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Francis John Bolton

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Colonel Sir Francis John Bolton (1830-1887)


1888 Obituary [1]

COLONEL SIR FRANCIS JOHN BOLTON was born at Kilburn, Middlesex, on the 5th of June, 1830. He was the son of Dr. Thomas Wilson Bolton, a physician practising in London.

Frank Bolton (as he was more familiarly known to his friends) was the architect of his own fortunes. His success in life was mainly, if not entirely, due to his own exertions. Owing to Dr. Bolton’s death whilst Frank was still a child, the latter had from a very early age to face the fact that he had his own way to make in the world. His career was in many respects a remarkable one. Starting with a fair middle-class education, his early experiences (to which he was fond of referring) appear to have been as curious as they were varied.

When the late Sergeant Cox first started that now wellknown legal journal, “The Law Times,” he employed young Bolton for some time as his clerk. Frank next occupied the position of Secretary to the late Sir Valentine Blake. In connection with that employment, an incident may be mentioned, which occurred some years after Colonel Bolton had retired from the Army. He one day saw an advertisement in The Times, to the effect that Frank Bolton, who formerly acted as Private Secretary to Sir Valentine Blake, would hear of something to his advantage by applying to the advertisers, an eminent firm of solicitors. He did so; and their surprise, when they found that the youthful Secretary had developed into Colonel Bolton, the Metropolitan Water-Examiner, was considerable - much to his amusement.

Although he was not afraid of hard work, an office-stool possessed but small attraction for the lad, who had higher ambitions. At the age of about sixteen, he obtained a cadetship in the Austrian Army. His experiences of that service, however, were destined to be of but short duration, as his regiment was disbanded soon after he joined it. He consequently returned to England. Preferring to be independent of his relations, and confident in his own ability to make his mark, Frank Bolton then determined to enlist, with the view of working his way up to a Commission. He accordingly joined the Royal Artillery, in which distinguished corps he soon obtained rank as a non-commissioned officer. He for some time acted as Sergeant-Instructor of Gunnery, and accompanied his Battery when it was ordered for foreign service in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

In 1857 Frank Bolton obtained his first commission as Ensign in the Gold Coast Artillery. A year later he was promoted to Lieutenant in the same corps, in which he also successively attained the rank of Adjutant and Captain. After having served for three years on the Gold Coast, during which time he was engaged in the expedition against the Crobboes, and the attack on the Dunqua forts, he, in June 1861, exchanged to a Captaincy in the 12th Regiment of foot. He afterwards served on the Staff as Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General, and was attached to the Royal Engineers at Chatham.

In 1866, he became a Major unattached, and retired from the Army in 1881, with the rank of Colonel. Captain Bolton was the first to propose, in 1861, a complete system of visual signalling for Her Majesty’s Services, which was fully adopted in 1863, and is still in use. In conveying to Captain Bolton the announcement of the adoption of this system, the Secretary of State for War expressed his high sense of the valuable service which Captain Bolton had rendered, and at the same time transmitted an extract from the Report of the Ordnance Select Committee, conveying their great appreciation of the judgment and ability Captain Bolton had shown in working out the plans. The Secretary of State further awarded him the sum of £1,000 which, however, did not nearly cover his expenditure on the invention. Captain Bolton, moreover, invented and designed the necessary apparatus for carrying out this system, and compiled the “Manual of Instruction.” In conjunction with Captain Colomb, R.N., he also prepared the present Army and Navy Code of Signals. He superintended the fitting-out of the signallers for the Abyssinian Expedition, and instructed numerous officers in Army signalling. These services were acknowledged by the Commander-in-Chief, and the Secretaries of State for India and for the Colonies, where his system was used during actual warfare with marked success, and found of unquestionable value.

Amongst Captain Bolton’s other military inventions may be mentioned his rifle muzzle-stopper and sight-protector, both of which were adopted into the Service, the latter being still in use. He also assisted the War Department in designing wads and gas checks for use with rifled guns. In 1868-69 Major Bolton submitted a scheme for the re-organization of the Army, which was duly acknowledged by Lord Northbrook. Several of the suggestions made in that scheme were, either wholly or partially, acted upon. For these services Colonel Bolton received the honour of Knighthood in January, 1884.

On the 5th of May, 1863, Captain Bolton was elected an Associate of this Institution, on the ground that, having been for many years engaged in the pursuit of telegraph engineering, particularly by means of light, and in the improvement of the system of lighting lighthouses, and making them indicate their numbers automatically, he was worthy of that honour. He served as an Associate of Council in the Session 1873-74, and was a frequent attendant at the meetings. It will be seen from this that his talent for invention had not been confined to military matters alone. He was, in truth, a “many-sided” man, and found time to give attention to a variety of subjects a part from his profession. In 1866 Major Bolton assisted in laying the Atlantic cable of that year. In 1871, in conjunction with Major (now Major-General) C. E. Webber, C.B., R.E., and the late Robert Sabine, he founded the Society of Telegraph-Engineers. Colonel Sir Francis Bolton took the deepest interest in the welfare of this Society up to the last, and contributed in no small measure to the extension of its utility and importance. He undertook from the outset the duties of Honorary Secretary of the Society-an appointment which at one time was no sinecure, and which he retained until his death. He was also elected a Vice President in 1885.

In 1871 he published "Bolton’s Telegraph Code,” which is one of the most comprehensive and voluminous works of the kind ever compiled. It was described by its author as being “a Telegraphic Dictionary of the English language, forming a complete code for the transmission of Telegraph and Postal-card messages on every subject, adapted to every branch of business, and suited for use in any language.”

In 1871 also, when the Metropolis Water Act was passed, which provided for the appointment of a Water-Examiner, Major Bolton was selected to fill the post, and speedily invested it with far greater importance than was contemplated when the office was created. In addition to examining the quality of the water, he came to be regarded by the Metropolitan Water Companies as their consulting adviser on all matters of importance affecting their works. By his great tact, and by the efficient manner in which his duties were discharged, he won the confidence of the Companies, the Department, and the Public. Consequently it was to him that they alike instinctively turned for counsel and assistance in all cases of intricacy or difficulty connected with the water-supply of the Metropolis. Colonel Sir Francis Bolton’s exhaustive monthly and annual Reports bear witness to his remarkable grasp of detail, and power of organization. Of all the tasks, however, that Sir Francis Bolton undertook during the course of his active, busy life, the one by which he is probably best remembered-at all events by the great majority of the public-is the fountain-illumination at the South Kensington Exhibitions.

In 1884, the eight Companies supplying London with water having been invited to make a collective exhibit at the International Health Exhibition, a Committee, with Colonel Sir Francis Bolton at its head, was formed to carry out the necessary arrangements. He specially designed and superintended the construction of a pavilion, for the purpose of showing the manner in which the inhabitants of London were supplied with water, and conveying an idea of the magnitude and importance of the Metropolitan Water-supply. In order to enhance the popularity of the Water Companies’ exhibit, Sir Francis Bolton conceived the idea of illuminated fountains in the grounds of the Exhibition. Nothing of the kind had ever before been attempted, and the success of the fountains was unique. They proved an enormous attraction, and added largely to the receipts of the Exhibition, the result being that they were continued during the two subsequent Exhibitions. The illuminated-fountain display was entirely designed by Sir Francis Bolton, and directed by himself from the Clock Tower at the south side of the Exhibition gardens, where he used to sit night after night. He threw himself with characteristic energy into the task, which was to him a labour of love in every sense of the word, for he received no reward whatever.

The little operating-room in the Clock Tower used to be thronged nightly by curious crowds. Representatives of every rank of society, from the highest in the land, and of every pursuit, were met with there, eager to watch the magician deftly controlling the fountains, which, in ever-changing hues, seemed to spring responsive to their master’s touch on the signalling keyboard. Unhappily, the continued exposure to the night-air produced repeated chills, and eventually resulted in a severe attack of laryngitis, which caused his death on the 5th of January, 1887, at the age of fifty-six.

It has already been remarked that Frank Bolton was essentially a “many-sided” man. He combined great quickness of perception and promptitude in action, with peculiar fertility of resource and readiness of expedient. Such were the prominent traits in his character, which usually speaking carried him to the front in whatever he was engaged. Sanguine, self-reliant, and energetic, he was slow to admit the possibility of failure, and probably for that reason was generally successful in matters where caution in a business sense was not a necessary qualification. This sketch would not be complete if it omitted to mention, as an illustration of his extraordinary versatility and inventive fecundity, that amongst the numerous other inventions which he patented, bsides those already enumerated, were a secondary battery for electrical purposes ; a process for rendering acids inert, and thereby capable of being moved with ease and safety ; and a hand fire-grenade.



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Sources of Information

  1. 1888 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries