Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Fowler, John (1817-1898)

1386291Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 2 — Fowler, John (1817-1898)1901Thomas Hudson Beare

FOWLER, Sir JOHN, first baronet (1817–1898), civil engineer, eldest son of John Fowler of Wadsley Hall, Sheffield, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of William Swann of Dykes Hall, was born on 15 July 1817. He was educated at a private school at Whitley Hall. After leaving school he became a pupil of J . T. Leather, engineer of the Sheffield waterworks ; he then entered the employ of John Urpeth Rastrick [q. v.], and was engaged on railway work on the London and Brighton line, and on the proposed Morecambe Bay line.

Two years later he returned to Leather's employ, and became resident engineer to the Stockton and Hartlepool line, on the completion of which he was appointed engineer, general manager, and locomotive superintendent. After serving for two years in this position, in 1844 he set up for himself in London as a consulting engineer, and was occupied mainly in railway work in connection with the lines from Sheffield to the east coast, afterwards amalgamated into the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway Company. In 1846 the famous railway mania attained its full proportions, and Fowler took an active part in the struggles over the numerous railway acts then promoted in parliament.

He designed the Pimlico railway bridge, which was finished in 1860, and was the first railway bridge across the Thames within the metropolis. Probably the two works by which Fowler will be best known are the Metropolitan Railway and the great Forth Bridge. The Metropolitan Railway may be said to date from 1853, when the first act was passed authorising the construction of a line from Edgware Road to Battle Bridge, King's Cross, though the works were not commenced till March 1860. As soon as this first work was started, plans were prepared for extensions of the line in both directions, and Fowler was responsible for the greater part of these extensions. He also designed and supervised the construction of many of the connecting branch lines, such as the St. John's Wood line and others. The first section of the Metropolitan Railway was opened to the public on 9 Jan. 1863.

While these works were being carried on, Fowler in 1870 went to Norway as a member of a commission appointed by the Indian government to study the narrow-gauge railways in that country. The commission advocated the 2 ft. 9 in. gauge for adoption in India for the light railways, but Fowler in a minority report claimed that 3 ft. 6 in. would be more suitable ; the gauge eventually adopted was the metre.

Shortly before this, in 1869, during a visit for the sake of his health to Egypt, Fowler had been consulted by the khedive, Ismail Pasha, with regard to a number of important engineering schemes, one of which was the construction of a railway to Khartoum. Had this scheme been carried out, probably the course of modern events in Egypt would have been materially changed. The knowledge he gained of the country during the many years he was engaged in advising the khedive on engineering matters was afterwards placed at the disposal of the British government, and for the services he rendered in this respect he was created a K.C.M.G. in 1885.

In 1875 Fowler took into partnership Mr. (now Sir Benjamin) Baker, and this partnership proved very fruitful in engineering work of the greatest importance. The work with which the names of the two partners will always be connected is that of the Forth Bridge. Sir Thomas Bouch [q. v.], the designer of the disastrous first Tay Bridge, had prepared plans for a bridge across the Forth, on the site of the present structure. His plans provided for a suspension bridge, and the scheme had actually been sanctioned by act of parliament; the collapse of the Tay Bridge, however, in December 1879, put an end to this scheme. Onl8Feb.l881the four great railway companies interested in the crossing of the Forth requested their consulting engineers, Thomas Elliott Harrison [q. v.], W. H. Barlow, and John Fowler (and associated with them Mr. Benjamin Baker) to report (1) as to the feasibility of erecting a bridge over the Forth at this site, and (2) as to the type of bridge they would recommend. The report of these four engineers was sent in on 4 May 1881, and in it they advocated the adoption of the cantilever type of bridge.

This great structure, probably the most remarkable piece of engineering work which has been carried out up to the present time, was begun in 1883 and was successfully completed in seven years, the contractors being Messrs. Tancred, Arrol, & Company, who signed the contract on 21 Dec. 1882. It was opened by the prince of Wales on 4 March 1890. The two engineers mainly responsible for it, Sir John Fowler and Mr. Benjamin Baker, were rewarded, the former by the honour of a baronetcy (17 April 1890), and the latter by being created a K.C.M.G. They were also both awarded the Prix Poncelet by the Institute of France (full accounts of this bridge will be found in the special number of Engineering, 28 Feb. 1890; see also Proc. Inst. Civil Engineers, cxxi. 309, and Westofen, The Forth Bridge, London, 1890).

The completion of this bridge marked practically the end of Sir John Fowler's active work as a civil engineer. He became a member of the council of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1849, and occupied the post of president of that body in 1866-7. His presidential address in 1866 (Proc. Inst. Civil Engineers, xxv. 203) was a memorable one in the history of engineering education in Great Britain, as it dealt almost entirely with that subject, and as a result of it the institution created the class of student members, a step which has done much to encourage the scientific training of young engineers.

Fowler tried to enter parliament ; he stood as conservative candidate for Tewkesbury in 1879, but was defeated ; and again in 1885 he came forward as a candidate for the Hallamshire division of Yorkshire, but retired before polling day. He. was devoted to country life and to sport, and was also a yachtsman ; many of his most distinguished contemporaries in art and science during the autumn season were visitors at his beautiful home at Braemore House, Ross-shire. He purchased the property in 1865. He was a member of the engineer and railway volunteer staff corps from 1865 till his death; and in 1882 during the Southampton meeting he was president of section 'G' of the British Association. In 1890 he was created honorary LL.D. of Edinburgh.

Fowler died at Bournemouth on 20 Nov. 1898. There is a portrait by Sir John Millais, and also a bust at the Institution of Civil Engineers. Sir John married on 2 July 1850 Elizabeth, daughter of James Broadbent of Manchester, and had issue four sons, of whom the eldest, John Arthur (b. 1854), succeeded him in the baronetcy.

He published little except professional 'Reports;' 'On best Gauge for Indian Narrow-gauge Railways,' London, 1870 ; 'On the proposed Soudan Railway,' London, 1873 ; 'On the Nene Valley Drainage,' London, 1858; 'On a Sweet-water Canal through Egypt' (Fowler and Baker), London, 1884.

[Life of Sir John Fowler, by T. Mackay, 1900; obituary notices in Proc. Inst. Civil Engineers, vol. cxxxv.; Engineering, 25 Nov. 1898; Burke's Peerage, 1895.]

T. H. B.