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Thomas Evans Blackwell, was the son of John Blackwell. They both were engineers working on the Kennet and Avon Canal. From 1825 the family lived in 12 Bridge Street, Hungerford, and there are two family memorial tablets in St Lawrence's Church.
This article is largely based on research by Neil Hardwick, who kindly shared this information with the Virtual Museum, Aug 2017.
Who was Thomas Blackwell?
Thomas Evans Blackwell was a civil engineer. He was born on the 28th July 1819 at Devizes, the only son of John and Fanny Blackwell. His father, whom Isambard Kingdom Brunel considered “a bigoted, obstinate, practical man” was the Engineer of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company. The family lived in a Company house in Devizes until 1825, after which the Company “removed” him to Hungerford.
Of Thomas’s early education only the following is known: “His early mathematical training and his best impressions were derived from his godfather, the Rev. Thomas Evans, at that time Vicar of Froxfield - the 'Felix Ford' of the early editions of the ‘Mechanics’ Magazine,’ and who was formerly connected with the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.”
Thomas Blackwell starts working for the Canal Company:
At the age of 17 with his schooling over, his name is first mentioned in the K&A records. On the 9th December 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 Superintendence with the care of the canal from Newbury to Crofton.” What was not made clear at the time was that Thomas Blackwell’s position was unwaged!
On the 14th March 1838 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. He will devote his whole time to the service of the Company and more especially to the Western District and he is particularly to attend to the duties heretofore performed by the late Thomas Wilkins of Horton whose salary beside allowance of a House and Coals was one Guinea per week.”
Eighteen months later, he was given more responsibility and a pay rise: “Mr T. E. Blackwell’s duties are to be extended to the Avon which he is to superintend under the direction of his Father and that he do visit the whole line at least once a fortnight and that his salary be increased £25 per annum”. In 1840 it was raised again to £150 per annum with the intention of further raising it to £200 the following year.
On the 15th February 1840 his mother Fanny died, to be followed by a slow decline in his father’s health. Indeed the canal General Committee were so concerned about John Blackwell’s wellbeing 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.”
Thomas Blackwell becomes Principal Engineer, 1840:
His father died on 28th September 1840 at Hungerford, aged 65. The Canal Company convened a special meeting the 22nd October 1840 to discuss both John Blackwell’s death and to appoint his successor. Since Thomas Blackwell had played a close supporting role to his father, it was inevitable he would be offered the position. His salary was set at £400 per year, including travelling expenses, back dated to the 29th August. However, the Chairman’s announcement made clear his doubts that Thomas Blackwell was up to the job :
“I am directed by the Committee to inform you that in appointing you to the office which has been so ably and zealously filled by your late Father the Committee consider it necessary to caution you to be very careful to be engaged in no new or expensive work without the sanction of the Committee.”
Thomas marries, and moves to Foxhangers, Devizes, 1840:
In September 1840 Thomas Blackwell married Anne Buckland at Islington, London. The 1841 census shows them living in the Engineers House at Foxhangers at the bottom of the Caen Hill flight. In their care was Anne Blackwell, Thomas’s younger sister. So attractive was his house that he offered to purchase it in 1842, an offer that was unanimously rebuffed by the General Committee.
For two years all went well. On the 20th July 1841 Thomas Blackwell was granted a pay increase of £100 per year on account of him “much exceeding what was anticipated by the Committee when his salary was fixed at £400 a year.” Then on 22nd March 1843 the Western Sub Committee minuted:
“The Quarterly Report of the Engineer was read and some suggestions were made to him thereon and he was directed to lay before the Committee at each quarterly meeting a more specific and detailed estimate of the works to be taken in hand and the expenses to be incurred in the ensuing quarter”.
But things don't go so well:
The reason for their concern became clear that afternoon. In 1841 Thomas Blackwell had committed himself to reducing the canal’s repair costs to no more than £4,800. However, at the December 1842 quarterly meeting he admitted that the year’s final accounts submitted the previous May would be affected by a number of debts not included for payment. Whether by accident or design, his actions had resulted in the Canal Company overstating its financial position. The General Management Committee Minutes read:
“Resolved- that the Engineer transmit forthwith to the General Offices at Bath the full particulars of all withheld accounts accompanied with the bills of parcels of the several parties, stating their places of abode, date of debt, when incurred as well as the total undischarged debts recorded in his books or department to the said 29th of May 1842.”
“Resolved- that the Committee highly disapprove of the withholding of accounts by Mr Blackwell from the Sub Committee’s accounts as appears from the Report of the Western Sub Committee and from further investigations this day and that it be referred to the Western Sub Committee to consider the best mode of conducting the business of the Engineer and of maintaining the complete regularity of the Company’s business.”
“Resolved- that the Chairman be requested to refer the Engineer to the instructions given to him on his appointment on 22nd day of October 1840.”
The Western Sub Committee held a hostile special meeting on the 28th of March:
“Mr Brand is instructed to to require the following documents to be sent by Mr Blackwell to the General Office on Saturday morning next the 1st April, viz,
The inventory of all stocks taken up to the 29th of May last for the Annual Balancing. The statement of outstanding debts to the 30th Nov 1842 which was presented by Mr Blackwell to the General Committee at their meeting on the 22nd last. All books and accounts at Foxhanger including the Cash Book or any other books that Mr Blackwell may think necessary should be laid before the Wester Sub Committee on the 4th April.”
At the meeting on the 4th April it was minuted that:
“Mr Blackwell attended and was asked if he had all the books and papers required to be produced in conformity with the resolution of 28th March last." He said that he had nearly all.
He was asked if he could bring in all the liabilities of the Company by Tuesday next. He said that he would do so.
Mr. Blackwell acknowledged that his accounts had not been kept so clearly as he could have wished and that his statements of debts due not to be so regularly made as they ought to have been.
Mr Blackwell was informed that in order to enable him to keep his accounts better in future he might have any assistance from Mr Brand. Mr Brand recommended that the amounts of materials available for repairs should be separated from the Inventory of Stock.
The further consideration of other business of this Committee was adjourned till next Tuesday.”
Thomas Blackwell did not attend this next meeting on the 11th because “his family were ill of fever.” A fortnight later, on the 24th, he was summoned again:
“The Western Sub Committee met this day by adjournment from the 11th April and were occupied in examination of sundry accounts in the Engineers department which were by no means satisfactory, prices generally appearing to the Committee to have been irregularly and without due attention allowed to be charged by Traders and others supplying the Company".
Mr Blackwell was called in and examined on a great number of the accounts and it was in strong terms urged upon him the necessity of minutely examining and ascertaining the respective value of every article consumed by the Canal Company, and not hereafter give orders without submitting the same to the members of the Committee.
"Resolved- that the above resolutions be read to Mr Blackwell and that his immediate and and earnest attention be given to these instructions.”
Thomas Blackwell gets it together, 1842-45:
Thomas Blackwell survived this financial debacle and the next three years performed well in the Engineer’s role. Projects that he successfully managed were the introduction of a new steam engine at Crofton, better pumps at Claverton and two new pumping engines at Bath. However, it was the encroaching railways that occupied most of his time, especially that of the Avon and Gloucestershire Railway and its affiliates. The Canal Company had dabbled in this latter project since 1828 but by 1845 their transport rates were being undercut by the Midland Railway. The Great Western Railway were having a similar impact on the Canal’s general trade.
The GWR threatens the Canal Company's trade:
In August 1845 a shareholders meeting was held at the Railway Hotel, Reading. There was only one item on the agenda: how to stop the deterioration in the Company’s finances caused by the Great Western Railway’s “invasion of our navigation”. Admiral Dundas, the Chairman, announced that they were considering applying to Parliament for “powers to convert the canal into a railway, or to make a railway on its banks, or to join with other parties for carrying out such alterations”. Thomas Blackwell was asked to present the findings of a survey commissioned the previous month. He reported “I am enabled confidently to assure you that, with the exception of some curves which require to be cut off, the present line and the general levels as now existing on it are applicable to a railway.“
“I find also that that there will be sufficient width for a double line of rails of the wide gauge, if that should be adopted.”
“I have no doubt that the works may be well executed under a total cost of £7,312 per mile, or for the whole distance of 55 miles, exclusive of stations, a sum not exceeding £411,800.”
An alternative suggestion was to sell the Company to the GWR. There was no response so it was agreed instead to build the railway adjacent to the canal, the proposal being presented to Parliament early the following year. Total construction costs were now estimated to be £800,000. At a shareholders meeting of the newly formed London, Newbury and Bath Direct Railway Company held on Thursday 10th September 1846 these escalating costs were challenged. Admiral Dundas explained that “some of the charges were very large, but they must remember, with respect to the engineering, that the survey was made when all England was mad about railways and when it was difficult to get engineers at almost any price. The Committee had great faith in their own engineer, Mr Blackwell, but it was necessary in such an undertaking to obtain the services of a gentleman of a higher grade, and in consequence they engaged Mr Walker”. After passing two successful readings the K&A railway bill was eventually abandoned in return for cash payments from the GWR.
1846 brought demands for more cost savings. In July Thomas Blackwell and the Principal Clerk Thomas Baverstock Merriman wrote to the Management Committee with a suggestion that would save the Company £200/year: they would each accept a reduction in their salaries. Whilst Merriman’s offer appeared straightforward, Thomas Blackwell’s letter hinted at an ulterior motive:
“I think it almost superfluous to assure the Committee how great my attachment has always been to the Kennet and Avon Company and how anxious is my desire to continue as one of its most energetic devotees in all that concerns its future prosperity, by the aid of my exertions and such general attention as I may be permitted to offer. I am however satisfied that every necessary attention may be paid to the canal and yet that I may take advantage of some of the offers of business which have on several occasions been made to me. Such and arrangement would necessarily involve a cessation of some of my local obligations on my time (although without removing my residence)."
The Canal Company was broadly supportive of this initiative, and in response Thomas Blackwell “stated that he should not object to its being understood that any engagements he may enter into with other Parties than the Canal Company should be limited to the several Counties through which the Canal passes”.
In August Thomas Blackwell came under more pressure to slim down his department. It was noted that “in the year 1842 seven persons were employed whose salaries and expenses amounted to £725 and in the year 1846 five persons, the amount of whose salaries and expenses was £524, thus showing a reduction of £201. But Mr Blackwell in answer to their enquiries expressed a conviction that he should hardly be able to effect any further reductions.” This clearly wasn’t what the Management Committee wanted to hear because at the next meeting he wrote a letter in “ which the Committee will perceive an additional £120 per annum will be economised in the Engineers Department.
Even the Committee’s expenses came under scrutiny. A costs analysis put them at £70 per meeting, of which travelling expenses were a significant proportion. It was estimated that if these were reduced by 6d per mile then £115 15s could be saved. Collectively the savings in the committees expenses, engineering expenses and Thomas Merriman’s and Blackwell’s wages gave a total of £586.
In September 1850 Thomas Blackwell suggested that further savings could be made if the Canal’s management was put out to contract. The Canal would be split into sections: “Mr Blackwell then introduced a specification for the maintenance and lock keeping between New Bridge, Great Bedwyn and Reading, also a statement of the absolute cost for the same for the last three years, the average of which amounted to £2,754:17:1.” Tenders were invited from six contractors. Three declined outright and the lowest bid of £2,660 was offered Thomas Woolridge (of The Wharf, Hungerford), an old acquaintance of Thomas Blackwell’s father.
Thomas moves his family home to Bath, 1851:
Possibly anticipating the demise of the K&A as an independent canal or just reflecting his wider involvement in exterior engineering projects, in March 1851 Thomas Blackwell left Foxhangers and moved both his family and his business to 65 Great Pulteney Street, Bath. He told his employers “that for the convenience of the Canal Business he had moved his residence from Foxhangers to Bath.” In addition to his wife and five children, the household now comprised of two nurses, a housemaid, a cook, a footman and a clerk.
... and becomes Docks Engineer at Bristol, 1852, moving to Bristol:
During 1851 Bristol Corporation was involved in a project to strengthen the caisson of the Princes Street Bridge. The Superintendent of Works, Mr Joseph Dand Green, was irritated that the commission had gone to Blackwell, his erstwhile deputy. Green resigned in protest, the resignation being received by the Board with "alacrity". Despite the observation by I K Brunel that "the alterations that you state to have made in the construction, must, if made, have rendered it somewhat weaker than originally designed", Blackwell was offered the post of Docks Engineer on the 12th January 1852. He took up the position on 1st March on a salary of £300/annum with expenses of £100. This was £100 per year more than Green had been paid and was justified by the “arduous and responsible duties of his office”. With one of the conditions of his new role being that he reside in the City of Bristol, Blackwell moved again, this time to 1 Cornwallis Grove, Clifton with an office at 10 Corn Street, Bristol. His responsibilities were stated thus:
"That he shall have the responsibility of attending to and superintending the whole of the Works including the repair thereof - the scouring and cleaning the Floating Harbour - the superintendence and repairs of the Locks, Basins; Feeder Canal, Culverts and Banks - the management of the Steam Drag and dredging and Hopper Boats, the caisson and all apparatus and machinery used for the purposes of scouring and cleansing the Harbour; and the reconstruction of Dock Gates , Bridges and other parts of the Works as occasion may require".
Major projects over and above the general maintenance of the docks centred on the Dock Company's infrastructure: in 1852 he proposed a scheme to build Avonmouth Docks, to be connected to Bristol by a railway. The docks were intended to compete directly with Liverpool, being “capable of accommodating the largest class of ocean steamers”. The following year he worked on a project to connect Bristol to South Wales by railway and steamer, and was made a director of the Bristol, South Wales, and Southampton Union Railway Company. As his reputation spread, commissions and consultancies came in from around the country, notably from London to advise on the main drainage scheme for capital and one from Bristol Zoo: he built a puddle lined pool for the zoo’s polar bear.
After the sale in 1852 of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company to the Great Western Railway, Thomas Blackwell and Thomas Merriman were kept on in their previous roles.
Unfortunately, working life was not to be the same. Lavish Proprietors Committee meetings replaced by a committee of three, chaired by Captain Thomas Bulkeley, the GWR’s unsympathetic Company Secretary. Gone too was any concern for the wellbeing of the canal, priority now was to save and realise cash. For example, on three successive meetings in 1854 Blackwell and Merriman were ordered to run down the Company’s own freight carrying business, sell all the Company’s shares in the Somerset Coal Canal and dispose of land owned by the Avon and Gloucestershire Railway. Thomas Blackwell was also instructed to re-renegotiate downwards the Canal maintenance and operations contracts. There was however compensation, for Bulkeley arranged for each Committee member to be paid “two Guineas each for every attendance.”
Clearly outgrowing Bristol, and using a previously successful manoeuvre, in October 1855 Thomas Blackwell proposed to the Bristol Dock's Board Chairman that he would accept a reduction in salary in return for the freedom to pursue more private work. The Chairman reported that:
"Mr. Blackwell communicated to him that for some time past, the repairs and management of the Bristol Dock Works had not gone on to his satisfaction . .. (and that) he had not been able to exercise the control he wished over expenditure [which) was larger than it ought to be. That he found that the time and attention which it required to keep it down was more than he was able to devote to it ... Mr. Blackwell .. . made the following propositions . . . that for the future his Assistant Mr. Howard should be the local engineer, devoting the whole of his time to the repairs and maintenance of the works the Committee only requiring Mr. Blackwell's attendance when any extraordinary work should occur. Mr. Blackwell stated that Mr. Howard . . . was a very good engineer' . . . [and) that he was willing to make a considerable sacrifice in his own salary of £500 a year which he now proposed should be thus apportioned £200 a year to himself as Consulting Engineer £300
a year to Mr. Howard as Local Engineer. That without wishing to cast any blame upon Mr. Hosking who was an exceedingly valuable man he found that . . . the responsibility of the expenditure should be more clearly identified with the person who has the immediate charge of it.
Resolved ... with the present state of the finances requiring the most rigid economy this Committee cannot entertain ... a salary to a Consulting Engineer but will be glad to avail themselves of Mr. Blackwell's services on all special occasions paying for such services when required . . . That Mr. Howard be appointed resident Engineer ... That the services of Mr. Hosking, the present Foreman be dispensed with."
Thomas Blackwell resigned from the Canal Company, 1857:
1857 was a year of upheaval for Thomas Blackwell and his family. In early August he resigned from the Canal Company, putting in writing his thoughts for his own replacement: “The actual duties of Superintendence of the Engineering Department now that the whole of the Works are let by Contract may be performed by one, or at most two Superintendents, who with the assistance of our present inspectors and Lock Keepers could take charge of the whole of the Works and report weekly to our principal Clerk Mr Merriman who has had long and has acquired complete local knowledge of almost every part of the Navigation and who would be able to give the most valuable aid in this and everything that relates to the property of the Concern as well also in his own particular department. Mr Merriman with his Brother and Partner Mr T B Merriman are quite competent to take up and control this part of the business.”
His letter continued with a proposal to reduce the Engineering Department’s staff which would result in a further saving of £820 per annum. He recognised, however, that it would need strengthening by the appointment of an extra Engineer at a cost £175. He recommended Mr Hosking of the Crofton Water Works, the same Mr Hosking that he had “engineered” out of a job two years earlier!
Thomas Blackwell goes to Canada:
The Bristol Mercury reported on 15 August that “T E Blackwell, Esq., late engineer of the Bristol docks, has received a public appointment in Canada. The government of that colony have chosen him as their engineer and inspector of the Grand Trunk Railway. Mr Blackwell will, we hear, leave with his family for America in September”. On the 15th September the same paper advertised “the remaining portion of the excellent HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE and EFFECTS of T E Blackwell Esq., who is leaving England."
Comprising a suite of excellent rosewood drawing room furniture, a set of telescopic dining tables, a mahogany pedestal sideboard and numerous other articles”. On the 31st October they even reported his salary, £2,500, equivalent to over £250,000 today.
The position that he had accepted was that of Vice President and General Manager of the Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada. He would live in a three storey stone built house in Montreal with his wife, seven children, a butler, a nurse, a housemaid, two cooks and an illiterate Irish coachman. Conceived in 1852 to link Montreal to Toronto (its charter was later expanded to include the ice-free docks at Portland, Maine) the GTR was promoted as being both north America's first international and the world's longest railway.
Financed by Britain and headquartered in London, it suffered from remote management, excessive construction costs and a dearth of income. It eventually had to be rescued by the Canadian Government and gained notoriety for being one of the worlds worst financial disasters.
Construction had started in 1853, pushing out from its base in Montreal into the interior of what was then known as the United Province of Canada. It was viewed by the British Government as a strategic asset to deter any northward adventures by the American's.
The engineering problems dwarfed anything that Blackwell had hitherto faced and it was no surprise that he began to exhibit all the symptoms of chronic stress. His health was not helped by the fact that by 1860 the whole enterprise was heading for bankruptcy. He began to suffer bouts of intense chest pain, firstly in February of that year and again during the following December. The physicians thought that they were angina attacks, so severe were they that they feared "his life was despaired at".
Thomas Blackwell resigns due to ill health, 1862:
Over the following year they increased in frequency, each lasting several days and leaving him debilitated. He resigned in April 1862 and was presented with a certificate from the engineering works staff, the first two paragraphs reading:
"We the workers in the Locomotive and Car Department of the Grand Trunk Railway take this opportunity of expressing our deep regret at your leaving the post lately so honourably filled by you.
We have to thank you for the kind and studied manner in which you have watched over the interests of those, who when the nipping hand was about to be placed on the scanty pittance they were getting for their labour, you stayed it's progress".
After an extensive tour of America, he returned home to England a virtual invalid and incapable of work.
...and dies in 1863:
In the spring of 1863, in an attempt to throw off his illness he embarked on a tour of Egypt. On the return journey he had planned an extended stay in Rome and Naples. However, by now his symptoms had become so severe that he and his wife "hastened home". On arrival at Warwick Square, London, he took to his bed, never to regain his strength, dying two days later on the 25th June 1863 aged 43. A post mortem revealed that he was suffering from “a chronic inflammation of the spinal chord.” This was variously put down to the "arduous, anxious and harassing nature of the duties in which engineers are so often engaged, a severe shock that had been sustained by the nervous system as a result of a railway accident in 1851, a large amount of railway travelling, which, as is known, has been ascertained to have a special tendency in many persons to the production of special diseases, and lastly a large amount of professional wear and tear, especially during the period of his connection with the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada "
In another obituary, the Institute of Civil Engineers wrote: "Mr Blackwell united a kind, generous and enterprising disposition with intellectual powers of no common order. His scientific attainments were varied and extensive and he used them well in in the practice of his profession. He was a good geologist, had a considerable knowledge of the fine arts and by his amenity of manner possessed the happy tact of convincing those who were opposed to his views as much by conciliation as by argument. In all the relations of life he was no less beloved than esteemed".
Thomas Evans Blackwell was buried in Norwood Cemetery, Lambeth on the 1st July 1863. His estate was valued at approximately £9,000 (£1.04m today). His wife Anne who, after spending a number of years in London, moved to Thetford, Norfolk, where she died in 1891 aged 73. A memorial monument to his wife Anne is in St Lawrence's Church.
[With thanks to Neil Hardwick, who researched this topic, and sent the original text, Aug 2017]