Benjamin PIERCY

“PIERCY, BENJAMIN, the eminent Civil Engineer, from whose surveys and plans nearly every mile of railway in Montgomeryshire and Mid-Wales was made was born at Trefeglwys, on the 16th of March, 1827. He was the third son of Robert Piercy, of Chirk, a well-known commissioner, valuer, and surveyor in the inclosure of commons and waste lands, and extensively engaged in the construction of public roads and other works, and in surveys and valuations under the Poor Law and Tithe Commutation Acts. He at an early age entered his father’s office, and soon became actively engaged upon important surveys and other work of varied description. About 1847, he became chief assistant to Mr. Charles Mickleburgh, of Montgomery, a surveyor, land agent, and inclosure-commissioner with a large practice, with whom he remained four or five years. After that Mr. Henry Robertson, sometime M. P. for Shrewsbury, and subsequently for the county of Merioneth, engaged him to assist him in making the parliamentary surveys for the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway. So much energy and attention did he devote to the work that he was the means of preventing the loss of a year in obtaining the Act for that line. He was afterwards employed under Mr. Robertson upon the plans and sections for the first Bill for a Railway from Oswestry to Newtown. That Bill was not passed. Application was made to Parliament in a subsequent session, and Mr. Piercy was again engaged in the engineering, but upon that occasion, too, the Bill was not passed. It was in 1852, when he became the Engineer for the Rea Valley Railway from Shrewsbury to Minsterley and Newtown, that Mr. Piercy’s independent practice commenced. With characteristic energy and skill he had within a very limited time prepared the parliamentary plans for deposit, but they were surreptitiously removed from a room which he occupied at a hotel in London, so that it was impossible to proceed with the Bill in the then ensuing session. In the following year, however, he duly deposited the plans for a railway from Shrewsbury, with a branch to Minsterley. Although strongly opposed at every stage, he succeeded in carrying the Bill through both Houses, and it received the Royal assent. It was in the Select Committees on this Bill that he first made his reputation as a witness in Parliamentary Committees. After this he was engaged in nearly all the projects for introducing independent railways into Wales, all of them meeting with fierce opposition; for several days consecutively, he was as a witness under cross-examination by the genial Mr. Serjeant Merewether and other eminent counsel, but so little headway were they able to make against Mr. Piercy, that upon one occasion, when a Committee passed a Bill of Mr. Piercy’s, Mr. Merewether held up his brief-bag and asked the Committee whether they would not too give that to Mr. Piercy? Amongst the numerous railways in this country of which he was engineer are the following: — The Oswestry and Newtown, and its Llanfyllin and Kerry Branches, the Llanidloes and Newtown, the Newtown and Machynlleth, the Oswestry, Ellesmere, and Whitchurch, the Welsh Coast Railways, extending to Aberystwyth and Pwllheli, the Vale of Clwyd, the Carnarvonshire, the Denbigh, Rnthin and Corwen, the Bishop’s Castle, the Mid-Wales, the Hereford, Hay and Brecon, The Kington and Eardisley, the Hoylake, and the Wrexham, Mold, and Connah’s Quay, with its extensions and branches. Among the most important engineering works upon the above railways were several important river bridges, comprising the crossing of the Vyrnwy and three crossings of the Severn. In these cases, the railway was carried over upon iron-plate girders of large span, resting upon iron cylinders sunk to a great depth and filled in with concrete. There were also two fine stations, one at Oswestry and the other at Welshpool. The construction of the Newtown and Machynlleth Railway, owing to the mountainous nature of the country, involved some heavy work, e.g., an open cutting about 120 feet deep at Talerddig, and several long skew bridges over mountainous torrents, constructed with unusually massive masonry, firmly bedded in solid rock foundation at great depth. Upon the Welsh Coast Railway was the crossing of two great estuaries, exposed to the sea, with tides of 16 feet range. One of these at Barmouth, about two miles wide, was crossed with iron girders resting upon screw piles, with an opening bridge to admit of the passage of sea-going vessels. The other estuary crossing was near Portmadoc. Originally it was intended to cross the Dovey from Ynyslas to Aberdovey, which would have entailed the construction of a long and costly viaduct across the estuary. The plans were all prepared by Mr. Piercy, who himself considered them at that time his masterpieces. The project, however, was abandoned in favour of the present deviation line from Glandovey junction. At this period Mr. Piercy resided for some years at Welshpool, and then removed to London. In 1862 Mr. Piercy was consulted by the Concessionaires of Railways in the Island of Sardinia with reference to the construction of the railways, for which they had obtained the concession comprising about 250 miles of lines. The plans and sections which had been prepared by Italian engineers, involved the construction of about 20 miles of tunnels and many heavy works, so that it was found impossible to get contractors who would be walling to build the railways within the limit of time allowed by the concession, and at the cost within the amount of funds available. Mr. Piercy re-surveyed the whole of the projected railways, and changed their proposed course, reduced very considerably the tunnelling and other heavy work, and he succeeded in designing a system of lines capable of construction at a practicable cost within the prescribed time. The Royal Sardinian Railway Company was thereupon successfully formed, having first obtained the adoption and acceptance of Mr. Piercy’s plans by the Italian Government, and a contract was entered into with Messrs. Smith, Knight and Co. for the construction and completion of the railways accordingly. The works progressed, and some of the easier sections of railway were nearly completed when the war broke out between Italy and Austria, and stopped all further operations. Everything remained suspended until 1869. During the interval the works sustained considerable damage from floods and otherwise. Mr. Piercy was again called in by the Railway Company to re-survey the lines, and prepare new estimates for their completion. When these were finished he negotiated on behalf of the new Convention with the Italian Government. By this Convention, which came into force in August, 1870, an increased annual kilometrical guarantee was obtained for the Company, and it was agreed that the railways should be divided into two series, one called the “lines of the first period,” the other, the “lines of the second period.” The “lines of the first period” comprised only the lines of the plains left unfinished in 1865, of a total length of 197 kilometres; the “lines of the second period” were the more difficult lines over and along mountains, 194 kilometres. The time allowed for completing the “lines of the first period” was extended to the 31st of December, 1874, after which the Company was to decide whether it would construct the ” lines of the second period “or whether it would sell the undertaking to the Grovernment. Mr. Piercy lost no time in taking energetic action on this new convention. For some months he carried on the construction of the railways on behalf of the Company, but subsequently the works were again let to a contractor, Mr. Piercy acting as engineer-in-chief, and early in 1872 the “lines of the first period,” excepting one section of about 45 kilometres, were opened for public traffic, leaving only the construction of that section to fulfil the Company’s obligations under the Convention of 1870. The Convention of the “lines of the second period” was subsequently proceeded with, and after almost endless difficulties from various causes the junction of the “lines of the first period” with the “lines of the second period” was effected in June, 1880, and the whole were formally accepted, approved by the Government, and opened throughout early in 1881. As an acknowledgment of the great national service rendered by Mr. Piercy, he was created a Commendatore of the Crown of Italy, and the freedom of various cities in Sardinia was conferred upon him. Subsequently it was decided to construct an extension of the system from the extreme north-eastern terminus of the line at Terranova to the Golfo di Aranci, a splendid natural harbour directly facing Civita-Vecchia, the port of Rome. The construction of this extension — about 27 kilometres was also entrusted to Mr. Piercy. The work involved a heavy cutting of more than half a mile in length, and over 40 feet deep, through difficult strata. The cutting was completed within ninety days, and the whole line within seven months. Mr. Piercy also designed a mole and other harbour works at the Golfo di Aranci, which are now being constructed to his plans. Supplementary to the main lines of railway in Sardinia, which are all of the standard 4ft. 8 1/2in. guage, Mr. Piercy took advantage of his long residence in the island to study several series of subsidiary lines of the metre guage to be feeders 1o the main system. His studies extended to nearly 2,000 kilometres of narrow-gauge railways, passing through difllcult mountainous districts at an altitude, in several instances, of from 3,000 to 4,000 feet. For several of these lines his plans were accepted by the Company and approved by the Government, and they are now in course of construction. It was not in railways only that Mr. Piercy interested himself in Sardinia. He gave great attention to effecting agricultural improvements in the island. Deserts and swamps were converted by him into perfect gardens by extensive drainage works, and the planting of many thousands of eucalyptus and other trees, so that places, formerly noted as hot-beds of fever, were rendered perfectly healthy. He also planted vineyards and orchards on a large scale. He acquired large estates, which he stocked with cattle, horses, and sheep, of all of which he so improved the breeds that his stock attained the reputation of being far superior to any other in the island, and he gained many medals awarded by Government as well for horses, cattle, and sheep, as for agriculture. He, moreover, did a good deal towards instructing the natives in good husbandry, which was before in a very primitive state. In short, Mr. Piercy’s hand was pre-eminently visible in all improvements, and he was universally looked upon as a public benefactor throughout the period of his connection with Sardinia, which extended over twenty-five years. During Mr. Piercy’s residence in Italy he was an intimate friend of Garibaldi, who paid him frequent visits in Sardinia, and one of the great Italian patriot’s sons (Ricciotti) was for some time his pupil. In addition to the Sardinian railways, Mr. Piercy was employed upon other public works in Italy, notably a project for the canalization of the Tiber. He also prepared the plans for the Acqua Marcia, the great Company by which Rome is now supplied with water. In France, he was the Engineer-in-chief of the Napoleon-Vendee Railway, a line which has been constructed and in operation many years, about 160 miles in length, from Tours, via Bressuire, to Sables d’ Olonne, a well-known port and seaside resort on the Bay of Biscay. In India, he was the engineer for the lines, about 90 miles in length, of the Assam Railways and Trading Company Limited, passing through the tea plantations in Assam, and connecting Dibrugarh, on the River Brahmaputra, with the coal fields at Makum, in the Naga Hills, near the frontier of Burmah, where the Company is working extensive collieries. These collieries were opened up under Mr. Piercy’s direction, and he was engaged at the time of his death in taking measures for the working of the valuable petroleum deposits also belonging to the Assam Railways and Trading Company. He also took an active part in projecting an extension of the Assam Railway across the Burmah frontier, through the Naga Hills, south-eastward, to meet the railway now being constructed in Burmah, northward of Mandalay. To revert to the year 1881, when The Sardinian “lines of the second period” were completed, Mr. Piercy then again took up his residence in Great Britain, and purchased the Marchwiel Hall Estate, near Wrexham, with the intention of devoting himself to the resuscitation of the railways in North Wales, of which he had been the engineer before he went to Italy. He took them in hand financially as well as in the capacity of engineer; consolidating and re-arranging their capital accounts, and planning extensions, branches, and improvements, so as develope the valuable mineral resources of the districts through which they passed, and to bring to the lines their fair share of traffic. He found a ready ally in Mr. Henry Robertson, who had, before Mr. Piercy’s departure for Italy, occupied a position antagonistic to the latter’s Welsh railway projects, and the two became cordially associated in the common object of improving the industries of North Wales. Parliamentary powers were obtained by the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway Company for connecting the Wrexham, Mold and Connah’s Quay Railway with Birkenhead, Liverpool, and Chester on the north by a bridge across the Dee at Connah’s Quay, and powers were obtained for connecting the Wrexham line with the Cambrian Railways on the south by an extension to Ellesmere, thus completing the North Wales Railway system, and providing a new through continuous route, uniting Liverpool, Manchester, and the north with all parts of Wales, south as well as north. Mr. Piercy was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and a Justice of the Peace for the County of Denbigh, his assistance in matters of County Government being highly appreciated for its eminently practical and original character. In private life Mr. Piercy’s tastes were simple, healthy, and intellectual. He was a most agreeable comimnion, and much esteemed by his intimates for his generous and amiable disposition, but his great characteristics were thoroughness, a habit of bestowing regard upon things which those around him would consider trifles, infinite capacity for taking pains, an extraordinary power of premeditation and forethought, thinking things out to the end, and mentally working out the result of even the smallest matter to which he put his hand, coupled with indomitable and unceasing perseverance and persistence in all which he undertook, but at the same time modest and unassuming to an unusual degree. His life, as will be seen from the above record of the numerous and important undertakings in which he was engaged, was one of unceasing activity and hard work. Few men, indeed, have accomplished so much in a comparatively short life. He died in London after a very brief illness on the 24th of March, 1888, aged 61 years, and was buried in the Kensal Green Cemetery on the 29th of the same month. Mr. Piercy was married in 1855 to Sarah, second daughter of the late Mr. Thomas Davies, of Montgomery, by whom he had three sons and six daughters, who survive. At the time of his death Mr. Piercy had amassed considerable wealth.”

Taken from: Montgomeryshire Worthies (1894) by Richard Williams

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