Sir John Fowler - Encyclopedia

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SIR JOHN FOWLER (1817-1898), English civil engineer, was born on the 15th of July 1817 at Wadsley Hall, near Sheffield, where his father was a land-surveyor. At the age of sixteen he became a pupil of John Towlerton Leather, the engineer of the Sheffield water-works. The latter's uncle, George Leather, was engineer of the Great Aire and Calder Navigation Company, of the Goole Docks, and other similar works, and Fowler passed occasionally into his employment, in which he acquired a thorough knowledge of hydraulic engineering. The era of railway construction soon swept both Fowler and his employers into its service, and one of his first employments was to oppose the route of the Midland railway, chosen by the Stephensons, which left Sheffield on a branch line, and was therefore strongly resented by the inhabitants. The prestige of the Stephensons carried all before it, but in later life Sir John Fowler had the satisfaction of seeing the opposition of his clients justified, and Sheffield placed on the main line. In 1838 he went into the office of John Urpeth Rastrick, one of the leading railway engineers of the day, where he was employed in designing bridges for the line from London to Brighton, and also in surveying for railways in Lancashire. In 1839 he went as representative of Mr Leather to take charge of the construction of the Stockton & Hartlepool railway and remained as manager of the line after it was finished. In 1844 he began his independent career as an engineer, and from the first was largely employed, more particularly in laying out the small railway systems which eventually were amalgamated under the title of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire. In the course of this work he designed a bridge known as Torksey Bridge, which was disallowed by the Board of Trade inspector, Captain (afterwards Field-Marshal Sir) Lintorn Simmons. The engineering profession espoused Fowler's side in the controversy which followed, and as a result the verdict of the Board of Trade was modified. The episode was the beginning of a warm friendship between these distinguished representatives of civil and military engineering. Fowler was engineer of the London Metropolitan railway, the pioneer of underground railways, and noteworthy in that it was mostly made not by tunnelling, but by excavating from the surface and then covering in the permanent way; and he lived to be one of the engineers officially connected with the deep tunnelling "tube" system extensively adopted for electric railways in London. He was also engaged in the making of railways in Ireland, and in 1867 he was selected by Disraeli to serve on a commission to advise the government in respect of a proposal for a statepurchase of the Irish railway system. He also carried out considerable works in relation to the Nene Valley drainage and the reclamation of land at the Norfolk estuary.

In 1865 he was elected president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the youngest president who had ever sat in the chair. He was strongly opposed to the project of a Channel tunnel to France, and in 1872 he endeavoured to obtain the consent of parliament to a Channel ferry scheme, whereby trains were to be transported across the strait in large ferry steamers. The proposal involved the making of enlarged harbours at Dover and Audresselles on the French coast, and the bill, after passing the Commons, was thrown out by the casting vote of the chairman of a committee of the House of Lords. In 1875 he was enabled to render, in his private capacity, a signal service to the Italian government, which was much embarrassed by impracticable proposals pressed on it by Garibaldi for a rectification of the course of the Tiber and other engineering works. He had several interviews with the Italian patriot, and persuaded him of the impracticable nature of his plan, thereby obtaining for the government leisure to devise a more reasonable scheme. For eight years from 1871 he acted as general engineering adviser in Egypt to the Khedive Ismail. He projected a railway to the Sudan, and also the reparation of the barrage. These and many other plans came to an end owing to financial reasons. But the maps and surveys for the railway were given to the war office, and proved most useful to Lord Wolseley in his Nile expedition. For his service Fowler was made K.C.M.G. (1885). He was created a baronet in 1890 on the completion of the Forth bridge, of which with his partner Sir Benjamin Baker he was joint engineer. He died at Bournemouth on the 10th of November 1898.

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