Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: COMMENCE ENGINEERING. 1837—38. Æt. 17—18. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER VI.: COMMENCE ENGINEERING. 1837—38. Æt. 17—18. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Even in the absence of letters I should have known that I arrived in London on the 8th of November, 1837; for the next day furnished an incident which fixes the date. The Queen, who had but lately succeeded to the throne and was not yet crowned, dined with the Lord Mayor in the City on the 9th of November; and the occasion called for a State-pageant. To see this I was, the morning after my arrival, taken by my uncle and the friends he was visiting in London. It was the only royal procession, or display of allied kind, which I ever saw.
The office of Mr. Charles Fox, in which I was for an interval to pass most of my days, was at the Chalk Farm Station. It is no longer extant; having been demolished to make room for the North London Railway, which crosses the Hampstead Road and enters the station just over its site. Here I presented myself on the 10th, and made acquaintance of some who were to be my companions. On the day after came my first experience of railway travelling, gained during an excursion with Mr. Fox as far as Tring—the point to which the London and Birmingham Railway, as it was then called, was open. Locomotion was less rapid than it is now. In the course of our journey, Mr. Fox took out his watch, and, noting the passing of the mile-posts, calculated that we were going at 30 miles an hour, which he thought a high speed. Nor was the rolling-stock at that time much like what it is at the present time. The engines used on the London and Birmingham lines had but four wheels, and weighed only ten tons. The first-class carriages were, as nearly as might be, made to represent three coach-bodies joined together; and, in pursuance of the tacit desire to repeat coaching usages, every first-class carriage had a guard’s seat on the outside at each end: an arrangement which did not cease until a guard was killed by collision with the arch of a bridge, while inadvertently standing on the roof of a carriage. The second-class carriages, evidently intended to simulate the outsides of coaches as much as was practicable, had no sides, and were covered by roofs supported on vertical iron rods, so that the wind and rain could blow through from side to side.
Bradshaw’s Guide, too, was not yet—did not commence till the autumn of 1838, when it made its appearance in the shape of some three or four leaves. There have been disputes as to the date of its origin, but I speak from definite remembrance.
Already it has been stated that Mr. Charles Fox, who, fourteen years after, became well known as the designer and constructor of the Exhibition-Building of 1851, and was afterwards knighted, had been a pupil of my father; and there has also been named the fact, that in 1834, I had, in company with my father and mother, paid a visit to him at Watford, where he filled the post of sub-engineer. From this post he had some time after been transferred by Mr. Robert Stephenson, the engineer-in-chief, to superintend under him the construction of what was in those days known as “The Extension.” For the London and Birmingham Railway was originally intended to stop at Chalk Farm; and only in pursuance of an afterthought was it lengthened to Euston Square. Mr. Charles Fox’s faculty had, probably, soon made itself manifest to Mr. Stephenson. He had no special discipline fitting him for engineering—very little mathematical training or allied preparation; but in place of it he had a mechanical genius. Much of the work on “The Extension” for which Stephenson got credit, was originated by him: among other things, the iron roof at Euston Station, which was the first of the kind ever made. After the Extension was finished he was appointed resident engineer of the London division of the line: his limit being Wolverton. Parts of this division were still incomplete; and beyond the completion of these there devolved on him much business with contractors—measuring up work and making small surveys. He had, possibly, represented to the directors that his time was unduly absorbed in these details; for it was to undertake them that I was appointed. He had seen something of me during our visit at Watford in 1834, and possibly the fact that I had surprised a pupil of his, Mr. Frank Conder, by solving a problem in trigonometry he set me by way of test, gave him some confidence in my ability to discharge these not very difficult duties. The salary was only £80 a year, with a prospect of increase to £150; but for a youth of 17 this was not amiss: especially considering that the post gave valuable opportunities of obtaining information and undergoing discipline.
My chief companion at first was Mr. George Harris, a pupil of Mr. Fox. Our occupations were scarcely distinguishable. Many not unpleasant days were passed together during the winter and early spring in surveying at various parts of the line. It was, indeed, disagreeable in muddy weather to make measurements of “spoil-banks,” as are technically called the vast heaps of earth which have, here and there, been in excess of the needs for making embankments, and have been run out into adjacent fields; and it was especially annoying when, in pelting rain, the blackened water from one’s hat dripped on to the note-book. The office-work, too, as may be inferred from the tastes implied by the account of my education, came not amiss. There was scope for accuracy and neatness, to which I was naturally inclined; and there was opportunity for inventiveness. So fully, indeed, did the kind of work interest me, that I shortly began to occupy the evenings in making a line-drawing of a pumping engine for my own satisfaction, and as a sample of skill as a draughtsman.
Letters show that I was quite alive to the responsibilities of my post, and resolute to succeed. During the whole of this sojourn in London, lasting over six months, I never went to a place of amusement; nor ever read a novel or other work of light literature. Evenings not spent in drawing or in calls on friends, were devoted to rambles about London; and these, of course, were interesting to a youth of my age and inexperience. One incident attendant on these rambles remains with me. To my great astonishment I found myself in a large square lighted with oil lamps: the time being one when the use of gas was almost universal, and when, indeed, in provincial towns like Derby, oil lamps had practically disappeared. This square was Grosvenor Square. It struck me as curiously significant that in this centre of fashionable life there should still survive the old system of illumination when it had elsewhere been replaced by a better.
Letters to my father now written, recall letters written from Hinton during my boyhood, in the respect that considerable spaces in them are occupied by mathematical questions and other spaces by suggested inventions or improvements. One dated about Christmas contains a demonstration of a theorem in conic sections, and another some speculations—very crude ones indeed—respecting the relation between pressure and expansion of steam, and the relation of the two to temperature. In a letter of February 7, I find the passage:—
“You will very likely recollect that while I was in Derby I made many experiments on the formation of curves, and some of them, of which you first suggested the idea, were formed by the motion of a line of a given length through a fixed point; one end being moved according to some particular conditions and the other end describing some peculiar curve.”
There follows an example of such a curve, with the sketch of a suggested instrument for utilizing the idea. A page of a letter of March 10 is occupied by solutions of problems my father had sent, and another page by a calculation he requested me to make of the allowance for curvature of the Earth in levelling. Then, later on in the spring, come accounts of improved methods of keeping the note-book of a survey and of ranging straight lines.
This tendency to independent thinking had, as at Hinton, disagreeable concomitants. On one occasion Mr. Fox passed some criticisms upon my tendency to differ from companions, and from officials with whom I had dealings. Unhappily the particular case which led to the expostulation was one in which, because of my better mathematical culture, my disagreement with an official was well warranted. The effect would have been greater had I been proved wrong.
Towards the end of May came a change in my occupation and place of abode; as is shown by the following passage from a letter home dated Wembly, near Harrow, June 12:—
“You will see by the date of this letter that I am not at present staying in London. I have now been down in the country rather more than three weeks, where I am staying as the Company’s Agent to superintend the completion of the approach roads to the Harrow Road bridge. My duties consist in seeing that the contractor fulfils the terms of the contract, and also to take care that when he draws money on account he does not get more than an equivalent for the work done. . . . I have now a good deal of time for study, &c., and I am making pretty good use of it. The inclosed  solutions of problems on the second book of Chambers [Euclid] I made out in one morning whilst seated under one of the arches of the bridge, where I had taken shelter from the rain. . . . I went to London a few days after I came and got a drawing-board, paper, &c., and commenced the drawing of a locomotive engine for myself. The drawing which I am copying is merely in lines, but the drawing which I am doing I have commenced colouring and shall finish in about a fortnight.”
In July my father spent a week with me at Wembly, pleasantly relieving for a time the monotony of the life. As is implied by several passages in letters, this was a good deal felt. The following is dated August 3.
“I am sorry to say that from all I can see I shall continue here some time longer. Since you went we have commenced curing the slips which you saw when you were here. I have had them almost entirely under my own management. . . . We had an accident close by here a few days ago. An engine with a train of sheep ran off the line. . . . I was on the spot very soon after the accident and remained until the engine was got on again about 11 o’clock at night. . . . I was very much struck with the promptness and tact which Mr. Fox displayed in the management of the concern. The appearance of things was more altered for the better in 10 minutes after he had turned to, than it had been for an hour before.”
Then followed sketches of an appliance by which I proposed to make some kinds of sewing “much easier, more expeditious, and perhaps neater.” Before the close comes the sentence:—
“In your next letter send me word what are your ideas about the revolution of the magnetic pole. Do you think it has any connexion with the precession of the equinoxes?”
Evidently the characteristic excursiveness of thought was continuing and perhaps increasing.
An amusing adventure experienced during my stay at Wembly is worth narrating. Mr. Fox wished to have a survey of the Wolverton Station, in preparation, probably, for enlargement. Harris and I were sent down one day early in August to make this survey; and we completed it before evening set in. Wolverton, being then the temporary terminus, between which and Rugby the traffic was carried on by coaches, was the place whence the trains to London started. The last of them was the mail, leaving somewhere about 8. If I remember rightly there were at that time only five trains in the day, and there were none at night. A difficulty arose. This mail-train did not stop between Watford and London, but I wished to stop at the intermediate station—Harrow: that being the nearest point to Wembly. It turned out that there was at the Wolverton Station no vehicle having a brake to it—nothing available but a coach-truck. Being without alternative, I directed the station-master to attach this to the train. After travelling with my companion in the usual way until we reached Watford, I bade him good-night and got into the coach-truck. Away the train went into the gloom of the evening, and for some six or seven miles I travelled unconcernedly: knowing the objects along the line well, and continually identifying my whereabouts. Presently we reached a bridge about a mile and half to the north of Harrow Station—the Dove-house Bridge, I think it was then called. Being quite aware that the line at this point, and throughout a long distance in advance, falls towards London at the rate of 1 in 330; I expected that the coach-truck, having no brake, would take a long time to stop. A mile and a half would, it seemed, be sufficient allowance; and on coming to the said bridge I uncoupled the truck and sat down. In a few seconds I got up again to see whether all the couplings were unhooked; for, to my surprise, the coach-truck seemed to be going on with the train. There was no coupling left unhooked, however, and it became clear that I had allowed an insufficient distance for the gradual arrest. Though the incline is quite invisible to the eye, being less than an inch in nine yards, yet its effect was very decided; and the axles being, no doubt, well greased, the truck maintained its velocity. Far from having stopped when Harrow was reached, I was less than a dozen yards behind the train! My dismay as we rushed through the station at some 30 miles an hour may be well imagined. There was the prospect of having to push back the truck after it had stopped; and, judging from the small loss of velocity during the preceding mile and a half, the stoppage seemed likely to be remote enough. There now, however, commenced a cause of retardation which I had not counted upon. From the Dove-house Bridge to the Harrow Station, the line is straight; but immediately after passing the Harrow Station it enters upon a curve. Of course the result in this case was that there came into play the friction of the flange of the outer wheel upon the outer rail. A loss of velocity necessarily followed. The train now began rapidly to increase its distance, and shortly disappeared in the gloom. Still, though my speed had diminished, I rushed on at a great pace. Presently, seeing at a little distance in front the light of a lantern, held, I concluded, by a foreman of the plate-layers, who was going back to the station after having seen the last train pass, I shouted to him; thinking that if he would run at the top of his speed he might perhaps catch hold of the waggon and gradually arrest it. He, however, stood staring; too much astonished, even if he understood me, and, as I learned next day, when he reached Harrow Station reported that he had met a man in a newly-invented carriage which had run away with him! Failing this method of bringing by undesired journey to an end, there arose the thought of trying to stop the truck myself. I unfastened one of the cross-bars (used to steady a carriage placed on the truck), and tried to press the end of it against the tyre of the wheel. I soon found, however, that this necessitated leaning over so much that I should be in danger of tumbling out, and gave up the attempt.
After being carried some two miles beyond the Harrow Station, I began rather to rejoice that the truck was going so far; for I remembered that at no great distance in advance was the Brent siding—a place, just to the north of the Brent embankment, where a line of rails diverged from the main line into a side-cutting, and into which the truck might easily be pushed instead of pushing it back to Harrow. I looked with satisfaction to this prospect; entertaining no doubt that the waggon would come to rest in time. By and by, however, it became clear that the truck would not only reach this siding but pass it; and then came not a little alarm, for a mile or so further on was the level crossing at Willesden: Willesden being at that time a village having no station, and the level crossing (where there is now a bridge) serving merely to give continuity to a quiet lane. I knew that after the last train had passed, the level-crossing-gate would be closed against the line; and that if the truck went on as it was going it would run full tilt against the gate, and I should probably be thrown out and killed. However, there was one saving fact—the incline of 1 in 330, down which the truck was rushing, came to an end some distance before Willesden. I was soon made aware of this fact on reaching the Brent bridge; for the truck then began to slacken speed, and finally came to a stand in the middle of the embankment crossing of the Brent valley.
Here was I then, between 9 and 10 at night, with this truck far away from any station, and having to provide for the safety of the line next morning. I forthwith walked on to the level crossing at Willesden and aroused the man in charge. He came to the window of his bedroom and listened sceptically for some time to my statement: thinking it was an attempt to hoax him. However, on telling him that if a train was thrown off in the morning he would be responsible for the result, he believed, dressed himself and came out, walked with me along the line to the place where the truck was standing, and joined me in pushing it back to the siding. But the adventure was not ended. It happened that the switch leading into this siding was a peculiar one; and, not being aware of the peculiarity, we ran the truck off the rails. Here seemed a still greater dilemma. However, by our united efforts, helping ourselves with sleepers lying at hand and using a cross-bar of the truck as a lever, we finally heaved the truck on to the rails again, and, pushing it into the siding, blocked it safely. I then made the best of my way to the farm-house at Wembly in which I was staying: arriving there between 12 and 1 o’clock in the morning. Of course the incident was not kept a secret by those who were witnesses; and, as may be imagined, caused a good deal of laughter at my expense.
Something much more important to me, though less amusing to the reader, soon after happened. A letter to my father dated Wembly, August 23, runs thus:—
“I have got capital news for you and I have no doubt that you will rejoice with me in my improved prospects. Mr. Fox has just made me an offer to go on to the Gloucester and Birmingham Railway at a salary of £120 yearly, and says he has little doubt but I should soon be raised to £200 per annum. The situation at first would be one of a draughtsman, and if found competent I should be raised to a sub-assistant engineership. As an additional encouragement, and a very flattering compliment to me, Mr. Fox pointed out the instance of Conder [a pupil of his while he was at Watford] who has been some time holding a situation of £200 a year [on the Birmingham and Gloucester] ‘although,’ Mr. Fox said, ‘he has not got his wits about him nearly as much as you have.’ I also hear very pleasing accounts of Captain Moorsom, the head Engineer of the railway, whom I shall be under. Mr. Fox says he is one of the nicest men that he knows; a real gentleman, and a benevolent, good-hearted man. Before I heard all the particulars I was very much inclined to refuse it, because I should so much have preferred to remain with Mr. Fox; but as he said, the number of officers employed on the railway will be gradually diminishing, and my present situation would most likely not last long. . . . I am still busy at the Harrow-Road bridge and have had almost the entire management of the slips. Mr. Eastted [the contractor] has been from home nearly all the time and when he has been here he has not interfered with me. All the slips are now very nearly cured. I have had about 80 men under me for the last month.”
It was agreed on all hands that the offer was one to be accepted, and arrangements were presently made for my departure.
To complete the narrative I ought to name my last piece of work before leaving London. A letter to my father thus describes it:—
“Mr. Fox has lately been appointed consulting engineer to the Greenwich Railway; and Harris happening to be very unwell at the time, I had to make surveys of the three stations before I came away. I had but four days to do the last two in and make the plans as well, so you may imagine that I had not much spare time.”
None of the railways from the South and East were then existing. That which has now become a channel into which pour various large streams of traffic, was then nothing but an isolated few miles of line, evidently in a very unprosperous condition, with scanty and mean rolling stock, and termini not much larger than the existing stations at Deptford and Spa Road. Enlargements or improvements were to be made under Mr. Fox’s supervision.
After finishing the plans of these stations and handing them to Mr. Fox, I bade good-bye to him and to my companions in the office at Camden Town, and left London for Worcester on the 24th September, 1838.