Review of ‘Benjamin Outram’, by R.B. Schofield

This review is by Julie Bunting, and was published originally in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 5th March 2001, and is reproduced with Julie's kind permission.

by R.B. Schofield
Published by Merton Priory Press
ISBN 1-898937-42-7 (hardback) (2001)

This new specialist title comes from Merton Priory Press, publishers of the award-winning History of Derbyshire (Peak Advertiser 5 June 2000). Benjamin Outram played a major role in canal development but until now - partly because he died comparatively young - he has been a far more a shadowy figure than his contemporaries Arkwright and Jessop.

Professor Schofield has dug deep to bring together one man's remarkable achievements in what is essentially an engineering biography. Locally we can connect Benjamin Outram with work on the Peak Forest Canal and Cromford Canal and also Butterley iron works which he established alongside the latter. During canvassing for support for the Cromford Canal bill the 25-year-old Outram was described as being 'full fraught with knowledge of the Derwent and knows to a fraction what every dam contains'. Further afield his engineering skills lay behind construction of canals in the East Midlands, the north-west, South Wales, Huddersfield Narrow Canal and a major trans-Pennine route.

Front Cover

Outram had the advantage of being a natural negotiator and was not above appealing to a man's patriotism in haggling over a price for work 'of national importance'. Unfortunately at the start of his career he fell foul of Richard Arkwright who exacted some small revenge against the brilliant younger man and who, incidentally, does not come out of the whole story at all well.

Outram's work on early railways is recognised as a milestone in transport technology. Railways built to his own 'improved plan' included the 1.5-mile Crich railway, linking limestone quarries with Cromford Canal, and the 6-mile Peak Forest railway. Rails supplied by his Butterley works were laid from Bugsworth to Dove Hole quarries - a world away from London Docks, where Outram's company won an unusual railway contract. He also held far-reaching ideas for regional railway networks to provide long-distance transport, looking beyond the current use of horse-drawn railways for on-site transport for such as coal and quarry products. In 1799 he wrote: '... it is exceedingly probable that railways will soon become general for the transport of merchandise throughout the commercial parts of the Kingdom ...' Professor Outram observes that in the promotion of his ideas to the unduly cautious, Benjamin Outram was too far ahead of his time.

At his death Outram lived at Butterley Hall with wife Margaret and five children, one born each year following his marriage in 1800. Prospects looked rosy but Margaret's faith that 'fortune would place us on the highest pinnacle' were to be sadly dashed when Benjamin's financial interests were revealed following his death in 1805. His personal debts were entangled with the finances of his company, from which he had made excessive borrowings against potential future prosperity. Such misjudgments are, however, placed in their true perspective in this professional appraisal of one of the outstanding civil engineers of his generation.

Review by Julie Bunting

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