Sir John Fowler (1817-1898), railway engineer, President of Inst C. E.
He was a railway engineer in Victorian Britain and helped build the first underground railway in London, the Metropolitan Railway in the 1860's, a shallow line built by the "cut-and-cover" method.
With Sir Benjamin Baker, he designed the Forth Bridge, a cantilever bridge, and Millwall Dock in east London. He was called in after the Norwood Junction rail accident when a cast iron bridge on the London-Brighton railway line fractured as a train passed over (1891). The girder failed from a large internal hole which had not been detected at installation. Since he had designed and built most of the bridges on the line, he advised that many should be strengthened or replaced, given the heavier locomotives then in use compared with those when the bridges were first built.
He is credited with the building of the near identical Albert Edward Bridge at Coalbrookdale, Shropshire in 1864 and Victoria Bridge at Upper Arley, Worcestershire in 1861. Both remain in use today carrying out their originally designed function of carrying railway lines across the River Severn. Albert Edward Bridge carries the railway line from Lightmoor Junction to Ironbridge Power Station. Victoria Bridge carries the preserved Severn Valley Railway between Arley and Bewdley.
Following the death of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1859, Fowler was retained by the Great Western Railway as a consulting engineer, and a ex-Great Western Railway Sir Watkin class locomotive was named Fowler in his honour.
In 1865 he was president of the Institution of Civil Engineers
1885 Conferred KCMG for services to the Government in connection with the operations in Egypt and the Sudan
1898 November 10. He died in Bournemouth, Dorset, England at the age of 81
Buried in Brompton Cemetery.
1899 Obituary 
Sir JOHN FOWLER, Bart., K.C.M.G., LL.D., who died at Bournemouth on the 20th November, 1898, at the age of eighty-one, was one of the most eminent of the engineers whose names are associated with the great material progress effected during the Victorian era. By his death is snapped one of the few remaining links which connect the present generation to the Railway Mania and to the stirring times which preceded it. It may be truly said 'There were giants in those days,' men not only of immense intellect and of great force of character, but also endowed with the physical strength to carry them unharmed through arduous days and toil-laden nights to live far beyond the allotted span.
The opening of the Manchester and Liverpool Railway in 1830 was the commencement of an epoch rich in opportunities, and equally rich in men capable of turning them to full advantage. A new department of engineering had to be created without aid from precedent, and it rapidly attained such magnitude that it provided abundant work for all who had the necessary talent.
Among these none was more conspicuous than Sir John (then Mr.) Fowler. He immediately attained a commanding position, which he kept until the close of his life. An independent professional career, commencing before the Railway Mania, and extending some years beyond the completion of the Forth Bridge, is indeed a notable record, and it is scarcely possible that one quite like it will ever occur again. It lifts its author out of. the ordinary category of engineers, and puts him among the few who have written their names in broad characters across the face of the nineteenth century.
During the whole of the period he was in the forefront of the struggle in subduing the great powers of Nature to the service of man, and wherever the difficulties were greatest he was certain to be found.
The salient feature in the character of Mr. Fowler was his intense self-reliance. When he had made up his mind that a course of conduct was practicable and desirable, he never felt any misgivings, but went straight on with it in spite of all difficulties. He was not content to take his opinions from others, or to act upon views with which he was not in complete harmony. He held that the whole duties of an engineer were not comprised in the mere accomplishment of the objects entertained by his employers.
It was his duty, he considered, to advise those who consulted him whether the undertaking was one that would repay the expenditure that must be made upon it. The engineer was not merely a man of technical skill engaged to bridge the difficulties of capitalists, as a servant carries out the orders of his master. On the contrary, he was a member of an honourable and noble profession which could not lend itself to enterprises that did not give fair promise of being beneficent to the world and to the advancement of civilization.
A notable example of the influence exerted by Mr. Fowler, and the confidence he was able to inspire in others, was afforded during the construction of the Metropolitan Railway. The first enthusiastic anticipations of its success were soon followed in the public mind by a doubt as to the possibility of its being constructed. The directors were constantly being told that they had embarked their money and that of the shareholders in an impossible enterprise. Engineers of eminence assured them that they could never make the railway, that if they made they could not work it, and if they worked it nobody would travel by it.
Such a catalogue of impossibilities was enough to appal anyone, and often faith in the enterprise fell to a low ebb. At such times the directors would say to Mr. Fowler, 'We depend on you, and as long as you tell us you have confidence we shall go on.' It was a heavy load to put on the shoulders of a man who had already sufficient to attend to in combating the physical difficulties of the affair. Yet Mr. Fowler never flinched. He had made up his mind that the railway could he constructed and that it would answer its purpose.
Mr. Fowler’s self-reliance showed itself in the courage with which he tackled schemes of magnitude far beyond anything previously attempted. His mental gait was not that of the toddling child who fears to relinquish its hold on one object before it can grasp a second. Rather was it that of the athlete who will launch himself across a chasm, certain that his eye can measure the distance, and that his muscles will respond instantly and accurately to the command of his brain. Strong in his experience and in his grasp on principles, and confident in his mechanical instinct, he would put his professional reputation to the hazard in a way that men of equal skill, but wanting his courage, would have failed to do.
The Forth Bridge affords a case in point. It was not only far larger than any railway bridge previously built, but it was of a very novel design. It was commenced with the full consciousness that its execution bristled with unknown difficulties, which would have to be met and conquered as they made themselves evident. Yet Sir John Fowler was satisfied that the project was feasible, and he did not doubt that he and his colleagues would be quite able to accomplish it. In this instance he was fortunate in having clients who had a perfect belief in his powers, and who could command the required capital.
Many of Mr. Fowler’s enterprises were too bold for the British investor, and could not be attempted for want of funds. He could convince the men with whom he came in personal contact, but, of course, the great body of the public was beyond his reach.
Mr. Fowler was born on the 15th July, 1817, at Wadsley Hall, Sheffield, the residence of his father, who also was called John Fowler.
He received a good general education, and at the age of seventeen became a pupil of J. T. Leather, the well-known hydraulic engineer, under whom he saw a good deal of practice, particularly in the water-supply of large towns. At that time the construction of railways in this country had fairly commenced.
The Stockton and Darlington line was opened when Mr. Fowler was eight years of age, and the Manchester and Liverpool line when he was only thirteen. It was natural, therefore, that on leaving Mr. Leather’s office, Mr. Fowler should turn to railway work. He entered the employment of J. U. Rastrick, where he was principally engaged on the design and superintendence of the railway from London to Brighton.
After two years he returned to Mr. Leather, and became the responsible resident engineer for the Stockton and Hartlepool Railway. After it was completed he remained two years as engineer, general manager, and locomotive superintendent of that and the Clarence Railway.
On the termination of this engagement Mr. Fowler visited, at the invitation of Sir John Macneill, several railways in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, and gave evidence before Parliamentary Committees respecting them.
He was twenty-six years of age when he thus started an independent career. Several important railways were then being promoted from Sheffield, such as the Sheffield and Lincolnshire, the Great Grimsby, the New Holland, the East Lincolnshire, and others, and of these Mr. Fowler became the chief engineer, conducting them through Parliament, and carrying them out.
It was in 1843 this work was commenced, and before it was completed, the Railway Mania attained its full proportions. How wild it was, a single incident in Mr. Fowler’s career will show. One night when asleep in his father’s house, a carriage and four drove up to the door, and the household was aroused by loud knocking. On descending, Mr. Fowler found that a prominent director of railways had called with the purpose of inducing him to undertake the engineering of a new railway from Leeds to Glasgow, and that he had brought £20,000 as a preliminary payment on account of survey expenses. It then only wanted a few weeks before the day for depositing the plans, and Mr. Fowler declined the offer, leaving the promoter to go away disappointed.
Mr. Fowler was in the thick of these stirring times, and took part in many a well-fought battle before Parliamentary Committees. Among the works about which he was consulted, or which he carried out at that and later times, may be mentioned the Oxford, Worcester, and Wolverhampton Railways; the Severn Valley Railway; the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (in connection with Mr. Bidder) ; the Liverpool Central Station; the Northern and Western Railway of Ireland ; railways in New South Wales and in India ; the Sheffield and the Glasgow Water Works; the Metropolitan Inner Circle Railway; the St. John’s Wood Railway; the Hammersmith Railway; the Highgate and Midland Railway ; the Victoria Bridge and Pimlico Railway ; the Glasgow Union and City Railway; St. Enoch’s Station, Glasgow ; the Millwall Docks ; the proposed Channel Ferry ; and many others.
Mr. Fowler’s reputation with the general public of this generation rests, to a great degree, on his construction of the Metropolitan Railways. These were so far out of the common that every Londoner, and many people out of London, took the greatest interest in them. It was in 1853 that the first Act was obtained for a line of 2.25 miles in length from Edgware road to Battle Bridge, King’s Cross. Plans for extension westward to Paddington, and eastward to the City, were at once prepared, and the financial support of the Great Western Railway Company was secured. After a severe fight the Act for the extended railway was obtained, the plans providing for tunnels and stations large enough to accommodate the broad-gauge Great Western trains, as well as narrow-gauge local trains.
There was, however, a difficulty in raising the capital, and it was not till the spring of 1860 that the contract was made and the works commenced.
In 1861 powers were obtained for extending the Metropolitan Railway to Moorgate Street, and in 1864 for constructing the eastern and western extensions to Tower Hill and Brompton respectively.
In 1863 a Lords Committee decided that it would be desirable to complete an inner circuit of railway that should abut upon, if it did not actually join, nearly all the principal termini in the Metropolis, commencing with the extension in an easterly and southerly direction from Finsbury Circus at the one end, and in a westerly and southerly direction from Paddington at the other, and connecting the extremities by a line on the north side of the Thames. This railway will ever remain a monument to the skill of the engineers engaged on its construction. Of these Mr. Fowler was responsible for the greater part.
Tho main lines of the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railways being complete, Mr. Fowler carried out the railways in connection with them, including the St. John’s Wood Railway, the Hammersmith line, the West Brompton line, and others. His original plan, brought before the Parliamentary Committee, included an outer circle as well as an inner circle, but unfortunately the former was rejected.
In 1870 Mr. Fowler was one of a Commission sent to Norway to investigate the subject of light railways, with a view to their adoption in India. The majority decided in favour of a 2-foot 9-inch gauge, while Mr. Fowler presented a minority report, recommending 3 feet 6 inches. Ultimately the Government adopted the metre gauge, thus leaning to the views of Mr. Fowler rather than of his colleagues.
In 1868 the subject of this memoir went to Egypt for his health, and there was then commenced a professional connection with that country which lasted for eight. years; as long, in fact, as Ismail Pacha sat on the throne. That ruler had force of character without judgment, and loved big schemes, unmindful of the fact that the basis of prosperity lies not in science but in good government. He employed Mr. Fowler to design irrigation plans on an enormous scale, to project a waterway across the Isthmus in competition with the Suez Canal, and to survey a railway to Khartoum. Had this latter been completed it would have greatly modified Egyptian history. Many of Mr. Fowler’s smaller plans were successfully carried out, but the larger ones were mostly stopped by the breakdown of Egyptian credit, and the subsequent military revolt. When the British took control of the country, Mr. Fowler put his great knowledge of its characteristics at the disposal of the Government, and this service was acknowledged by his being made a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George, in 1885.
The next great work in Mr. Fowler’s career was the Forth Bridge. When the Tay Bridge was destroyed, preparations were being made, and were actually commenced, for bridging the Forth. Sir Thomas Bouch had designed a suspension bridge for the purpose, and an Act of Parliament had been obtained authorising its construction. The failure at the Tay at once threw doubts upon the safety of this most ambitious project, and the works were stopped. Subsequent investigations showed that the proposed bridge could not have been satisfactory.
On the 18th February, 1881, the four great railway companies concerned, the Great Northern, the North British, the Midland, and the North-Eastern, wrote to their consulting engineers - T. E. Harrison, W. H. Barlow, and Mr. Fowler, associated with Mr. (now Sir) Benjamin Baker - propounding two questions for their joint opinions. They were asked to consider the feasibility of building a bridge for railway purposes across the Forth, and, assuming the feasibility to be proved, what description of bridge it would be most desirable to adopt? The matter involved so large an expenditure, and contained so many novel issues, that it needed to be approached with the greatest possible care. Calculations of the weight and cost of different types of bridge were made and discussed by the four engineers, with the general result that the cantilever type was chosen.
A report was made to the railway companies on the 4th May, 1881, embodying the result of the deliberations, and pointing out that the cantilever principle offered a better and cheaper solution of the problem than any other. The report did not enter into the details of construction ; indeed, it could not be said to give even the broad features, other than those which are involved in the use of the cantilever. These still remained to be elaborated in council, and it was only by united discussion that the original plan developed into the final design. After most elaborate investigations and calculations, the structure gradually, by a process of evolution or development, assumed its present form. The design being settled and the execution decided upon by the associated railway companies, the carrying out of the work was entrusted to Mr. Fowler, in conjunction with his partner, Mr. Baker. The parliamentary contest was very fierce, as there were powerful interests opposed to the erection of the bridge, but its authors were victorious and the Bill was passed.
It is not proposed to trace the building of the Forth Bridge. The matter is so recent that it is common knowledge, and those who wish to follow it closely will find a full account in Engineering of the 28th February, 1890. In this they will also find a detailed history of the career of Sir John Fowler up to that date, written from material supplied by himself and corrected by his hand. It is sufficient to say that the bridge was opened by the Prince of Wales on the 4th March, 1890, when the Queen was graciously pleased to confer a baronetcy on Sir John Fowler, and to make Mr. Baker a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George.
At 73 years of age, Sir John could fairly claim the right to slacken his exertions, and to enjoy some degree of rest, although he never actually retired from the exercise of the profession, and until illness laid him aside he was consulted on numberless projects. A simple recital of all the great schemes with which he was connected would occupy considerable space, while his life, if it should be written 'in extenso', would touch upon many of the engineering achievements since 1843. Only a few disjointed episodes have been referred to, rather to give a clue to the character of the man than to trace the steps of his professional career. He was so broad in his knowledge, so many-sided in his attainments, that he stands out in bold relief among the many remarkable men who were the product of the age which gave him birth. The present time is different, and it is not likely engineers will ever again have the remarkable opportunities that fell to the lot of the past generation. Specialization, with all its advantages from the clients’ point of view, does not foster that all-round ability and catholic comprehensiveness which distinguished the engineers of the early Victorian period. This generation must be content to keep near to one track, but it need not on that account miss the lesson to be learned from such lives.
Sir John Fowler was an ardent sportsman, and was fond of deer-stalking in his extensive Scotch forests. He was also fond of yachting. His Scotch seat was Braemore, in Ross-shire, for which county, as also for Inverness, he was J.P. and D.L.
In 1850 Sir John Fowler married Elizabeth, daughter of Mr. James Broadbent, of Manchester, and he is succeeded in the baronetcy by his son, Mr. John Arthur Fowler, born in 1854.
Sir John Fowler’s connection with the Institution extended over more than fifty-four years, he having been elected a Member on the 6th February, 1844. He became a member of Council in 1849 and a Vice-President in 1859, and on the 19th December, 1865, he was elected President, which office he served for two years.
On the 9th January, 1866, he delivered an inaugural address, which was so important and valuable that it has been reprinted and distributed extensively, notably by the Government of India, to the engineers in its employment. It dealt with the subject of the education of an engineer at a time when the matter had not received so much attention as it has since, and showed that the Author was no blind admirer of the rule-of-thumb days during which he started his own career. A few lines may serve to show the fine ideal Sir John Fowler had of the scope of engineering.
He supposed a boy to start at fourteen years of age, after a good liberal education. The next four years he devoted to mathematics, natural philosophy, surveying, drawing, chemistry, mineralogy, geology, strength of materials, mechanical motions, and the principles of hydraulics. To these were to be added French and German, even at the expense of classics and pure mathematics. Then followed four or five years in an office or a workshop, supplemented by continued study in the above subjects. When it is remembered that this was nearly thirty-three years ago, it will be seen that appreciation of technical education is by no means a modern feeling, and that some whom an irreverent generation is apt to term 'fossils, had quite as clear a perception of its value as the latest professor-bred youth.
An important outcome of this address was a memorial to the President and Council, signed by nearly one hundred engineering pupils and assistants, suggesting the establishment, under the auspices of the Institution, of what might be called a ‘Junior Engineering Society,’ to consist of pupils and past pupils of civil and mechanical engineers, with they owed purpose of mutual self-improvement in professional knowledge, and more particularly in that scientific knowledge of theory, which is becoming more and more essential to the success of the young engineer. In the result the Council decided to recommend the extinction of the old Graduate class, and the creation, in its place, of the present class of Students. This recommendation was adopted by a general meeting of the Members held on the 26th June, 1867.
During the Presidency of Sir John Fowler the question of rebuilding the premises in Great George Street received serious consideration. The purchase of Nos. 15 and 16 Great George Street, and the erection on that site of an entirely new building were recommended. Sir John Fowler took great interest in the matter and promised £2,000 to the fund proposed to be raised among the members to defray the cost of that scheme. It was decided, however, at the Special General Meetings held in June, 1866, for the purpose of receiving the report upon the building question, that the consideration of the subject should be not further proceeded with, and that the subscription list which then amounted to about £25,000 - should be withdrawn and cancelled.
On the establishment of the Benevolent Fund in 1864, Sir John Fowler contributed largely towards its foundation, and continued to give support to it until the time of his death. He also acted from 1867 as a Trustee for the Capital Account of the Fund.
In concluding this Notice it may be said that during the whole period of his long connection with the Institution, Sir John Fowler displayed the greatest activity in promoting its welfare, and that his services have proved of marked value in establishing its position and advancing its interests.
1899 Obituary 
Sir John Fowler, Bart., K.C.M.G., was born on 15th July 1817, at Wadsley Hall, Sheffield. After receiving a good general education, at the age of seventeen he became a pupil of Mr. John Towlerton Leather of Leeds.
On leaving his office he was employed for two years by Mr. J. U. Rastrick on the London and Brighton Railway. He then returned to Mr. Leather, for whom he acted as resident engineer on the Stockton and Hartlepool Railway. On its completion he remained two years as engineer and general manager and locomotive superintendent of this and of the Clarence Railway.
In 1848 at the age of twenty-six he began work on his own account, and on behalf of Sir John Macneill inspected certain railways near Glasgow, and gave evidence about them before parliamentary committees. In the same year he became the chief engineer of the Sheffield and Lincolnshire, and several other railways projected from Sheffield; these he conducted through parliament, and directed their construction. Subsequently some of the chief works which he carried out, or about which he was consulted, were:— the Oxford Worcester and Wolverhampton, Severn Valley, and London Tilbury and Southend Railways; Liverpool Central Station; Northern and Western Railway of Ireland; lines in New South Wales and India; water works for Sheffield and Glasgow; Metropolitan Inner Circle, St John's Wood, Hammersmith, Highgate and Midland, Victoria Bridge and Pimlico, and Glasgow Union and City Railways; Millwall Docks; Channel Ferry. Of these probably the most novel and the most notable were the Metropolitan Railways and their connections, for which the first act was obtained in 1853, though the works were not commenced till 1860.
In 1870, as one of a commission sent to Norway to examine the light railways there in use, with a view to their adoption in India, he reported in favour of 3 feet 6 inches for the Indian gauge, in preference to 2 feet 9 inches recommended by the other commissioners.
In 1868, visiting Egypt for his health, he was employed by Ismail Pacha to design irrigation works, to plan a water-way across the Isthmus in competition with the Suez Canal, and to survey a railway to Khartoum. When the British government took control of the country, he placed all his information and experience of Egypt at their disposal; and for this service he was rewarded by being made in 1885 a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George.
From 1881, in conjunction with his partner Mr. Benjamin Baker, he was occupied with the design and construction of the Forth Bridge; on the completion of which in 1890 a baronetcy was conferred upon him, and Mr. Baker was made a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George.
Having been elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1844, he became a Member of Council in 1849, a Vice-President in 1859, and President for the two years 1866 and 1867. In his presidential address he sketched a scheme for engineering education, showing a high appreciation of the value of technical training for engineers.
He became a Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1847, the year of its establishment.
His death took place at Bournemouth on 20th November 1898, at the age of eighty-one.
1898 Obituary 
...at Bournemouth, at an advanced age. He was born on July 15th, 1817, at Wadsley Hall, near Sheffield. At seventeen be was apprenticed to Mr. J. T. Leather, a hydraulic engineer, who did a good deal of water supply work in Yorkshire. We do not know how long he remained with Mr. Leather, but when he left him he went for two years to Mr. Rastrick, who was getting out plans and contracts for a London and Brighton railway.
Leaving Mr. Rastrick, he returned to Mr. Leather, and became resident engineer on the Stockton and Hartlepool Railway, and he was subsequently engineer, manager, and locomotive superintendent of that line. At this time he was only twenty-six years of age. He knew so much, and knew it so well that it is evident that he possessed bodily and mental energy in no small degree. He was a tremendous worker. He soon found that the...[more].
Sources of Information
- 1899 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
- 1899 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries Minutes of the Proceedings
- The Engineer 1898/11/25, p513.
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography