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James Hodges

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1872. Manufacture of Peat Fuel.
1872. Manufacture of Peat Fuel.
1872. Manufacture of Peat Fuel.

James Hodges (c1813-1879), railway contractor

1879 Obituary [1]

A SHORT time since, Mr. James Hodges, died at his residence, Perry Hill, Bagshot, of heart disease, at the age of sixty-six. Although he had not been in good health for a considerable time, there was no apparent cause for apprehending danger to within very few hours of his decease. There are, perhaps, few more noteworthy instances of successful self-help than that afforded in the career of Mr. Hodges.

Born in Queenborough, in the Isle of Sheppey, in humble circumstances, and receiving only such a limited education as the neighbourhood at that time afforded, he commenced life at an early age, first as a sailor, but afterwards at the carpenter's bench. The intimate knowledge of working men acquired thus early, and his innate qualities as a leader amongst them, were frequently instrumental in keeping them free from the strikes and complications which have become disastrous to so many of our trades, and we believe that on all the works which, from first to last, he conducted, no serious dispute of the kind ever arose. While he never feared to trust to his own judgment and resources for success in the execution of engineering works, however hazardous, he was modest in giving his opinions, and content that they should be accepted for what they were worth. In small things he had a quick and, perhaps, occasionally nervous manner; in great ones, his judgment was almost invariably sound.

At the age of seventeen he was apprenticed to a builder at Brompton, in Kent, and three years after he was employed on the Greenwich Railway, then in course of construction, to make the centring for the arches. Subsequently, at the age of twenty-two he had charge of the building of the union houses at Strood, and he was next employed superintending the construction of the Shakespeare Tunnel on the South-Eastern Railway, near Dover, as the agent of the contractor, Mr. Rowland, on whose death Mr. Hodges assumed the charge of the work in concert with the resident engineer of the South-Eastern Railway.

While so occupied he attracted the attention of Mr., subsequently Sir William Cubitt, then engineer-in-chief, and on the completion of the works, and opening of the railway to Dover, February 6, 1844, Mr. Cubitt presented him with a handsome testimonial, on which was inscribed, "Presented to Mr. James Hodges by Mr. William Cubitt, engineer-in-chief of the South-Eastern Railway, as a mark of respect for the ability and good conduct displayed by Mr. Hodges as assistant-engineer and acting foreman in the execution of the cliff works, tunnels, &c., near Dover, and also for the part he took in driving, charging, and firing the galleries and mines for the great blast of the Round Down Cliff."

His next employment was that of resident engineer under the late Mr. G. P. Bidder, on the Norfolk Railway, and after that he was appointed engineer of the Lowestoft Harbour, which be built in connexion with Mr. James Peto.

His next work was on the Great Northern Railway, where, for his principals, Messrs. Peto and Betts, he built fifty miles of the road.

And now his health having in some degree failed he retired from work for a time, to resume it on the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, and the Great Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence at Montreal. He was entrusted by Messrs. Peto, Brassey, and Betts with the building of a large portion of that railway, and also with erecting the great bridge for which Messrs. Stephenson and Alexander M. Ross were the engineers. He took with him to Canada a well-chosen staff, and at once commenced preparations for his great and - in so far as the bridge was concerned - specially difficult work. This is not the place in which to describe those difficulties; they were numerous, but the works were successfully completed twelve months within the prescribed time. Referring to them the late Mr. Robert Stephenson publicly stated, "Having such men as Peto, Brassey, and Betts as contractors, with James Hodges for their engineer, nothing was left for his mind to dwell on but the poetical department of the profession."

The formal opening of the Victoria Bridge was inaugurated by the Prince of Wales in the name of the Queen, in 1860, and over the entrance of the parapet is chiselled the following inscription:

Mr. Hodges returned to his home at Perry Hill, Bagshot, after his work in Canada was finished, having been absent about seven years. He now appeared as an author, and published a large and handsome volume entitled "Construction of the Great Victoria Bridge in Canada." The health of Mrs. Hodges, which for some time had been in an unsatisfactory state, now became worse, and a year or two after she died. Soon after her death Perry Hill again became vacant, by the return of Mr. Hodges to Canada, where he had purchased from 20,000 to 25,000 acres of land at Bulstrode, near Quebec, and now, running away from home because it was no longer home, he went to Bulstrode, taking with him some very ingenious machinery, which he had designed for the purpose of manufacturing peat fuel from crude peat, of which there was a large quantity on his property there. Having built a shanty for himself in the woods, he, in company with a nephew, lived there experimenting with the peat, and there and elsewhere he subsequently manufactured several thousands of tons of excellent fuel; but the short period in the Canadian climate during which it was possible to manufacture peat (about four months in the year) was a bar to pecuniary success. Machines from his design have, however, been erected in the United States, and in Germany, and they may have a valuable future before them. After an absence of a few years he again returned to England, spent a short time in Spain reporting upon a peat-manufacturing establishment there for Mr. Brassey, and accepted an offer from that gentleman to construct for him the Callao Docks.

This contract was the last one signed by the late Mr. Brassey, who did not live to see the completion of it. As Mr. Brassey's engineer and agent for carrying out the works Mr. Hedges left England in September, 1870, having a numerous staff of assistants with him. On his arrival, he at once made a careful survey of the site of the works, and found that the foundations were so bad and different to what they had been represented, that he returned home in June, 1871, and obtained a considerable modification of the plans. So that the full operations were delayed until the end of 1871, when the work may be said to have commenced. The general design of the dock may be described as of four long walls enclosing a rectangular area of water, in which ships loading and unloading could lay in safety during all states of the tide and weather. The walls were all 80 ft. broad and on an average 36 ft. high, and were built on a bottom of shingle which had to be thrown in after dredging away mud to the extent of some 15ft. Owing to the heavy surf which nearly always prevailed, earth-quakes and tidal waves, and also the immense difficulty of obtaining materials and labour, the execution of these works was of a most difficult and trying nature. The latitude of Callao being only 12 min 8 sec. S. of the line, the heat was also a great drawback to getting work done rapidly. The local Government also interposed many difficulties, the works at one time being stopped and occupied by troops, Mr. Hedges himself being taken to the alcalda a prisoner, and marched through the town as such between files of soldiers. Constant changes of Government added to his difficulties, and no sooner was he able to pacify one set of officials than new ones took their place and had to be mollified by all sorts of explanation and attention. The area inclosed was some 52 acres, and berthing accommodation for from 25 to 30 large vessels was provided. In addition to this a large piece of ground was reclaimed from the sea, some 13.25 acres, by a sea wall 1082 ft. long, and 550,000 cubic yards of filling. The walls were all formed of concrete made on the spot, the materials for all the works came either from England or North America. Labour was so dear that it was cheaper to get the coping stones dressed in England and sent out, than to quarry them at the Island of San Lorenzo, only six miles from the works. More than 30,000 blocks of concrete 8ft by 4 ft. by 4ft. were used. The works were completed in 1875, in March, when Mr. Hodges returned to England via the Straits of Magellan. He bad to return to England once or twice during his sojourn in Peru, in order to confer with both English and French engineers on the difficulties he had to encounter. Towards the close of his stay there the Government constantly asked him for his advice upon various works there and upon any troubles of an engineering kind which they might have on hand. He built them a pier and repaired their fort when their own engineers were baffled, and paved one of their grand squares, besides contributing heavily to local institutions. These deeds gained him popularity and respect, and, of course, assisted him in his own work. The climate though far from bad was, no doubt, detrimental to his health, and towards the last he seemed to feel it much, especially as he was always about the works from early morning till sunset, hours during which the natives are not fond of exposing themselves to the sun's power. Like all other work which he undertook, it was completed in such a manner as to give general satisfaction to all concerned, and probably to last as long as Peru itself.

When the docks were completed, and he was about to finally leave the country, a public banquet was given in his honour, at which Captain Shampeaux, the resident director, acting as chairman, delivered a long and complimentary speech.

Returning now for the last time to Perry Hill, though in shattered health he was in better spirits. Time had enabled him to look more calmly on the loss of his wife, though his friends well knew that h e had never recovered the blow. H e had long since built for the inhabitants of Bagshot a lecture hall with reading room, billiard room, and bowling hall, the use of which they enjoyed gratuitously, and now he added to his former gifts by bringing into the village pure water for public use and erecting the necessary fountains in the street with gaslights by them, and also by paving the footpaths on one side of the main street with large slabs and a neat kerb. This last work was scarcely completed at the time of his death.

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