Sunday, October 24, 2010

James Edward McConnell

Bury's successor at Wolverton was James Edward McConnell.

James Edward McConnell was born on the 1st January 1815 at Fermoy, County Cork, of Quentin and Elizabeth McConnell, he Scottish born and she English. Quentin was a millwright. After Quentin's early death in 1815 James was sent to Watshouse in Ayrshire into the care of an uncle. He was apprenticed to a Glasgow ironworks in 1828, Claud Girdwood & Co. in which a cousin had an interest. He then went to work at Bury's Clarence Foundry in Liverpool in 1837.

McConnell was certainly a high flyer.  In 1841, at the age of 26, he was appointed Foreman at the Bromsgrove workshops of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. A year later he became Locomotive Superintendent.

Captain C R Moorsom was a director of the B&G Railway and later a director of the L&NWR, and it is likely that it was his influence that secured McConnell the position of Locomotive Superintendent at Wolverton to succeed Edward Bury in 1847. And so, at the age of 32, he moved into Wolverton Park House with his family. He was paid £700 per annum, considerably less than Bury, but a very good annual income for the time - about the starting salary for a schoolteacher in 1970!

McConnell had his detractors:
Some of his new colleagues recorded their impressions of McConnell. David Stevenson, the Camden Goods Manager, described him as "a strong and determined man of the rough sort." Robert Benson Dockray, the LNWR Engineer wrote in his diary: "There is no doubt of his being intellectually a very clever man, full of energy, but he has some sad moral blemishes which will always prevent his occupying the position he otherwise could do. He is cunning and wants straightforwardness." Superintendent Bruyeres also said McConnell was not straighforward and "works for his own department as though it were not part of the general concern." The anonymous writer in the railway papers of the 1840s who signed himself 'Veritas Vincit' had some very caustic things to say about McConnell: "this youthful superintendent has an immeasurable conceit of his own talents" (April 1843); his "usual flurried manner in giving directions" (April 1845); there "is not a locomotive superintendent in the kingdom who has wasted more money or failed in his attempts at improvement ... pushing himself forward in the company of men of talent, hearing their opinions on scientific subjects, and advancing them in other quarters as his own. This is no secret, it is often alluded to." He "knows nothing but what he copies, and what he does copy is usually fallacious" (February 1847). The last outburst was prompted by hearing about McConnell's appointment to the LNWR, which had completely astonished 'Veritas Vincit'. He thought the appointment had to be because of some private motive - "it cannot have been based on the qualifications of McConnell." (Harry Jack. Locomotives of the LNWR Southern Division
Nevertheless he was a young man full of energy and determined to make changes. He recommended the scrapping of a lot of older engines and proposed that Wolverton should manufacture rather than simply repair engine. The Board agreed.

McConnell's energyand drive for efficiency created labour problems. In 1848 the footplatemen went on strike over reduced pay and McConnell replaced them with untrained blacklegs. He prevailed, but with a loss of goodwill and his deputy who publicly criticised him for his lack of concern about the safety hazards of employing unskilled drivers.

McConnell's lasting legacy was the building of bigger and faster engines, including the "bloomers", which I will discuss in the next post. He also presided over the locomotive building years - an activity which carried more glamour than the building of carriages, such as increasingly happened after he left. His nemesis was Richard Moon, who became Deputy Chairman after the death of McConnell's patron, Admiral Moorsom in 1861. Moon was strongly in favour of rationalising workshop activities between Wolverton and Crewe, and eventually got his way. A report submitted to the Board in 1862 was very critical of McConnell and on February 20th 1862 he submitted his resignation.

He then moved with his family to Great Missenden  and rented an office in Westminster, from where he worked as a consulting engineer, producing designs for a number of railway companies.

Despite his confrontational beginnings in Wolverton he appears to have developed into a respected citizen. He promoted education and was probably responsible for ensuring that the Science and Art Institute was completed. He also fostered a savings bank and encouraged sporting activities.

In 1883, at the age of 68, he fell ill and died on 11th June from heart failure and pneumonia. he was by now a well-to-do man. His personal estate, according to is will, was valued at £28,097 9s 7d - a large sum of money in 1883

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