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John George Cockburn Curtis

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John George Cockburn Curtis (1817-1879)


1880 Obituary [1]

MR. JOHN GEORGE COCKBURN CURTIS, who some years since took in addition the name of Godsman, was born on the 6th of April, 1817.

When five years old he accompanied his father, an officer in the Royal Navy, on a voyage to India. He remained about two years at Madras, where the basis of his education was laid, and then returned to England.

After a brief interval he was admitted into the Royal Naval School at Greenwich, at that time presided over by Dr. Riddell. Here, on one occasion, some mathematical formulae, roughly sketched out by the boy, attracted Dr. Riddell’s notice, by the originality of thought indicated in their treatment, and from this date Dr. Riddell took kindly to the youth, and fostered his growing talents.

On leaving the Greenwich school, at, the age of thirteen, he entered the Royal Navy as a volunteer of the first class, and sailed to the Mauritius, returning in about three years. During the space of a year and a half spent at home he prepared a set of tables of lunar distances (published by Messrs. Weale) which came under the observation of Professor Airy, who reviewed them favourably. This production obtained him an appointment, at the age of seventeen, to H.M.S. “Sulphur,” as midshipman, and the principal part of the ten and a half subsequent years was spent :At sea, in acquiring a thorough knowledge of seamanship.

He made repeated voyages to China, India, and the Pacific, under, among others, Captains Beecher and Belcher. Under their guidance he became an accomplished sailor, imbued with large and manly views of duty and discipline. His avocation afforded ample opportunities for the study of hydrography, marine and river surveying, the improvement of harbours, and the construction of lighthouses, branches of engineering to which, in after life, he chiefly devoted himself, and in which his reputation stood deservedly high.

Mr. Curtis having decided upon quitting the Royal Xavy, next entered into the service of the East India Company, on the navigation works executed under the orders of Sir Arthur Cotton in the Cauvery and Coleroon rivers. Upon his return to England, at the age of twenty-seven, he was, in conjunction with Captain Wolfe and Lieut. Beechy, directed by the Admiralty to make a survey of the cove of Cork. Upon the completion of this survey he entered the hydrographer’s office, where he executed many drawings of great fidelity.

In 1845 he was selected by the Admiralty for the discharge of important duties in connection with the “Tidal Harbours Commission.’’ During the performance of these services he became intimately acquainted with the peculiarities of the rivers Mersey and Nene, and subsequently took an influential part in countenancing judicious and in discouraging injudicious proposals for their treatment.

From 1846 to 1849 he was employed by the local authorities as well as by the Admiralty to conduct minute investigations into the tidal phenomena of those rivers, and of the Dee, and to report upon the effect of projected works in relation thereto. For these purposes he carried out exhaustive surveys of all the physical features of the respective districts, including a project for the navigation for sea-borne vessels from the port of Great Yarmouth to the city of Norwich. In May 184.9 he surveyed the lower portion of the river Nene, in connection with the Admiralty inquiry into the Norfolk Estuary Bill of that year. In April 1850 he made an elaborate report to the Admiralty on the proposed Hartlepool West Harbour and Docks.

In 1852 he was at Kew York, engaged in the Croton Aqueduct department. On leaving the United States he went to Spain, where for a considerable period he worked under the Spanish Government in the irrigation of the “Patrimonia Reale.”

On the conclusion of this engagement he returned to England, and in March 1859, was commissioned by the Admiralty to inspect the works of the Isle of Wight Ferry Company, and to hear evidence thereon.

In 1861 he was required to report upon Durand’s patent for an improvement in the manufacture of chain cables. In the latter half of this year he was again engaged in surveying the river Mersey, at and near Runcorn Gap, in order to show the state of the Channel where it was intended to be crossed by the London and North Western railway.

In March 1862, Mr. Curtis, as Admiralty Inspector, again held an inquiry on the proposed Nene Valley Drainage and Navigation Works

In 1864 he went to Turkey, and was employed on the Smyrna and Casaba Railway. In 1863 his services were retained on behalf of the Duke of Bedford, in making surveys of the river Nene below Peterborough Bridge.

The last record of his public labours was in June 1868, when he was requested to report on the proper utilization of the fresh-water supply to the Thorny river, a tributary of the Nene. But it is known that he spent the succeeding nine years in unremitting activity of mind and body, frequently making long and toilsome journeys in England and on the Continent in pursuit of scientific and general knowledge-travelling on foot over the greater part of France and Spain.

In 1877 he had a slight attack of paralysis, from which he quickly recovered. In 1878 he again went to the United States, where he visited Florida, and in the following year he returned to England. But, by this time, his naturally vigorous constitution had begun to suffer from the effect6 of over-toil, in early life, in India, though his mental powers remained unimpaired to the last. On the 4th of December, 1879, he was stricken with apoplexy in Westminster, and died on the following day.

Mr. Curtis was elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 6th February, 1844, and was transferred to the class of Member on the 12th of December, 1865. Whenever his avocations permitted, he was an assiduous attendant at the meetings, taking great interest in the proceedings, and not infrequently joining in the discussions. His talents were exceptionally high, and his character for honour and integrity was indisputable. He practised the greatest self-denial, was ever anxious to do full justice to other men’s merits, and in no instance did he withhold a due share of credit to those who assisted him in his labours. He possessed considerable literary powers, and was attached to the study of philology and social science. These tastes furnished occupation for his few leisure hours; but, as he was ever ready to sympathise with his suffering fellow-creatures, the greater part of his time, when not professionally engaged, was spent in strenuous efforts for the amelioration of the condition of those who were in a humble walk of life ; giving up all, even the most innocent luxuries to relieve the wants of the poor and needy.


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