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Thomas William De Butts Armstrong

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Thomas William De Butts Armstrong (1826-1877)


1878 Obituary [1]

MR. THOMAS WILLIAM DE BUTTS ARMSTRONG, late Chief Engineer and Secretary to the Government of the Central Provinces, India, second son of the late Rev. William C. Armstrong, M.A., of Bfoydow Rectory, County Longford, Ireland, was born in 1826, and having received a liberal education was at the age of fourteen sent to the college for Civil Engineers at Putney, where he remained about four years.

Leaving it in August 1844 he obtained employment under Sir John Macneill, M. Inst. C.E., as assistant engineer on the Dublin and Cashel railway (now the Great Southern and Western Railway of Ireland), and afterwards in Sir J. Macneill’s office, and on the Carlow railways.

In 1845-6, during the railway mania, Mr. Armstrong, while still in the same service, was, in addition to other duties, much employed in giving evidence before Parliamentary committees in London.

From the spring of 1846, for the space of about fifteen months, he served on railway works under the late Sir John Rennie, Past-President Inst. C.E., and under the Messrs. Leahy, of Cork. Mr. Armstrong was next employed on Government works in Ireland under the Commissioners of Public Works, and was for five years resident engineer under Mr. Frederic Barry, M. Inst. C.E., on several important navigation and arterial drainage works in the county of Mayo. These works were varied and important, and in their execution Mr. Armstrong displayed great energy and talent. He was at the same time endowed with genial and high social qualities, which rendered him deservedly popular. He, moreover, managed to combine business and pleasure, especially with regard to field sports, which conduced to his good health and spirits, and subsequently stood him and his companions in good stead on more than one occasion when he was a member of the Darien expedition.

During the five years in which Mr. Armstrong was engaged on these navigation and arterial drainage works, he fully established his reputation as a Civil Engineer, and in 1853, when these works were drawing to a close, he accepted an appointment under the late Mr. Lionel Gisborne, and proceeded to Sweden to assist in getting up the surveys, designs, plans, and estimates for the south Swedish railways between Malmo and Jonkoping, which have since been carried out by the Swedish Government.

Before this work was completed Mr. Armstrong was selected by Mr. Gisborne as a member of his staff of engineers, for the purpose of surveying that part of the Isthmus of Darien between Port Escoces and Caledonia Bay on the Atlantic side and the Gulf of San Miguel on the Pacific, with a view to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by a ship canal.

Mr. Armstrong left England on the 17th of December 1853, and formed part of the expedition sent to the Pacific side of the Isthmus, under the immediate direction of Mr. H. C. Forde, M. Inst. C.E. Mr. Gisborne and Lieutenant St. John, R.E., made their way on foot from the Atlantic to the Pacific, after much difficulty, and subsequently Mr. Gisborne, accompanied hy Mr. Armstrong, endeavoured to return by the same route, but on account of the absence of canoes, and the hostility of the Indians, they were compelled to abandon their endeavours in that direction. From Caledonia Bay, as a base of operations, Mr. Armstrong, in charge of a surveying party, finally made as careful a survey as circumstances admitted, between the Atlantic and the Chuqunaque river, and also took instrumental levellings between these points, thereby connecting the levels previously taken between the Pacific and the River Chuqunaque. He thus completed the survey of a section from sea to sea across a country previously and subsequently closed to all strangers. The result of Mr. Armstrong’s levelling showed that the lowest summit level of the Cordilleras, that could then be found, was an elevation of about 1,000 feet above the sea-an impracticable obstacle to the cutting of a ship canal.

In 1855 Mr. Armstrong received an appointment in the Honourable East India Company’s service, on the recommendation of Mr. Gisborne, in conjunction with about fifteen others. This was the first batch of Civil Engineers sent to India in the Government service, and they formed the nucleus of the Department of Public Works in that country.

Mr. Armstrong’s services in India extended over a period of twenty-two years. He rapidly rose in rank, and was distinguished for the ability with which he conducted the important works entrusted to his care, and the tact and kindness he displayed to all with whom he came in contact. On his arrival in Calcutta he was appointed an Executive Engineer, and attached to the survey of the Great Trunk line of road through Orissa.

In 1868 he was made superintendent of the Nuddea rivers which comprise the main lines of water communication between the River Ganges and Calcutta, an appointment held for many previous years by a military officer of high standing and great ability. Mr. Armstrong's services, as superintendent of these most important navigation roadways, were frequently acknowledged both by his then immediate chief, Mr. Leonard, M. Inst. C.E., and by the Government of Bengal.

By 1861 he had risen through the four grades of Executive Engineer, and was appointed Superintending Engineer of the Province of Orissa, the province in which he had served as Executive Engineer. He was soon afterwards made Consulting Engineer to Government for the great, but, as they proved, unprofitable irrigation works undertaken by the Orissa Irrigation Company. These duties he conducted with success, till compelled by illness to visit England in 1865.

On his return to India in 1867, with restored health, he was appointed Superintending Engineer of the Central Provinces, and soon afterwards became Chief Engineer and Secretary to the Government, which important post he held till his death. His career in these provinces was unusually active and distinguished ; indeed, his name is connected with every work of note carried out in them. Among the more important works may be mentioned the trunk roads throughout the country, and the numerous bridges spanning the immense rivers crossed by them: for instance, the Kankan, a stone bridge of twelve arches of 80 feet each, with a roadway 60 feet above the river bed ; the Wurdah valley and other state railways, surveyed and constructed for the opening up the coal and cotton districts of these provinces; the exploration and development of the Warora collieries; the large military barracks at Jubbulpur, and the construction of the waterworks for the ancient city of Nrigphr, a work most successfully carried out under the executive charge of Mr. Alexander Binnie, M. Inst. C.E.

Mr. Armstrong's services were frequently acknowledged by the Government of India, and on his death, the Chief Commissioner sf the Central Provinces testified his appreciation of them by the following official notification in the Government Gazette :-

"Memorandum No. 89, dated Nigphr, the 8th May, 1877.-The Chief Commissioner has received with much regret the intelligence of the death at sea on the 1st instant, of Mr. Armstrong, Chief Engineer. Looking at the important services which Mr. Armstrong, as head of the department in these provinces, has rendered to the Administration, Mr. Morris desires to place on record his sense of the serious loss which the public service has suffered. In the year 1867 Mr. Armstrong joined the Public Works Department of the Central Provinces as Superintending Engineer, and since 1869 he has been Chief Engineer and Secretary to the Chief Commissioner in the Public Works Department. His name is associated with every engineering work of importance - railway, bridge, or road - undertaken in the province during these years ; and the success attained in many cases has been largely due to his professional knowledge and experience. Nor can the Chief Commissioner leave unnoticed the great personal interest in his professional work which was a marked characteristic of Mr. Armstrong as Chief Engineer. This laudable eagerness to see more work finished prolonged his stay in the country, and it may thus, it is feared, have been instrumental in shortening his life. AU officers associated with Mr. Armstrong in the service must feel with the Chief Commissioner that by his death the Government has lost a most efficient and zealous officer-one whose loss, when announced to the Supreme Government, brought immediately the following telegraphic reply :-‘ Government of India regret exceedingly tcs hear of the death of so meritorious a public servant as Mr. Armstrong was.’ ”

Mr. Armstrong not only conducted his professional duties so as to gain the approval and confidence of his superiors, but also the esteem and affection of his large staff, both military and civil ; and it is a pleasing circumstance to have to record that the officers and subordinates comprising his staff spontaneously, on receiving the sad news of his death, subscribed a large sum of money, with a view of perpetuating his memory in the Central Provinces, by erecting some public monument to his name, which is about to assume the form of a stained-glass window in Nagpur Church. His long residence in India had for the last few years of his life been’ gradually impairing his health ; but the great interest he took in his works, and his anxious desire to see them satisfactorily completed, so that the service should not materially suKer by his absence, induced him to remain a little too long in the country. At the urgent recommendation of his medical adviser he at length availed himself of three months’ privileged leave ; and he left Bombay in the Peninsular and Oriental steamer Travancore at the end of April 1877, for a trip to Australia and back, during unusually hot weather.

On the 1st of May following he died suddenly from heat apoplexy off the Malabar coast, in his fifty-first year, having nearly earned his retirement and a SubstantiaE pension. The following extract from the Chief Commissioner’s minute on the Annual Progress Report of the Central Provinces for 1876-7 is a further proof of how Mr. Armstrong’s professional services were appreciated In conclusion, I cannot omit the opportunity of again recording the heavy loss the department has sustained during the year by the death of Mr. Armstrong. He identified himself with the progress and success of every important work being carried out under his orders; his high professional attainments qualified him at all times to render practical assistance in difficulties to the executive officers who served under him as Chief Engineer. During his long career in these provinces the Government of India has on many occasions communicated its appreciation of Mr. Armstrong’s excellent services ; and I feel that his death has deprived the Administration of a most devoted and efficient public servant.”

Mr. Armstrong was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 10th of April, 1866.


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