Page images
PDF
EPUB

caused me to be much surprised when I learned that he was there solely to make the working drawings for the handrails of the principal staircase, and to superintend their proper execution. I remember hearing this gentleman speaking in praise of James Silk Buckingham as one of the most remarkable men and prolific writers of the day. Some six years later, I think, I heard a lecture in London by J. S. Buckingham on some of his travels, and the impression made upon me then was, and still is, that he was the best lecturer I ever heard, the most fluent and interesting speaker.

Our work here was mainly copying maps or making surveys connected with the estate, and for this purpose we had the use of a small empty house nearly opposite the inn, where a large drawing-table and a few chairs and stools were all the furniture we required. Here we used sometimes to sit of a summer's evening with one or two friends for privacy and quiet conversation, Mr. Clephan, the architect, and his clerk being our most frequent companions. My brother supplied them with gin-and-water and pipes, and I sat by reading a book or listening to their discourse. Sometimes they would tell each other stories of odd incidents they had met with, or discuss problems in philosophy, science, or politics. When jovially inclined, the architect's clerk would sing songs, many of which were of such an outrageously gross character that my brother would beg him to be more cautious so as not to injure the morals of youth. At one time, when Mr. Clephan was away, there was a fire at a farm quite near us which burnt some stacks and outbuildings, and caused considerable excitement in the village. We only heard of it early in the morning when the local fireengine had at length succeeded in putting it out. My brother wrote an account of this to Mr. Clephan, with humorous descriptions of the sayings and doings of the chief village characters, and, in reference to what we saw when it was nearly all over, he said, “It could best be described in a well-known line from the Latin grammar, “Monstrum, horrendum, informe, ingens cui lumen ademptum,' which might be freely rendered, 'a horrid shapeless mass whose glim the engines dowse.'” He used to show me any letters he thought might interest me, and this "free translation" took my schoolboy fancy so that it has stuck in my memory.

One day, having to drive over to Dunstable on some business, my brother took me with him. When there, we walked out to a deep cutting through the chalk about a mile to the north-west, where the road was being improved by further excavation to make the ascent easier. This was the great mail-coach road to Birmingham and Holyhead, and although the railway from London to Birmingham was then making and partly finished, nobody seemed to imagine that in twelve years more a railway would be opened the whole distance, and, so far as the mails and all through traffic were concerned, all such costly improvement of the high-roads would be quite unnecessary.

My brother had some conversation with the engineer who was inspecting the work, and took a lump of chalk home with him to ascertain its specific gravity, as to which there was some difference of opinion. While taking luncheon at the hotel we met a gentleman of about my brother's age, who turned out to be a surveyor, and who was also interested in engineering and science generally; and after luncheon they borrowed a small pair of scales and a large jug of water, and by suspending the chalk by a thread below the scale-pan, they weighed it in water, having first weighed it dry in the ordinary way, and the weight in air, divided by the difference between the weights in air and water, gives the specific gravity sufficiently near for ordinary purposes. This little experiment interested me greatly, and made me wish to know something about mechanics and physics. Mr. Matthews lived at Leighton Buzzard, where he carried on the business of watch-and-clock maker as well as that of engineer and surveyor. He had undertaken the survey of the parish of Soulbury, but having too much other work to attend to, he was looking out for some one to take it off his hands. This matter was soon agreed upon, and a few weeks afterwards we left Silsoe to begin the work.

The village of Soulbury is a very small one, though the parish is rather large. It is only three miles from Leighton, and we obtained accommodation in the school-house, a rather large red-brick house, situated at the further end of the village, where three roads met. It was occupied only by the schoolmaster and his sister, who kept house for him, so we had the advantage of a little society in a rather lonely place. They were both young people and fairly educated, but, as I thought even then, rather commonplace. The chief business of the village girls hereabouts was straw-plaiting, which they did sitting at their cottage doors, or walking about in the garden or in the lanes near, which therefore did not interfere with their getting fresh air and healthy exercise, as do all forms of factory work. Now, owing to cheap inported plait, the only work is in hat and bonnet-sewing, which involves indoor work, and is therefore less healthy as a constant occupation.

The district was rather an interesting one. The parish was crossed about its centre by the small river Ouzel, a tributary of the Quse, bordered by flat verdant meadows, beyond which the ground rose on both sides into low hills, which to the north-east reached five hundred feet above the sea, and being of a sand formation, were covered with heaths and woods of fir trees. Parallel with the river was the Grand Junction Canal, which at that time carried all the heavy goods from the manufacturing districts of the Midlands to London. Following the same general direction, but about half a mile west on higher ground, the London and Birmingham Railway was in course of construction, a good deal of the earthwork being completed, most of the bridges built or building, and the whole country enlivened by the work going on.

At the same time the canal had been improved at great cost to enable it to carry the increased trade that had been caused by the rapid growth of London and the prosperity of agriculture during the early portion of the nineteenth century. About thirty miles further on the watershed between the river-basins of the Ouse and Severn had to be crossed, a district of small rainfall and scanty streams, from

which the whole supply of the canal, both for its locks as well as for evaporation and leakage, had to be drawn. Whenever there was a deficiency of water here to float the barges and fill the locks, traffic was checked till the canal filled again ; and this had become so serious that, for a considerable portion of the canal, it had been found necessary to erect steamengines to pump up the water at every lock from the lower to the higher level. Sometimes there were two, three, or more locks close together, and in these cases a more powerful engine was erected to pump the water the greater height. Up to this time I had never seen a steam-engine, and therefore took the greatest interest in examining these both at rest and at work. They had been all erected by the celebrated firm of Boulton and Watt, and were all of the low-pressure type then in use, with large cylinders, overhead beam, and parallel motion, but each one having its special features, the purport of which was explained to me by my brother, and gave me my first insight into some of the more important applications of the sciences of mechanics and physics.

Of course at that time nobody foresaw the rapid development of railways all over the country, or imagined that they could ever compete with canals in carrying heavy goods. Yet within two years after the completion of the line to Birmingham, the traffic of the canal had decreased to 1,000,000 tons, while it was 1,100,000 tons in 1837. Afterwards it began slowly to rise again, and had reached 1,627,000 tons in 1900, an exceedingly small increase as compared with that of the railway. And this increase is wholly due to local traffic between places adjacent to the canal.

In the northern part of the parish, which extended nearly to the village of Great Brickhill, were some curious dry valleys with flat bottoms, and sides clothed with fir woods, a kind of country I had not yet seen, and which impressed me as showing some connection between the geological formation of the country and its physical features, though it was many years later when, by reading Lyell's “Principles of Geology,” I first understood why it should be so. Another interesting feature of the place, which no one then saw the significance of, was a large mass of hard conglomerate rock, or pudding-stone, which lay in the centre of the spot where the three roads met in front of the house where we lodged. It was roughly about a yard in diameter and about the same height, and had probably at some remote period determined the position of the village and the meeting-point of the three roads. Being a kind of rock quite different from any found in that part of England, it was probably associated with some legend in early time, but it is in all probability a relic of the ice-age, and was brought by the glacier or ice-sheet that at one time extended over all midland England as far as the Thames valley. But at this time not a single British geologist knew anything about a glacial epoch, it being two years later, in 1840, when Louis Agassiz showed Dr. Buckland such striking indications of ice-action in Scotland as to convince him of the reality of such a development of glaciers in our own country at a very recent period.

When we had completed our field-work, we moved into Leighton Buzzard, and lodged in the house of a tin-andcopper-smith in the middle of the town, where we completed the mapping and other work of the survey. Our landlord was a little active man with black hair and eyes and dark complexion. He told us that whenever his trade was slack he could make small tin mugs at a penny each and earn a fair living, as there was an inexhaustible demand for them. He was a very intelligent man, and he made the same objection to the success of the railway that had been made by many mechanics and engineers before him. This was, that the hold of the engine on the rails would not be sufficient to draw heavy trucks or carriages—that, in fact, the wheels would whizz round instead of going on, as they do sometimes now when starting a heavy train on greasy rails. He and others did not allow sufficiently for the weight of modern engines, which gives such pressure on the wheels as to produce ample friction or adhesion between iron and iron, though apparently smooth and slippery. This question used to be discussed in the old Mechanics' Magazine, and it was again and again

« EelmineJätka »