(Sir) John Hawkshaw (1811-1891)
Civil Engineer

(Sir) John Hawkshaw (1811-1891)Is John Hawkshaw the forgotten man among the giants of Victorian engineering? Everyone’s heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, voted second after Churchill in a BBC poll of ‘the 100 greatest Britons’. Telford and the Stephensons are familiar names – but not John Hawkshaw. Yet his achievements and the scope of his work in this country and across the world were famous in their day. His Severn Tunnel was an engineering marvel; he built railways, canals, bridges, harbours, advised on the Suez Canal, and promoted ideas for a Channel Tunnel. From modest beginnings here in Leeds, he established himself as one of the country’s premier civil engineers, helping to power the growth and wealth of the nation.

His start in life was unpromising. His father Henry was an innkeeper, running the Harewood Arms in ‘The Square’, a yard off Kirkgate (near Fish Street). His mother Sarah was illiterate. John was their fifth child, born at the inn in 1811. When he was nine his father died, but his mother took over and found a way to send this bright boy to Leeds Grammar School to study. The next year, aged thirteen, he was apprenticed to the prominent Leeds surveyor, Charles Fowler, whose busy practice focussed on road building. John trained there for six years but left in 1830 to join the Lancashire practice of the railway engineer Alexander Nimmo – railways were the future.

When Nimmo died in 1832, he was offered a new post in far-off Venezuela, as engineer to the British-run Bolivar copper mines, where a railway was planned. He spent over two years there until illness and the climate defeated him. He later published his ‘Reminiscences’, a remarkably thoughtful account of the country and its people, expressing his liberal views on racial equality, social justice, and colonialism.

He returned home in 1834 to recover his health, and the next year married Ann Jackson, daughter of the Methodist minister at Green Hammerton near Harrogate – educated, lively, a woman of ideas. He was appointed assistant engineer to the Manchester and Bolton Canal & Railway, so they moved to Manchester, where they played an active part in the city’s cultural life. Ann published her first volume of poems in 1842 to some acclaim, and three further collections followed. Over the next years they had six children, but two died in childhood and their married daughter later, in childbirth. The tragedy of their loss is a deeply-felt theme in many of Ann’s poems.

Meanwhile John Hawkshaw was establishing a reputation as a railway expert. He took over from George Stevenson as engineer for the expanding Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways, a position he kept all his working life. He was consulted over the vexed question of the best gauge for the fast-growing railway network and recommended a narrower gauge than Brunel – it was to become the standard. He proved the feasibility of steeper gradients, against opposition.  By 1850 he was established enough to set up as a consulting engineer in London, and the family settled there, in Eaton Place.

Work flowed in for him, huge infrastructure projects at home and abroad: Charing Cross and Cannon St. stations, with their bridges over the Thames; railways, docks, harbours and bridges across the country; railways in Mauritius, Russia, India and Brazil; the new ship canal linking Amsterdam to the North Sea. In 1862 he was called to Egypt to advise on plans for the Suez canal (de Lesseps called him its saviour). In 1863 with a fellow engineer he completed Brunel’s spectacular Clifton suspension bridge, introducing design improvements. But the Severn Railway Tunnel, opened in 1888, was his crowning achievement, significant for its commercial importance and for the engineering challenges involved. For a century it was the longest underwater tunnel in the world.

Honours flowed to him too: he was elected FRS in 1855, President of the Institute of Civil Engineers 1861-63, knighted in 1873. He had a reputation for fairness and careful evidence so was in demand as an advisor. He became a wealthy man, and in 1865 bought a 4000 acre estate at Hollycombe, Hampshire, as a country retreat for the family. Darwin, Tennyson, Henry James were among the visitors. He briefly thought of entering parliament but was prevented by his contractual interests.

 In 1885 his beloved wife Ann, who had shared his travels, his successes and the family tragedies, died and was buried near Hollycombe. A few years later he retired, leaving his practice to his son. When he died in 1891 he was buried alongside Ann. His obituary read: ‘No man has done more to enhance the honour of the profession’.

Eveleigh Bradford
August 2017