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James Vetch

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Captain James Vetch, RE, FRS, (1789-1869)

1839 Captain James Vetch of Morley near Birmingham, in the Corps of the Royal Engineers, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]


1871 Obituary [2]

CAPTAIN JAMES VETCH, R.E., F.R.S., was born at Haddington, N. B., on the 13th of May, 1789, and was the third son of Robert Vetch, of Caponflat, East Lothian.

He was educated at Haddington and Edinburgh; and in 1804, having obtained a nomination from Lord Chatham, he joined the Cadet College at Great Marlow, from whence, in 1805, he was transferred to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich.

He left Woolwich in 1806, to join the Trigonometrical Survey at Oakingham, in 13erkshire, as Assistant-Engineer under Mr. Robert Damson, with whom he remained till the summer of 1807.

He received his commission as second Lieutenant in the corps of Royal Engineers on the 1st of July, 1807; was promoted on the 1st of March, 1808, to be first Lieutenant; and on the 21st of July, 1813, to the rank of Captain.

After serving for three years at Chatham and Plymouth, he was ordered in 1810 to the Peninsula, to join the division of Sir Thomas Graham at the blockade of Cadiz; where, with some exceptions, he continued till it was raised in 1812. He took part in repelling the attack made on the town of Cadiz by gun-boats; and was employed in throwing up works to strengthen the fortifications of the place.

In the spring of 1811 he was employed with Lieutenant Wells, R.E., in superintending the construction and repair of roads by which the allied army was to advance from Tarifa to attack the enemy, and was present at the battle of Barrosa, where his zeal and judgment contributed in no small degree to the access of the action, as the following narrative will show: “On the 1st of March the allied Spanish and English army, commanded by the Spanish general, La Petri, proceeded in the direction of Medina Sidonia, and on the 5th took up its position on the south-east face of the hill of Barrosa. The Spanish general then sent down his own troops in successive divisions, to drive the French from their fortified position in front of S. Petri, and to establish communication with La Isla de Leon. Although little resistance was made, the Spanish troops were long in effecting their object, and General Pena ordered the English division to march through a thick pine-wood to the same spot. Sir Thomas Graham had no choice but to obey, though much against his will, for the hill of Barrosa was evidently the key to the position.

Lieutenant Vetch, though a young soldier, was fully alive to the danger of this movement, and lingered on the hill to observe whether the French would attempt to occupy it. The British division had not advanced above a mile into the wood, when, as Lieutenant Vetch was preparing to follow it, a mounted peasant hastily approached, crying out, 'Where is the general? Where is the general? The French are advancing to occupy the hill!’ Young Vetch directing the peasant to follow him, galloped after the British division, and falling in with Major Hare of the staff, was taken to Sir Thomas Graham, who, the instant he was apprised of this flank movement of the French, ordering each regiment to counter-march on its own ground, made all haste to get back out of the wood. The English emerged from the wood as the French were deploying on the top of the hill, and were immediately formed in line to right and left, with the batteries of artillery, consisting of ten guns, in the centre, on rising ground.

The British infantry advanced slowly but steadily under a heavy fire up the hill, and when, supported by their own artillery, they began to close on the enemy, a spirited charge put the French to flight, and their artillery waggons, and a great many arms fell into the hands of the British force.

Sir Thomas Graham was so gratified at the intelligence displayed by Lieutenant Vetch on this occasion, that he made him the bearer of his despatches to Gibraltar; and directed him afterwards to explore the surrounding country, and crossing to the coast of Barbary, proceed from Tangiers to Tetuan, with a view to reporting on the capabilities of those localities for furnishing engineer supplies. This duty was satisfactorily performed, and on his return he was ordered to proceed in command of a detachment of sappers and miners up the Guadiana to Elvas, where, on arriving, he was immediately employed in the trenches before Badajos. On the evening of the 6th of April, 1812, the town was assaulted, and Lieutenant Vetch received instructions to make a lodgment with three hundred men in the ravelin of San Roque; this he gallantly accomplished, and entered Badajos with the victorious army. After the capture of Badajos he returned to Cadiz, and remained there till the blockade was raised in September, 1812, when he was employed in various parts of the south of Spain until his return to England in 1814.

During the next six years, until 1820, Captain Vetch commanded a company of sappers and miners, and was stationed first at Spike Island, in Cork Harbour, and afterwards at Chatham. It was at this time that he devoted himself so earnestly to the study of geology and other scientific pursuits, for the thorough acquaintance with which he was, later in life, so well known. While employed in constructing the fort on Spike Island, it was found necessary to remove, among other obstructions, an old, strongly built tower, about 50 feet square, with masonry walls 8 feet thick.

Captain Vetch, having paid considerable attention to military mining, undertook to blow it up bodily. In this he was completely successful, for the whole tower rose slowly and then fell into a thousand fragments,-so perfect were his arrangements, so well calculated and placed were the charges, and so simultaneous the shock; and it must be remembered that this was before the days of the application of electricity to mining.

In 1821, on the express recommendation of Colonel Colby, Director of the Trigonometrical Survey, the Duke of Wellington, then Master-General of the Ordnance, appointed Captain Vetch to the Ordnance Survey, and during this and the two following years, assisted first by Lieutenant Drummond, and afterwards by Lieutenant Dawson (the late Colonel Dawson, Assoc. Inst. C.E.), he conducted the triangulation of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and the Western Islands of Scotland. The work was prosecuted by them with great zeal, and carried on so late in the year, that their tents, generally pitched on the tops of high hills, were surrounded with snow before they would allow themselves to suspend their labours for the winter months, a season occupied by Captain Vetch in attending courses of lectures at the Edinburgh University.

While employed on the Ordnance Survey, Captain Vetch, already a Fellow of the Geological Society, contributed several valuable papers to this and other societies. He wrote an able Paper on the remains of a Mammoth discovered by himself near Rochester, also one on geological specimens from the Bermuda islands, and another on some terraces or ancient beaches in the island of Jura: he further contributed to the Memoirs of the Wernerian Society an account of Foula, the most remarkable of the Shetland Islands.

In 1822 Captain Vetch submitted to the authorities an ingenious invention for throwing a line from the shore to effect a communication with a vessel in distress, which was very favourably received.

In 1824, promotion being very slow, officers were encouraged to go on half-pay, in order to visit foreign countries and obtain professional information; and Captain Vetch, having been invited to take the management of some extensive silver mines in Mexico, availed himself of this opportunity, and obtained permission to retire on half-pay from the 11th of March, 1824.

With the exception of a visit to England, for a year or two, he remained in Mexico till 1835; and during this time he not only devoted himself to the development of the Real del Monte, Bolanos, United Mexican, and other mining concerns of which he had the management, but by laying-out and constructing good roads, and by organizing efficient systems of transport, he paved the way for the more extended mining operations at present carried on in that country; in this work he was greatly indebted to the services of the late Colonel Colquhoun, R.A., whose cooperation he found most valuable. So conspicuous were Captain Vetch’s disinterested endeavours to promote the welfare of the mining interest in Mexico, that they attracted the notice of Sir Henry Ward, the British envoy, who, in an official communication, passed the highest encomiums upon them.

During his residence in Mexico, Captain Vetch was much hindered in his work by the want of a reliable map of the country, and with his usual energy he determined to construct one for himself, and making use of the experience he had acquired in England on the Ordnance Survey, he accumulated a vast quantity of astronomical and barometrical observations, measured several short base-lines, and triangulated a large tract of country, a small part of which, on his return to England, he plotted for the use of the Admiralty; but it is much to be regretted that he never had sufficient leisure to arrange his materials, and construct from his voluminous observations and computations an accurate map of the eastern portion of the State of Mexico.

While devoting himself so zealously to these scientific labours he did not lose sight of the vast wealth of the country in antiquarian remains, and on his return to England he presented the British Museum with a valuable collection, and contributed a most interesting Paper to the Royal Geographical Society, of which he was a Fellow, on “The Monuments and Relics of the Ancient Inhabitants of New Spain.”

In 1836 Captain Vetch was appointed one of the Commissioners for settling the Irish borough boundaries; and, on completing this duty, he was for the next four years employed by the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway Company as their Resident Engineer for the construction of one half of that line of railway.

He was then engaged for some time in Ireland and Scotland on matters connected with the reclamation of tide-lands and the formation of embankments; and was frequently consulted professionally both by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, and by the Admiralty.

In 1842, at the request of the Town Council of Leeds, he designed a system of drainage for that borough, which was at once put into execution, and gave great satisfaction. His report on the drainage of Leeds was most favourably noticed in the House of Lords by His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, and he was in consequence called upon to give evidence before the Health of Towns Commission.

In 1843, his attention having been directed to the facilities for communication with India, he published a most exhaustive 'Enquiry into the means of establishing a ship navigation between the Mediterranean and Red Seas,' which attracted considerable attention at the time, and so far engaged public confidence in the proposal that the subject was widely discussed and advocated. The idea never again slumbered, and the execution and completion, by M. de Lesseps, of this great engineering work has but now been witnessed.

It was in this year that Captain Vetch was associated with Sir Henry de la Beche in ‘the preparation of designs for the drainage of the town of Windsor, and in the following year he was directed by Lord Lincoln, then First Commissioner of Woods and Forests, to design and carry out a scheme of drainage for the Royal Castle and Parks, and for the purification of the Frogmore lakes. These works, in which H.R.H. the late Prince Consort took great interest, were carried on partly by contract, and on the strong recommendation of Captain Vetch, partly by a detachment of Royal Engineers, under the command of Lieutenant, now Colonel, the Honourable H. F. Keane, R.E., whose skill and energy were officially represented by Captain Vetch to have rendered his assistance most valuable: the main portion of these works was brought to a conclusion in 1847.

In the meantime, on the passing of the Assessionable Manors of the Duchy of Cornwall Act in 1844, Lord Lincoln was pleased to appoint Captain Vetch to be one of the three Commissioners to carry out the Act; the others being Mr. J. F. Fraser and Mr. J. M. Herbert, barristers-at-law. At the termination of the labours of the Commission in 1846, on the successful attainment of the objects of the Act, the Chancellor of the Duchy was desired by Prince Albert, the President of the Council of the Duchy of Cornwall, to express to the Commissioners the high sense entertained by His Royal Highness and the other members of the Council of the diligence, skill, and impartiality with which the commissioners had conducted the enquiry; and the letter proceeded to say : “The Council are happy to believe that this opinion is shared by the great body of the landowners and others in Cornwall, whose interests have been submitted to your consideration, and that a general feeling prevails that questions so numerous, complicated, and difficult as have arisen under the Commission have seldom, if ever, been investigated by any tribunal with more care, or decided with more general acquiescence in the propriety of the adjudication.”

During the years 1844-46 Captain Vetch was examined at some length before the Tidal Harbours, and Harbours of Refuge Commissions, by whom he was requested to send in a report with drawings and models, to show the advantages which he considered would be obtained by employing wrought-iron framework in the construction of piers and breakwaters. This report was subsequently published. So high an opinion had been formed by these Commissions of Captain Vetch‘s acquaintance with, and knowledge of, the subject of hydraulic engineering that, in 1845, he was directed by Sir Byam Martin to report on the various designs for a Harbour of Refuge at Dover, which had been submitted to the Commissions by the following eminent engineers: Sir John Rennie, Messrs. Walker, Cubitt, Vignoles, George Rennie, James M. Rendel, the late Sir Harry Jones, and Sir William Denison; the report of the Commissioners was in strong confirmation of Captain Vetch‘s opinions.

In July, 1846, Captain Vetch was appointed Consulting Engineer to the Board of Admiralty on all questions relating to railways, bridges, and other works, which might interfere with, or injuriously affect the harbours, rivers, and navigable waters of the United Kingdom.

In 1847 this appointment was abolished, and Captain Vetch was appointed a member of the new Harbour Conservancy Board at the Admiralty, the other members being Captain, afterwards Admiral, Washington, R.N., and Captain Bethune, R.N. Captain Washington was withdrawn from the Board at the end of 1849, and in 1853 it was broken up, and Captain Vet& was appointed sole Conservator of Harbours. From that date, till his retirement from office ten years later, at the advanced age of seventy-five, he continued to discharge its arduous duties, receiving most flattering testimony to his zeal and judgment from the late Sir Robert Peel, Sir J. Graham, the Duke of Newcastle, and other First Lords of the Admiralty.

In a letter dated 1853, the late Duke of Newcastle writes: “I shall, at any time, have very great pleasure in testifying to the high sense I entertain of your services on the various occasions on which I had the good fortune to obtain your assistance.”

In 1849 Captain Vetch was requested by the Government to become one of the Metropolitan Commissioners of Sewers, an office entailing a great deal of work and carrying with it no remuneration, but to which he devoted himself with much energy for four years. During this year he published a pamphlet on the question of an extended water-supply to the Metropolis, and in 1850 he proposed to the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers a complete system of drainage for Southwark, which was subsequently adopted. In 1859 he was a member of the Royal Commission on Harbours of Refuge, of which Admiral Sir James Hope was chairman.

During the sixteen years that, Captain Vetch was employed at the Admiralty he was well known and esteemed by all the prominent members of the Civil Engineering profession. His position was one of great responsibility, and often times difficult in the extreme; for he had to maintain unflinchingly the rights of the Crown and public benefit against countless attempts at encroachments or private aggrandizement, besides having daily to sit in judgment upon, and to con.tro1 the plans of Civil Engineers of great eminence and reputation. The arduous character of his work may be gathered from a letter written by Admiral Washington, the late Hydrographer, in 1858, in which he says: “He (Captain Vetch) had at once thrust upon him, in the very first year of office at the Admiralty, one hundred harbour and railway bills, on which he was required to report to Parliament, and the work was such that, even Sir Francis Beaufort, with all his experience, shrank from it, and would have resigned his post had he not been relieved of it. Captain Vetch had also almost annually to report on works connected with Portsmouth, Cork, Rye, Ramsgate, Portpatrick, Wexford, Isle of Man, Table Bay, and other harbours independently of the common routine of business.”

Captain Vetch retired from the Admiralty in 1863, when his office was abolished, and the duties transferred to the Board of Trade. He devoted the last years of his life to the interests of the various public companies of which he was a director.

He was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1818; of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society in 1830; and an Associate of the Institution on the 26th of March, 1839.

He contributed a “ Description of a Bridge built of blue lias limestone, across the Birmingham and Gloucester railway at Dunhampstead,” in the year 1841, and occasionally attended the meetings. In the year 1850 he was also elected a member of the Societe Franqaise de Statistique Universelle; and, in 1842, a Corresponding Member of the National Institution of Washington.

For his services in the Peninsula he received the War Medal and two clasps, for Barrosa and Badajos.

He died at the advanced age of eighty, on the 7th of December, 1869, leaving a large family and a wide circle of friends to mourn their loss.


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