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British Industrial History

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Richard Townshend

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Richard Townshend (1807-1888)


1888 Obituary [1]

RICHARD TOWNSHEND was born at Clonard, County Meath, Ireland, on the 4th of January, 1807, his father being of English and his mother of Irish extraction. At that time his father and his uncle, Mr. Thomas Townshend, both civil engineers, were connected with the construction of the Grand Canal and other engineering works in that county. A few years later the family returned to England, where Mr. Townshend’s education was proceeded with at King’s Lynn, and finally completed under private tuition.

His father’s death in 1818, whilst professionally employed on the Eau Brink and Fen Drainage Works, necessitated an early entrance into professional work, and accordingly he commenced his pupilage in the office of his relative, the late Mr. John Thomas, M.Inst.C.E., Resident Engineer of New Works for Sheerness Dockyard, then in course of construction, under Messrs. G. and J. Rennie, Engineers-in-Chief, the contractors for the docks and basins being Messrs. Jolliffe and Banks.

Mr. Townshend having shown great application and proficiency in the course of his professional training, was, on the 14th of February, 1826, appointed Chief Draughtsman in the office of the Resident Engineer at Sheerness. He held this appointment until the 17th March, 1830, when the office was broken up on completion of the works.

After leaving Sheerness, Mr. Townshend continued in the office of his uncle, Mr. Thomas Townshend, and his cousin, Mr. John Thomas, M. Inst. C.E., and was employed for some time in surveying and levelling between London and Croydon for a projected railway to Brighton (Rennie’s line) as well as on other work in connection with canal and railway projects in the midland counties.

He was employed in 1834 on an extensive survey between Birmingham and London, with a view to the construction of a high-level canal, 70 miles long, which was to terminate at Hampstead. Designs and estimates were also prepared by Mr. Townshend, under the direction of Mr. J. Thomas, for an aqueduct to take the canal across the Avon valley, Messrs. Walker and Burges being the Consulting Engineers.

In 1837 Mr. Townshend, with the approval of the Directors of the Company, superintended the heavy works at the celebrated Tring cutting on the line between London and Birmingham, now known as the London and North-Western Railway, which work he carried out to the entire satisfaction of the late Mr. Robert Stephenson, M.P., Past President Inst. C.E., the Engineer-in-Chief.

The following year, 1838, he was instructed by Mr. Robert Stephenson to proceed to Italy with the view of making surveys and taking levels for a proposed line of railway between Leghorn and Florence, vi6 Pisa, thence along the banks of the Arno, a distance of about 46 miles. On completion of this work Mr. Townshend received an honorarium, in addition to the original agreement, practical evidence of Robert Stephenson's approval.

Two years later Mr. Townshend was again employed by Messrs. Walker and Burges to superintend the construction of a cofferdam and dry dock at Her Majesty's Dockyard, Woolwich, which had to be built in place of a concrete dock, destroyed through hydrostatic pressure. This difficulty, however, was dealt with in the foundations, by carrying off the intruding water by means of a perforated cylinder and pipes laid beneath the new dock.

On the completion of the work Mr. Townshend received a handsome testimonial from Messrs. Walker and Burges.

Early in 1844, after the death of his old master, Mr. J. Thomas, he was selected by the late Colonel Brandreth, R.E., Director of Works of the Navy, to proceed to Devonport to survey and lay out ground for a new steam yard at Keyham. At that time Captain G. Bargeman, R.E., was Resident Engineer in charge, under whom Mr. Townshend became an Assistant. These large works were shortly afterwards commenced under the immediate supervision of Mr. Townshend. They consisted of a cofferdam 1,600 feet long, an entrance dock, two basins, three dry docks, a factory, and other necessary buildings, covering an area of about 73 acres.

Mr. Townshend was in 1853 appointed Superintending Civil Engineer in succession to Colonel More1 Williams, R.E. In 1861, at the request of Sir Alexander Milne, Commander-in-Chief on the West India Station, the Admiralty directed Mr. Townshend to proceed to the West India Islands, including Jamaica, Antigua, Barbadoes, Bermuda, passing thence to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in order to forward detailed reports as to the condition of each Government establishment at those places, as well as to advise on projects for dock accommodation at Bermuda. With the approval of the Commander-in-Chief, he next visited Boston and New York, and returned home ri6 Montreal and Quebec in July, 1861.

Mr. Townshend was in 1864 appointed to take charge of the Admiralty Works at Devonport Yard in addition to those at Keyham, while the district, so far as Admiralty Works and Buildings were concerned, between Berry Head, in Devon, and Falmouth, in Cornwall, was placed under his professional supervision. He continued to act as Superintending Civil Engineer until the completion of the works at Keyham in 1865, having been on the works since the first survey in 1844. He now applied to be allowed to retire. The Admiralty granted him a pension, but retained his services as the Superintendent of the Plymouth Breakwater. During his connection with the Plymouth Breakwater Works, Mr. Townshend carried out extensive repairs, and vertically raised the massive granite buttress on the western arm, rendered necessary by the heavy damage done by a series of severe gales in 1865, 1866, and 1867.

In 1871, in conformity with arrangements made between the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Admiralty, Sir Andrew Clarke, R.E., Director of Works, instructed Mr. Townshend to proceed to Colombo, Ceylon, to inspect and report on the contemplated harbour improvements, these comprising schemes for extensive dock and basin accommodation, and in lieu thereof, a design for a breakwater for protecting the shipping from the south-west monsoon. He remained in Ceylon six months, during which time he was unceasingly engaged in examining various plans and projects placed before him, and deciding for himself on the spot the best method for carrying out the improvements. He finally prepared a Report and submitted it to Sir Hercules Robinson, who was pleased to signify his commendation. The Lords of the Admiralty also notified their approval of the Report, and the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the Crown Agent, expressed the greatest satisfaction as well. Before leaving for home the principal merchants and traders of Colombo entertained Mr. Townshend at a public banquet, at which they expressed their satisfaction at the impartial manner in which he had gone carefully into every scheme proposed, and considered each on its own merits.

During his stay in Ceylon, he accompanied His Excellency, at his request, on a tour round the island, visiting especially the North End and Paumben Channel. He made a Report, and gave an estimate for a deep channel through the reefs to allow vessels of large draught to pass instead of going all round the island, saving a distance of about 700 miles. He returned to England in December 1871, much impaired in health, and though offered the post of Consulting Engineer to the Crown Agents for the Colonies, he was compelled in consequence to decline the appointment. Mr. Townshend continued to be the Superintendent of Plymouth Breakwater until 1878, when he finally retired from active professional life.

Mr. Townshend's activity was not confined to the Government Service. In 1845 and 1846 the late Duke of Portland consulted him on the defects to the sea-walls and pier at Troon Harbour on the west coast of Scotland.

In 1856 he surveyed and reported upon harbour improvements at Fowey and Par in Cornwall, and he also reported upon foreshore improvements and harbour accommodation at Newquay.

In 1873 he reported upon the best method of improving the fall of the leat (conveying water to Devonport) at Princetown, in Devon, and in the same year he visited Penzance and advised upon the construction of reservoirs and filter-beds for that town, In 1875 he designed and carried out the construction of a large service reservoir (12,000,000 gallons) at Knackorsknowle, in Devon, for the Devonport Water Company, together with filter beds and pipe service.

Upon these and many other engineering questions he was consulted during his long professional career. Mr. Townshend was one of the few remaining links between the old engineers and those of modern times. He knew Telford, George and Robert Stephenson, the Rennies, Isambard Brunel, G. P. Bidder, and many other Members of the Institution, long since passed away.

Of his characteristics as a man, the most prominent were his intense love of his profession and his indomitable perseverance. He was intuitively an engineer, and rarely was an engineering question put to him but he at once grasped and discussed it without difficulty. Through good or ill health he worked without flinching. His love of children was another marked though gentler trait in his character. Fond of athletic sports, he was as a young man no mean proficient at most outdoor games. It pleased him to help young men in their start in professional life, and he was ever ready to advise and instruct them ungrudgingly.

Mr. Townshend was elected an Associate on the 10th of February, 1829, on the same day as Mr. George Turnbull, who now becomes the father of the Institution. He was transferred to the class of Member on the 18th of December, 1866.

He died in London, in the presence of several members of his family, on the 31st of March, 1888, at the ripe old age of 81, beloved and respected by old and young alike.


1888 Obituary [2]




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