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John Macneill

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Sir John Macneill (c1793-1880)

1826 John Macneill, Surveying Engineer, Vauxhall Road, Pimlico, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]


1883 Obituary [2]

Sir John Macneill sprung from a family, originally Scotch, which settled in the county of Louth, Ireland, was born about the year 1793, at Mount Pleasant, near Dundalk.

It was at first intended that he should follow the profession of arms, and he was gazetted an ensign in the Louth militia; but the peace of 1815 interfering with his prospects in a military career, he took to the study of mathematics and mechanics, and became a pupil of Thomas Telford, by whom he was appointed Superintendent of the Southern Division of the Holyhead road from London to Shrewsbury.

While so engaged he carried out a valuable series of experiments for Sir Henry Parnell, M.P. (afterwards Lord Congleton), to ascertain the traction on roads by means of a dynamometer, and he invented a Road-Indicator, which was highly commended at the time.

He was, it is believed, concerned in opposing the introduction of railways, which were naturally viewed with jealousy by those who had recently completed the great Holyhead road; but after Telford's death he turned his attention to railways among other works, and became extensively engaged in their design and construction. The first lines which he laid out were the Slamannan and the Wishaw and Coltness railways, in the Scotch coal and iron districts. The former, having long inclines, was at first partly worked by horsepower as well as by ropes, the horses drawing the empty trucks uphill, and riding down in small trucks with the loaded trains. The latter line was chiefly remarkable for a viaduct, at Motherwell, of timber arches of 100 feet span, carried on stone piers.

At this time Macneill was also the engineer of the Grangemouth Docks, at the entrance to the Forth and Clyde Canal, and of the Forth and Carte Junction Canal, a short waterway connecting the former navigation with the Clyde opposite to the mouth of the river Carte.

Mr. Macneill was retained by the Irish Railway Commissioners to lay out a system of railways in the north of Ireland about 1836 or 1837, the surveys of those in the south being intrusted to the late Mr. Vignoles, Past-President Inst.C.E.

Shortly afterwards he became engineer to the Dublin, Carlow, and Kilkenny Railway, a line which, in its entirety, was never constructed.

About the year 1840 an Act was obtained by the Dublin and Drogheda Railway Company, of which he was engineer, for the construction of a line along the east coast of Ireland, and terminating on the high ground on the south side of the river Boyne, within half a mile of Drogheda. This line, after some delay, was completed in 1844, when he was knighted by Earl de Grey, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It is worthy of note that this road with its extension, the Dublin and Belfast Junction, as also the Dublin and Kilkenny, were laid out in opposition to the principle which guided the projection of the Irish Railway Commissioners' lines.

The members of that commission were, with the exception of Mr. (afterwards Sir Richard) Griffith, Royal Engineers, and the system of main trunk lines which they suggested was based on military considerations; not following the established trade routes, which ran almost exclusively from the inland districts to the nearest ports, and of which they published very elaborate and valuable maps, but crossing those lines of traffic more or less at right angles.

The Commissioners were apparently impressed with the notion of making the traffic go where they wished, and they selected Dublin as the centre to which everything was to be attracted - partly, no doubt, on strategic grounds. However, the Government system of railways was not carried out; and when companies came to be formed on commercial principles, they naturally looked to the large towns where the traffic already centered, and projected their undertakings to serve those towns.

Thus Sir John Macneill was engaged in projecting lines opposed to those which he had surveyed under the direction of the Commissioners, and this in after years led to frequent contests in Parliament. Some of the Commissioners’ lines were taken up during the railway mania by speculative companies, and were always strongly backed by Sir John Burgoyne and Colonel Harry Jones, whom Sir John Macneill had often to confront in committee, when he was generally successful.

Sir John Macneill constructed in the north of Ireland the Dublin and Drogheda Railway, with a branch to Howth; the Dublin and Belfast Junction, from Drogheda to Portadown, with a branch to Navan; the Dundalk and Enniskillen; and, in after years, the Dublin and Meath, the Belfast and Co. Down (all but the original 12 miles), and the extension of the Ulster Railway from Armagh to Clones and Cavan.

In the south of Ireland he was appointed engineer of the Dublin and Cashel (afterwards the Great Southern and Western) Railway, with a branch from Kildare to Carlow, which was brought forward in 1844 late in the session, Sir Robert Peel having consented to support the suspension of Standing Orders for that purpose, on condition that the Railway Commissioners’ line was adopted. An Act was obtained, but next year it was determined to abandon that portion of the line between Thurles and Cashel, and to apply for an extension from Thurles to Cork with a branch to Limerick. These lines were constructed by Sir John Macneill.

The railway mania was now at its height, and in 1845 Macneill lodged plans for upwards of 800 miles of railway in Ireland, besides being associated with various engineers in other projects, some of which were eventually constructed, in England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Amongst them was the Liverpool and Bury Railway, of which he and James Thomson were engineers. He was also, at some time before this, associated with Mr. Rendel as engineer of a railway through Devonshire to Plymouth, which was superseded by Brunel's South Devon line.

Many of the railways projected in Ireland in 1845 and 1846 fell through when the crash came; but some survived, and among them one of much importance - a short line of only 1.5 miles in length, extending from a suburb of Cork to the harbour. As this line involved the construction of a tunnel 0.75 of a mile long - a work then unprecedented in Ireland - Sir John Macneill had judiciously stopped short of it in 1844; but its importance was recognised the year after, and has been fully appreciated since, as it gave the extensive Great Southern and Western system a direct communication with the sea at the important port of Cork.

Acts were also obtained in 1846 for railways from Mallow to Killarney, and from Carlow to Wexford, which, having lapsed, were subsequently revived, and carried out by Mr. Le Fanu, M.Inst.C.E.

Although Sir John Macneill's practice at this time was very large, many of the lines of which he was engineer having failed through the railway crash, he was not paid the large prices which he had been promised for his surveys; and he unfortunately allowed himself to be drawn into signing contract-deeds for large numbers of shares in lines of which he was engineer, and thus became heavily involved, to an extent which hampered him for the rest of his life; and, as generally happens, he was not treated with much consideration or generosity by his employers.

Sir John Macneill's principal practice was in the construction of railways, but he was also engaged in other works - the Grangemouth Docks and Forth and Carte Junction Canal above mentioned; Sunk Island reclamation; large reclamations of slob lands in Loughs Swilly and Foyle, and in the bays and estuaries of the counties of Wexford and Waterford, some of which he executed, others being carried out by his contemporaries.

The Belfast Waterworks at Cave-hill were completed by him in 1843, and have since been much extended to meet the growing requirements of that large town, by Mr. Bateman, Past President Inst.C.E., and Sir Charles Lanyon, M.Inst.C.E.

Sir John Macneill had a considerable amount of originality; but, practising principally in a poor country, cut off to a certain extent from the mart for practical experience, he worked at a disadvantage as compared with English and Scotch engineers, and had to rely mainly on his own resources, and on assistants trained by himself.

Moreover, he had not the command of money which was available in the rich manufacturing and mineral districts of England and Scotland, and so he had to construct cheaply. Nevertheless, his works will compare very favourably with those of most engineers of his time, both as to cost and solidity, and he made remarkably few failures.

He deserves to be remembered as the engineer who introduced iron lattice-bridges into the United Kingdom. The first constructions of this kind were a foot-bridge across a deep cutting on the Dublin and Drogheda Railway [see Raheny Bridge], and a bridge of 140 feet span carrying the same railway over the Royal Canal at Dublin.

It is no reflection on Macneill to say that his original lattice-bridges were merely an adaptation of iron to the American trellis-bridges. Very few engineers at that time (1843) knew the principles upon which the strains in framed-structures should be calculated, and fewer still knew the strength of wrought iron under cross-strains. It was only after the elaborate and exhaustive calculations and experiments made for the Chester and Holyhead Railway Company by Eaton Hodgkinson and Mr. Fairbairn, under the direction of Robert Stephenson, that engineers were able to design wrought-iron bridges on scientific principles; but the introduction of the wrought-iron lattice marked a new departure in the art of building bridges of large spans, and sufficient credit has never been given to Sir John Macneill for the originality of the idea. The world is now covered with lattice bridges of great variety of design, whilst the tubular bridge, which was the result of Mr. Fairbairn's experiments, has seldom been repeated, he having himself adopted the framed or lattice principle in some notable instances; and it is doubtful whether any wrought-iron bridge has been built in which the calculations of the strains and the details of the ironwork were more carefully considered, or in which the weight of the iron used is more judiciously distributed, than the Boyne Bridge, of two spans of 250 feet each, at Drogheda, on the Great Northern Railway of Ireland.

Another innovation introduced by Mr. Macneill was the Irish railway gauge. In 1842 there were only two railways in Ireland, the Dublin and Kingstown, constructed by Mr. Vignoles, with a gauge of 4 feet 6 inches, and the Ulster, by Mr. Godwin, with a gauge of 6 feet 2 inches - the gauge laid down as the best by the Irish Railway Commissioners. Macneill selected 5 feet 2 inches as the gauge for the Dublin and Drogheda line; and as it was understood that before long there would be a link to join this with the Ulster Railway, and so complete the communication with Belfast, the directors of the latter company strongly protested, and appealed to the Board of Trade against it. Colonel Pasley was then appointed to report, and to recommend a national gauge for Ireland. It is well known that he arrived at 5 feet 3 inches - the present Irish gauge - by consulting many engine-makers, and other qualified persons, and then striking an average of the widths recommended by them - a rough-and-ready mode of solving the problem, which practically brought out the gauge selected by Mr. Macneill, and which has answered very well, being probably about the most convenient gauge in use.

Sir John Macneill was a man of prepossessing appearance, of very genial manners, and endowed with a considerable amount of humour. He was hard-working, quick of thought, and untiring in his professional pursuits, but not of methodical and business habits. He always placed great reliance on his subordinates, leaving them a good deal of discretion in the conduct of their departments, and although, from his position, he was much restricted in his choice, on the whole, from the open and generous nature of his management of his business, he had no cause to complain of the freedom of action which he allowed them.

The later years of his professional life were clouded by the failures consequent on embarrassment, and the usual neglect by those to whom in successful days he had been of great service. If it had not been for these circumstances, he would have left a name to be long remembered by the public, and by his professional brethren.

Sir John Macneill was a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was consulted by the Board of Trinity College, Dublin, respecting the establishment of a school of engineering, and for the interest he took in the matter and his valuable advice, the honorary distinction of LLB. of the University was conferred upon him, and he was appointed Professor of Civil Engineering when that Chair was founded; but, in consequence of professional engagements, he did not long continue to hold the Professorship.

For several years before his death blindness had obliged him to retire from all business, and he ceased to reside at Mount Pleasant in order to be with his sons, Torquil and Telford, who had adopted his own profession, and resided in London.

Sir John Macneill was elected an Associate on the 30th of January, 1827, and was transferred to Member on the 8th of February, 1831.

He died on the 2nd of March, 1880.

During his earlier residence in London, he took an active part in the business of the Society, speaking with effect in the discussions, and taking part as a Member of Council in its management from 1837 to 1843. In 1838 he received a Telford medal for his Canal-boat Experiments, which are recorded in vol. i. of the Transactions of the Institution.


1880 Obituary [3][4]



1880 Obituary [5]



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