Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fowke, Francis

FOWKE, FRANCIS (1823–1865), captain royal engineers, architect and engineer of the Science and Art Department, South Kensington, born at Ballysillan 7 July 1823, was educated at Dungannon College, and at a military tutor's at Woolwich; entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1839, and passed out sixth in a batch of sixteen in 1841. His proficiency in drawing secured his appointment to the royal engineers, in which he was commissioned as second lieutenant 18 June 1842. He married, 22 May 1845, Louisa Charlotte, daughter of the Rev. R. Rede Rede of Ashmans, Suffolk (Gent. Mag. new ser. xxiii. 538). He became first lieutenant 1 April 1846, and second captain 17 Feb. 1854. After serving some years at Bermuda, Fowke was employed at Devonport, where he prepared the working drawings for the new Raglan barracks, and is credited with originating the many sanitary improvements introduced there. About the period of the Russian war he brought under notice of the government numerous suggestions regarding the use of elongated projectiles for rifled ordnance, and later, a design for a collapsing canvas pontoon described in ‘Professional Papers, Corps of Royal Engineers,’ new ser. vii. 81, and ‘Journal United Service Institution,’ iv. (1860), none of which led to any results. In 1854 he was sent to Paris in charge of the machinery for the Paris Exhibition, and when the late Colonel H. Cunliffe Owen, royal engineers, was ordered to the Crimea, he was appointed secretary to the British commission in that officer's place. He carried out a series of valuable experiments on the strength of colonial woods, the results of which were published in the ‘Parliamentary Reports of the Paris Exhibition,’ and afterwards as a separate pamphlet, and are said, in Jamaica alone, to have raised the annual exports of lancewood spars fourfold, and of mahogany over eightfold (Proc. Inst. Civil Engineers, xxx. 469). He prepared the reports on ‘Construction’ and ‘Naval Construction’ in the exhibition reports. He was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour, but was debarred by the rules of the British service from wearing the decoration, it not having been given for service in the field. A paper by him on ‘Coast Defence Batteries’ appeared in the ‘Papers, Corps of Royal Engineers,’ vol. v. (1856).

Fowke remained in Paris until 1857, and on his return was made an inspector of the Science and Art Department. On the removal of the department from Marlborough House to South Kensington, he was entrusted with the adaptation of the iron buildings originally erected by Sir William Cubitt, and popularly known as the 'Brompton Boilers,' and a nest of old residences adjoining, work which he executed with economy and despatch. In the midst of it he was called upon to build a picture-gallery for the Sheepshanks gift of pictures, one of the conditions of the bequest being that a suitable apartment should be provided by the nation within twelve months. In this work Fowke was associated with Mr. Redgrave, R.A., who had discovered a formula for a top-light gallery. The object sought—that the pictures should be seen without glare or reflection—was in most respects satisfactorily accomplished, and Fowke further devised arrangements for lighting them by gas, together with an ingenious contrivance, now in use, for lighting many hundred gas-burners at once. Before the work was finished the Yernon and Turner galleries were required, which Fowke erected with fireproof floors at very small cost, not exceeding, it is said, fourpence per cubic foot. In 1858 Fowke was again sent to Paris. The international technical commission on the improvement of the Danube navigation which was then sitting there had come to a deadlock; the whole of the papers had been submitted by the British officers present to Sir John Fox Burgoyne [q. v.], then inspector- general of fortifications, and Fowke was sent to Paris as the exponent of Burgoyne's views (see Wrottesley, Life of Fields-Marshal Sir John Fox Burgoyne, ii. 366-9). From Sir Henry Cole's account it would seem that Fowke made an independent report to Lord Cowley, the British ambassador, which was privately printed (memoir in Professional Papers Royal Engineers).

As architect and engineer of the Science and Art Department, Fowke designed the new Museum of Science and Art, Edinburgh, and the improvements and enlargement of the Dublin National Gallery. He designed and erected the Officers' Library, Aldershot, which was executed at the private cost of the prince consort, and erected a drill shed for the 1st Middlesex volunteer engineers (the first engineer volunteer corps formed), which Sir Joseph Paxton pronounced to be the cheapest structure he had ever seen. He planned the buildings for the International Exhibition of 1862, in which the main feature was originally a noble hall, which was omitted altogether owing to want of funds. The lighting, ventilation, and general arrangement of the buildings were allowed to be a success; for their artistic shortcomings Fowke was not responsible. Two years later, in an open competition of designs for permanent buildings to be erected on the site of the 1862 exhibition, the judges, Lord Elcho (now Earl Wemyss), Messrs. Tite, M.P., Pennethorne, and D. Roberts, R.A., unanimously awarded him the first prize. He was engaged in the erection of the present South Kensington Museum at the time of his death. Fowke, who had been in delicate health, died from rupture of a blood-vessel at his official residence, South Kensington, 4 Dec. 1865, and was buried at Brompton cemetery. A bust of him, by Woolner, is in the South Kensington Museum.

Besides the reports and papers above named, Fowke was author of 'A Description of the Buildings at South Kensington for the Reception of the Sheepshanks Pictures,' London, 1858, 8vo, and 'Some Account of the Buildings designed for the International Exhibition of 1862,' London, 1861, 8vo. He likewise contributed to the 'Cornhill Magazine' a paper entitled the 'National Gallery Difficulty Solved,' which appeared in March 1860, and another on 'London, the Stronghold of England,' which appeared in July 1860, both of which, especially the latter, attracted much attention at the time. Fowke was the inventor of a military fire-engine, made to limber up like a field gun, which is now in use in the service, and an improved photographic camera, which he patented, together with one or two other minor inventions. He was a man of pliant and original mind, quick at viewing things in novel and unconventional lights, and it is claimed for him, by his friend Sir Henry Cole [q. v.], that he was on the point of solving the problem of the decorative use of iron for structural purposes.

[Memoir by Sir H. Cole in Papers on Professional Subjects, Corps of Royal Engineers, xv. 9; Proceedings Inst. Civil Engineers (London), xxx. 468–70; Athenæum, 1865, ii. 808.]

H. M. C.