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Alexander Wilson (1776-1866)

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Engineer-General Alexander Wilson (Imperial Russian Service), (1776-1866).

1824 Alexander Wilson, St. Petersburg, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]


1870 Obituary [2]

ENGINEER-GENERAL ALEXANDER WILSON, of the Imperial Russian service, born in Edinburgh, on the 27th February, 1776, was the eldest son of James Wilson, smith, of that city.

In his early years he attended first a grammar-school, and then the High School in the Canongate. He often regretted that his English education was interrupted by emigration of his family to Russia in 1784, where his father was employed by Mr, Cameron, architect to the Empress Catherine II., to superintend the iron-work of the building of the well-known Cameron Gallery in the Palace of Czarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg.

From May 1788 to 1790 he had the advantage of the instruction of a private tutor - the late Sir Robert Graham - who at one time laid claim to the baronetcy and estates of Netherby. This gentleman was engaged by Mr. Wilson, through the instrumentality of his wife’s relatives in Scotland, to take charge of Alexander, and of the younger children, as well as of those of a limited number of their neighbours.

During this period he also attended a Russian public school, and received some instruction in architectural and other branches of drawing, from a fellow-countryman, Mr. Hastie, while he also gave evidence of considerable facility in acquiring foreign languages. This school education terminated in his fourteenth year, but his love of learning continued through life, and on the failure of his eyesight, a few years before his death, he availed himself of the services of an efficient secretary to keep him well “read up” - his chief pleasure till within a few days of his death.

From his early years he began to collect rare works on architecture and engineering, not neglecting general literature, and thus formed one of the largest private libraries in Russia, notwithstanding the loss of many rare and valuable works by fire in 1821.

In the year 1790, his father having been transferred as master smith to the Government Small-Arms Manufactory at Sisterbeck, on the coast of Finland, Alexander was employed at the same place as draughtsman, at a small salary. Here he picked up a good deal of practical information, and in his leisure hours studied mathematics with a young officer of the surveyor’s corps, who happened to be his nearest neighbour.

In the year 1795 the father and son were at the same time promoted to the rank of officers in the Mining Corps. In 18O0 Alexander was engaged as interpreter and secretary to General C. Gascoigne, who was then chief of many of the imperial mechanical works.

In 1803 his father and family left Sisterbeck for Colpino, about twenty miles from St. Petersburg, where Mr. Wilson was appointed resident director’s assistant of the works under General Gascoigne.

On the death of the latter, in 1806, Alexander Wilson, having displayed the requisite knowledge and business-like habits, was appointed to succeed him as director of the works at Colpino, and also at Alexandrovsk, on the banks of the Neva, nearer to St. Petersburg. At Colpino he had the honour of entertaining at tea, in his father’s house, where he lived, the then reigning Empress of Russia, Elizabeth, wife of Alexander I., whose knowledge of English enabled her to converse with freedom in that language, and who was induced to visit the place by the special interest taken in the works under his care by the empress mother - Maria Fedorovna, widow of the Emperor Paul.

Then began the most active period of his life ; and the variety of works, mechanical and architectural, planned and executed by him is indeed astonishing. At Colpino he reconstructed the old and constructed new sluices and waterwheels ; introducing steam as an auxiliary to water power. He built several steamers, supplied them and others with marine engines, at a time when these things were novelties even in England. He planned the future town and supplied it with public schools and dwelling-houses for the work-people, and lived to see a small village grow into a town of 8,000 inhabitants.

At the Alexandrovsk works, also formerly a village and now a small town, the activity and genius of Alexander Wilson were no less successful. The original idea of establishing a manufactory at Alexandrovsk was due to the Empress Maria Fedorovna, wife of the Emperor Paul. Her aim was twofold; first, to educate and provide employment for the foundlings of the Imperial Foundling Hospital when of an age to be discharged from that establishment, and to make them skilful and experienced workmen, able to gain their own livelihood, and secondly, to prepare skilled artizans to carry their arts and knowledge of different manufacturing processes to the remotest parts of Russia. To accomplish this, General Alexander Wilson, being fully intrusted with the execution of the Empress’s plans, built an immense institution for 800 boys and girls, provided with a library, schools, washhouses, &C., &C., at that time novelties in Russia. The order, cleanliness, and efficiency of this institution made it, as it was intended to be, a model of its kind.

Besides this, General Wilson constructed extensive mills, containing all the improvements known at that time. The large flax mill at Alexandrovsk supplied sailcloth for all the Russian navy, when wind was the only motive power of men-of-war, besides furnishing a large quantity for general consumption both at home and abroad. Cotton mills, plain and figured weaving looms, mechanical works, and a manufactory for playing cards, mere all to be found at Alexandrovsk.

In the card department he had the able assistance of a member of the Delarue family, who had the charge of it, and in the general superintendence of the establishments at Alexandrovsk, that of his brother, Mr. Lewis Wilson, until the death of the latter in 1847.

As an Architect,, General Wilson appears to have possessed good taste, as is testified by the fine structures erected by him at Colpino, Alexandrovsk, and other places. While fulfilling his duties at Colpino and Alexandrovsk, he was, on many occasions, employed by successive sovereigns of Russia in undertakings not strictly connected with these places. He cast brass guns, coined copper money, improved anchors and chain cables, built churches and hospitals, and, after personal inspection, reported on the condition and management of different Russian ports, and engineering and mechanical establishments, viz., Archangel, Nicolaeff, Lougen, &C., and was acknowledged to be one of the most honest, trustworthy, and able servants in the Imperial Service. Besides these numerous government emdowments, he, with the permission of the crown, took an active part and interest in the planning and erection, and for many gears in the management of two large cotton mills, among the original promoters of which were also the late Count Nesselrode and Baron Stieglitz.

Having passed through the inferior grades from his first appointment in 1705, and having been transferred in 1816 from the Corps of Mines to the Engineering and Building Department of the Admiralty, to which the establishment at Colpino is attached, Alexander Wilson was, for his many services, successively promoted, in 1818, to the rank of Major-General; in 1829, to that of Lieutenant-General; and in 1853, to his highest rank, that of Engineer-General.

From 1820 to 1856 he was decorated with four Stars of different Russian Orders, the last being that in diamonds of St. Alexander Nevsky, when, by the special order of the Emperor Alexander II., a gold medal was struck, and presented to him, with a rescript from his Majesty, to signalize the completion of the fiftieth year of his direction of the Imperial Manufactory of Alexandrovsk, and of the Admiralty Ijora (Colpino) Works, and of the sixty-second year of his service in the empire.

General Wilson during his eighty-two years' residence in Russia paid ten visits to England; the first in 1814, during the visit of the Emperor Alexander I., whom he had the honour of attending in many of his inspections of public establishments in this country, and the last in 1862, to the International Exhibition - each time returning home well stored with new improvements and inventions in engineering, mechanics, and manufactures, purposing to apply the best of them in his adopted country.

During his visits to England and other countries he had numerous opportunities of being introduced to the greatest engineering, mechanical, and scientific celebrities of the day, with many of whom he was on a friendly footing, as Telford, the Rennies - father and sons, - Bramah, the Brunels - father and son, the Stephensons - father and son, the Fairbairns, Manby, Walker, Simpson, Field, and others, with many of whom he kept up an active correspondence.

Nor was he unmindful of those younger members of his profession 'as yet to fortune and to fame unknown,' whose careers were but commencing; and many such, now in positions of comfort and even opulence, gratefully remember the kind and ready interest shown by him in their early struggles.

Having served Russia under five successive sovereigns, Catherine II., Paul, Alexander I., Nicholas, and Alexander II., to all of whom he was personally known, General Wilson retired from active service in 1860, enjoying a full pension from the Imperial Crown, and, by the special order of the Emperor, the use of the official residence at Alexandrovsk, which he had occupied since 1821, and in which he died, after a very few days’ confinement to his bed, the 13th-25th February, 1866, within two days of completing his ninetieth year.

Full of years and honours, he finished his active and useful life, esteemed and regretted by all who knew him, more especially by those over whom he had presided for so many years, with ever ready and kind consideration of their wants and representations. The affectionate esteem with which he was regarded by these people will be seen from the following extract of a letter from St. Petersburg, describing his funeral procession; the service having been performed in the chapel of the British Factory at St. Petersburg, to which no cemetery is attached. He was buried in the family grave at Colpino.

'At every village through which the procession passed the clergy and poor turned out, and insisted on carrying the body; the old, grey-headed men struggling to be first. The arrival at Colpino was a perfect ovation. The St. Nicholas church there has a splendid choir; and their chanting and that of the clergy was most solemn and beautiful. Many were in tears; each full of what the General had done for them and their fathers during the fifty years when he was their chief; each had some tale to tell. It appears that when in office at Colpino he was in the habit of lending them money when they needed it - to build a house, or buy new cow - their wages being small; to some 50 roubles and upwards, to he repaid in small sums quarterly. The people have not forgotten this, or his many other acts of kindness and generosity. He has endowed two schools there; one for fifty girls, which was always full; another for boys, not so well attended.'

To these traits of his character, may be added his untiring energy and industry, and his moderate and unostentatious mode of living; indulging himself in only one expensive luxury-the collection of a large and valuable library of rare and useful books.

The following extract from the ‘Times’ of the 25th June, 1854, will be further evidence of the influence which he possessed with the Government :-

'From the millwright and other engineering departments at Colpino the Englishmen had less difficulty in obtaining their passports, owing to the mediation of General Alexander Wilson, a native of Scotland, who is at the head of that establishment, and who has spent the greater part of a long life (being now nearly eighty years old) in the Russian service, and in which General Wilson is held by the Emperor may be judged from the who is an immense favourite with the Emperor Nicholas. The estimation following incident, which occurred at Colpino, which is the first station on the railway between St. Petersburg and Moscow. On the occasion of the Emperor’s visit to the latter city come time since, the General waited on his Majesty at the station, when the Emperor embraced him, kissed him on the cheek, and declared aloud he was the most honest man in his service.'

General Wilson died unmarried, but left nephews and grandnephews to preserve his name in Russia.

He was elected a Corresponding Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 16th of March, 1824 - on the nomination of Mr. Telford, Sir M. I. Brunel, Mr. Field, and Mr. Jacob Perkins - and was removed to the class of Members on the suppression of the former class.

During his periodical visits to Great Britain he invariably found time to visit the Institution, made minute and careful inquiries as to the progress of engineering science and practice, availed himself to the uttermost of the advantages of the Institution, and corresponded frequently with the officers of the Society, when he required information on special points between his visits.


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