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British Industrial History

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Frederick Swanwick

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Frederick Swanwick (1810-1885)

Took part in the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Also surveyed the route of the North Midland Railway


1886 Obituary [1]

FREDERICK SWANWICK died on the 15th of November, 1885, at Bournemouth, at the age of seventy-five. He was for thirty-eight years a member of this Institution, having been elected on the 29th of June, 1847, and one of the last survivors of that eminent band of Civil Engineers of which the Stephensons, father and son, the Brunels, father and son, Bidder, Locke, Vignoles, the subject of this memoir, and others were amongst the most distinguished figures, and which, in the twenty years between 1830 and 1850, covered England with that network of railways to which later additions bear no adequate proportion.

If Mr. Swanwick’s name be not so well known as some of those above mentioned, it is rather that he lacked the ambition than the ability to be distinguished; that he cared more to leave perfect than remarkable work behind him; that his extreme conscientiousness demanded that all his time should rather be given to the execution of the work in hand, than to the designing of unique structures for men to gaze and wonder at. But there can be no doubt that had exceptional conditions called for some new development of engineering skill, Mr. Swanwick’s powerful mind, thorough acquaintance with the theory and practice of his profession, close application and absolute inability to beaten, would have met and conquered those conditions, as the Stephensons conquered Chat Moss and the Menai Straits, or Brunel the passage of Plymouth Sound.

Mr. Swanwick was born in Chester on the 1st of October, 1810. He was the youngest son of Mr. Joseph Swanwick, a man of keen and lively powers. His mother, Hannah Wicksteed, possessed vivid imagination and a keen sense of humour. As a boy, his intense earnestness in whatever matter occupied his attention, whether work or play, was one of his most notable characteristics, and to resist the impulse to a frolic was as impossible to him, at lawful seasons, as to neglect his duties at others.

Frederick Swanwick was first sent to school with Mr. Bakewell, the Unitarian minister of Chester. Later on, the Rev. Dr. Hutton, of Leeds, his first cousin, though twenty years his senior, happening to see the lad, was much struck with his bright intelligence and evidence of high principle, and prevailed upon his father to let him take Frederick back with him, representing that it would be a privilege to have such a boy to keep up the tone of his school. He remained at Leeds for two or three years, and a mutual and very deep .regard sprang up between master and pupil.

In 1826 Mr. Swanwick went to the University of Edinburgh, and for one year attended the science and mathematical classes of Processors’ Leslie and Playfair. Other lectures, on more general subjects, also engaged his attention, and he was a frequent visitor to the museum of the University.

In the autumn of 1827 he returned home, and became much interested in the construction of the Great Grosvenor bridge across the river Dee, boasting the largest span of any then existing bridge. Mr. Trubshaw, the builder of the bridge, was an acquaintance of Mr. Swanwick‘s father. He invited Frederick "to Come within the gates and put his hand to work" if he liked. He did so with eager enthusiasm; here he met with an accident, striking his ankle with an adze, which kept him a prisoner for several weeks, and left its mark and its consequences for life.

He devoted two years at this time to the study of practical mathematics, and on the 5th of October, 1829, he was articled to George Stephenson, then engaged in constructing the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. He took up his residence, in common with other of the pupils, in Mr. Stephenson’s house. The great engineer stimulated the ambition of his young people, and excited their emulation, by freely conversing with them on the principles of mechanics, examining them in their knowledge of practical science, and discussing questions of its application. “In these discussions the talk often grew exciting, and even feverish.” The subject of this memoir formed the resolution to which he afterwards referred his professional success, “to accept all work sanctioned by his master, however apparently humble or undignified.”

He made for himself a strict rule of this, and no ridicule turned him from it; and to this he attributed his mastery of the minutest details of engineering work. As a child he had been indifferent to the opinions of his companions, when certain of his own course, and while he never retaliated or resented unkindness, he never yielded, and his buoyant spirits through life, under otherwise overwhelming difficulties, resulted from the indomitable will to pursue the straight course, and never weight his conscience with the knowledge of voluntary dereliction of duty.

In the same year (1829) in which he became Mr. Stephenson’s pupil he also became his secretary, in succession to Mr. Gooch, and retained this office till Mr. Stephenson moved to Ashby de la Zouche. In this position he enjoyed the inestimable advantage, not only of watching the progress of the railway works, but the far greater one of being cognizant of George Stephenson’s thoughts, experiments, plans, and modes of carrying out their results; and in those early days of railways Mr. Stephenson had not only to make the railway, but to design and make the machinery that made it, and the very tools that made the machinery. He had to begin at the very bottom, and himself build up all that was necessary for the undertaking-wagons, cranes, rails, keys, bolts, pins, everything. At the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, on the 15th of September, 1830, Mr. Swanwick drove the "Arrow," one of the engines that drew the first passenger train of engineering history.

In 1832, when Frederick Swanwick was at the very early age of twenty-two, Mr. Stephenson showed his remarkable confidence in his pupil’s powers by entrusting him not only with the execution but with the selection of route - merely throwing out suggestion as to its direction - and the entire planning of the Whitby and Pickering Railway. It is indeed not certain that Mr. Stephenson had even seen the ground, but he had more important work on hand, and he gave his young pupil carte blanche. The line was a single one and for horse-power only. In 1833 the Act for this line was obtained, and in June, 1836, it was opened, and not till the opening day did George Stephenson see the railway that he had fathered, and completed by the hand of a pupil, with the most entire satisfaction.

But before this day arrived Mr. Swanwick was already engaged on the great engineering work of his life-the North Midland Railway, from Derby to Leeds, for which he obtained the Act in 1836, and which was opened on the 30th of June, 1840. This line pierces the backbone of England, tunnels beneath and amongst its Coal Measures, and crosses many times some of its principal rivers. The works were, therefore, exceedingly heavy, and Mr. Swanwick devoted untiring energy to make them permanent and absolutely sound, at the least possible cost, and without sacrificing reasonable beauty of design. It has been said, and with truth, that no railway works in England exceed those of this line in strength and durability. To these ends he never spared himself, nor, it may be added, his assistants, for he gave them credit-whether they all deserved it or not-for conscientiousness equal to his own.

During the progress of the works on this line, and indeed during all his professional life, Mr. Swanwick worked very early and very late, and frequently night and day. It was his habit to do all possible travelling in the night, that he might be on the works or in his office during working hours. He would frequently rise at two o’clock to catch the early mail for some distant point of interest, be back at his office early, write, or direct his assistants and draughtsmen for some hours, drive to some other point in the afternoon, be back at the office in the evening and work till eleven or later-often alone - then walk home 3 miles, and begin again very nearly the same routine on the next day. He had a good constitution and was absolutely temperate, or he could never have weathered these continuous years of labour.

During the progress of the works of the Clay Cross tunnel he would constantly snatch a hasty dinner, late in the evening, his gig waiting at the door, drive the 7 miles to Clay Cross, don his tunnel dress and surprise the night gangs by his appearance amongst them. His confidence in his lieutenants was always great, for he chose them with care and possessed that rare power of judging of character from expression which seldom betrayed him; having chosen them with care he trusted them with completeness and devolved upon them the entire responsibility of their peculiar department.

His contractors often thought him hard - but there was no real hardness in his dealings ; he had to hold the scales between the Company and them, and he was absolutely firm in giving justice precedence to feeling. With the preliminary survey of the North Midland Mr. Swanwick carried on also that of the York and North Midland under Mr. Cabrey, and the Sheffield and Rotherham, of which Mr. Robert Stephenson was Consulting Engineer, and Mr. Henry Vickers, of Sheffield - with whom Mr. Swanwick formed a strong and life-long friendship - solicitor. Of this last-mentioned railway Mr. Swanwick was also constructing engineer. This line was opened in 1839.

In 1836 Mr. Swanwick gave evidence before the committees of the House of Commons on all these lines and on that of the Derby and Birmingham also, and since his days were occupied in committee, his office-work had to be and was done during the nights. No one was more vigilant than he when necessary, and during many weeks before the 30th of November - the day for depositing railway plans with the Board of Trade, Mr. Swanwick and his chief assistants would scarcely have their clothes off at all. Well do they all remember the toil of the October, November and December of 1845 in particular, but, work over, by some happy chance the subject of this memoir had the very valuable faculty, to which probably he largely owed his own immunity from illness, of falling instantly asleep.

In 1840 George Hudson, a draper of York and a bold adventurer, became chairman of the North Midland, and extensive amalgamations were formed which resulted in the union of the North Midland, Midland Counties, Birmingham and Derby and Birmingham and Bristol Railways, under the title of the Midland Railway. Quarrelling and fault-finding became the order of the day, and in 1844 Mr. W. H. Barlow, Past President Inst. C.E., became Resident Engineer of this amalgamated company, and Mr. Swanwick took charge of its newly-projected lines, piloting them through Parliament and superintending their construction. Amongst these were the Nottingham and Mansfield, opened in 1848 ; the Nottingham and Lincoln; the Erewash Valley; the Pinxton and Mansfield ; the junction line between the Midland and the Sheffield and Manchester at Sheffield, opened in 1847.

Besides these lines which were all executed, Mr. Swanwick was engaged in preparing for several bills which were afterwards abandoned, though many of them, with more or less modification, have been since carried out. Amongst these were the Worcester and Shrewsbury; Sheffield and Bakewell; Severn Valley; Leeds, Wakefield and Midland Junction; Lincoln and Great Grimsby Rotherham and Doncaster.

To form any adequate idea of the incessant toil, of body alone, which Mr. Swanwick underwent during the twenty years of his active professional life, it would be necessary to master the indirect evidence of his note-books, letter-books and accounts, for he kept no journal or diary. These, however, even without mastering them, indicate sufficiently his incessant activity; the almost inconceivable distances he compassed in each twenty-four hours, his various offices, London, the different works in progress, and his home for brief intervals, witnessing his active, necessary and useful presence at what seemed wonderfully near the same points of time. Of his life, after retiring from the practice of his profession, this is not the place to speak at length, but it may briefly be said that it scarcely slackened in activity more than increasing years rendered necessary.

His time and a most generous purse were always at the service of the public-especially in the neighbourhood of his home - in furthering all thoroughly useful work ; he was an earnest philanthropist, though anything but a sentimental one; unsparing in his contempt and horror of mawkish sentiment, and debilitating and demoralizing alms-giving ; but for hospitals, schools and institutions of a still higher educational aim he would lend his whole personal help and influence, and was always in the van.

As before remarked, Mr. Swanwick was a man of no frivolities and no personal indulgences, but he was genial in an unusual degree, with the buoyant and happy spirits of a child ; the result of good health and a “conscience void of offence.” His hospitality was unbounded and proverbial, and the home-sick young pupil found under his roof a joyful and kindly welcome that soon mad0 it a home, and that cheered many a Sunday and holiday that would otherwise have been a weariness to get through. After Mr. Swanwick settled at Whittington, the master to whom he was so much and so justly attached, Mr. George Stephenson, also settled near Chesterfield, at Tapton Hall, and their relations were of the most happy and cordial kind during the remainder of Mr. Stephenson’s life. The latter died on the 12th of August, 1848, but his neighbour and pupil arrived, after an absence from home, just too late to follow him to the grave. On one occasion Mr. Swanwick invited Mr. Stephenson to meet Mr. Emerson at Whittington. A meeting which Mr. Emerson so greatly enjoyed, that he said It was worthwhile to cross the Atlantic, if only to see Stephenson,”of whom he spoke as a man of such native force of character and vigour of intellect.”

Mr. Swanwick was, by education, a Unitarian, but he was no sectarian; he was, indeed, far above that, he was a practical Christian, consciously or unconsciously-who can tell ?-following as closely as man can, the leading, the teaching, and the example of Christ ; brave, faithful, loving, single-minded, and pure in heart ancl in life; courageous and unflinching in the performance of duty; absolutely unselfish and devoted in his personal relations, neither saying nor allowing to be said to him, an unkind or malicious word of any one, while avoiding equally, on the other hand, the semblance of flattery or adulation; a promoter of all innocent and wholesome pleasures ; a man who held his substance in trust for those who required it more than he did ; a man, in short, admired, respected, and loved by everyone who knew him.



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