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John Benson

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Sir John Benson (1811-1874) of Cork

1875 Obituary [1]

SIR JOHN BENSON was born at Collooney, in the county of Sligo, in the year 1811.

At an early age he showed a taste for mechanical and engineering drawing. When quite a youth he obtained an appointment under the Government Board of Works.

After some years spent in that service, he passed the necessary examination for the office of County Surveyor, and was, on the 26th of March, 1846, appointed by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to the West Riding of the county of Cork.

On the 8th of April following he was transferred to the East Riding of the same county, and took up his residence in the city of Cork. This was at the beginning of the famine, and Mr. Benson had to work hard while fulfilling the duties of his office-making new roads, building bridges, &C., throughout the county; and he earned for himself the respect and esteem of all with whom he came in contact.

His zeal, energy, and ability were conspicuous, and on the 29th of January, 1851, he was promoted by the Lord Lieutenant to the office of Surveyor of the county of the city of Cork; and shortly afterwards the Harbour Commissioners appointed him their Engineer for the harbour and port of Cork.

The genius of Mr, Benson was, perhaps, best shown by the erection of the building in which the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1853 was held. Amongst many other architects and engineers of ability and eminence, he competed for the design of the building and was awarded the first prize. The Committee having determined to build without the intervention of a contractor, they sought, and were fortunate in obtaining, though at considerable personal sacrifices, the services of Mr. Benson.

His design had been accepted on the 12th of August, 1852, and he immediately commenced the important work, which was universally acknowledged to afford evidence, even in its most minute details, of the consummate ability of the architect.

In the Fine Arts Courts especially it was felt that Mr. Benson had, in the words of H.R.H. the lamented Prince Albert, 'solved the problem of lighting a picture gallery.' A cool greyish tone prevailed, and there was an entire absence of direct rays of sunshine, so that the most delicate tints of pictures, and fabrics of various kinds, left the building as pure and fresh as when the articles were first deposited there.

The Exhibition building itself was, perhaps, the most successful novelty exhibited both in arts and manufacture, and Mr. Benson proved himself one of the ablest practical architects and engineers of his country, and made good his claim to the honours of genius. The building was opened on the 12th of May, 1853, on which occasion Mr. Benson was presented to the Lord Lieutenant, who conferred upon him the honour of knighthood.

Sir John Benson designed and erected many architectural works in the city of Cork; among them are the Athenaeum, which, for internal arrangements and beauty of design and proportions, has been greatly admired; the rebuilding and enlarging of the Butter Market; the magistrate’s court in Cornmarket Street, and several churches; one of his latest works being the remodelling and enlarging of the parisb church of St. Luke’s, which is now being completed under the superintendence of Mr. W. H. Hill, who assisted Sir John in making the plans.

Among the most important of Sir John Benson’s purely engineering undertakings were the Cork Waterworks, comprising a water wheel, two turbines, and a 90-HP. steam-engine, which pump water into three reservoirs: one at an elevation of 400 feet and capable of storing 780,000 gallons, and two at a lesser height, collectively holding 3,500,000 gallons. The water is distributed through about 52 miles of main pipes, and affords a constant supply to nearly every house in the city. The cost of the works was £80,000.

The St. Patrick‘s and North Gate bridges deserve notice; as, from their beauty of design and stability of construction, they will compare favourably with any similar works in the kingdom. The new deep-water Victoria Quay, which is admittedly an immense advantage to the shipping trade, was designed and built by Sir John Benson, who, during his tenure of office, by constant dredging, deepened the channel of the river to such an extent that ships of the largest tonnage can sail up to the quays at Cork and discharge afloat at the jetties.

His report to the Cork Harbour Commissioners, dated December 1871, bears record to the improvements made of late years in the navigation of the river Lee under his direction. Besides these works affecting the city, he built forty-eight bridges in the county of Cork during the time he was Surveyor.

He was also Engineer-in-Chief of the Cork and Limerick Direct railway, and of the Rathkeale and Newcastle railway.

For the last two years of his life Sir John Benson was in very delicate health, brought on by excessive attention to his professional duties, and he was obliged to resign his appointment and retire from active work.

He died at South Kensington, on the 17th of October, 1874.

Sir John was elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, on the 4th of March, 1862.

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