Vignoles, Charles Blacker (DNB00)

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VIGNOLES, CHARLES BLACKER (1793–1875), engineer, was born at Woodbrook, county Wexford, on 31 May 1793. His father, Charles Henry Vignoles, a descendant of a Huguenot family, was an ensign in the 43rd or Monmouthshire regiment of foot. After his promotion to a captaincy he was sent to the West Indies, where he was wounded at the storming of Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, and died in 1794, having married in 1792 Camilla, youngest daughter of Charles Hutton [q. v.], who survived her husband only one week.

Charles in his infancy was taken a prisoner of war by the French, and by way of effecting his release Sir Charles Grey (afterwards first Baron Grey de Howick) [q. v.], the commander of the English forces, bestowed on him a commission. He was gazetted an ensign in the 43rd regiment on 10 Nov. 1794, when eighteen months old, and was immediately put on half-pay. On coming to England he was placed under the care of his grandfather, Charles Hutton, who about 1807 articled him for seven years to a proctor in Doctors' Commons, but after three years he left the proctor and commenced study at Sandhurst. On receiving notice to join his regiment he went to the Peninsula and was present in the rear-guard at the battle of Vittoria on 21 June 1813. On the following 29 Nov. he was transferred as an ensign to the York-chasseurs, and on 13 Jan. 1814, by the influence of the Duke of Kent, he received a commission in the 1st or royal Scots regiment of foot. He was present at the repulse of the British forces at Bergen-op-Zoom on 14 March in that year. In the summer he was ordered to Canada, and was in the Leopard when she was wrecked on the island of Anticosti at the mouth of the St. Lawrence. On returning to England he obtained his lieutenancy on 12 Oct. 1815, and was sent to Fort William, but in April 1816 went to Valenciennes as an extra aide-de-camp to General Sir Thomas Brisbane. He was put on half-pay on 25 May 1816, but did not actually sever his connection with the army until 1833.

From 1816 onwards he was engaged on a survey of South Carolina and the adjoining states, and published ‘Observations on the Floridas,’ New York, 1823, with a map which long remained the best map of that country. Returning to Europe in May 1823, he was employed by the Messrs. Rennie in 1825 on the projected railway to Brighton, and also undertook surveys on the Liverpool and Manchester railway. On 7 Sept. 1830, in conjunction with John Ericsson, he patented a new method of ascending steep inclines on railways by introducing in the centre of the road a third rail which was nipped by two horizontal rollers actuated by a lever from the locomotive (No. 5995). This centre-rail system was the same as that employed in the zigzag line over the Mont Cenis Pass.

After being occupied on the Oxford canal and on a branch railway to Wigan and from Wigan to Preston, afterwards called the North Union railway, he became in 1832 engineer-in-chief of the Dublin and Kingston railway, the first of the Irish lines, which was opened on 17 Dec. 1834. He was now recognised as one of the leading civil engineers, and the works he carried out were very numerous; among them were the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne, and Manchester railway, 1835–40, with the longest tunnel then projected in England. In this concern he held very numerous shares, the calls on which in 1840 caused him great embarrassment. About this time he was consulted respecting some of the earliest continental lines, more especially the Paris and Versailles, the German Union railway, lines in the duchy of Brunswick, Berlin, Hamburg, and Hanover.

Contemporaneously with these undertakings he occupied himself in studying the possible improvement of the railway bar then mostly in use, and introduced in 1837 the flat-footed, generally known as the Vignoles rail, which has on the continent nearly superseded every other form. In 1841 he was elected to fill the newly founded professorship of civil engineering at University College, the first inaugurated in England, and gave his opening lecture on 10 Nov. In 1843–1844 he spent six months at Stuttgart advising as to the projected railways in the kingdom of Württemberg.

During the railway mania in 1846–8 Vignoles was engaged on a large number of lines. Among these were the East Kent (since called the London, Chatham, and Dover), the Little North-Western (afterwards incorporated with the Midland), and in Ireland the Waterford and Limerick and other central lines. In 1847 he visited St. Petersburg, and during the five or six years following paid many visits to Russia, where he had a large professional staff. His chief work was the suspension bridge at Kieff over the Dnieper, the longest of its kind in the world. In 1853–5 he began and carried out the first railway in western Switzerland. He had, in 1854, made the first surveys of the Bahia and San Francisco railway in Brazil, but the works were not commenced until 1857, and were completed in 1861. During 1857–8, with Thomas Brassey as the contractor, he carried out a line through the Basque Provinces in Spain. The last important undertaking on which he was engaged was the line from Warsaw to Terespol in 1865. He then retired from the active duties of his profession, but was consulted by engineers on many important schemes.

He took great interest in scientific matters generally. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society on 9 Jan. 1829 (and served as a member of the council for many years), a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on 10 April 1827 and president in December 1869, a fellow of the Royal Society on 7 June 1855, and was connected with the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Institution.

When superintending the works of the Tudela and Bilbao railway in Spain he entertained the members of the government astronomical expedition observing the total solar eclipse of 18 July 1860, provided a map of the shadow path thrown by the eclipse across the north-eastern part of Spain, and published some accompanying ‘Observations.’ Ten years later he accompanied the government expedition in the Psyche to observe the eclipse of 22 Dec. 1870, and was wrecked in that vessel on the coast of Sicily. He died at Villa Amalthea, Hythe, Hampshire, on 17 Nov. 1875, and was buried in Brompton cemetery on 23 Nov. He married, first, on 13 July 1817, Mary Griffiths, who died on 17 Dec. 1834; and secondly, in 1849, Elizabeth, who died on 30 March 1880. He left four sons, Charles Francis Ferdinando, Henry, Hutton (a civil engineer), and Olinthus John (assistant-minister St. Peter's Church, Vere Street, London). Vignoles wrote for the ‘Encyclopædia Metropolitana,’ 1817–45, and on his own account, the articles Cumberland, Curaçoa, St. Croix, Creole, Crane, Docks, Dominica, Georgia, and Guadeloupe, and in conjunction with Dr. Bonnycastle those on Cuba and Florida.

[O. J. Vignoles's Life of C. B. Vignoles, 1889, with portrait; Min. of Proc. of Instit. of Civil Engineers, 1876, xliii. 306–11; Monthly Notices of Royal Astronomical Soc. 4 Feb. 1876, pp. 148–51; Illustr. London News, 27 Nov. 1875 p. 543, 11 Dec. p. 581 with portrait, 5 Feb. 1876 p. 143.]

G. C. B.