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Summary:

John Blackwell, who died in 1840, is remembered with a memorial tablet in St Lawrence's Church. He was a civil engineer, working on the Kennet and Avon Canal for thirty years. He and his family lived in Avenue House, The Croft.

This article is largely based on research by Neil Hardwick, who kindly shared this information with the Virtual Museum, Aug 2017.

Who was John Blackwell?

Approximately 1km to the west of Devizes, inlayed into the western brickwork of Prison Bridge that carries the A361 across the Kennet and Avon Canal, is a marble tablet. It is inscribed:

THIS TABLET IS ERECTED
BY THE KENNET & AVON CANAL COMPANY
TO THE MEMORY OF
JOHN BLACKWELL
WHO DURING THIRTY FOUR YEARS
SUPERINTENDED THE WORKS OF THE CANAL
AS THEIR ENGINEER
WITH FIDELITY, VIGILANCE & ABILITY
1840

Other canal engineers:

It was John Rennie who had played the leading role in constructing the Kennet & Avon Canal, and he continued to take an active interest in proceeding right up until his death in 1821.

However, by 1806, when work on the Caen Hill flight began, most of the design work had been completed and Rennie's real attention was elsewhere. It was left to the Canal Company's own civil engineers to complete the missing link between Devizes and Great Bedwyn.

Building the Kennet & Avon Canal was proving to be a fraught affair. Rennie’s construction estimates were hopelessly optimistic and actual costs were proving to be triple the budget. An Act of Parliament facilitated raising another £150,000 and it was this money which was used to finish the canal. It was to be the most heavily engineered section on the whole route with a tunnel and pumping station needed on the summit level and 29 locks required to climb Caen Hill.

The Superintendent of Works at the time was John Thomas, a Bristol based self employed grocer. The son of a Keynsham wire drawer and a Quaker by religion, he had been an enthusiastic supporter of the canal since inception and was already on the Committee of Management by 1794. When Dudley Clark (who had been the inaugural resident engineer since 1795) was dismissed, John Thomas offered to help out in a part time capacity. He proved himself to be so capable that in August 1802 he was given the permanently appointment on a combined salary and expenses of £750 per year.

John Blackwell joins the canal team:

It seems that John Blackwell was first employed at Caen Hill in 1806 as a Site Agent, responsible for managing the works. His name first appears in the Canal Company records in December 1807 when he is given a bank draft for £2,216-13s-2d to pay “Ward Brown”.

Nothing is yet known of John Blackwell’s earlier life. When Isambard Kingdom Brunel first met him in 1832 he wrote in his diary that he considered Blackwell “a bigoted, obstinate, practical man.”

It is known that John Blackwell lived in Devizes, but unfortunately the Land Tax records for Devizes do not always identify tenants individually. In June 1808 he was moved to Crofton, presumably to work on the steam pumping engine that was being erected there. The Minutes of the 28th read

“Resolved— that on account of the extra expenses which are now necessarily incurred by John Blackwell in consequence of his removal from Devizes to Crofton an allowance of £50 per annum be made to him on account of such. Extra expenses to commence from the time of his going to Crofton.”

This engine was manufactured by Boulton and Watt and had been bought second hand by John Rennie in 1802 from the West India Dock Company. Constructed with a wooden beam, it was delivered to site in 1807 but wasn’t commissioned until November 1809, primarily because the engine house roof had been built too low.

John Blackwell is first mentioned in the public records when he married Fanny Cooper on 23rd August 1808 in Burbage. Their first daughter Emma was born in June the following year. There are no records of the family renting a house either in Burbage or in one of the surrounding villages so it is probable that they lodged with one of Fanny’s relatives. 

By 1809 John Blackwell was working with John Rennie constructing Oakhill Locks near Froxfield.

Meanwhile, John Thomas had bought a very large house in Bath - “Prior Park” - Bath’s most prestigious property, which had been built between 1734 and 1743 by Ralph Allen. John Thomas reputedly paid £10,000 for it (perhaps £9m at today's prices). Although “the frugality of John Thomas amounted, in some instances, to parsimony” the local population questioned how a grocer and canal engineer could legitimately amass such a fortune. 

This issue was enduring enough to warrant a mention in his obituary published in The Gentlemen’s Magazine some 17 years later: "The amount of his salary is here mentioned because it has been idly believed that part of his large fortune was accumulated in the management of that concern”. 

July 1811 brings security for the Blackwell family when following the canal’s opening in December 1810 he was kept on:

“Resolved that in consideration of the services of Mr John Blackwell and his exertions in attending to the finishing the Locks at Devizes he is to be presented with 100 Guineas and that he be continued at the salary of £200 a year and be allowed to make a reasonable charge for the keep of a house.”

His second daughter, Eliza was born in October 1811 at Great Bedwyn.

John Blackwell becomes Engineer:

In 1813 John Thomas announced his desire to relinquish his responsibilities through declining health. The Management Committee requested that he “continue his Superintendance of the Affairs of the Company till another proper person can be appointed in his stead. He has consented thereto. Resolved—That the said John Thomas be appointed Superintendant of the Concerns of the Company.” This set the tone for the next 14 years until he died in 1827 aged 74.

Whilst John Thomas busied himself with whatever was of interest, John Blackwell adopted the role of Engineer. In 1813 these included a project to install a 3hp steam engine in a dredging boat and modifying locks and cills on the River Kennet.

On 19th July 1814 John Blackwell was finally rewarded for his 8 years of service when he was offered the position of Resident Engineer:

“Resolved— that Mr John Blackwell be appointed the Resident Engineer of the Company and Superintendent of the Works at a salary of £300 per annum and a House to be provided for him by the Company and also with an allowance of £50 per annum for the expenses of a horse, Mr Blackwell having engaged not to leave the services of the Company in less than 7 years without the consent of the Committee of Management.”

The house was in Devizes and one of two owned by John Thomas. In 1813 he “offered to sell to the Company his house at Devizes which is conveniently situated for the Residence of an agent at the price at which he purchased the same”. The Company declined the offer, preferring to rent it instead. However, by 1818 he had sold both houses to the Company, the second one being used as an office.

John Blackwell's third daughter, Harriet, was born in Devizes in April 1814.

In the subsequent years up to 1823 life became more routine. A further daughter, Louise, was born in 1817 and his only son, Thomas Evans in 1819. Working life consisted of routine maintenance and managing capital projects, mainly new wharfs and warehouses.

John Blackwell moves to Hungerford:

In 1822 the River Kennet was put into his care and his salary increased pro rata by the increased length of navigation. He was also given permission to rent a Canal Company house at Hungerford Wharf for use as as an office.

For reasons which are not explained, on 27 Jun 1823 the Company announced that Johns Blackwell’s residence was going to be “removed” from Devizes to Hungerford. This resulted in him claiming an extra £100 per year to cover travelling expenses. The address wasn’t identified at the time, but traditionally it is thought to be Avenue House built on what was Canal Company land adjacent to the Church Croft. The description that appeared in the local paper 16 years later when John Blackwell’s house was sold supports this theory.

The belief that “John Blackwell built it himself” would explain the two year delay between being given notice in 1823 and actually leaving Devizes in 1825. 

In November 1823 his final daughter Anne was born at Burbage.

Interest in railways develops: 

In the early 1820’s the country began to take an interest in railways. The Canal Company adopted a pragmatic view, supporting them where they sensed a commercial advantage and opposing them where they saw a threat.

John Blackwell’s life, and later that of his son, increasingly revolved around them. In November 1824 the Canal Company was provided with a sketch for a “Rail Road from the Kennet and Avon Canal to Salisbury, which appears to this Committee to be a very desirable measure for the interests of the Kennet and Avon Company. It was Resolved unanimously that "Mr Blackwell the Engineer of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company be employed to make plans and an estimate on the proposed Rail Road.”

The following month John Blackwell was given a further instruction being ordered to “resurvey through which the projected Rail Road would pass and report the result of his survey to the next meeting of the Committee". The following month the Management Committee sent John Blackwell north to investigate further: “It had been thought advisable that Mr. Blackwell, the Engineer of the Company should go to the North of England to see the operation of several Rail Roads and Locomotive Engines now in work and to report his observations and opinions thereon.” He reported that “no great improvements have been made, there are limits to their powers which are nearly approached” and as a result the Salisbury scheme was quietly dropped.

Much later, on the 29 Sep 1829 “John Blackwell is desired to attend the experiment to be made of Locomotive Engines on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on the 11th of next Month.” Then, in September 1831, he was “desired to go to Birmingham and from thence through Derby to Buxton to Manchester to examine and report on the Cromford and Derby Railway, to examine and report on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and all the particulars connected with both.”

Whilst these historic projects were being debated, John Blackwell continued with the more mundane tasks of a Canal Engineer. For example on the:

- 3 Aug 1826 he suggested that deepening the Wilton Stream would improve the water supply to Crofton.

- 29 Mar 1829, he was tasked with “widening the said waterway as much as he deem expedient” at Reading.

- 28 Sep 1830 he recommended rebuilding the River Kennet locks with brick, reducing them to the size of the Kennet and Avon Canal locks at the same time.

On 6 Jan 1831 it was minuted that “John Blackwell having produced a plan of a basin and dock for the Wharf at Newbury, ordered that he do proceed in the execution of the same with as much expedition as possible.” Also at the same meeting “John Blackwell also produced a plan of alterations at Hungerford Wharf by taking down the old Warehouse and erecting another against the Road, enlarging the Wharf for the depositing of Coals. Ordered, that he do proceed with the same.”

Unlike several other K&A Management Committee members, John Blackwell appears not to have been interested in municipal affairs, concentrating his efforts on the canal instead. 

His name only appears once in the newspapers - in October 1832 when he became involved in a County Court hearing that involved constituency voting rights. To be on the voting register you had to be male with freehold or substantial tenancy rights in the constituency or parish. The Canal Company were claiming, as property owners, individual voting rights for all their shareholders for all 13 parishes through which the canal flowed. 

Aldermaston came first on account of its position in the alphabet. As a witness Blackwell performed poorly. “Upon a cross-examination by Mr Gregory the witness stated that he did not know what was the entire amount of tolls produced between Newbury and Reading, and that he did not know whether any portion of those tolls were collected in the parish of Aldermaston”. The following day Mr Corbett, the Revising Barrister gave the following judgement: “I am of the opinion that the Kennet and Avon Company, as a corporation aggregate, consequently does not confer a right to vote on individual members of such a corporation. The shares must be considered as personal property and consequently will not entitle the individual holder to vote. The vote of John Blackwell must therefore be expunged”.

The Institute of Civil Engineers accepted him as a member in February 1833 although his involvement with the organisation appears tenuous, meriting only a single line joint obituary in 1842: “Mr Baxter and Mr Blackwell had long been members of the Institution and although their residence at a distance from the metropolis prevented their frequent attendance at out meetings they have shown their interest in its welfare by contributions both to the Library and the Collection of Models.”

On the 11 Sep 1833 John Blackwell was given a further pay rise:

“Resolved that the future salary of Mr Blackwell for his whole services to the Company in any of their concerns be £400 per annum from the 29th day of November 1832 besides the present allowance of £150 per annum for his travelling and other expenses and also an allowance for a dwelling house.”

Thomas Blackwell joins his father:

On the 9 Dec 1835 John Blackwell asked if the Canal Company would employee his son as an apprentice: “Mr Blackwell being desirous that his son, Thomas Blackwell now in the 17th year of his age, should be in active employment in the business of an Engineer which profession he intends to follow. Ordered that Mr Blackwell be authorised to entrust his under his own superintendance with the care of the canal from Newbury to Crofton.” It was not made clear at the time is that Thomas Blackwell’s position was unwaged. 

This was rectified two years later when Thomas was given a promotion. It was “Ordered that Mr Thomas Blackwell who has been employed about two years in the service of the Company (but without any salary) be engaged as Sub Engineer to the Company under the direction and control of his Father, the Principal Engineer. He will be paid a salary of £60 per annum commencing from the 1st of January last.” As a comparison lock keepers were paid £25 per year which was reported to be “too low for men to live.”

The Great Western Railway comes:

In September 1834 the Canal Management Committee were sufficiently concerned about the proposed Great Western Railway that they sent John Blackwell and Mr Brand, the Company Accountant, on a fact finding tour of the canal. The GWR had already contracted Isambard Kingdom Brunel as their Engineer and he was recommending a route north of the Lambourn Downs well away from the canal constructed through the Vale of Pewsey.

The only interfaces between the two was at the extreme ends of the canal. In the east a bridge was necessary at Reading whilst in the west a major conflict existed with the approach to Bath near Sydney Gardens. The solution was to realign the canal. Work started in 1839, and it was to be John Blackwell’s last significant project and it was completed by his son in 1841.

John Blackwell's later years:

As already mentioned, John Blackwell moved in 1823 into a Canal Company house in Hungerford. It was while he was living in Hungerford that two of his daughters married: Emma to Henry Leach in London on the 12th August 1830 and Harriett to John Stevens in Reading on 15th January 1835.

In 1839, John Blackwell decided to leave Avenue House, which was advertised for sale in the Berkshire Chronicle of 9 Mar 1839 edition:

“TO BE SOLD BY AUCTION, A Very desirable FREEHOLD DWELLING HOUSE, with Yard, Outbuildings and Appurtenances, sited on the West side of the High Street, at Hungerford, adjoining the Kennet and Avon Canal Office on the north and now in the occupation of Mr. Blackwell.

For further particulars apply to Messrs TB and W Merriman, Marlborough and at the Kennet and Avon Canal Office, Hungerford, and for a view apply to Mr. Blackwell. 

Why John Blackwell chose to move from Avenue House is not known, but subsequent events suggests his health was deteriorating. The sale did not go smoothly. On 13 Mar 1839 John Blackwell informed the Management Committee that “the house at Hungerford lately occupied by him was advertised for sale. Resolved that the reserved price for the same should be £380.”

He also reported that “a Mr Orchard has lately much increased the nuisance which he some time ago created to the said house by burning leather and that in his opinion it was done for the purpose of depreciating the present value of the house. Ordered— that the Principal Clerk immediately commence an action against Orchard for the nuisance.”

On 3 May 1839 it was reported “The House at Hungerford having been offered for sale according to the resolution of the General Committee, and no offer being made above £350 and it being the opinion of Mr Blackwell that no higher sum will be offered, Resolved that it be recommended to the next General Committee to sanction the sale of the same by Messrs. Merriman at that price.” On 23 June the Clerk reported “that the house at Hungerford, with a small addition to the garden, had been sold to Mr James Palmer for £380.”

John Blackwell’s final move into semi-retirement was to Westfield Cottage, Hungerford in what is today Parsonage Lane. On 15 Feb 1840 his wife Fanny died and was buried a short distance away in St Lawrence’s churchyard.

The General Committee were so concerned about John Blackwell’s health that on 21st July 1840 they actually instructed him to take time off from work:

“Resolved that Mr John Blackwell have permission to and be recommended to leave home and his duties for ten days or a fortnight with the hope of improving his health by relaxation.”

In September 1840 his only son Thomas married Anne Buckland. The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette of Thurs 1 Oct 1840 reported: “Married, on Thursday last, at St. Mary’s Church, Islington, by the Rev. John Buckland, Thomas Blackwell esq., only son of John Blackwell esq., Hungerford, to Anne, second daughter of of Charles Buckland, esq., of the former place.”

But the same edition of the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette also printed, in the “Deaths” section, the following announcement: 

“Died, on Monday last, at Westfield Cottage, Hungerford, in the 65th year of his age, after an illness of but a few hours duration, John Blackwell esq., civil engineer, who for upwards of the last 35 years has been honourably connected with the Kennet & Avon Canal. For uprightness and integrity of character he was admired by all who knew him”.

He was buried with Fanny in St Lawrence's church yard and a memorial plaque placed on the south wall inside the church:

IN MEMORY OF
JOHN BLACKWELL Esq, CE,
FOR MANY YEARS A RESIDENT
OF THIS TOWN,
WHO DIED SEPT 28th 1840.
AGED 65 YEARS
AND OF FANNY, HIS WIFE,
WHO DIED FEB 15th 1840,
AGED 56 YEARS.
THEY DIED AT HUNGERFORD, AND
WERE INTERRED IN A VAULT
IN THE ADJACENT CHURCHYARD

An Extraordinary Management Committee meeting was held on the 22nd October 1840, primarily to discuss the consequences of John Blackwell’s death. It was

“Resolved that a Monument be erected to the memory of the late Mr John Blackwell, the Principal Engineer to the Company, as a mark of respect and regard for his long, valuable and zealous service to this Company. Also Resolved that Messrs Pratt and Duncan be requested to make enquiry and report to the next meeting of the Committee as to the most eligible spot for the erection of the above intended Monument.”

At the year end meeting held on the 9 Dec 1840 “a letter was read from Mr T E Blackwell, expressive of the grateful feelings of the family for the compliment intended to be paid to his father’s memory and suggesting that the neighbourhood of the Locks at Devizes would as being the scene of his Father's Superintendence be a situation in which the family would prefer to have the monument. Resolved that this Committee approve of the inscription proposed and direct it to be placed over the arch of the bridge near the top of the Locks at Devizes”

[With thanks to Neil Hardwick, who researched this topic, and sent the original text, Aug 2017]

See also:

- Building the Kennet & Avon Canal

- The Croft

- Church Monuments in St Lawrence Church