Some Engineering Reminiscences

by Francis Fox (Memb. Inst. Civil Engineers) - John Murray, Albemarle St., London (1904)
Chapter I and part of Chapter II - reminiscences concerning his father Sir Charles Fox.



BEFORE giving an account of some engineering works and experiences, it may be interesting to place on record a few reminiscences of my late father, Sir Charles Fox. He was born in the Wardwick, Derby, in 1810, being a son of the leading physician and surgeon in that town, and had as his tutor for some years Mr. George Spencer, father of the late Herbert Spencer, the political economist. My grandfather intended that his son should follow his profession as a doctor, and consequently he worked in the surgery for two years; but in 1831 his keenness for railway engineering, which was then a new profession, induced him to abandon medicine, and he left home for Liverpool. He obtained employment with Messrs. Fawcett, Preston & Co., and afterwards became associated with the well-known Mr. Ericsson, of " Monitor " fame, who was then designing one of the locomotives which eventually competed at the celebrated Rainhill trials. On that occasion my father drove the locomotive "The Novelty," which, but for the fact that it blew a tube, would probably have been the winner of the prize of £500.

For a time he took to locomotive driving, just as people in these later days take to driving motorcars, and was regularly employed for some time on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in that capacity : he had whilst there the trying experience of being present when the director of that company, Mr. Huskisson, was killed.

One dark winter's night he arrived in Liverpool with a level-crossing gate hanging on to the buffers, having, in the absence of signals in those days, run through the level crossing whilst the gates were shut across the railway.

It appears from a letter which I possess, and of which a facsimile is given [Ed. not included here], that Ericsson had his misfortunes, evidenced by the fact that he found himself " in a fairly comfortable bailiff's house in Liverpool," but nevertheless he lead sufficient humour to make a pen-and-ink sketch of his window, showing the iron bars which imprisoned him.

My father became a pupil of, and afterwards assistant to, Mr. Robert Stephenson, who was then the engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway, now the London and North-Western.

Whilst engaged in the construction of the Watford Tunnel in 1834, he received instructions to go to Birmingham. He asked to be allowed to remain, for they were working in very soft and dangerous ground ; but his request was declined, and he was sent to Birmingham. He had not been gone more than a few days when a message was received that the tunnel had fallen in, and eleven men had been killed. He immediately hurried back, and found that there was a panic on the spot. Up to this point is what nay father himself told me, but a very old friend of mine further related that, when the tunnel had fallen in and had produced this panic, my father went to the works and said to the men, "That tunnel has to be put through, cost what it will, and therefore I want you men to volunteer." Not one of them would do so. "Very well," he said, "I will do it" ; and he got into the bucket, and was just about to be lowered down the shaft, when the ganger, using language more strong than elegant, said he "would not see the master killed alone." He went down with him, and these two finished the length through the dangerous ground, after which the men returned to work.

In 1837 Herbert Spencer entered the office at Camden Town as an assistant engineer to my father, and it was during this time that my father designed the present roof over Euston Station, the first of the kind ever made. He afterwards designed or built the large iron roofs of New Street Station in Birmingham, of the Great Western Railway at Paddington, and others at Waterloo Station, York, and elsewhere.

An amusing episode took place during his lifetime in connection with the completion of a certain railway in Ireland. The company fixed a day for the opening of the railway, notwithstanding a warning given by the contractor that he would not allow it to take place unless his final account were previously paid. The company ignored the contractor, invited the mayor of the city to start the train, had a battery of artillery to fire a salute, and filled the special train with their friends, intending to take them to the other end of the railway, some twenty miles, where a luncheon had been provided. The mayor waved his green silk flag, the band struck tip, the artillery fired a salute (bringing down the glass of the roof), and the train started, but only to be brought to a standstill by a man on the line waving his arms and shouting that the rock cutting had fallen in. The fact was, some hundred tons or more of rock had been blown on to the railway by a gunpowder blast, thus effectually blocking the line and rendering it impossible for the train to proceed.

The chairman was furious, and wished to arrest everybody concerned; and the visitors not being able to get to the other end of the line, the luncheon was duly consumed by the navvies. Late in the afternoon it was remembered that a full account of the opening, with all the speeches, had already been sent to the newspapers. The secretary telegraphed to stop it being inserted, but the answer carne back, "Too late-gone to press," the result being that a full account of the ceremony appeared next day in Dublin, although it had not taken place.

Here let me give an illustration of the inconveniences imposed on busy men by summoning them unnecessarily to courts of law.

On a certain occasion, whilst sitting in his office in Spring Gardens, a man walked into my father's room, and served a "subpoena" upon him, requiring his attendance at the assizes. He protested that he knew nothing of the case, but the man was insolent, and simply said, " To Chelmsford you'll go."

To Chelmsford therefore he went, and in due course was called, and sworn, to give evidence. He addressed the judge as follows: "My lord, am I not entitled to my fee and expenses before I give evidence ? "

"Oh, certainly !"

The counsel said, "Sir Charles, you need not be uneasy about that ; I will see you are paid."

But he said that would not satisfy him ; if they insisted upon calling him as a witness, they must pay him there and then. 

A little delay occurred before the necessary funds were produced; but having received them, the counsel, who was evidently nettled, said, "And now, Sir Charles, having wasted the time of the learned judge, of the jury, and the whole court, perhaps you will tell his lordship all you know of this case."

"Well, I know nothing," said Sir Charles, "for you have called the wrong man " ; and having bowed to the judge, he left the court. 

Amongst the many guests at my father's house in those days was the dear old Professor, Michael Faraday; and we had the privilege of attending his lectures at the Royal Institution. He, like all other lecturers, occasionally failed in his experiments; but, when this occurred, not only did he take the disappointment with the greatest good-humour, but he at once turned it to such good result, by investigating the cause of the failure, that we almost preferred that his experiments should occasionally fail.

He used to play with us children, and many a time he was to be seen rolling on the drawing-room floor in a Christmas romp, or indulging in "hide-and-seek."

In the autumn of 1850 my father received the order for the erection of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The idea of a building of glass and iron was due to Sir Joseph Paxton, but the original design was not altogether a pleasing one, consisting as it did of a plain rectangular building.

When, however, it is remembered that no less than two hundred and twenty competitive designs were submitted for the building, it is a matter for congratulation that so light and fairylike a construction was the result.

It is impossible to give the names of all those connected with this great work, but amongst others appear those of Cubitt, Barry, Owen Jones, Digby Wyatt, Cowper, Cooper, and many others.

From the commencement it was decided that the building in all its various dimensions, the length, width, and height, should be multiples of 24, the girders being 24 ft., 48 ft., or 72 ft., and so arranged that any columns or girders taken haphazard should be interchangeable. In fact, the system of standardization, at last being adopted in Great Britain and the Colonies, was carried to a high state of perfection in this structure.

My father and his then partner, Mr. John Henderson, suggested the introduction of the arched transept to cover the large elm trees which proved to be the great feature of the building. The contract was accepted late in 1850, and the Exhibition was to be opened in May, 1851 ; but, owing to the extreme novelty of the design, it was considered by most people that it was impossible to complete it in the time. My father had great confidence in cast iron if properly designed, and he became known as the "Cast-iron Man." No one but he was able to design the building as regards its details, and therefore upon him, personally, devolved the duty of drawing nearly everything, even to the most minute particulars. Eighteen hours a day was he at work at the drawing-board, and, so soon as a plan was pencilled in, he sent it to the drawing-office to be traced and put in hand in the pattern shop.

Although quite a boy, I visited the building during its erection nearly every day, and on several occasions with the old Duke of Wellington. He was almost the only man who thought the work would be completed in time, and he used to pat my father on the shoulder, saying, "You'll do it yet."

Several amusing incidents occurred during the erection. One of the large trees in the park came exactly in the way, and would have effectually prevented the glass end of the transept being fixed. My father applied to the authorities for permission to cut it down, although two other trees were arranged to be enclosed in the building. No consent could be obtained, and a meeting was therefore arranged on the spot, when all who were interested attended, but the leading official ordered that the tree must not be touched. My father turned to his foreman and said, "John, you hear what this gentleman says ; on no account must this tree be cut down.''

" All right, sir."

That night the tree was felled, and, when once down, could not be reinstated. A row of young trees also interfered with the building, and as no official consent could be obtained for their removal, private arrangements were made for shifting them a short distance. All the joiners' benches were placed near them, and the ground speedily covered with a foot or more of shavings to prevent the movement of the soil being noticeable, and then one night all these trees were transplanted, being removed in a line the necessary distance to clear the building; but, as the Ordnance maps showed all these trees, the authorities were at a loss to understand how it was they were so inaccurately indicated on the plans.

An old wooden pump, for the removal of which permission was asked, an undertaking being given to replace it after the Exhibition was closed, was not allowed to be touched; and so it projected through a hole in the floor into the building itself; during the whole time the Exhibition was open to the public.

When the structure was well advanced, the glazing had to be commenced, and, so soon as any of it was fixed, it was essential that the whole should be completed as quickly as possible before any strong wind came, for, should half or three-quarters be glazed, there was always serious risk of the glass being blown out. Unfortunately this very thing happened, in spite of all care ; a very severe gale came on just at this critical time, and the effect was much the same as when one holds a thin paper bag with its mouth open towards a gale. The glass was blown out almost by the acre, and heavy loss was occasioned.

The structure was approaching completion when some one started the theory that, as it was intended to have music at the opening, an accident would be caused by the vibration of sound causing the glass to shake. Each pane of glass would take up its own responding note, and would consequently vibrate with such violence that it was predicted "the glass would come down in showers." It was therefore necessary to try the experiment so as to allay any fears in the public mind.

On a particular day, whilst the work was in full operation, hammering going on in every part of the building, Herr Reichardt, the well known tenor, began to sing at one end of the building. Gradually the hammering ceased, and, as the song proceeded, silence prevailed amidst the whole audience of attentive workers, and at its close it was received with loud applause.

The full orchestra was then tried, and all the bass pipes of the organ groaned aloud in thorough discord, in the effort to shake out the glass, but not a pane moved, nor even responded. The Government authorities were invited to test the building in any way they thought fit, and it was in consequence of this that the Sappers and Miners (now the Royal Engineers) were told off to march "at the double" over a platform erected upon the girders.

The rhyme which I add as an appendix, based upon "This is the house that Jack built," appeared in 1851, and is worth recording.

I remember a letter about this time coming to my father addressed in the following somewhat vague manner: "To the bilder, what is bilding the bilding in I. Park" ; but the Post Office authorities, with their usual ability, solved the problem, and the letter reached its destination.

A photograph of the opening, by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, of the Great Exhibition on May 1st, 1851, is given, in which the Prince of Wales, now our King Edward VII, known as "The Peacemaker," is shown standing on her right hand: my father and Sir Joseph Paxton (the two left-hand figures in front with silk stockings) standing side by side.

When the building was removed by my father to Sydenham, to its present exposed position, it was again predicted that it would not stand - in fact, the leading authority on wind pressures of that day stated in public that, under the action of gusts of wind, "he could not entertain any belief that the building would endure for a long time." It is a curious fact that, if at any time a pane of glass is blown in, it is almost invariably on the leeward, or protected side.

Assuming that the wind is blowing in the direction of the arrows, it occasionally happens, in very strong gales, that a pane of glass, which probably has loosened, blows in. In such cases it is always about the point A, and blown inwards ; and it is observed that no severe wind is felt at B, on the face of the building towards the wind.

The explanation of this is, that a triangular mass of quiescent air, as shown by the dotted lines, causes the gale to be deflected upwards and over the building; at the point C the full effect is felt. The wind then passing down clear of the building, leaves another mass of quiescent air at A ; but this is slightly rarified, and its barometrical pressure reduced by the drag of the gale. When a momentary lull occurs in the storm, this air regains its full barometrical pressure, and the increase is immediately felt by any loose glass at A.

My father has left his mark on every railway in the world ; amongst his many inventions was the switch, which is now in universal use. Prior to this the ordinary sliding rail, as used by contractors today, was the only device ; but it had this great disadvantage, that, if a train were shunted when the rail had been moved, it ran off the metals and was derailed ; whereas with "Fox's patent switch" the train remains safe on the line.

A photograph of his original design, dated 1832, is given, in which only one "tongue" to the switch was proposed.

He was also the first engineer to adopt the cast-iron cylinder, or caisson, for the construction of bridge foundations in rivers, which is now of world-wide application.

One thing which strongly impressed me about my father in connection with his position as master towards his men was this : he laid it down as a maxim that he would never dismiss a man for an accident, unless it was due to downright carelessness. He used to say that the man, having been educated up to that point at his expense, would never commit the same blunder again, and consequently he was of more value to him than others. If this policy were more generally adopted, many a really valuable workman would be saved from social wreck, and the masters would be greatly benefited.

After many years of arduous and useful work my father died at Blackheath on June 24th, 1874, at the comparatively early age of sixty-four, his decease having been unduly accelerated by the effect of a serious accident.



MY first introduction to engineering was of a somewhat startling character, for on one of my visits to see the construction of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, as already described, it being a very hot day, I sat down on a small seat, and fell fast asleep. It so happened this was what is known as a "boatswain's chair," used by the workmen in the erection of the ironwork, and some of the men amused themselves by tying me into it, and then hauling me up to the roof. When I awoke I was hanging in mid-air, much to their amusement, but somewhat to my own alarm.

It was on one of these visits that an incident occurred which impressed itself deeply on my mind, and the absolute truth of which I see as I grow older. A bricklayer, one of many, was engaged in building a brick pier about three feet square and six to eight feet in height, and in his haste or carelessness he built it out of the perpendicular ; it leant over to one side. My father, who was erecting the Exhibition, saw this with his ever-quick eye, and was walking up to the man, when he dropped his trowel, came to meet him, touched his cap, and said, "Please, sir, don't be hard on a fellow." "Well, you blockhead, why don't you build your work upright ?" And he replied, with great truth, "Well, sir, you see, there are so many slants, but there's only one perpendicular."

And so it is all through life. How many wrong ways there are of doing a thing, but only one right one! ...........

Top of page ; Go to Sir Charles Fox-notes ; Return to Background Index

20/03/02 Last Updated 23/03/02;25/1/04(sp)