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Thomas Macdougall Smith

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Thomas Macdougall Smith (1826-1886)

1886 Obituary [1]

THOMAS MACDOUGALL SMITH (affectionately styled “Tom Smith” in the closer circle of his many friends) was for nearly half a century one of the best known and most generally popular of the older members of the Institution; a man whose genial temperament and courteous manner possessed a magic power of allaying the friction engendered in the course of modern professional life, and who, in the course of a long, well-filled career, attained a reputation which, if less commanding, was perhaps more lasting than that of many who have surpassed him in engineering achievements.

He was the son of Thomas Smith of Newcastle-on-Tyne, where he was born on the 1st of November, 1826.

About the year 1835 Macdougall Smith entered the office of Mr. Walker, having previously served a pupilage to Messrs. Hawks and Co. of Newcastle-on-Tyne (where he was considered somewhat of a deft hand in finish at the bench and the lathe), and then on the Leeds and Selby Railway.

The office of Walker and Burges was at that time the great nursery of civil engineers in England, that is to say, of civil engineers of the Smeatonian school, who, so far, were the only recognized exponents of the art ; the brilliant achievements of the Stephensons and Brunel not having yet won for railway-making its subsequent ascendency in engineering. In this office Macdougall Smith was contemporary with a numerous band of pupils who one and all attained good positions in after-life. He speedily developed into a first-class draughtsman, and an excellent and careful hand in the field. He had a passion for finishing up drawings, and several amusing anecdotes are told of his (sometimes misapplied) skill in this direction.

At this time he was engaged under Mr. Burges for the Essex Sewers Commissioners in putting in new sluices through the river-bank behind cofferdams at Hornchurch and Dagenham, and made a survey of the site of the historic breach and remains of Captain Perry’s successful works. The infinite pains taken by him in all the details of those apparently trifling, but really important operations, the whole levels being exposed to any casualty occurring from carelessness or inadvertence, was characteristic of the man’s sterling qualities and trustworthiness. His purity of character and gentleness of manner endeared him to all with whom he was long in contact.

His colleague, Mr. J. R. McClean (afterwards President of the Institution, and M.P. for South Staffordshire), was greatly attached to him, and these men, apparently so dissimilar, were in early days found much together, roughing it gaily on surveying expeditions, and making good stories of their adventures with navvies and natives. His Paper on the celebrated "Pont-y-tu-Prydd" with copy of the well-known engraving of old Edwardes, was a sample of the way he minutely finished his work.

Mr. Alfred Burges, formerly M. Inst. C.E., had a singular tenacity for locality or a devotion to what might be termed the “Home Circuit,” and bestowed upon the small details of such work as Trinity lighthouse additions, Metropolitan roads and bridges, sewers and river-docks, an amount of time and attention which appeared to some, connected with the more ambitious work of the firm, rather thrown away, and he was an anomaly in that he became a leading marine engineer of his day without ever having crossed the seas or visited the Channel Islands, where his firm carried out such extensive works. In Macdougall Smith, Burges found a willing and painstaking coadjutor.

On leaving Messrs. Walker and Burges, he was appointed to the engineering staff of the London and Birmingham Railway, and became Resident Engineer of the Leamington branch line in 1844. Subsequently, for Mr. McClean, he was entrusted with the surveys for the South Staffordshire line, and later, the levels for the Henley water project were taken by him, also for Mr. McClean.

He afterwards became concerned in mining-work, to which he was mainly devoted during the remainder of his career, although he occasionally made excursions into the domain of his early surveying experience, as, for instance, when he laid down the line and levels for the keel of the “Great Eastern" steamship, in which piece of delicate work he acquitted himself to Mr. Brunel’s satisfaction.

In conjunction with Mr. T. Sopwith he wrote a report on the Belgian coalfields, and of late years became identified with mining- and quarrying-operations in Wales. An instance of his disinterestedness may be mentioned as an indication of the man’s character. A kinsman of one of his friends was bitten by the taking appearance of a coalfield in Wales, and by the would-be vendor’s picture of its advantages. Smith at once showed him that it was on the edge of the seam, and of very doubtful value. This opinion, entirely confirmed by the highest authority of the day at the Royal School of Mines, was given without fee or reward, and the same careful attention bestowed on the matter as if encouraged by a heavy retainer.

His interest in the Institution was displayed periodically by his undertaking, for more than twenty years, the office of one of the scrutineers of the ballot for the election of the President and Council, a piece of tedious drudgery which can only be confided to members of the Corporation taking part in the Annual Meeting. In order to lighten this labour, which is carried on at high pressure for an hour and a half, and the results of which are impatiently expected in the meeting-room, Mr. Smith borrowed, from the coal-scores in collieries, a system of grouping the votes against each candidate’s name, in such a way that instead of finding, when counting-time came, a confused mass of units, each to be counted separately, there was presented a small and easily separated number of IIII IIII. In this way that which might otherwise be likened to a line of letters became a line of words, and the labour of counting up the votes was greatly lessened. His somewhat sudden collapse in health was a surprise to many of his friends, for although attaining the allotted human span of three score years and ten, his well-proportioned frame and the thorough working order of the living machine, resultant on a well-ordered and temperate life, enlightened by a clear conscience, would lead many to suppose he was a decade younger than in reality he was, and that many working years were yet in store for him. An intimate acquaintance of fully half a century leads the compiler of this notice to surmise that the terms used above, apparently eulogistic, are in reality in nowise exaggerated.

Macdougall Smith‘s life illustrated the truth- “Better is he that ruleth his spirit (and he had one) Than he that taketh a city.”

He was elected a Graduate on the 24th of March, 1840, having previously received a Telford Medal for his Paper on the Pont-ytu-Prydd. Six years afterwards, on the 17th of February, 1846, he was transferred to the class of Member. He died, to the great grief of his family and friends, and to the unaffected regret of a very large circle of acquaintance, on the 21st of January, 1886. Four days later his remains were interred in Brompton Cemetery, in the presence of a representative concourse of the friends and associates among whom, in the very headquarters of engineering, he had passed the greater part of his life.

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