Portlock, Joseph Ellison (DNB00)

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PORTLOCK, JOSEPH ELLISON (1794–1864), major-general royal engineers and geologist, only son of Captain Nathaniel Portlock [q. v.], was born at Gosport, Hampshire, on 30 Sept. 1794. After passing through the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, he received a commission as second lieutenant in the corps of royal engineers on 20 July 1813. He served for a short time at Portsmouth and Chatham, and was promoted first lieutenant on 13 Dec. 1813. In April 1814 he embarked to join the army in Canada. He took part in the siege of Fort Erie (August 1814), and for the greater part of it was the only engineer officer in the trenches. When the army retired he constructed the lines and tête de pont of Chippewa at which Lieutenant-general Sir Gordon Drummond made his successful stand and saved Upper Canada. For his services on this occasion Portlock was thanked in general orders. He was afterwards employed on numerous exploratory expeditions. Portlock Harbour in Lake Huron was named by Sir Gordon Drummond in memory of Portlock's services.

On Portlock's return to England in October 1822 the ordnance survey was about to be extended to Ireland, and in 1824 he was selected by Colonel Thomas Frederick Colby [q. v.] for employment there. In the organisation of the Irish survey Portlock was the confidential assistant and companion of Colby, and he was retained at headquarters at the Tower of London while Thomas Drummond (1797–1840) [q. v.] and others were occupied with the construction of the new base apparatus and other instruments and details.

In 1825 Portlock accompanied Colby to Ireland, and remained attached to the trigonometrical branch of the work, of which he soon became the senior and ultimately the sole officer. In 1826 he was employed in the observations at Slievedonard, co. Down, 2,800 feet above the sea. This was a very exposed station. The camp was frequently blown down and the instruments with difficulty preserved. Conjointly with the observations and calculations of the horizontal triangulation, Portlock had to undertake a system of vertical observations and calculations for altitudes. He carried a line of levelling from the coast of Down to the coast of Donegal, and caused similar lines to be observed in other places crossing Ireland in every direction, and terminating at stations on the coast, where tidal observations were simultaneously made. These operations, in addition to their immediate and practical object, furnished the material for the admirable paper on tides, by the astronomer-royal, published in the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society of London’ in 1845.

On 22 June 1830 Portlock was promoted second captain. In 1832 it was arranged to compile a descriptive memoir of the survey. Portlock, having completed the great triangulation, undertook the portions of the memoir relating to geology and productive economy. In 1837 he formed a geological and statistical office, a museum for geological and zoological specimens, and a laboratory for the examination of soils. Unfortunately, for financial reasons, the preparation of the memoir was suspended in 1838, and was not resumed, although a commission, appointed in 1843 by Sir Robert Peel, recommended its resumption and continuance. Portlock published the volume, which bears his name, on the ‘Geology of Londonderry, Tyrone, and Fermanagh, with Portions of Adjacent Counties’ (with maps and plates, Dublin, 8vo, 1843).

While employed on the Irish survey, Portlock assisted in the advance of various scientific institutions in Ireland. In 1831 the Geological Society was formed, and the Zoological and other scientific societies rapidly followed. Portlock was one of the early presidents of both the Geological and Zoological Societies, and contributed to the former twenty papers, including presidential addresses, in 1838 and 1839. He was again president of the Geological Society in 1851 and 1852. In 1835 the British Association met in Dublin, and Portlock was a member of the local committee and secretary of the section of geology and geography. He was president of the geological section at Belfast in 1852. In the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy’ for 1837 his name appears in a communication on the occurrence of the Anatifa vitrea on the coast of Ireland, and in one on ornithology (Otus Brachiotus), and also in a communication relative to the red sandstone of Tyrone.

Portlock was promoted first captain in September 1839. In 1843 his labours on the Irish survey ceased, and he returned to the ordinary duties of the corps of royal engineers, and in May embarked for Corfu. At Corfu he took part in remodelling the fortress. At the meeting of the British Association at Cork in 1843, a letter from Portlock to Professor Phillips was read on the geology of Corfu, and a grant was made the same year to him by the council for the exploration of the marine zoology of the island. In 1845 and 1846 Portlock made communications on this subject to the association.

On 9 Nov. 1846 Portlock was promoted brevet-major, and on 13 Dec. 1847 regimental lieutenant-colonel. He returned to England in 1847, and while stationed at Portsmouth pursued in his leisure scientific researches. In the ‘Transactions of the British Association’ in 1848 there is a communication on evidences he had observed, at Fort Cumberland and at Blockhouse Fort, of changes of level on both sides of Portsmouth Harbour. In the same year is a notice of sounds emitted by mollusca, which he had observed in the Helix aspersa, as well as in the Helix aperta.

In 1849 Portlock was appointed commanding royal engineer of the Cork district in Ireland. While he was at Cork the employment of convicts on military public works began in Ireland. Portlock lent his aid, and the unfinished Fort Westmoreland on Spike Island in Cork Harbour was selected for the experiment. In 1851 he was appointed inspector of studies at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He was an ardent advocate for education in the army and especially in the scientific corps. He considered that Woolwich should be reserved for the advanced stages of professional education, and that all general and elementary education should be previously acquired. He also instituted many valuable reforms in the system of education at the Royal Military Academy. He was promoted to be regimental full colonel on 28 Nov. 1854. In 1856 he resigned the appointment of inspector of studies at Woolwich, and received a warm letter of acknowledgment of his services from Lord Panmure, then secretary of state for war. He was appointed commanding royal engineer of the south-eastern district in November 1856, and was stationed at Dover. In May 1857 he joined the newly formed council of military education, and showed himself a most forward advocate of education. He looked upon competition, and especially open competition, as the great principle upon which public appointments should be made. He retired from active service on 25 Nov. 1857 with the honorary rank of major-general, but remained till 1862 a member of the council of military education. In 1857 and 1858 he was elected president of the Geological Society of London, and delivered the annual addresses. Of his work in geology and natural history, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison [q. v.] observed that ‘his energy and powers of critical research enabled him to enter with success the field of professed naturalists. … He was a geologist after my own heart.’ In 1857 he attended the meeting of the British Association in Dublin as a member of the council, and he received from Trinity College the honorary degree of doctor of laws. Portlock was a fellow of the Royal Society, a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and of numerous other learned societies. In 1862 he settled at Blackrock, near Dublin, where he died on 14 Feb. 1864.

Portlock married, first, on 24 Feb. 1831, at Kilmaine, co. Mayo, Julia Browne; and, secondly, on 11 Dec. 1849, at Cork, Fanny, daughter of Major-general Charles Turner, K.H., commanding the Cork district. There was no issue of either marriage.

Portlock was the author of: 1. ‘A Rudimentary Treatise on Geology,’ London, 12mo, 1848; 2nd edit. 1852. 2. ‘Memoir of the Life of Major-general T. Colby, together with a Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and Ireland,’ London, 8vo, 1869.

He was also a frequent contributor to the ‘Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers,’ to the ‘Annals of Natural History’ (vols. xv. and xviii.), to the ‘Quarterly Journal of the London Geological Society,’ to the ‘Aide-Memoire to the Military Sciences,’ to the ‘Transactions of the Dublin Geological Society,’ and to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (8th edit.: arts. ‘Cannon,’ ‘Fortification,’ ‘Gunnery,’ and ‘War.’).

[Memoir by Major-general Sir T. Larcom, R. E., in vol. xiii. new series Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers; War Office Records; also Royal Society Transactions; Royal Engineer Records; War Office Records.]

R. H. V.