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Robert Samuel Fraser (1829-1884) of Woolwich Arsenal
1884 Obituary 
ROBERT SAMUEL FRASER was born in North Shields, in Northumberland, on the 26th of October, 1829. His father - of Scotch descent - was an officer in the Mercantile Navy, and died while Mr. Fraser was a youth. His mother was the daughter of Mr. Thomas Chicken, an engineer well known in the North of England, and who was engineer to the proprietors of the Monkwearmouth Colliery, in the county of Durham, during the sinking of that celebrated mine and for many years afterwards. From his parents Mr. Fraser inherited the excellent qualities which, from his earliest years, endeared him to his friends and marked his professional life from first to last; and it is probable he derived from the maternal side the remarkable physical and mental energy, and devotion to his profession, which was the reason for his singular success as an engineer.
At about fourteen years of age he was apprenticed engineer to Mr. William Clark, of Sunderland, a friend of his grandfather. Here he was distinguished by great energy and intelligence, and he had barely passed through his apprenticeship when he was made Principal Foreman of the works of Mr. George Clark, of Sunderland.
Mr. Fraser, though of middle height, united to a well-made and closely-knit figure, a frank and even bold countenance, and a clear eye, great physical strength; attributes which, regulated as they were by an intimate knowledge of working men, and a firm will, made him most successful in the management of men; a thing on which his heart was fully set, and on which he hoped to build future success.
In about his twenty-fifth year he characteristically determined to start business on his own account, and would certainly have succeeded; but, shortly after, and while he was struggling with the initiatory difficulties of such enterprises, an event occurred which changed the entire course of his professional life. The Crimean war had been in progress more than a year, and had made such demands upon the siege artillery, as to render useless all classes of iron guns through the destruction of their vents. The Government thereupon determined to fit up a screw steamer as an engineer’s workshop, or "Floating Factory” as it came to be officially described, completely equipped with men and appliances, for, in the first place, re-venting guns of every calibre then in use in the siege works before Sebastopol, and others that had been already removed from the batteries, wherever they might be lying; and in the next place to render such services as it was believed such an establishment could do to the Ordnance Department of the Army, the steamships of the Navy, the Land Transport Corps, and the Army Works Corps.
A committee was appointed by the War Minster, consisting of the late Admiral Sir Richard (then Captain) Collinson ; the late General (then Col.) Tulloch of the Carriage Department, Royal Arsenal ; General (then Major) Collinson, R.E.; and Sir (then Mr.) John Anderson, of the Machinery Department of the Royal Arsenal, to whom was delegated the duty of purchasing and equipping such a vessel, and the appointment of the manager, on whom would devolve the manifold duties indicated above, and on whose skill, tact, and ability the success of the experiment would depend.
The committee purchased the "S.S. Chasseur” from Messrs. T. & W. Smith, of Newcastle-on-Tyne ; a vessel designed for a collier, about 170 feet long, 27 feet beam, and 17 feet deep, supplied with engines of 70 HP., and of about TOO tons burthen. The committee then went in quest of a manager, and through Sir William (then Mr.) Armstrong, of Elswick, found and appointed Mr. Fraser to the delicate and difficult post. The equipment of the “Chasseur” with machinery was completed under his personal direction, and the staff of artificers was selected by him, comprising smiths, carpenters, engineers, plumbers, iron-founders, brass-finishers, brickmakers, and sadlers.
The "Chasseur” left the Tyne on the 29th of August, 1855, and reached Balaclava on the 26th of September. The fall of Sebastopol having occurred before her arrival, the main object in her equipment no longer existed, viz., that of re-venting guns of position in the works. The secondary objects, however, existed in abundance. The Land Transport Corps, under Colonel MacMurdo, just then taking measures for the approaching winter, found the advent of the “Chasseur” most opportune, and warmly welcomed Mr. Fraser: the Army Works Corps, under Mr. Doyne, particularly in the railway department, looked on the arrival of the “Floating Factory” as that of a strong ally; the huge fleet of steam-transports also, and the steam vessels of H.M. fleet using the harbour of Balaclava resorted to the “Chasseur” for help, and to these various bodies Mr. Fraser, by his tact and skill, made his vessel immensely useful, and by degrees, a necessity.
His position was anomalous and curious. Thc “Floating Factory” was an experiment, belonged to none of the regular branches of the service, and, had she failed in the purposes for which shc was sent out, might easily have sailed home again without any one in the service being injured by it. Mr. Fraser, however, saw his opportunity, and determined to make it the stepping stone to his future career.
On arriving at Balaclava Mr. Fraser had orders to report himself to the Port-Admiral (Freemantle), who received him kindly, and gave the “Chasseur” a berth, from which she could not move, nor communicate with the shore, without his permission. The “ Floating Factory” was attached to the railway department, which paid but did not feed its staff, nor did anything else for it but countersign some requisitions. It was chiefly appropriated by the Land Transport Corps, which had no official claim on it, and was fed by the Commissariat department by means of requisitions drawn upon one department and countersigned by others.
The channels by which demands for the services of the “Chasseur” reached Mr. Fraser were not loss intricate. Colonel MacMurdo would requisition Mr. Doyne, whose order might require the Admiral’s countersignature, and so on, all which, to a non-service man, made the situation puzzling and difficult. Gifted with indefatigable energy, however, and with a natural grace of manner - which gave to his comparative youth in such a position of grave responsibility a certain dignity. Fraser found the way through all difficulties Lo make himself extremely useful to all who had need of the services he could render, so that when the "Chasseur” was ordered home, after the close of the war in 1856, he received from all the departments the most gratifying recognition of his valuable services. Colonel MacMurdo issued a general order in which he stated that he could not allow the “Floating Factory” to close its relations with the Land Transport Corps till he had testified to the value of the services Mr. Fraser had rendered to his department of the service.
On his return to England, the report rendered by Mr. Fraser to the War Minister as to the amount of work performed by the “ Chasseur ” had several remarkable results. It led to his entire staff being each paid an honorarium of six months’ salary on leaving the service of the Crown; to the "Chasseur” being added to the establishment of H.M. Navy; and to Mr. Fraser being appointed as Assistant to the Inspector of Machinery in the Arsenal on the “Chasseur” being paid off.
Soon after Mr. Fraser’s appointment to the machinery department, the Government adopted the gun and its manufacture introduced by Sir William Armstrong, which led to the transformation of the Royal Gun Factories, from the comparatively small foundry and machine-shop in Dial Square, into the magnificent works of which the department now consists. To this department Mr. Fraser was appointed Manager in 1859, while Sir William Armstrong was Superintendent ; and again on the appointment of Sir John Anderson as Superintendent, Mr. Fraser was appointed (in April, 1866) Deputy Assistant-Superintendent.
While the gun factories were being re-cast-almost re-created Mr. Fraser’s energy and practical engineering knowledge proved of great service to the department, as may be inferred from his successive appointments ; but his right to a distinguished place in the profession rests on more specific grounds than this. The Armstrong gun had not been long in the service before it was found to be susceptible of some improvement. Being built up of a number of coils of various lengths, one coil shrunk over the other to obtain the requisite thickness, and overlapping to attain the required length, the overlaps were found to yield under firing, and allowed a slipping action to take place. It was also doubted whether the number of coils one over the other was practically beneficial, owing to a case in which the outer coils split under fire while the inner ones remained uninjured. Another and equally important question was suggested, viz., whether the material used in the gun needed to be so expensive as the iron used in making the comparatively thin coils.
Mr. Fraser’s knowledge of materials and of constructive mechanics led him to conclusions on all these points ; these were tested by experiment, and eventually the service gun which bears his name, and since, without material change of construction, called the Woolwich gun, was produced, to the credit of which Mr. Fraser is entitled. This gun is described in the later test-books.
“Until April, 1867, all our rifled M. L. guns mere built up like the B. L. guns-of wrought iron coils shrunk together successively on Sir William Armstrong’s original plan. The plan proposed by Mr. R. S. Fraser, of the Royal Gun Factories, was then adopted; but manufacture on the original construction did not cease altogether until March, 1868.
“Mr. Fraser’s plan is, as stated in a previous chapter, an important modification of the original method, from which it differs principally in building up a gun of a few large and comparatively heavy coils instead of several short ones and a forged breech-piece.
“For example, in addition to the steel barrel and cascable, a ‘Fraser’ 12 * 5 inch R. M. L. gun has only four separate parts, viz., the breech coil or jacket, B tube, the 1 B coil and breechpiece, whereas the 7-inch R. M. L. gun of original construction has a forged breech-piece, a B tube, a trunnion ring, and six coils-nine distinct parts-which are shrunk on separately (set! Mark I., Plate IX).
“The formation of a heavy coil is a simple forge operation, but great expense is saved by its means, as thel‘e is much less surface to be bored and turned, for each coil having to be made as smooth as possible, and at the same time true to gauge (to a thousandth of an inch), it follows that it must be cheaper to have a few thick ones in lieu of many thin ones. For the same reason there is also less waste of material; for although the turnings are afterwards worked up into bars, iron in its scrap state is only worth one-third of its forged value.
“Moreover, time and labour are also saved in having fewer pieces to move from workshop to workshop; for instance, in the case of a gun of original construction, when a coil was shrunk on, the mass had to be moved from the shrinking pit to the turning-lathe, and turned down for the next coil, and so on, coil by coil, until the gun was built up ; but in the Fraser construction only two or three separate shrinkings are required.
“From these circumstances, combined with the employment of cheaper iron, a Fraser gun can be made more cheaply than a gun of the same nature as originally manufactured, while the experiments which were carried out previous to the introduction of this construction clearly prove that guns of this pattern are at least quite as trustworthy and serviceable as those of the original pattern.”
The “Fraser” manufacture and construction has since pervaded the entire service, and though steel is now superseding iron, the system of building the gun has not been materially changed.
The State on two occasions very fittingly recognized the valuable services rendered by Mr. Fraser, by presenting him on each occasion with £5,000.
Of Scotch descent, his name was originally spelt Frazer, but in 1866 he had it legally changed to Fraser. Though of an exceptionally robust constitution, he contracted a severe attack of pleurisy about fifteen months before his death ; during his convalescence his retirement was decided upon, and though it was effected on a liberal scale, it did not enable him t.0 regain health, and he died after he had left the service only about two months. His singular gentleness and vivacity in private life, his penetration, and the almost epigrammatic piquancy and terseness of his language, his great fondness for animals (always a special trait in him), and affection for his friends, marked his whole life. He was elected a Member of the Institution on the 6th of December, 1864. Throughout his professional life he enjoyed the friendship of many eminent members of the learned, scientific, and literary professions, who, with other friends sincerely mourn his comparatively early removal.