Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Stokes, John
STOKES, Sir JOHN (1825–1902), lieutenant-general, royal engineers, born at Cobham, Kent, on 17 June 1825, was second son in a family of three sons and three daughters of John Stokes (1773–1859), vicar of Cobham, Kent, by his wife Elizabeth Arabella Franks (1792–1868). Educated first at a private school at Ramsgate, then at the Rochester Proprietary School, Stokes passed into the Royal Military Academy at the head of the list in the summer of 1841. On leaving he was awarded the sword of honour and received a commission as second lieutenant in the royal engineers on 20 Dec. 1843. After professional instruction at Chatham, he was posted in February 1845 to the 9th company of royal sappers and miners at Woolwich, with which he proceeded in June to Grahamstown, South Africa. He was promoted lieutenant on 1 April 1846. In Cape Colony he spent five adventurous years, taking part in the Kaffir wars of 1846–7 and of 1850–1. In the first war he was deputy assistant quartermaster-general on the staff of Colonel Somerset commanding a column of the field force in Kaffraria. He was particularly thanked by the commander-in-chief. General Sir Peregrine Maitland [q. v.], for his conduct in the action of the Gwanga on 8 June 1846, and on 25 July following, when he opened communications through the heart of the enemy's country. In the war of 1850–1 he was again on the staff as a deputy assistant quartermaster-general to the 2nd division of the field force; he was in all the operations of the division from February to July 1851, and helped to organise and train some 3000 Hottentot levies. He was repeatedly mentioned in general orders, and was thanked by the commander-in-chief. Sir Harry Smith [q. v.].
Returning home from the Cape in October 1851, Stokes became instructor in surveying at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He was promoted captain on 17 Feb. 1854, and in March 1855 was appointed to the Turkish contingent, a force of 20,000 men raised for service in the war with Russia and commanded by Sir Robert John Hussey Vivian [q. v.]. Stokes sailed at the end of July after raising and organising a nucleus for the contingent's corps of engineers, to be supplemented by Turks on the spot. He was given the command of the corps, and arriving in the Crimea in advance, witnessed the final assault on Sevastopol on 8 Sept. 1855. The Turkish contingent was sent to Kertch, where Stokes employed his corps in fortifying the place and in building huts for the troops during winter. When peace was concluded in March 1856 Stokes was made British commissioner for arranging the disbandment of the contingent. For this work he received the thanks of the government, and for his services in the Crimea a brevet-majority on 6 June 1856, the fourth class of the Mejidie, and the Turkish medal.
In July 1856 Stokes was nominated British commissioner on the European commission of the Danube, constituted under the treaty of Paris to improve the mouths and navigation of the Lower Danube. The commission, at first appointed for two years, became a permanent body, with headquarters at Galatz. Stokes's colleagues were often changed, but he held office for fifteen years, and thus came to exert a commanding influence on the commission's labours. By Stokes's advice (Sir) Charles Hartley was appointed engineer and the Sulina mouth of the Danube was selected for experimental treatment. The waterway was straightened and narrowed so as to confine and accelerate the current and thus concentrate its force to scour away the bar. In 1861 it was decided to replace the temporary constructions by permanent piers which should extend into the deeper water of the Black Sea. In order to obtain the necessary funds small loans were raised on the shipping dues, but these proved insufficient for the larger scheme. Stokes devoted himself to the finances and at the same time suppressed disorders on the river, and regulated the navigation and pilotage. The fixing of a new scale of dues involved a thorough investigation into the mode of measuring ships, as to which all nations then differed. In 1865 the 'Public Act' was promulgated, embodying the decision of the commission and establishing the 'Danube Rule' of measurement, which was a modification of the English rule.
On 6 July 1867 Stokes was promoted to be a regimental lieutenant-colonel and paid one of his periodical visits home. He prevailed on Lord Stanley, then foreign secretary, to provide needful financial help for the moment and to arrange with the powers concerned to guarantee a loan, which was sanctioned next year by an international convention, Russia alone standing out. Great Britain gave effect to the convention in the 'Danube Loan Act.' When in the autumn of 1870 Russia repudiated the Black Sea articles of the treaty of Paris, Stokes urged the British government to secure in perpetuity European control over the mouths of the Danube by means of the commission. During the congress in London in 1871 he acted as the intermediary of Lord Granville, foreign secretary, with the foreign ambassadors and plenipotentiaries on questions affecting the Danube. He arranged the terms with them and drafted the articles on the Danube in the treaty of London of March 1871. For his services he was created a C.B., civil division.
The works at the Sulina branch of the Danube were now approaching completion ; the channel had been increased from eight or nine to twenty feet at low water, and was available for large ships for a hundred miles above its mouth ; the new tariff gave a yearly increasing income for the maintenance of the navigation, the river was well lighted, and the pilotage satisfactorily arranged (see Stokes's paper on the mouths of the Danube in Roy. Eng, Establishment Papers, 1865, and 'The Danube and its Trade' in Soc. of Arts Journal, 1890). Accordingly, when the war office summoned Stokes to return to corps duties, if he wished to remain on the effective list, he resigned the commissionership. In 1872 he was appointed commanding royal engineer of the South Wales military district, and on 4 June 1873 received a brevet colonelcy.
But international diplomacy continued to be his main occupation. Stokes served at Constantinople as British commissioner (Oct.-Dec. 1873) on the international commission to settle a difficulty that had arisen over the Suez Canal dues, which, hitherto calculated by the canal company on net tonnage, had recently been charged on gross tonnage. The view of the majority of the commissioners in favour of the charge on net tonnage was resisted on behalf of the canal company by the representatives of France and some other powers. The difference was settled by a compromise, which Stokes proposed, to the effect that in addition to the ten francs a ton on net tonnage, the company should be empowered to levy a surtax of three and a half francs a ton, to be reduced in certain defined proportions as the traffic through the canal increased. The sultan marked his satisfaction by promoting Stokes to the second class of the order of the Mejidie in 1874. After reporting for the foreign office on the condition of the canal, Stokes in the spring resumed his duties at Pembroke Dock. M. Ferdinand de Lesseps, however, objected to the arrangements made at Constantinople, and Stokes was in frequent attendance at the foreign office. Early in 1875 he was made commanding royal engineer of the Chatham district, to be more within reach.
On 1 Nov. 1875 he was appointed commandant of the School of Military Engineering at Chatham. Later in the month his opinion was invited as to the purchase, which he advised, of the Khedive's shares in the Suez Canal, and subsequently at the Khedive's request the British government sent Mr. Cave of the paymaster-general's department and Colonel Stokes to Egypt for four months to examine and report on the Khedive's financial embarrassments. In pursuit of separate instructions he concluded a convention settling outstanding difficulties with M. de Lesseps and the Suez Canal Company under the Constantinople agreement of 1873. The terms included representation of the British government on the board of directors, and Stokes was nominated to the board in June 1876. Next year he was created a K.C.B., civil division. During 1879-80 he served on an international commission, with headquarters at Paris, to examine the works at the port of Alexandria in Egypt, and decide what dues should be levied on the shipping. la Nov. 1880 he joined the royal commission on tonnage measurement, which reported in 1881. Appointed deputy adjutant-general for royal engineers at the war office on 1 April 1881, Stokes was a member of the Channel tunnel committee, and opposed its construction in 1882. The Egyptian expedition of that year exposed him to some friction with French colleagues on the Suez Canal board, who object to the use made of the canal by the British authorities, but his tact overcame all objections, and he received the personal thanks of Gladstone, the prime minister, for his good service. In March 1885 Stokes was given the temporary rank of major-general, succeeding to the establishment on 6 May following. His services as deputy adjutant-general were retained for three months over the usual five years, and he left the war office on 30 June 1886, retiring from the service with the honorary rank of lieutenant-general on 29 Jan. 1887.
On leaving the war office he resided first at Haywards Heath and afterwards at Ewell. The Suez Canal board, of which he became vice-president in 1887, frequently called him to Paris, and he undertook the administration of the 'Lady Strangford Hospital' at Port Said after her death in 1887. In the same year he was appointed a visitor of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. In 1894 he attended de Lesseps's funeral in Paris, and delivered a set oration in French. He paid his last visit to Egypt in 1899 to be present at the unveiling of de Lesseps's statue at the entrance to the canal at Port Said. Stokes, who was also director in later life of several public companies, died suddenly of apoplexy at Ewell on 17 Nov. 1902. He was elected an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on 13 Jan. 1875.
He married at Grahamstown, Cape Colony, on 6 Feb. 1849, Henrietta Georgina de Villiers (d. 1893), second daughter of Charles Maynard, of Grahamstown. By her he had three sons and three daughters. The second son, Arthur Stokes, is a brevet colonel in the royal artillery and a D.S.O.
[War Office Records; Royal Engineers' Records; private information; Porter's History of the Royal Engineers, 1889; Royal Engineers' Journal, 1903; Leading Men of London, 1894; Men and Women of the Time, 1899; Proc. Inst. Civ. Eng. 1902; The Times, 18 Nov. 1902.]