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James Oldham

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James Oldham (1801-1890)

1834 James Oldham of Hull, a Civil Engineer, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]


1891 Obituary [2]

JAMES OLDHAM was born in Hull on the 23rd of June, 1801.

He was the son of a millwright, and showed at an early age a strong taste for drawing and mechanical pursuits. At the age of fourteen, however, in consequence of a somewhat hasty decision, he went to sea and spent two years in voyages to the Baltic. Mr. Oldham was fond of relating in after years that he was afloat on the North Sea when the Battle of Waterloo was fought.

The hardships of a seafaring life proving too much for his strength he returned, and after some time spent with an uncle in Lincolnshire to regain his health, he was apprenticed to his father as a millwright or mechanical engineer. His ability and enterprise soon became manifest.

He was quite a young man when the Hull Corporation invited engineers to send in drawings and estimates for building a movable bridge (the predecessor of the present North Bridge), and though there were older and more experienced men in the field, Mr. Oldham was successful in the competition, and was ordered to build the bridge.

From this time he practised chiefly as a civil engineer, and soon gained a good connection, being appointed surveyor for some of the principal highways in the Hull district, while he also held the post of Government Inspector of Steamships. It is interesting to note that on the 31st of August, 1840, Mr. Oldham was appointed 'Sole Agent for the disposal of Licenses to use Smith’s Patent Screw Propeller for the Town of Hull and River Humber.'

He acted as engineer to several bodies of Drainage Commissioners in Holderness, and carried out the Keyingham, Sunk Island, and Winestead Cloughs.

In 1844 he was Engineer for a projected line of railway from New Holland to Gainsborough, and in 1845 he was one of the Engineers for the then proposed Hull and Barnsley Junction Railway.

In 1850 Mr. Oldham was employed by Her Majesty’s Commissioner of Woods and Forests to reclaim what is now the eastern portion of Sunk Island, a tract of about 700 acres, in the estuary of the Humber. This land is somewhat below the level of high-water, and is preserved from inundation by a system of dykes and sluices.

In 1852-3 Mr. Oldham was instructed to make surveys for the reclamation of a much larger portion of the estuary extending from Sunk Island to Spurn Point, including from 2,000 to 3,000 acres. This project was abandoned for the time owing to the breaking out of the war with Russia, but recently Mr. Oldham’s partner, Mr. Bohn, has received instructions from the Government to report upon the possibility of reclaiming a tract of between 500 and 1,000 acres adjoining that already dealt with.

Mr. Oldham constructed several bridges in Holderness, and in 1867 and 1868 he made a survey with reference to the land above tidal influence. He was the Government Inspector of Steamers for the Port of Hull for many years, and his knowledge of seafaring life proved of value to him in fulfilling the duties of this post. He also acted as Surveyor of the Garrison Ground until the office became extinct through the absorption of the land by the ever-growing docks of the town.

Mr. Oldham’s knowledge of Hull and its neighbourhood, especially of the River Humber, led to his being consulted constantly by owners of property and promoters of new enterprises in the borough or the country around, and there was hardly a scheme proposed, whether railway, docks, or water-supply, or any public work of utility, in which Mr. Oldham was not one of the witnesses summoned to give evidence before Committees of both Houses of Parliament. Many encomiums were passed upon him on these occasions. His evidence was always concise and to the point, and given in a clear voice. He was keenly interested in the intellectual progress of the people, and for years was an active advocate and supporter of Mechanics’ and Literary Institutes, frequently lecturing for them in Hull and elsewhere.

He was a member of the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society, and read a Paper in 1858 on the 'Supply of Water for Domestic and other Purposes,' and in 1860 on the 'North Atlantic Telegraph.' When the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its meeting in Hull in 1853, Mr. Oldham became a member, and read a Paper on 'The Rise and Progress of Steam Navigation in Hall,' and one on 'The Physical Features of the Humber,' both of which were published in extenso in its Report.

At the meeting at Leeds, in 1858, he presented a Paper on the 'Gresham Buoy' for recording the loss of ships at sea, and in 1861 in Manchester one on the 'Port of Hull.'

In 1862 he communicated to The Institution of Civil Engineers a Paper on the 'Reclamation of Land from Seas and Estuaries,' for which he was awarded a Council Premium. This Paper dealt chiefly with the land reclaimed from the Humber.

Mr. Oldham considered that Hull possessed greater advantages than any other port in the British Isles, being situated on an estuary, which is the outlet of the drainage of about one-fifth of the surface of England, and is not solely dependent on tidal action, and there being no bar or obstruction at the entrance of the river, so that the largest ships afloat could enter and run up to the port at dead low-water.

From 1862 to 1862 he superintended an important series of tidal observations on the Humber, Trent, and Ouse, grants of money having been made for that purpose by the British Association. Reports were presented to the meeting at Cambridge, and subsequently together with the results of a series of borings made in the bed of the river.

In 1874 Mr. George Bohn became a partner with Mr. Oldham. This connection was a source of comfort and satisfaction to the older man; he highly appreciated the qualifications of his junior, whilst MT. Bohn gives testimony to the kindness and amiability of his partner, and has often said that there was never a disagreement between them. The scheme for the Hull and Barnsley Railway was revived, the Bill obtained, and the railway constructed, with the addition of the Alexandra Dock. In the carrying out of these works, Mr. Bohn had a large share, Mr. Oldham taking great interest in the progress of them, gratified that the firm of Oldham and Bohn should be thus associated with this great enterprise of his native town.

In all the social relationships of life Mr. Oldham was highly esteemed. He was kind and genial, and won the respect of those who worked with him or for him. He had a fund of information and bonhomie, which enabled him easily to take his proper place in any society, but it was in the domestic circle that his loyal character was best shown. Upright in person, he was also upright in mind and heart, generous and kind to all. Congestion of the lungs in March 1880, followed by a gradual decline of strength, terminated a long and useful life on June l0th, 1890.

All who knew him agree that he combined in a singularly happy way the character of the man of business and of science with that of the gentleman and the sincere Christian.

Mr. Oldham was elected a Member on the 28th of January, 1834 being at his death the Father of the Institution.



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