Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 126,814 pages of information and 199,901 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
1824 Joseph Mitchell, Abingdon Street, Westminster, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
1824 Appointed to succeed his father as Inspector of roads and bridges in Scotland, but initially only on a trial basis for 6 months because of his young age.
1867 Retired from the partnership with William and Murdoch Paterson
1884 Obituary 
At that period the Highlands were being opened up, roads and bridges were being constructed, large sums of money were being spent, and a new life was penetrating the remote valleys and influencing the simple population of the north. These great works had been placed under the charge of Mr. Telford, then in the zenith of his professional fame.
Mr. John Mitchell attracted Mr. Telford's notice, who promoted him first to the charge of the construction of the roads by the sides of Loch Ness, and thereafter to the general inspectorship of the large system of Highland Roads and Bridges. The insight of Mr. Telford into character seems to have been singularly justified in this choice, for Mr. John Mitchell retained the confidence of his employers and his patron during his comparatively short life, and attracted and impressed casual acquaintances ; for example, the poet Southey, who had met him in an expedition to the Highlands, and who wrote in the most flattering terms of his talents and disposition.
Joseph Mitchell inherited much of his father's energy and ability. The family removed from Forres and settled in Inverness; and at the Academy of that town, a well-known and successful school in the north, he received the greater part of his education. At the age of ten he spent a year with a paternal aunt in the uplands of Morayshire, where he attended the Parish School, and till his latest years he spoke with interest of that episode of his boyhood.
To complete his education he was sent to school in Aberdeen, where for the first time he seems to have taken an interest in learning. It was fixed that his profession should be engineering. Under the advice of Mr. Telford he learned practical masonry at the building of the lock-gates on the Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus. To this training, disagreeable at the time, he always attributed much of his later success.
He owed his first start in life to his talent for sketching. Mr. Telford had seen some of his drawings, and being highly pleased with them, commissioned him to make a sketch of a portion of the scenery of the Caledonian Canal. The result of this was an offer from Mr. Telford of apprenticeship in his office, and of residence in his house.
During the three years which he spent with Mr. Telford, Mr. Mitchell learned his profession, and showed traces of that active pursuit of his business which afterwards distinguished him. He drew a plan for London Bridge, then to be rebuilt, but Mr. Telford forbade his clerk entering into the competition. He competed for the new church to be erected for the distinguished preacher, Edward Irving.
He made, by Mr. Telford’s direction, the first survey of the St. Katharine's Dock. He had the distinction of being the first to take notes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, having been elected an Associate in March, 1824. Mr. Telford, discovering these “Minutes of Conversation,” read the digest at the next meeting, and this formed the beginning of the published Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution.
In 1823, Mr. Mitchell, on his father’s death, succeeded to the charge of the Highland Roads and Bridges. The responsibility was great, and the work onerous for a lad of twenty-one. From that time, for a period of thirty-nine years, he discharged this duty, traversing a vast extent of country yearly. The roads of the counties of Inverness, Boss, Cromarty, Sutherland, and Caithness, and at first of part of Perth, were entrusted to him. As the physical difficulties of road-construction in these regions were formidable, the rivers being large and numerous, and as the mountain streams were apt to give trouble by suddenly becoming swollen and overflowing their banks, a fine field for engineering ability was opened.
In addition to this Government work, he had in his early professional life a large private business in Perthshire, having constructed bridges, embankments, and roads in that county in a few years to the value of £180,000.
He was employed by the Commissioners of Highland Roads and Bridges to plan and erect the forty additional churches, in the Highlands and Islands, which the Government had agreed to build on the representations of the Church of Scotland. As the churches were erected in outlying districts, and on lonely islands, a great amount of travelling had to be undertaken in the conduct of the business. Much cannot be said for the architectural beauty of the churches ; but money was scarce, and ecclesiastical architecture was then almost unknown in Scotland, and would have aroused the prejudices of the people for whose benefit the churches were built.
In 1828 the appointment of Engineer to the Scottish Fishery Board was conferred on Mr. Mitchell. The duties involved the designing, construction, and maintenance of harbours built at public expense for the protection of fishermen and the advancement of their craft. This appointment involved visits to many places out of the regular run of his professional journeys.
For several years he found this employment one of the pleasantest parts of his work. During that time he constructed many small harbours on the east coast, at the villages of Bournemouth, Coldingham, and Dunglass in Berwickshire, and at Buckhaven and Cellardyke in Fife.
At various places in the Hebrides harbours were also made. The harbour at Dunbar was a large undertaking, begun in 1842, and finished at a cost of £37,700. At Lybster, on the coast of Caithness, &h. Mitchell adopted a new method. Instead of building out into the sea, he erected a pier-head at the entrance to the harbour, and excavated inwards, and thus secured space for small vessels and two or three hundred fishing boats.
He surveyed or constructed every harbour along the northern coasts from Fraserburgh to Scrabster, including the harbours of Inverness and Wick. For Wick he designed a plan such as he afterwards carried out at Lybster. His own words on the subject best explain his design.
“The width of the bay is about 1,600 yards at the entrance, with high cliffs on each side. It runs inwards about a mile to the harbour and mouth of the river. It is trumpet-mouthed in form and exposed on fourteen points of the compass to the storms of the North Sea; and the waves during a storm rush in towards the harbour with increased and accumulated violence. From the evidence it appeared that all the boats that ran for the mouth of the river in the disastrous gale of 19th August, 1848, were saved, and from this and many years’ observation, I came to the conclusion that for the protection of steamers, the present harbour should be improved by underpinning and extending the pier-head, but that the harbour for fishing-boats should be in the river-channel, to which they could run direct in a gale. By excavating the bed of the river, some 4 feet below low water, a most secure and efficient fishers’ harbour could be made to any extent amply protected from storms.”
This plan he was not destined to carry out. His connection with the Scottish Fishery Board ended in 1850.
Mr. Mitchell made surveys of the railway from Edinburgh to Glasgow, via Bathgate, in 1837, for the then Earl of Hopetoun.
In 1844, mainly owing to his exertions, a company was formed for connecting Perth with the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway. He has described the difficulties which he encountered in starting the scheme, the personal responsibilities which he undertook, his appointment as acting engineer provided the enterprise was successful, and the various steps whereby he was compelled to resign the work. He, however, surveyed and laid out the line long known as the Scottish Central. His route was followed by the engineers who succeeded him, save in two places, near Dunblane, and at the Moncrieff Hill at Perth, where at a large additional cost tunnels were substituted for open cuttings.
During the railway mania in 1845, a company was formed for carrying a line through the Highlands from Perth to Inverness. Great difficulties were experienced from the opposition of landlords and from the rival schemes of other companies. The surveys were completed in the autumn of 1845. The line, as laid out, extended in main line and branches to 183 miles, and involved in the crossing of the Grampians considerable engineering difficulties.
In 1846 the bill was defeated in Committee of the House of Commons. The reason alleged was 'the altitude and engineering character of the proposed Perth and Inverness Railway, as compared with those of any other line of railway now actually completed and in operation.' The credit belongs to Mr. Mitchell of discovering at that early period in railway construction the practicability of carrying with safety a railway through the most mountainous and difficult part of Scotland. The present Highland Railway mainly follows the course of the line then rejected.
For several years after the disastrous issue of railway speculation the cause slumbered in the north, but at the first opportunity Mr. Mitchell revived it. Mainly owing to his exertions a company was formed in 1853 to make a railway between Inverness and Nairn, some 15 miles, and in 1865 that line was opened. It formed the commencement of the railway system of the north, and was urged by Mr. Mitchell as the first step towards the accomplishment of the original scheme.
From Nairn the railway was made to Elgin and Keith to join the Great North of Scotland line there, and was opened in August, 1858.
In 1850 Mr. Mitchell was ordered to survey a line into Ross-shire, which was opened as far north as Invergordon in 1863, and to Bonar Bridge on the confines of Sutherlandshire in October, 1864.
In the summer of 1860 Mr. Mitchell began the survey of the Highland line, 104 miles in length, the termini being Forres and Dunkeld. The works of this line were successfully completed, and the line opened throughout in the autumn of 1863. During these ten busy years Mr. Mitchell had the assistance of two gentlemen, Messrs. William and Murdoch Paterson, who had long been in his employment, and with whom 1862 he entered into partnership. Mr. Murdoch Paterson succeeded Mr. Mitchell as Engineer of the Highland Railway, and successfully carried out the northern lines in Sutherland and Caithness, which had been surveyed during their partnership.
After the completion of the Highland Railway, the Ross-shire proprietors proposed a line to the West Coast, better known as the Skye Line, which was surveyed in 1864, and which Mr. M. Paterson constructed and opened in August 1870.
The railway to Brora, in Sutherlandshire, was next set on foot. The Bill passed in 1865, and the works were far advanced; but Mr. Mitchell retired from business before they were completed.
There was a desire that Caithness should benefit by the railway system, and Messrs. Mitchell and Co. were commissioned to survey a route in 1864. Mr. Mitchell’s knowledge of the county stood him in good stead, and a line through the interior of the county was adopted by him. The proposal was much canvassed, but although the opinion of other engineers was sought, the engineering difficulties, and the cost of carrying a line over the Ord of Caithness, were too formidable to be faced. Years after this preliminary survey had been made, the Caithness Railway was constructed by Mr. N. Paterson, much in accordance with the original plan, and opened to Wick and Thurso in July 1874.
The works on these northern railways involved many very difficult engineering problems, such as constructing the line through the Pass of Killiecrankie and other narrow defiles and mountain passes, getting secure foundations for the piers of the viaducts over the Tay, Spey, Findhorn, Ness, Conon, Oykel, and other large rivers ; and great care and judgement had to be exercised in affording sufficient waterway for the numerous and wild mountain torrents that had to be bridged.
Mr. Mitchell took precautions that his viaducts and bridges should be built on secure foundations, and that the masonry and all other works under his charge should be thoroughly well executed. Indeed, his desire for neat and substantial masonry, of which he was a most competent judge, was such that a facile inspector or slovenly contractor found him a formidable person.
Mr. Mitchell had the satisfaction of seeing the lines which he had either designed or constructed in full operation for several years.
He planned the railway from Keith to Strome Ferry, and from Larbert to Wick and Thurso, and this line, with but few alterations, was the one ultimately adopted. It may safely he said that to his energy and exertions railway enterprise in the north of Scotland mainly owed its start, and that both in 1845 and in 1853 he was the leading spirit in the movement.
In May 1862, in the midst of the construction of the Highland lines, he was struck down by paralysis. He slowly rallied, and for a few years longer continued, with his partners, to carry on business. The strain, however, was too great. Under medical advice, he gave up business in 1867.
Mr. Mitchell often turned his attention to subjects outside his mere professional work. In March 1857 he published a pamphlet, in the form of a letter to Sir Benjamin Hall, then First Commissioner of Works, in regard to the improvement of London by lines of railway and new roads and streets, devising a scheme for the disposal of the sewage of the metropolis. He pointed out, in the pages of 'Herapath,' the advantage of dealing more liberally with third-class passengers.
He made many experiments, and published a pamphlct on the use of concrete for streets. In Edinburgh a piece of concrete, laid on George IV. Bridge, still stands as a mark of his energetic prosecution of his scheme, and of his acuteness in foreseeing the result; but the difficulties of raising the concrete roadway for the repairing and laying of pipes, the failure of an experiment in London, which arose from turning the traffic on the concrete road before it had consolidated, and his own feeble health, led him to abandon what for years was a favourite and interesting occupation.
Mr. Mitchell directed public attention in the North to the development of the fisheries along the shores of the northern counties and the Hebrides. He gave evidence on the subject before the Food Committee of the Society of Arts, in 1863. He repeatedly urged the railway companies to afford quicker transit for the fish-traffic, and he looked forward to an immense increase in that traffic when facilities should be given for bringing the fish rapidly to London and the great cities of the midland counties of England. He had the satisfaction before his death of seeing many of his views adopted, and public attention directed to the subject.
He advised the Town Council of Inverness, in his later years, to supply the town with water by gravitation, which advice has since been carried out.
To the close of his long life Mr. Mitchell never ceased to interest himself in all that concerned his profession. He took great pleasure in the Smeatonian Society, and attended, till the infirmities of years prevented him, its social gatherings. He was specially pleased at an entertainment given by the Council to him and another gentleman as the oldest members of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He employed the leisure of his latter days in compiling reminiscences of his life, which he published for private circulation. The second volume was in the printer’s hands when, by a sudden failure of strength, he was prostrated, and after a short illness of two days, passed away on the 26th of November, 1883, a month after he had completed his eightieth year.
Sagacious, practical, energetic, with a thorough knowledge of his profession, and with a deep devotion to it, Mr. Mitchell had a most successful career. On many points he was unbending, for when once he saw what ought to be done, nothing would turn him aside from his position. Sanguine in temperament, and confident in the ultimate success of his schemes, he had scanty patience with those who did not at once recognise the benefit of his proposals, and often he too keenly urged his views on men not ripe for such changes. Consequently he sometimes made enemies where a man less in earnest, and more willing to humour the foibles of others, would have managed both to conciliate opponents, and to carry his own views. He was eminently social. Many a happy gathering of old friends and new met beneath his hospitable roof, both at Inverness and in London. His store of anecdote and interest in affairs made him a pleasant host and an intelligent companion.
In addition to his membership of the Institution, of which he was elected Associate on the 30th of March, 1824, and transferred Member on the 6th of June, 1837, Mr. Mitchell was early elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and of the Geological Society.