Making his home in Honiton, Devon at the latter part of a long
and industrious career, Joseph Locke was one of three giants of
engineering to whom the beginnings of Britain's railway network
can be attributed. His associates were Brunel and Stephenson, so
famous now that Locke is sometimes, unfortunately, referred to
as the 'forgotten engineer'. His achievements are equally
impressive however, particularly as so many were completed
during the very early stages of an illustrious career.
Joseph was born on 9th August 1805 at Attercliffe, near Sheffield, Yorkshire, the youngest of four children to William Locke, a colliery manager. He attended Barnsley Grammar School and then at the age of thirteen, presumably because of his father's background, went on to become a pupil of William Stobart, a colliery viewer for two years. The colliery viewer's duties are those of a manager who would be responsible for the day-to-day running of the pit and the hiring and firing of workers.
At the age of eighteen he was articled as a pupil engineer to George Stephenson, the father of Robert Stephenson, at his works in Newcastle and eventually was appointed as one of Stephenson's assistants in the construction of the Stockton and Darlington plus the Liverpool and Manchester Railways. In a letter to Robert Stephenson he once wrote, ‘Whilst surveying, what do you think I did? Only what others have done, fell in love with engineering!’.
Such was his interest and enthusiasm in this new manner of transportation that, along with Stephenson, he published, at the age of only twenty four, a pamphlet titled ‘Observations on the Comparative Merits of Locomotive and Fixed Engines’ which concluded in favour of locomotive engines. The question at the time was whether it was better to have steam locomotives on the rails pulling carriages or to have stationary engines at the track side operating a cable which pulled the carriages rather like the trolley cars' arrangement in San Fransisco today. It would seem that it was this grounding that really inspired him to devote the rest of his life to this new form of transportation.
It was during this part of his career that he was involved in a fatal accident. The grand opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 was marked by the attendance of Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington and the local MP William Huskisson who had championed the construction of this railway. The Duke and Huskisson were standing by the Duke's carriage from where they had been reviewing the carriages and trains paraded for the opening. As they stood on a railway line to watch, rather a dangerous thing to do even in those days, the steam locomotive Rocket believed to have been driven by Locke, then twenty five years old, approached along the line. The Duke fortunately managed to get clear but, not realising that a steam train cannot stop suddenly, Huskisson was trapped by the leg and this resulted in injuries so severe that he died a short time later. He became, therefore, the first death in the country by this new form of transportation although no blame was put on Locke. The Duke, incidentally, did not travel on a train again until thirteen years later.
Whilst working for George Stephenson on the Liverpool and Manchester railway Locke developed the use of double-headed rails held in chairs mounted on wooden sleepers, and this became the usual form of track on British railways for some time. He also discovered errors in the survey of one of the tunnels, which led to a difference of views with Stephenson who had a tendency to delegate work to inexperienced assistants. It was this disagreement, plus the admiration of the directors of the railway company, that led Locke to branch out on his own. Considering he was only twenty seven years old at the time, this was an incredibly brave stance to take.
Locke's first major project as an independent civil engineer, after the completion of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, was the first trunk railway line called the Grand Junction Railway. At eighty two miles long, it connected Birmingham and the Liverpool and Manchester line via Wolverhampton, Stafford, Crewe and Warrington. He surveyed the land, designed the route and line of the railway, including necessary bridges, viaducts, cuttings and embankments and then supervised construction. The line was duly opened in 1837 when he was only thirty two years of age.
Locke soon realised the importance of Crewe as an important junction in the railway system and not only designed the railway works, but most of the town itself! This major project comprising one hundred underbridges, five viaducts, two tunnels and two aqueducts was opened for passengers and light goods on 4th July 1837. The sheer scale of the enterprise, designed and supervised by somebody aged only thirty two on its completion, is quite incredible when compared to the amount of planning and construction that goes into building a length of motorway these days. Locke was to help prove that railway travel was not as dangerous as forecast for some harbingers of doom believed that at speeds of over 30 mph milk would turn sour and even people's lungs would collapse!
Sixteen days later the London to Birmingham line opened which meant that this new form of rail transportation linked London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.
From these auspicious beginnings Locke began to make a name for himself in the country. He was given commissions to design the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester railway which was opened in 1845 when he was forty years of age, the Lancaster and Preston Junction Railway, and also the line from Lancaster to Carlisle and onwards to Glasgow and Aberdeen. He developed a reputation for building straight railway lines, avoiding expensive tunneling whenever possible. Although this meant in some cases adopting gradients that were rather uneconomical in terms of running costs, he quickly realised that locomotives could be built to overcome this problem.
Such was his reputation that he received commission for railways in the South of England including the London to Southampton line which included several bridges over the Thames. One, the Barnes Bridge built in 1849, is now famous as one of the landmarks in the closing stages of the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race held each year.
Because of his achievements he became closely acquainted with both Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel and, with them, also associated with the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Not content to work just in Britain, Locke then proceeded to set his sights abroad with project work in Spain, creating the railway line between Barcelona and Mattaro then in Holland with the Dutch-Rhenish railway. He was approached to construct a railway line between Paris and Rouen, and on to Le Havre. This was followed by the construction of a railway line from Nantes to Cherbourg and Caen.
It is interesting to note that the actual construction was performed partly by gangs of British navvies brought over especially for the job. Locke did this for one but nevertheless very important reason. He found that he would not be able to meet the contractual terms for the overall work if he was to use French labour only since they were not skilled in the form of construction planned. British workmen however had had a number of years experience in railway construction, particularly in the use of the then modern equipment designed specially for this type of work. Needless to say, it did cause some comment in the areas where railway construction was undertaken due to the high wages then paid to British workers compared to French labourers. However, it was soon realised that the British navvies were also used to being well fed and consequently produced a far better output than their French counterparts. The upshot was that these benefits were realised and the French worker began to enjoy an improved lifestyle. He also noted that the French utilised female labour in the operation of their railways, such as opening and shutting level crossings and in the manning of country railway stations. A practice which, he commented, would be thought questionable in Britain. How times have changed!
Locke also found that in creating a new railway system in France, the French type of locomotive was inferior to its British counterpart. He saw the need to build not only new locomotives to a better standard, but also that these locomotives would need to be repaired. Consequently he arranged for the establishment of new workshops at Rouen, which became the main supplier of engines, wagons, and carriages for most of the railway companies in France. For his work in France he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion d'Honneur by King Louis Phillipe and was created an Officer of the Order by Emperor Napoleon III although regrettably, he was never publicly honoured in Britain.
When he was forty two years old he bought the manor of Honiton, and became Member of Parliament for the town. Although he did not make a great name for himself whilst in the House of Commons, he used his experience for technical matters when these arose in the House and at these times he was listened to as one who had particular knowledge of his subject. He also served as a Select Committee Member. He had already become a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers when he was twenty five years old and such was his renown for the work he had undertaken that he was elected to the position of President of that Institution at fifty three years of age.
The last work that he was responsible for was a long cherished project of the extension of the railway to Exeter. However, he never saw the completion of this project because, tragically, he died suddenly in September 1860. Whilst on a shooting holiday in Scotland he suffered a severe infection of the leg, which he had injured previously whilst working in France. His wife Phoebe dedicated Locke Park in Barnsley to his memory and the estate features both a statue and the Locke Tower.
There is no doubt that he possesed extraordinary driving force and foresight. He was responsible for the construction of a network of railway lines in Britain and also on the continent, especially in France, which are still the basis of the railway system today. It would seem that he had a particular quality of mind that gained the confidence of capitalists, so important in the financing of railways at that time. He was also renowned for his ability to complete his railway lines not only on time but also within budget, something today that civil engineers still strive to do, but sometimes find difficult for very many reasons.
It is a strange quirk of fate that Joseph Locke was born within two years of both Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel and all three died within two years of each other. As The Times printed on his death, ‘He may be said to have completed the triumvirate of the engineering world’.
J D Sly