iron castings for these machines.
His attention was at this time naturally directed to windmills, which he was frequently employed to repair, and finding the difficulty of managing, during stormy weather, the large sails then introduced, he was led to invent the self-regulating windmill sails, now in universal use, which were patented in the year 1807, at which time he had settled at Horning, in regular practice as a millwright.
He next commenced the construction of machines for draining the marshes in the immediate vicinity of his residence, and several of these machines, mounted on tripod frames of cast-iron, are still in existence.
He obtained considerable employment at this period, but as his progress was not so rapid as he desired, he in the year 1812 sought and obtained an engagement in the then rising works of Messrs. Ransome, of Ipswich, where he soon became the chief Engineer of the concern, to which he afforded great assistance. He remained there for nine years, and during that period was engaged in several engineering works of interest, such as improvements in the port of Ipswich, and in the gasworks of that town. His engagement under the Messrs. Ransome led eventually to his becoming interested in the concern, a position which he held until the year 1826, when his numerous engagements as a Civil Engineer rendered necessary his removal to London.
Before this period, Mr. Cubitt’s attention had been directed to the question of the employment of criminals ; and for the purpose of utilizing the labour of convicts he invented the treadmill, with the object of using the power for grinding corn, pumping water, &C., not at first contemplating the use of the machine as a means of punishment. This invention was brought out about the year 1818, and it was immediately adopted in almost all the principal gaols of the kingdom.
For some time anterior to his settling in London, Mr. Cubitt had been extensively employed as a Civil Engineer, and among his early Reports are those of 1814, 1820, and 1822, on the Norwich Navigation ; and it was in the latter year that he first came in contact with Mr. Telford.
From the period of his removal to London, Mr. Cubitt was engaged in almost all the important works of the time, and his opinion and evidence were sought on all the great questions, such as ports, harbours, canals, the improvement of rivers, or the construction of railways, and he was occupied in designing bridges.
It would be impracticable, within the limits of this Memoir, to enumerate the numerous works upon which Mr. Cubitt was engaged, as there was scarcely a question of engineering interest upon which his opinion was not sought either by the promoters, or by the opposition ; and his appearance in the Committee Rooms at Westminster, with his never-forgotten slide-rule in his hand, was familiar to all the profession. A few only of his principal works may, however, be alluded to.
He was extensively engaged in Canal Engineering, and the Oxford Canal and the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal are among his works under this head. The improvement of the River Severn was designed and carried out by him; and he was frequently consulted and made many important reports on the Rivers Thames, Tyne, Tees, Weaver, Ouse, Nene, Witham and Welland. He was also a Member of the Commission for the improvement, of the Shannon, in which his judgment and experience were of material service.
The Bute Docks at Cardiff, the Middlesborough Docks and Coal Drops on the Tees, the Black Sluice drainage, and its outfall sluice at Boston Harbour, are among his works.
On the introduction of railways, the evidence of Mr. Cubitt as a practical mechanic was sought with good effect in Parliamentary contests; and, as Engineer-in-Chief, he constructed the South-Eastern Railway, where he adopted the bold scheme of employing a monster charge of eighteen thousand pounds of gunpowder for blowing down the face of the Round Down Cliff between Folkestone and Dover, and then constructing the line of railway along the beach, with a tunnel beneath the Shakespeare Cliff.
On the then Croydon Railway, at the desire of the Board, the application of the atmospheric system of traction was undertaken by him, and he certainly did all in his power to induce its success. On the Great Northern Railway, to which he was the Consulting Engineer, and which was constructed by his son, Mr. Joseph Cubitt (N. Inst. C.E.), he endeavoured to introduce all the undoubted improvements of other lines, and with great success.
His engineering efforts were not confined to the United Kingdom, and his opinion was frequently sought for on the Continent.
Among other matters, he was consulted by the Hanoverian Government on the subject of the Harbour and Docks at Harburg. The works for supplying the city of Berlin with water were constructed under his advice and direction, and at the great discussions at Paris relative to the rival Companies proposing to construct the Paris and Lyons Railway, Mr. Cubitt, accompanied by the author of this Memoir, made a careful investigation of the country, and his Report exercised considerable influence on the ultimate determination of the question.
On the completion of the railway to Folkestone, the establishment of steamers between that port and Boulogne was a natural consequence, and the improvement of the harbour was inevitable.
Then followed the proposition for the construction of a line of railway from Boulogne to Amiens, there to join the Great Northern Railway of France, and to this Mr. Cubitt became the Consulting Engineer, the works being under the immediate direction of Monsieur Bazaine, Ingenieur des Ponts et Chaussees.
Among Mr. Cubitt's latest works were the two large floating Landing Stages at Liverpool, one at St. George's Pier, and the other at the Albert Parade; these works were novel in their details, and most successful in their operation, and the latter still considerably exceeds in dimensions any other work of its kind.
His last work was the Bridge for carrying the London Turnpike Road across the Medway at Rochester. This was founded on cast-iron cylinders, sunk by the then novel pneumatic process, and carried down to the depth of 55 feet below high water.
In the year 1849, when the International Exhibition was under discussion, it was felt that it would be essential to have some good authority to refer to with respect to the construction of the building to be erected in Hyde Park. Sir Robert Peel made inquiry respecting the qualifications of the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and being satisfied on the points in question, the definitive appointment of the Royal Commissioners was deferred until after the election of Mr. Cubitt as President, in January, 1850.
An arrangement was made forthwith, by which he undertook very active and responsible duties in connection with the construction, and he executed them so satisfactorily that at the expiration of his services in 1852, Her Majesty was pleased to confer upon him the honour of Knighthood, which he had more than earned by his earnest and intelligent conduct of that large and novel work.
When the total subversion of the original plan for the building, as designed by the Committee, was proposed to Mr. Cubitt, he did not hesitate to examine the plan submitted to him by Mr. (now Sir Joseph) Paxton, through the intervention of a mutual friend ; nor did he decline, when he had maturely considered the plan and the details of construction as given by Mr. (now Sir Charles) Fox, to give his adhesion to it, and to join in proposing it to Prince Albert. How successful was that novel and unique construction need not here be mentioned ; but it must be maintained that to Mr. Cubitt's good mechanical and constructive knowledge, his cool and mature judgment, and his confidence in the plans decided upon, the ultimate triumphant success was in a great measure due.
He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in the year 1830; he was also a Fellow of the Royal Irish Academy, Member of the Society of Arts, and of other societies.
Labours such as have here been shadowed forth rather than described would suffice to wear out the strongest constitution, and Sir William Cubitt, who had never been a robust man, felt it necessary in 1855 to retire in some degree from the active exercise of the profession; and in 1858 he ceased to give any attention to business; he continued, however, to take an interest in the proceedings of the Engineering world until his final illness, under which he sunk on the 13th of October, 1861, in his 77th year, at his residence on Clapham Common.
Sir William Cubitt joined the Institution of Civil Engineers as a Member in the year 1823 ; he became a Member of Council in 1831, was elected Vice-President in 1836, and held the post of President in 1850 and 1851. At the period of the great changes introduced into the constitution of the Institution he took a very active and useful part, and throughout his career he was an earnest friend of the Institution, which he considered to be the great bond of union of the members of the profession.
Sir William Cubitt was among the last surviving self-made Engineers, and few men laboured more honestly and uprightly to obtain well-deserved eminence.