1. Samuel Crompton (Bolton)


The inventor of the (unpatented) spinning mule, Crompton died poor and unremarked in 1827. Posthumously he rose to fame, thanks initially to Gilbert French, a local antiquarian who, in 1859, published his biography. French’s championing of Crompton inspired Bolton’s workers to fund the bronze statue by William Calder Marshall, unveiled in the town in 1862. Bolton’s centenary celebrations in 1927 included a children’s pageant, which culminated in a song, inviting “Ye Men of Crompton’s Native Town… [to] Sound his Fame Across the Earth”. Crompton’s childhood home, Hall i’ th’ Wood is now open to the public.

2. Matthew Boulton (Birmingham)

Boulton was at least as prominent in life as Watt, yet has posthumously been overshadowed, even in his home town of Birmingham. Boulton’s entrepreneurial and inventive talents (especially his coining machinery, supplied to numerous European mints) would not be so well remembered today without Watt’s steam engines. The centenary of his death in 1909 passed with little fanfare, but this year’s bicentenary celebration promises to make amends. In 1956, Birmingham commissioned William Bloye’s bronze Conversazione, in which the life-size figures of Boulton, Watt and William Murdoch discuss an engineering drawing. In 1995, Boulton’s home, Soho House, was opened as a museum to him and his Lunar Society friends.

3. Abraham Darby (Ironbridge)

Born in Wren’s Nest (Worcs) in 1678, Darby’s prime association is with Coalbrookdale, where in 1709 he reputedly invented the smelting of iron with (coked) coal, and founded a major iron-making dynasty. The greatest monument to his achievements is the world’s first iron bridge, which has spanned the Severn Gorge at Coalbrookdale since 1779. Its inter-locking parts were cast in the Darby foundry, which by then had passed to his grandson, Abraham Darby III (1750–89). Since 1967 the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust has preserved the remains of industry in the gorge by establishing several highly innovative museums. This year it is celebrating the 300th anniversary of Darby’s invention.

4. James Watt (Glasgow)

By 1834, Glasgow boasted three statues of Watt, two the product of public subscriptions, one the gift of James Watt Junior to the university. Between 1864 and 1906, five more statues were privately commissioned for the city’s buildings. Glasgow’s engineering societies hold an annual James Watt Anniversary Dinner; Glasgow University named its engineering laboratories after him, and in 1919 marked the centenary of his death by establishing two James Watt chairs of engineering, funded chiefly by Scottish engineers.

5. George Stephenson (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

George and his son, Robert, were born on Tyneside and lived most of their lives there; their locomotive workshops (Robert Stephenson & Co) were a major employer. The city’s chief monument to George, erected in 1862, stands in Neville Street, appropriately close to the railway station. Some 70,000 people attended the inauguration festivities. In 1881, Newcastle celebrated the centenary of his birth even more grandly, with exhibitions, lectures, fireworks, a public breakfast to launch a ‘Stephenson scholarship’ fund and a procession of 16 locomotives from the central station to his birthplace at Wylam and back. Stephenson’s birthplace is now in the care of the National Trust.

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6. Richard Trevithick (Camborne)

Allegedly saved from a pauper’s funeral by his fellow workers in Dartford (Kent) in 1833, Trevithick was rediscovered when the Institution of Civil Engineers launched a subscription for a memorial window in Westminster Abbey to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. That window now features Cornish symbols and four angels, each holding a drawing of a Trevithick invention – including ‘Railway locomotive, 1808’. On Christmas Eve 1901, Camborne celebrated the centenary of the steam road locomotive, the Puffing Devil’s journey through the town. This inaugurated Camborne’s annual ‘Trevithick Day’, which in 2001 featured a full-scale replica of the Puffing Devil. Since 1932, a statue of Trevithick has stood in front of the town hall.

7. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Bristol)

Although born in Portsmouth, Brunel has been claimed by Bristol, which in 2006 celebrated his ‘200th birthday’ with year-long festivities, centred on his Clifton Suspension Bridge, Temple Meads station, and the SS Great Britain museum. Famous in his lifetime, especially for the Thames tunnel, the Great Western Railway, and three ocean-going steam-ships, Brunel’s star faded after his death in 1859. Its revival began in 1957 with LTC Rolt’s outstanding biography, which stimulated concern for the SS Great Britain, beached in the Falkland islands 20 years earlier. Her rusty hull was towed back into Bristol’s Great Western Dock in 1970 and restored to her former glory, as a museum.


Christine MacLeod