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British Industrial History

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John Cass Birkinshaw

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John Cass Birkinshaw (1811-1867)

1811 November 11th. Born at Bedlington the son of John Birkinshaw and his wife Ann Cass

1838 'Notice is hereby given, that the Partnership heretofore subsisting between us the undersigned, John Birkinshaw and William Shepherd, as Coal-Owners, carrying on business at Netherton, in the county of Durham, and at Blyth, in the county of Northumberland, under the style or firm of the Netherton Coal Company, was this day dissolved ; and that the same will in future be carried on by the said William Shepherd and John Cass Birkinshaw and Henry Birkinshaw. — Dated, this 26th day of December 1838.' [1]

1846 April 7th. Married Frances Hackwray at Pannal, York

1848 December 2nd. Partnership dissolved between John Cass Birkinshaw, Henry Birkinshaw, Thomas Gibson and R. E. Huntley (Robert Elliott Huntley) trading as Netherton Coal Co, in Netherton Northumberland [2]

1851 Living at Clifton, Bristol (age 39 born Bedlington), Civil Engineer. With his wife Frances (age 29 born Harrogate) and their children John Frederick Birkinshaw (age 3 born York), Fanny M. (age 2 born York) and Aimi L. (age 1 born Whickham, Durham). Also his sister-in-law Louisa Thackeray (age 25 born Harrogate). Four servants. [3]


1871 Obituary [4]

John Cass Birkinshaw was born in the year 1811 at Bedlington Iron Works, in the county of Durham, where his father (John Birkenshaw) was manager to the Bedlington Iron Company, and the patentee of the malleable iron fish-bellied rails.

He had no special education, other than a country lad received in those days, except in being sent to Edinburgh for a session, where he studied under Professors Leslie and Hope.

His father and George Stephenson were at that time very intimate, and the latter used frequently to come over to Bedlington, where Michael Longridge, then managing partner of the Iron Company, had employed him in making a railway to connect the iron works with a colliery about l.25 mile distant. This was the first railway laid with the malleable iron rails.

In his hours of play, young Birkinshaw made models of machinery, mills, forge-hammers, and electrical machines, as other boys did. To these tendencies of the imitative faculty, but principally no doubt to the intimate relations of his father with George Stephenson, must be attributed the reason of his becoming an engineer. But some other causes may have exercised an influence: the old timber bridge, which spanned the river Blyth opposite the windows of his house, was one day pulled down, and a new one erected in its place by the village mason; the dam across the river had become unsafe, and was rebuilt by the elder Rastrick while he was yet a boy; Sir W. Fairbairn, of Manchester, M. Inst. C.E., had spent some time at the works in his early days as a millwright repairing the old water-wheels; and young Birkinshaw had himself designed a small suspension bridge, which was subsequently put up by the Bedlington Iron Company across the Wansbeck at Morpeth.

But at all events it so happened that, on Robert Stephenson’s return from South America, young Birkinshaw became, it is believed, his first articled pupil. At the Forth Street engine factory of Messrs. Stephenson at Newcastle he spent many pleasant days, sometimes visiting Bedlington to make a series of sketches of all the machinery in vogue there, furnaces, rolling-mills, and forges, for Mr. Stephenson’s use, copies of some of which, elaborated into finished drawings, were afterwards published in the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica.'

After assisting to check the levels, and to test the general accuracy of a survey made by Mr. Giles, for the proposed Newcastle and Carlisle Railway, which the Stephensons were retained to oppose in Parliament, Mr. Birkinshaw was next engaged upon the Leicester and Swannington Railway for a year or more, as Resident Engineer.

Then came, in 1830, the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway - the first line of any importance which had been made in England. On this occasion he was summoned to assist in carrying out the arrangements.

This was no sooner over than he went to Canterbury, where, with Thomas Cabry, he made the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, now a branch of the South Eastern.

The London and Birmingham Railway was commenced in the year 1834, and Mr. Birkinshaw was appointed assistant engineer at the London or Camden Town end. But he did not long retain that position, for the contractor having become bankrupt, the works were carried on by the company, and Mr. Birkinshaw, as having already had much experience, was considered by Mr. Stephenson a proper person for their direction and management.

The heaviest works were the Primrose Hill tunnel, made through the London clay, the open-cut tunnel at Kensal Green, and the Brent bridge, beyond which his portion of the line did not extend far. The works were well done, and elicited favourable remarks both from Mr. Stephenson and from the chairman of the company.

In 1837 Mr. Birkinshaw had confided to him the execution of what was called the Birmingham and Derby railway, but was rather the Derby and Hampton line, Hampton being a small village in the forest of Arden, at some distance from Birmingham, on the railway from that town to London. The works were of a moderately easy character in point of construction. The materials were the blue bricks of Staffordshire, sandstone from the neighbouring quarries, and Memel timber for the river crossings, of which there were several long ones but little elevated above the adjoining meadows.

It is said that the permanent way of this railway has cost the present Midland Company less money for repairs than any other part of their system. Mr. Birkinshaw had a notion that the works were the best that had ever been done under his direction, and he went over them the year before he died to see what they were like then, after so many years had elapsed.

The carriages and rolling stock were made under his own eye at Tamworth. As the line approached completion the general management was entrusted to him by the Directors, and Messrs. Allport, Assoc. Inst. C.E., and Kirtley, now the General Manager and Locomotive Superintendent of the Midland line, were his chief officers.

On the completion of the Birmingham station and the works of the Tame Valley line in 1842, Mr. Birkinshaw resigned his situation; on which occasion he was presented with a gold snuff-box by the engine-men of the line, and a piece of plate by his friends and pupils. The year after this was, to all intents and purposes, an off-year, only enlivened by an application for the position of manager to the Edinburgh and Glasgow railway, which was unsuccessful.

Subsequently Mr. Birkinshaw was appointed with Mr. Robert Stephenson joint Engineer to the York and Scarborough railway, which was begun in the summer of the year 1844, and was carried on with energy; the line having been staked out and much of the land got before the Act of Parliament was obtained. A single line was at first made, but it was doubled as soon as it was found what a large traffic was to be provided for.

On the completion of the Scarborough line in 1845, surveys were made of the Seamer and Bridlington and the Hull and Bridlington railways. An Act had already been got by the Hull and Selby directors, and the line was placed under Mr. Birkinshaw's direction, and these two railways, when formed, made a continuous piece of road from Scarborough, by way of Bridlington, Driffield, and Bererley, to Hull.

The Harrogate and Church Fenton railway was also started about this time; it is about 17 miles long, includes some heavy works, with a tunnel and viaduct over the Crimple beck.

The Pickering branch of the York and Scarborough line was constructed for the purpose of communication with Whitby by the Whitby and Pickering railway, which, having been made for horse traffic only, had to be altered so as to render it available for locomotives.

From great practice Mr. Birkinshaw had acquired considerable facility in selecting the best line of country, whether by hill or dale, through which to carry any proposed railway, and a quick eye for detecting its advantages and disadvantages, as well as the faculty of imparting his ideas readily and with accuracy, so that his assistants had little trouble in finding their way through a country which he had once wa1k:ed over, being merely required to level it; and, if it were asked if he did any one thing better than another, it might be said that in giving parliamentary or legal evidence he was not surpassed. These were valuable qualities at this juncture, when every engineer spent so much time in the witness box before Parliamentary Committees, or with lawyers preparing for the strife of partisanship.

Many railways were projected, to which Mr. Birkinshaw was Engineer, but only a small number were destined to be made, among which may be mentioned the York and Beverley, in good part at least, the Selby and Market Weighton, the Knottingley branch, the Malton and Driffield, and the Thirsk and Malton, in which last he was associated with T. E. Harrison, (Vice-President Inst. C.E).

Mr. Birkinshaw, although devoting himself almost exclusively to railways, sometimes applied himself to other things. There were the Harrogate waterworks and the Scarborough waterworks, and at the latter place he put up an engine to assist the water-wheel, which had pumped all the water required by the town previously, and otherwise extended the works.

On the retirement of Mr. Hudson, Mr. Birkinshaw for a time gave up practising actively as an engineer; but it was not for long, as circumstances soon made it imperative on him to resume the profession which he had almost discarded. At the invitation of Mr. Leeman, he made an elaborate report on the Foss navigation, which it was proposed, on his recommendation, to do away with.

He now took up his residence in London, and made the plans of the Ware and Hertford railway, of the Luton and Hertford, of the Lymington branch of the South Western, and of the Sittingbourne and Sheerness railway, now a branch of the London, Chatham, and Dover railway, as well as designed a system of railways for the Isle of Wight. During a portion of this time (1860 to 1862) he was in partnership with Mr. Conybeare, M. Inst. C.E., but the connection was soon dissolved.

In 1860 he went to Denmark, and made a report on the reclamation of about 25,000 acres of land on the west coast of Jutland, and on the cultivation of the land so reclaimed for the Danish Land Company. On returning he was appointed Consulting Engineer, and the works, or some of them, were let in 1863.

It was in this last-named year, too, that he was employed for Mr. Fowler, in examining the Seine from Havre to the port of Rouen, in ascertaining by a series of measurements the depths of that river, and in collecting evidence as to its condition; and a 'Report on the project of General De Brossard for the improvement of the port of Havre, and the navigation of the Lower Seine,' was made by him. This was a work of considerable labour, of a tedious kind; in consequence of the impossibilities of getting up a survey, day by day, of the port of Havre and the river Seine under the different aspects of high and low water, of spring and neap tides, and other circumstances.

In 1863 he was engaged by Mr. Murray, who had the concession of the Turin and Savona railway, to go to Italy and report on the construction of the works. He spent the best part of a year on this expedition, taking levels down the valley through which the line runs, and which, like all mountain valleys, is subject to violent floods. He also made surveys, estimates, and reports of the Acqui and Cano, the Piacenza, Genoa, and Chiavari, and the Carmagnola and Turin railways, for the same gentleman.

He again went to Denmark, in the spring of the year 1865, for the Danish Land Company; and this time both as engineer and to superintend the work. Here he spent the summer and autumn, with very inadequate means in money and materials to carry on the works. From anxiety to see them well executed, he exposed himself to all weathers, which greatly increased a complaint he suffered from on his journey out. But the work went on, and the embankment was at length finished, when a violent storm of wind burst over the exposed shore, the sea rose higher than it had been known to do for twenty years, the water was seen to insinuate itself between the woodwork and the bank, and in a short time the bank was nearly all washed away. The advanced season of the year forbade any further action at the time with the embankment; and it was left to be repaired in some future summer.

There is not much more to tell of Mr. Birkinshaw. On his return to England he was engaged on various engineering works and arbitration cases, which occupied his attention until January, 1867.

For the last ten or twelve years of his life he had been harassed by constant pecuniary embarrassments. An incurable malady had for several years been increasing in gravity, and the disease had now reached such a height that no skill or care could be of use. Gradually he became less able to endure the plodding of his daily avocations; till at last he succumbed, and died in March, 1867, in the fifty-sixth year of his age.

Mr. Birkinshaw was elected a Member of the Institution on the 2nd of March, 1847; but there is no record of his having joined in the discussions at the evening meetings, nor did he ever contribute a Paper.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. London Gazette
  2. London Gazette
  3. 1851 census
  4. 1871 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries