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William Fawcett Wightman

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William Fawcett Wightman (1844-1878)

1879 Obituary [1]

MR. WILLIAM FAWCETT WIGHTMAN, second son of the late Mr. Benjamin Wightman, solicitor, was born on the 24th of July, 1844, at Sheffield, and was educated partly at the Collegiate School in that town, and partly at Meiningen in Germany.

In 1860 he was articled to Mr. James Brunlees, Vice-President Inst. C.E., and during that time was employed on the parliamentary surveys for various railways and projected railways, as well as upon the designs for the numerous iron bridges, viaducts, stations, and other works on the Sad Paulo railway, then in course of construction, and in the preparation of the plans and estimates for waterworks in the town of Sao Paulo.

After the expiry of his pupilage Mr. Wightman was engaged as an assistant engineer under Mr. Alexander McKerrow, M. Inst. C.E., on the works of the Solway Junction railway, a line about 20 miles in length, on which there is a viaduct, crossing the Solway Firth, over a mile in length.

In January 1867, he went to Brazil, on a three years’ agreement, as an assistant engineer on the Sao Paulo railway.

In the summer of 1870, he returned to England ; but in the autumn of the same year he entered into a fresh arrangement with the same company for a further term of three years. During this second agreement the works on the Serra were seriously injured by excessive storms of rain and floods, when Mr. Wightman’s able and unremitting exertions in repairing the damage were conspicuous. Unfortunately, the constant exposure on the Serra to tropical rains, during night and day for many weeks, made serious inroads on his health. When the concession for the Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro railway - an extension of the Sao Paulo railway, but promoted and carried out by an independent company was obtained, Mr. Wightman was offered the post of engineer-in-chief. The directors of the Sao Paulo Railway Company, on the circumstances being represented to them, considerately allowed him to resign his appointment on that line, in order to take charge of the works.

In 1872 Mr. Wightman made the preliminary explorations and surveys of the first section of the line, a length of 56 miles, and afterwards staked it out, and superintended the construction of the works until their completion, and acceptance by the Brazilian Government in 1876. The works on this section comprised, besides heavy earthworks, a tunnel through rock, 250 yards in length, and six iron bridges, one of 500 feet, one of 140 feet, two of 66 feet, and two of about 40 feet in length, the ironwork for all of which, as well as for the rest of the bridges, about thirty in number, was designed by him. He also designed, and superintended until near their completion, the works of the terminal station in Sao Paulo, comprising a building for the company’s offices, carriage sheds, locomotive sheds, &c.

In the summer of 1876, the first section of the line having been completed to the satisfaction of the company, Mr. Wightman returned to England, to enjoy the rest and relaxation which, after a long residence in an almost tropical climate, his medical advisers insisted upon his taking. His intention was to obtain some post in England, or on the Continent ; but failing in this, owing to the depressed condition of engineering generally and the disturbed state of the Continent, he returned to Brazil in August 1878, and was immediately offered the post of engineer-in-chief to the Sa6 Paulo waterworks. The time within which, according to the terms of the concession, the works were to be commenced having nearly arrived, Mr. Wightman became busily engaged in the preparation of the necessary plans for their construction. Up to this time everything seemed to have gone as well with him in business matters as he could possibly wish.

His career was soon, however, to draw to a close. In the afternoon of the 9th of October his friend, Mr. Dulley, was superintending the fixing of a pump in a well, and had sent a Portuguese servant to clear out some chips from the surface of the water before finally closing it. As the man did not return, Mr. Dulley went to look after him, and found him in the water calling for help. By the aid of a ladder Mr. Dulley descended to his servant’s assistance, to be in turn placed in the same difficulty. Mr. Wightman happened to call at the house at the moment, and finding his friend labouring to get up the ladder, he went down to help him. Both managed to get almost to the top of the well, when they fell back, and rose no more. The cause of death was foul sulphurous air, that had been forced into the well by a process common in Brazil for killing ants. The subterranean passages made by these insects communicated with the well, and the sulphur and charcoal fumes, which are blown into the ants’ nests, had reached the well, and the foul gases had remained there.

A friend of the late Mr. Wightman’s, and a resident in Sad Paulo, writing about the accident, says: "I need not describe the heartrending scenes, and the fruitless endeavours to call to life again the strong men thus snatched away from all that was dear to them. They were noble in their deaths as in their lives-poor Wightman absolutely giving his life away in the attempt to save that of his friend. The whole city was in consternation, and the funeral was quite a public demonstration of grief.”

Mr. Wightman was elected a Member of the Institution on the 6th of February, 1877. His chief characteristics were a singularly fearless and frank disposition, and a moral conscientiousness which made him utterly incapable of doing a mean or underhand action, combined wit,h energy and perseverance, and an honest, straightforward manliness of character.

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