Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Vetch, James

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VETCH, JAMES (1789–1869), captain royal engineers, conservator of harbours of the United Kingdom, third son of Robert Vetch of Caponflat, Haddington, East Lothian, by his wife, Agnes Sharp, was born at Haddington on 13 May 1789. Educated at Haddington and Edinburgh, he entered the military college at Great Marlow, whence in 1805 he was transferred to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He was employed on the trigonometrical survey at Oakingham, Berkshire (1806), until he received a commission as second lieutenant in the royal engineers on 1 July 1807. He was promoted to be lieutenant on 1 March 1808. After serving for three years, partly at Chatham and partly at Plymouth, he was sent in 1810 to Spain, and joined the division of Sir Thomas Graham (afterwards Lord Lynedoch [q. v.]) at the blockade of Cadiz. He took part in the battle of Barrosa on 5 March 1811, and was made the bearer of despatches to Gibraltar. Vetch was then sent to the Barbary coast, and proceeded from Tangier to Tetuan to report on the capabilities of the country to furnish engineer supplies.

In March 1812 Vetch left Cadiz for Elvas, sailing up the Guadiana with a company of sappers and miners to take part in the siege of Badajos. On the evening of 6 April, when the final assault took place, he made a lodgment with three hundred men in the ravelin of San Roque, and entered Badajos with the victorious army. He was promoted to be second captain on 21 July 1813, and returned to England the following year. For his services in the Peninsula he received the war medal with clasps for Barrosa and Badajos.

From 1814 to 1820 Vetch commanded a company of sappers and miners, first at Spike Island in Cork harbour, where he was employed in the construction of Fort Westmoreland, and afterwards at Chatham. In 1821 he was appointed to the ordnance survey, and during this and the two following years, assisted by his friends Lieutenant (afterwards Captain) Thomas Drummond [q. v.] and Lieutenant (afterwards Colonel) Robert Kearsley Dawson [q. v.], both of the royal engineers, he conducted the triangulation of the Orkney and Shetland islands and of the western islands of Scotland.

Promotion being very slow, Vetch went on half-pay on 11 March 1824, and, going to Mexico, managed the silver mines of the Real del Monte and the Bolaños companies. He also gave his services to the Anglo-Mexican Association, and later to the United Mexican Company. He returned to England in 1829, but again went to Mexico after his marriage in 1832, and remained there until 1835. During his sojourn in Mexico he constructed roads in connection with the mines, organised efficient systems of transport, and paved the way for the great development which took place in mining operations in that country. Sir Henry Ward, the British envoy, in an official report, called attention to his services. Feeling the want of a good map of the country, Vetch accumulated astronomical and barometrical observations, measured several short base-lines, and triangulated a large tract of country. His papers and maps on the subject were presented after his death to the topographical department of the war office. He presented a valuable collection of Mexican antiquities to the British Museum and wrote a paper about them. Vetch was resident engineer of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway Company from 1836 to 1840 for the construction of one half of that line of railway.

From 1839 the project of a ship canal between the Mediterranean and Red Seas occupied Vetch's attention, but it was not until 1843 that he published the results of some years' consideration of the subject in a work (No. 8 below) which ran through several editions and attracted much public attention. Unfortunately the government, and especially Lord Palmerston, opposed the plan as contrary to the political interests of the country. Twelve years later M. Ferdinand de Lesseps published his scheme, printing Vetch's opinions as an appendix to his work.

In 1842 Vetch designed a system of sewerage for the borough of Leeds, which was satisfactorily carried out. In 1843 he was associated with Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche [q. v.] in the preparation of designs for the drainage of Windsor, and in 1844 designed a scheme of drainage for Windsor Castle and parks and for the purification of the Frogmore lakes. These works, in which the prince consort was much interested, were completed in 1847. On the passing of the Assessionable Manors of the Duchy of Cornwall Act in 1844, Vetch was appointed one of the three commissioners to carry it out, John Douglas Cook [q. v.] acting as secretary. Vetch resided first at Devonport and then at Truro, and on the termination of the labours of the commission in 1846 the prince consort, president of the council of the duchy, expressed the high sense entertained by the council of the conduct of the commissioners.

In 1844, 1845, and 1846 Vetch was examined before the tidal harbours and the harbours of refuge commissions, and at their request furnished a report to show the advantages which he claimed for the employment of wroughtiron framework in the construction of piers and breakwaters. In 1845 he reported on the various designs for a harbour of refuge at Dover.

In July 1846 Vetch was appointed consulting engineer to the admiralty on all questions relating to railways, bridges, and other works which might injuriously affect the harbours, rivers, and navigable waters of the United Kingdom. In 1847 he was appointed a member of the new harbour conservancy board at the admiralty, the other members being Captains Washington and Bethune, royal navy. Washington was withdrawn from the board in 1849, and in 1853 Vetch was appointed sole conservator of harbours. In 1849 he was appointed one of the metropolitan commissioners of sewers, a laborious honorary office which he held for four years. In the same year he proposed an extended water supply for the metropolis, and in 1850 designed a system of drainage for Southwark. In 1858–9 he was a member of the royal commission on harbours of refuge, of which Admiral Sir James Hope was chairman.

Vetch retired from the admiralty in 1863; his office of conservator was then abolished and the duties transferred to the board of trade. He was elected a fellow of the Geological Society in 1818, of the Royal Society and of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830, an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1839, a member of the Société Française de Statistique Universelle in 1852, and was a member of other learned bodies. He died on 7 Dec. 1869, and was buried in Highgate cemetery.

Vetch married, on 2 Feb. 1832, in London, Alexandrina Ogilvie (d. 1853), daughter of Robert Auld of Edinburgh. By her he had ten children, of whom seven survived him, including Rev. James Edward (d. 1870), Robert Hamilton, C.B., colonel royal engineers, and William Francis, C.V.O., major-general, formerly royal Dublin fusiliers. Vetch's portrait, by Joshua Munro, is in possession of his eldest surviving son.

Vetch was author of: 1. ‘Account of the Remains of a Mammoth found near Rochester,’ 1820. 2. ‘Account of the Island of Foula,’ 1821. 3. ‘Letter to Lord Viscount Althorpe on Reform,’ 1831. 4. ‘On the Monuments and Relics of the Ancient Inhabitants of New Spain,’ 1836. 5. ‘Considerations on the Political Geography and Geographical Nomenclature of Australia,’ 1838. 6. ‘Description of a Bridge built of blue lias limestone across the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway at Dunhampstead,’ 1841. 7. ‘On the Structural Arrangement most favourable to the Health of Towns,’ 1842. 8. ‘Enquiry into the Means of Establishing a Ship Navigation between the Mediterranean and the Red Seas,’ 1843. 9. ‘On the Advantages of employing a Framework of Malleable Iron in the construction of Jetties and Breakwaters,’ 1843. 10. ‘Havens of Safety,’ 1844. 11. ‘Remarks on the Effluvia from Gully Gratings,’ 1849. 12. ‘On the River Bann Navigation,’ 1850. 13. ‘On Surveys for Drainage and the Application of Sewer Water for Agricultural Purposes,’ 1842. Reports were published by Vetch between 1847 and 1859 on the following harbours: Ramsgate, the Tyne, Cork, Wexford, the Isle of Man, Holyhead, Port Patrick, and Donaghadee, Galway, Portsmouth, Table Bay, Port Natal, Point de Galle.

[War Office Records; Royal Engineers' Records; Royal Engineers' Journal, 1871, 1880, and 1881; Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1841, 1870 (Memoir); Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1870; Ward's Mexico in 1827, 2 vols. 8vo, London, 1828; Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Jones's Sieges in Spain; Porter's History of the Corps of Royal Engineers; Connolly's History of the Royal Sappers and Miners; The Isthmus of Suez Question, by M. Ferdinand de Lesseps, 8vo, London and Paris, 1855; Gordon's Description of Captain Vetch's Metropolitan Sewerage Plans, 1851; Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, 1836 and 1838; Journal of the Geological Society, 1821; Memoirs of the Wernerian Society, 1821; Vetch's Letters from an Engineer Officer in the Peninsula, ap. Roy. Eng. Journal, 1880; private sources.]

R. H. V.