Charles Blacker Vignoles

Charles Blacker Vignoles
Charles Blacker Vignoles
Born 31 May 1793
County Wexford, Ireland
Died 17 November 1875(1875-11-17) (aged 82)
Nationality British
Engineering discipline civil engineer
Institution memberships Institution of Civil Engineers (president)
Significant design Vignoles rail

Charles Blacker Vignoles (31 May 1793 – 17 November 1875) was an influential early railway engineer, and eponym of the Vignoles rail.


Early life

He was born at Woodbrook, County Wexford, Ireland. Having been orphaned when very young, he was brought to England and raised by his grandfather, Professor of Mathematics at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy. He trained in mathematics and law and was articled to a proctor in Doctors' Commons. However he decided to give up the practice of law and left home in 1813.

Army career

Because his parents died while his father was a serving officer, he had been gazetted as an ensign on half pay from the age of eighteen months. He entered Sandhurst as the private pupil of Thomas Leybourn, one of the lecturers who was also guardian of Mary Griffiths. Charles and she became engaged in secret and later married.

In 1814 gained a commission in the Royal Scots regiment, serving at Bergen op Zoom and then in Canada. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1815 and, after a spell in Scotland became aide-de-camp at Valenciennes to General Sir Thomas Brisbane under the command of Wellington following the Peninsular War.

Other employment

The war being over, he was put on half pay in 1816 and needed alternative employment, although he did not formally resign his commission until 1833

He returned to England and married Mary at Alverstoke in Hampshire on the 13 July 1817 and then set sail for America. Originally intending to serve under Simón Bolívar, he became an assistant to the state civil engineer at Charleston in South Carolina. In 1821 he became the city surveyor for St Augustine, Florida, and in 1823 published a map of Florida and a book Observations on the Floridas.

However his financial problems were severe and in 1823 he returned to Britain when his grandfather died.[1]

Railway engineering


He found work as a surveyor with James Walker who was the engineer for the London Commercial Docks. He also wrote articles for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana. He then opened an office of his own in Hatton Garden, employing three assistants.

In 1825 he was invited by the Rennies, to survey the proposed London and Brighton Railway and the initial surveys for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway- the latter after Parliament's rejection of George Stephenson's initial scheme.

Vignoles moved to Liverpool for the next fifteen years. The combination of his surveying experience and his initial training in the law enabled him to present the case for new lines clearly in Parliament and following the acceptance of the revised bill for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway it continued to bring him work.

However, the board of the L&M were unable to agree terms with the Rennies and George Stephenson took over. Vignoles resigned in 1827 after a disagreement with Stephenson, who in any case distrusted civil engineers, over the measurements for Edgehill Tunnel. However Vignoles remained engineer for two connecting railways: the Wigan Branch Railway (1832) and the St Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway (1833). The latter was one of the first instances where two conflicting lines used a bridge rather than a level crossing.[2]

Prior to this, in 1826, Marc Brunel offered him a post as resident engineer for the Thames Tunnel but then withdrew it in favour of his son Isambard Brunel. Vignoles then went to the Isle of Man on behalf for the government to survey property. after which he was invited by Brunel to assist in straightening out the Oxford Canal. At this time all work had ceased on the Thames Tunnel due to repeated flooding and lack of finances. Vignoles' criticisms led to a falling out, and in 1830 his alternative suggestion were rejected.

In 1829 he assisted John Braithwaite and John Ericsson with the Novelty at the Rainhill Trials. He continued to work with Ericsson and in 1830 they patented a method of ascending steep inclines on railways. (no. 5995).


The experience led to larger projects, including new railways in Ireland which then was wholly part of the United Kingdom. This included Ireland's first, the Dublin and Kingstown, (the latter town and ferry port is now called Dun Laoghaire) (1832–34), initially built to the standard English gauge of 4 ft 8 1/2" and the later extension the Kingstown and Dalkey railway was built as an atmospheric railway, and between 1836 and 1838 he was engineer to the royal commission on railways in Ireland.

He had possibly been associated with Stephenson in initial work for a proposed Sheffield and Manchester Railway but by the time the prospectus was issued in 1830 they had parted company. In the event the scheme foundered because of the severity of the proposed route via Whaley Bridge and over Rushop Edge into the Hope Valley.[3]

He was however retained in 1835 to survey the scheme which followed it, the Sheffield, Ashton-Under-Lyne and Manchester Railway (later: Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway) including the original Woodhead Tunnel. For this he experimented with a steam boring machine. However there were difficulties with his in his relationship with the directors and contract, and his remuneration, so he resigned in 1839 before work was started.[4]

Meanwhile he surveyed the Midland Counties Railway linking Nottingham, Derby and Leicester with Rugby, opened in 1839


The early years of the decade were difficult. He became professor of civil engineering at University College, London. He advocated and built atmospheric railways, and gave advice to the planned lines of the Royal Württemberg State Railways (now part of the German railways) (1843). His fortunes improved with the Railway Mania of 1844-46.

He was the engineer for the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway which opened in 1843.

In 1846 he was employed to construct the Nicholas Chain Bridge in Kiev over the Dnieper River (then: Russian Empire, today: Ukraine) between 1847 and 1853, with four main spans, overall half a mile long, at that time the largest of its kind in Europe. From 1847 until 1853 when the bridge was completed, he lived in Ukraine.

However he returned to England on frequent occasions. His first wife Mary had died in 1834 and in 1849 he married Margaret Hodge at St Martin-in-the-Fields.


After his stay in the Ukraine, he was involved in some English projects such as the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (1855–64). However most of his work are however was abroad with such lines as the Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Cologne Railway and the Western Railway in Switzerland;

Other work included that for the Wiesbadener Eisenbahngesellschaft in the Duchy of Nassau 1853–1856 building the Nassauische Rheintalbahn from Wiesbaden to Oberlahnstein. Between 1857 and 1864 he was engineer for the Tudela & Bilbao Railway in Spain. Finally, in 1860 the Bahia and San Francisco Railway in Brazil;

Later life

Funerary monument, Brompton Cemetery, London

Vignoles retired in 1863 moving to Hythe, near Southampton in 1867.

Returning from a visit to London, he suffered a stroke and died on 17 November 1875. He was buried in Brompton Cemetery, London, on 23 November.

He left five children from his first marriage. Three became engineers — Charles Francis Fernando, Hutton, and Henry, although mental problems forced Charles to retire early. Another son, Olinthus John, became a minister of the Church of England and wrote a biography of his father, published in 1889.

Vignoles rail

In 1836 he suggested the use, on the London and Croydon Railway, of a flat bottomed rail, first invented by the American, R.L.Stevens in 1830 (but rolled in British steel works), with which his name has become associated as Vignoles rail. It became popular on the continent, becoming known as Vignoles rail, but was not used widely in the Britain and Ireland until the 20th century.


He became a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1827, and its 15th President in 1869.[5] He became a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society on 9 January 1829.

In 1841, he had become the first Professor of Civil Engineering at University College, London and in 1855 was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and published Observations on the Floridas (1823, with valuable map).

In 1855 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also a founder member of the Photographic Society of London, served in 1855 as a member of the royal commission on the Ordnance Survey, and was connected with the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Institution.


  1. ^ K. R. Fairclough, 'Vignoles, Charles Blacker (1793–1 875)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [ accessed 12 Jan 2008]
  2. ^ Ransom, P.J.G., (1990) The Victorian Railway and How it Evolved, London: Heinemann Ltd.
  3. ^ Dow, G., (1959) Great Central, Volume One: The Progenitors (1813-1863), Shepperton: Ian Allan Ltd.
  4. ^ Simmons, J., (1995 ppb ed) The Victorian Railways, London: Thames and Hudson
  5. ^ Watson, Garth (1988), The Civils, London: Thomas Telford Ltd, p. 251, ISBN 0-727-70392-7 

External links

Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
Charles Hutton Gregory
President of the Institution of Civil Engineers
December 1869 – December 1871
Succeeded by
Thomas Hawksley

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