James Ashwell (1799-1881)
1820 Became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
1881 Obituary 
James Ashwell, M.A., was born at Nottingham in the year 1799.
His father, who was an ironmaster and colliery proprietor, placed him at the Grammar School in that town, and afterwards sent him to Edinburgh, where he attended the usual course of lectures on the Natural Sciences and other subjects under Fairburn, Leslie, and Pillans, graduating also in classics.
While yet a schoolboy he took a lively interest in his father's ironworks, and acquired some knowledge of practical mechanics, his taste in that direction being stimulated by a visit to Manchester and Leeds in 1816. There he was interested in the steam mills and machinery employed by the manufacturers, but was more especially in a locomotive engine, which he then heard of for the first time. This decided his career, and he determined to become an engineer.
Accordingly, in the following year, his father placed him as a pupil with the late Bryan Donkin, under whom he became thoroughly conversant with practical mechanics. There also he formed a friendship with Henry Robinson Palmer, then a rising engineer often employed by the late Thomas Telford to make surveys. Mr. Ashwell assisted on several of these occasions, especially in a survey on the coast of Norfolk, for the purpose of reclaiming 10,000 acres of land from the sea. He also surveyed the estuary of the Lynn or the Wash.
Whilst yet a pupil of Mr. Donkin, he shared with Messrs. Henry Robinson Palmer, Joshua Field, William Maudslay, James Jones, and Charles Collinge, the distinction of laying the foundation of that Society now known as The Institution of Civil Engineers. Although the junior of the party, Mr. Ashwell was second to none in talent and energy ; he took an active interest in the proceedings and discussions of the little Society, sharing its labours and expenses, until Mr. Telford threw his shield over it, becoming its President, and eventually, by his influence with the Government, obtaining for it a Royal Charter on the 3rd of June, 1828, thus securing for the profession a social and scientific status.
Having completed his training as an engineer in 1823, Mr. Ashwell's inclination would have led him to continue in the practice of that profession ; but having married early in life he felt the necessity of adopting some occupation of a more immediately remunerative kind. His early familiarity with the coal and iron industries induced him to select the staple trade of this country, and for some years he was busily and successfully engaged in ironworks, both in Derbyshire and in Scotland, in connection with a firm in Thames Street.
In 1836 Mr. Ashwell was requested to report on the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Works; he assisted in the formation of that company, and was appointed resident managing director. These works he carried on with great energy and success for five years, and received a handsome testimonial in 1841, when he resigned the position in consequence of an accession of property.
Up to this period Mr. Ashwell’s life had been one of unceasing exertion, and he gladly welcomed the prospect of relaxation from the severe mental and physical strain of the past few years. About to place his two sons in the University, he decided to remove with his family to Cambridge, where he could watch over the progress of his sons, and follow his own taste for literature. With characteristic energy he entered himself as a Fellow-Commoner at Jesus College, kept the regular terms, passed the examinations, and took the degrees successively of B.A. and M.A., going in likewise for the Voluntary Theological in 1845.
This sudden change from a life of activity to one of close study so affected his health that it brought on an attack of paralysis; after a partial recovery from which, Sir Benjamin Brodie forbad a return to his books, and recommended foreign travel. When on the point of starting for a continental tour, he was asked by the Directors of the Great Luxembourg Railway Company to examine and report on their undertaking.
This company had recently been established for the purpose of making a railway to connect Belgium with France on the one hand, and with Prussia and Austria on the other, thus forming a grand trunk line from the two ports of Antwerp and Ostend on the north-west, to those of Trieste and Marseilles on the south. The company was at this time in difficulty, having hitherto relied entirely upon the information and experience of foreigners, whilst their concession, which included, besides the railway and canal, iron and coal works, demanded special talent. Mr. Ashwell’s practical knowledge of the latter, in addition to his skill as an engineer, made him especially eligible to undertake an investigation of the whole enterprise. Accordingly, with a staff of engineers, he commenced an exhaustive survey of the line, through the Ardennes to Arlon and Luxembourg, including the fortifications of Metz, Treves and other towns; he also made the entire circuit of the rivers Meuse and Moselle.
After he had reported on the undertaking, the Directors offered him the important post of Managing Director and Engineer-in-Chief, with a residence in Brussels. This Mr. Ashwell accepted, and during five years carried on the works, conducting two or three lawsuits, and the negotiations with the Government, to the entire satisfaction both of the directors and of the shareholders.
Having thus carried the affair through its difficulties, he resigned his position in 1852, and received the unanimous vote of thanks of the Directors and the shareholders, with a handsome pecuniary recognition for his services.
Mr. Ashwell’s special object in resigning the direction of the Great Luxembourg Company was that he might devote his whole attention to a project which he, in conjunction with a large landed proprietor in Holland, had originated, and for which they had obtained a concession from the Dutch Government, namely, a railway between Antwerp and Rotterdam. He foresaw the importance of this line, traversing the rich polders of Holland and Belgium, and with its branch from Breda, bringing in a large tract of fertile country.
It was the connecting link required to place Holland in direct communication with the railways of central and southern Europe. He had personally surveyed the whole line, examined every detail of its cost, and felt confident that the comparative cheapness of its construction would ensure its being a great financial success, and he looked upon it as the most promising enterprise of his career. He was not, however, allowed to carry it out to completion, or permitted to share in its success.
The Belgian Government, in the proceedings they commenced in 1855 against the Great Luxembourg Company, selected Mr. Ashwell as the subject for prosecution, as he had officially represented that company in Belgium. He was acquitted by their own tribunals, but not until after a protracted and costly trial, and no redress could be obtained, although heavy pecuniary losses had been sustained, and he had suffered still more from his inability (in consequence of their proceedings) to complete the Antwerp and Rotterdam railway.
This unlooked-for crisis materially affected Mr. Ashwell’s health, and from that time he withdrew altogether from professional engagements, spending several years on the Continent, as a warm climate had been recommended for the health of his delicate family.
In this retirement he found a great solace in the continued cultivation of those literary tastes which had been the source of so much enjoyment during his student life both in Edinburgh and at Cambridge; and it is an interesting proof of undiminished mental activity that he took delight in the study of Hebrew and of Harmony when upwards of seventy years of age.
Mr. Ashwell was richly endowed with intellectual gifts, happily combined with so strong a faith, that his mind was never harassed by doubts respecting the truths of revealed religion, and whilst taking the keenest interest in the progress of science, he was ever ready to bear his humble testimony to the higher overruling of the Great First Cause. Wit11 singular contentment he could match the progress of discoveries and inventions prosecuted by the genius of younger men without a shadow of regret at the disappointments of his own career.
His Christian resignation and cheerful temperament brightened many years of comparative privation and of forced inactivity, and so habitually did he realise the true value of this life as the training discipline of the higher one to come, that he could even rejoice in the belief that all its changes worked together for his true everlasting good. Thus he was enabled to await calmly, and with the confidence of a good man, the inevitable end which occurred on the 2nd of July, 1881, after a few days’ illness, at Mildmay Lodge, Weston-super-Mare, at the ripe age of eighty-two years, loved and respected by all who knew him.
1881 Obituary