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Francis Fowke

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Captain Francis Fowke, R.E. (1823-1865)


1870 Obituary [1]

CAPTAIN FRANCIS FOWKE, R.E., was born at Belfast, in July 1823.

His early education was received at Dungannon College, but at the age of sixteen he was entered at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and he obtained a Commission in the Royal Engineers in 1842.

After being stationed for several years at Bermuda, he, on returning to this country, designed and made the working drawings for the Raglan barracks, at Devonport, in which, it is said, many comforts and facilities were provided not previously customary in similar buildings.

In 1854 he received his captain’s Commission, and in the same year undertook the charge of the machinery sent from Great Britain to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855, and was, at a somewhat later period, appointed secretary to the British Commission, and resided in Paris during the year of the Exhibition.

In connection with that Exhibition he wrote two reports: one on “Civil Construction,” and the other on “Naval Construction.” He also conducted a series of valuable experiments on the strength of colonial woods, which, in the colony of Jamaica, had the effect, it is said, of increasing the annual export of lance-wood spars fourfold, and raising that of mahogany from 4,869 feet to 39,474 cubic feet.

In 1857, after the conclusion of the work in connection with the Paris Exhibition, he was made Inspector of the Science and Art Department, and subsequently he became the engineer and architect of the South Kensington Museum, and made many additions to the iron building known as the "Boilers," which was designed by the late Sir William Cubitt (Past-President, Inst. C.E.), as a means of affording temporarily the greatest amount of covered space at the least cost.

About this time Captain Fowke was called upon to design, in conjunction with Mr. Redgrave, R.A., a gallery for the exhibition of the pictures bequeathed to the nation by Mr. Sheepshanks; and the object sought to be attained, the possibility of seeing the pictures without glitter or reflection, has in most respects been accomplished. On this occasion he applied a novel principle to the lighting of picture galleries by gas ; and, by the use of ingenious machinery, many thousand gas-burners are lighted every evening in a few minutes.

The Vernon and the Turner Galleries of the South Kensington Museum were built by him, with fireproof floors, in the course of eight weeks, in December, 1858, at a cost, it is asserted, not exceeding 4d. a cubic foot.

But Captain Fowke's greatest feat, in the economical use of materials, was in the construction of a drill-shed for the 1st Middlesex Engineer Volunteers, of which corps he was the founder. This shed was 100 feet in length by 40 feet in width, and consisted of semicircular ribs of timber resting on brick foundations and covered with felt. The cost of this to the corps did not exceed £100, but some of the members of the corps gave their labour gratuitously. A similar principle was adopted in the construction of the temporary entrances to the Horticultural Gardens ; and numerous Volunteer corps throughout the country were provided with drill-sheds after the same design.

In 1858 Captain Fowke was appointed to represent England at the Paris Technical Commission, which was charged to give an opinion upon the plans proper for improving the entrance to the Danube from the sea, when the St. George's branch was unanimously recommended for adoption ; but the works have not, from various reasons, been carried out according to the views then expressed.

Captain Fowke likewise laid out the ground at South Kensington belonging to the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851, gave the first general plan for the Horticultural garden, which was subsequently modified by Mr. Nesfield, and designed the conservatory, regarded as one of the best constructions of the kind, as well as the south arcade, in which terra-cotta was introduced with good effect.

In 1859-60, as architect of the Science and Art Department, he designed the New Industrial Museum at Edinburgh, the first stone of which was laid by the Prince Consort in October, 1861 ; and about the same time the interior of the National Gallery in Dublin was remodelled and added to by him. The series of buildings for the International Exhibition of 1862 was designed by him ; but so many alterations were made from time to time, that he ought not to be blamed for its deficiencies in an artistic point of view, while as regarded lighting, ventilation, and general convenience it was generally admitted to have been a great success. He devised the plans for the new buildings for the South Kensington Museum, with the aid of the late Mr. Godfrey Sykes, as decorative artist. and these, as modified and improved by the Author, and in which large use has been made of terra-cotta, were being carried out at the time of Captain Fowke’s death.

Several minor works were produced by Captain Fowke, including a drawbridge, elongated shot for rifled ordnance, collapsing pontoons, a portable military fire-engine, a folding camera, and improved umbrella, a portable India-rubber bath, and a travelling scaffold. His friend and colleague, Mr. Cole, has expressed the following opinion as to his career:-

“I firmly believe that the arts of construction in this country have sustained a great loss by Captain Fowke’s death. At this period, when Art is so transitional, and Science is making so many discoveries, and men’s minds are seething with inventions; when the use of new materials is being constantly manifested, and the new adaptation of old materials is constantly entered upon, England has lost a man who felt the spirit of his age, and was daring enough to venture beyond the beaten path of conventionalism. Captain Fowke, to my mind, was solving the problem of the decorative use of iron, and, by appreciating the spirit both of the Gothic and the Renaissance architecture, as on the threshold of introducing a novel style of architecture, when, alas! death, at the early age of forty-two years, has cut short his promising career.”

Captain Fowke joined the Institution of Civil Engineers as an Associate on the 19th of May, 1863. His decease occurred somewhat suddenly, from the bursting of a blood-vessel, on the 4th of December, l865 ; but he had been in declining health for some months previously.


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