Monday, February 9, 2015

Another 200th anniversary

2015 seems to be popular for centenaries. We have Agincourt and waterloo to start with, but 1815 was also of some importance to Wolverton, for it was the year that James Edward McConnell was born.

He also contrived to enter this world at the very beginning of the year - January 1st.

He was born in Fermoy, County Cork in Ireland, where his father had a successful ironworks, so the young McConnell was born into this new industry. However he was not to grow up at his father's right hand, so to speak, because he was left fatherless in 1819 at the age of four. He was then packed off to an uncle in Ayrshire.

He began his career with a Glasgow company, Girdwood and Co and in time progressed to become a foreman, and later superintendent at a Liverpool company, Vernon and Co. It was probably here that he came to the attention of Edward Bury, who proposed him as engineer for the Bristol and Birmingham Railway in 1842. Only five years later, in 1847, he succeeded his old mentor Edward Bury as locomotive Superintendent at Wolverton.

His career at Wolverton has become legendary. He was able to design stronger and faster locomotives than the rather primitive beasts of the 1830s and 1840s and one of his designs, the famous "Bloomer" captured national attention. For those who don't know the story, the name Bloomer came from Amelia Bloomer, a lady who adopted, and made fashionable, shorter skirts, more suitable for an active woman than the heavy crinolines. McConnell's "bloomers" likewise had the top half of the wheel covered by a "skirt."

The real value of the engines lay not in their appearance but in their efficiency, and therefore their speed and strength,

McConnell wa superintendant at Wolverton for 15 years and oversaw a remarkable engine building program. In 1862 he had differences with Sir Richard Moon, the bustling new chairman of the LNWR and resigned. Locomotive building and design did not really survive McConnell. Wolverton largely returned to its original function as a maintenance depot for the next decade until the LNWR workshops were rationalised in the early 1870s. Wolverton henceforth became a carriage works, while locomotive building was concentrated at Crewe.

By coincidence, this year is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Moon, who was born in Liverpool on February 23rd.

McConnell lived at Wolverton Park House during his Wolverton years. After 1862 he moved to a large house in Great Missenden and continued his career as a consultant engineer for various domestic and foreign railways.

He died in 1883.

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