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Macneill: remembering engineering's forgotton hero


THE GREAT engineers of the nineteenth century are well known. But tomorrow a ceremony at an unmarked grave in London will provide permanent recognition for the first time to an almost forgotten engineer who deserves a place among the profession's great heroes.

At the graveside of Sir John Macneill in Brompton Cemetery, London, a plaque in his memory will be unveiled on behalf of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin.

As Telford's leading understudy, he was responsible for most of Ireland's railway network, and worked on canals, roads and railways stretching across England, Scotland and Wales. His anonymous grave is symbolic of the tragedy that surrounded the last years of his life. Macneill ended up blind, almost destitute and abandoned by many who made their fortunes from his genius.

He was born in 1793 in Ireland at Mountpleasant near Dundalk, County Louth. Plans for a military career were dashed by Wellington's victory at Waterloo in 1815 and the advent of peace with France. Macneill accordingly embarked on a surveying career, preparing the first chart mapping the Irish coast. After considering emigration to Australia or America to earn more money, he crossed the Irish Sea around 1826 where on surveys of Lowestoft and Swansea harbours, he encountered Thomas Telford - a meeting which would change his life.

Telford, who was working on the London to Holyhead road, was highly impressed by Macneill and appointed him as chief assistant, a post he held for over 10 years. He was to become resident engineer on the greatest engineering project of its time, the London-Holyhead road, later succeeding Telford as engineer in chief. Macneill developed instruments which could measure the quality and surface properties of roads.

Telford's failing health preceding his death in 1834 saw Macneill representing his mentor at Westminster where he gained invaluable experience of the parliamentary process. On his death, Telford bequeathed him £400 along with his prized notebook, complete with diagrams and formulae, something which Macneill was to treasure and carry with him through the rest of his career. Macneill named one of his sons Telford, also an engineer, after his great benefactor.

Macneill's engineering interests extended far beyond roads, and he became involved in Telford's experiments designed to prove that canals were superior to railways for the transportation of heavy loads. He developed boats carrying 60 passengers at speeds of over 12km/hr and a paddle boat on the Grand Canal in Ireland, for which he won the ICE's Silver Telford Medal in 1838.

Ironically, for one whose most prolific contribution was to railways, he was not an advocate of rail at the beginning of the railway revolution. His ICE obituary noted: 'He was, it is believed, concerned in opposing the introduction of railways, which were viewed with jealousy by those who had recently completed the great Holyhead Road; but after Telford's death he turned his attention to railways among other works, and became extensively engaged in their design and construction.'

He established his own consultancy with offices at Whitehall and Glasgow. The first railways he designed were in the Scottish coal and iron regions around Wishaw and Motherwell.

During this time he was also engineer for Grangemouth Docks, and for the Monkland, Forth & Clyde, and Paisely canals.

Macneill's attention turned to his native land in the mid-1830s.

Dublin was the first capital city in the world to boast a passenger railway when the DublinKingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) line opened in 1834, and made Ireland only the fourth country to open a railway. With his engineering fame growing and having carried out a survey for the proposed Drogheda to Portadown line near his home in Louth, Macneill was a man in demand with railway entrepreneurs.

He was engaged in 1836 by the government-appointed Drummond Commission on Railways in Ireland to carry out survey work for lines to the north of the country but was soon to come into conflict with the commissioners over the routes. 'Members of the commission were, with one exception, Royal Engineers and the system of main trunk lines which they suggested was based on military considerations, not following the established trade routes, ' his official ICE obituary noted.

The fruits of Macneill's numerous battles with the Commission can be seen today with much of Ireland's modern rail network based on his choice of routes.

The first bitter conflict he won was over the Dublin Drogheda railway which runs along the coast rather than inland through Meath. He was knighted on its completion in 1844. The Boyne Viaduct near Drogheda and Craigmore Viaduct near Bessbrook remain two of Ireland's finest civil engineering structures, and today carry the Dublin-Belfast railway line.

Macneill was also credited by the ICE as the first engineer to design and build an iron lattice girder bridge in the British Isles, copying contemporary designs from Germany and America to span 43m the Royal Canal in Dublin. In 1842, at the peak of his career, he was appointed the first chair of engineering at Trinity College Dublin, a post he was to hold for 10 years. He was an ICE member from 1831, an ICE Council member and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

But railway mania was to prove his undoing. Like many great artists his business acumen was to prove his downfall.

'He was hardworking, quick of thought, and untiring in his professional pursuits, but not of methodical and business habits, ' said the ICE obituary. A genial man, he agreed to sign up to contracts with railway promoters in return for shares, often on the promise that shares would be bought for him on completion from investors. The railway crash which followed was to hit him hard, with most of his wealth invested in shares which became worthless and work done by his practice unpaid for.

The ICE noted that he was 'not treated with much consideration or generosity by his employers'.

Disaster struck again when fire destroyed a textile factory he had set up at his home. This cost him more money and forced him to move to London where his sons Torquil and Telford worked as engineers. Pleas to former employers for financial assistance went unanswered. He became blind and died at Torquil's house at 186 Cromwell Road on 2 March 1880.

His plight prompted one Irish engineer John P Doyle to write:

'Sir John was ruined and had retired to live, or rather starve, in London, that great refuge of the foresaken and the destitute. At the time, there were living in Ireland many of his pupils and assistant engineers whom he had started in life and always treated kindly, who knew of his distress and suffering, but who never raised a finger or collected sixpence to assist him. There were many contractors who had made fortunes through him, who knew of his downfall and they also made no sign, and did nothing.

'The guinea pig directors and chairmen of the railways would never have had their guinea pig salaries were it not for him, they also did nothing but left him to his fate.

'Would it not be too much now to ask his pupils, assistants and the contractors on the lines to do their duty and subscribe, and put up a suitable monument over his nameless grave in London?' added Doyle.

Doyle's wish is being granted tomorrow, 121 years after Macneills death.

Recognition at last

The ceremony to commemorate Sir John Macneill at his unmarked grave was sparked by the interest of former Dundalk town engineer and IEI Fellow Canice O'Mahony. 'I knew of him through his family's connection with Dundalk where they were remembered by some older people as a family of great kindness, and of course because of his engineering achievements. It struck me in 1999 that it would be a suitable Millennium project to mark his grave, ' said O'Mahony. IEI London and South East branch chairman Pat Mulvihill set about locating the grave with the help of the Royal Parks Agency which manages Brompton Cemetery.

Macneill's immense contribution to Irish engineering and its railways brought support from the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and minister responsible for railways Mary O'Rourke. The Irish railway company Iarnrod Eireann, which erected a plaque to him in Dublin's Heuston Station, made the bronze tombstone plaque. The plaque was cast in Ireland's oldest railway works at Inchicore in Dublin. London construction firm Scanmoor is also supporting the cost of the launch.

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