Text made available at Grace's Guide under the terms of the CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence, but with paragraphing, notes (shown in brackets), and page numbers (in square brackets) from the original copy in the Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineering (see bibliography). Please click on the illustrations for fuller information about them, and to see larger versions of them. Formatted and illustrated for this website by Jacqueline Banerjee, in memory of its founder, George Landow, who loved trains and railway engineering.

Note: The obituary fails to mention that Rastrick was also very much a family man, having married Sarah, née Jarvis, at Codshall, Staffordshire, on 24 December 1810. The couple had "at least four sons and two daughters" (Boase and Kirby). His third son, Frederick James Rastrick (1819-1897), emigrated to Canada, and settled in Hamilton, Ontario, where he became an important architect.

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R. JOHN URPETH RASTRIK was born at Morpeth, in the county of Northumberland, on the 26th day of January, 1780. He was the eldest son of Mr. John Rastrick, who was an engineer and machinist of great ingenuity, principally employed in the construction of weirs, mills, and bridges, on the mountain streams of the neighbourhood. He claimed the invention of the treadwheel for prisons, and it is possible, that he may have designed a similar machine, before it was introduced by Mr. (now Sir William) Cubitt, to whom the invention is with strict justice ascribed. At the age of fifteen, young Rastrick was articled to his Father. At this period he was remarked among his associates, for the possession of great energy of purpose, untiring perseverance, clearness of intellect, and sound mechanical and mathematical knowledge. At about the age of twenty-one he went southward, to gain experience as a machinist and millwright, particularly in the introduction of cast iron for machinery, then almost in its infancy. He remained for some time at the Ketley Iron Works, in Shropshire, and soon after entered into partnership with Mr. Hazeldine, of Bridgnorth, as a mechanical engineer, taking special charge of the iron foundry.

During this partnership, Mr. Rastrick continued to practise, on his own account, as a Civil Engineer, and in the years 1815 and 1816, he built the cast-iron bridge over the river Wye, at Chepstow, which was opened on the 24th July, 1816. The centre arch of this bridge had a span of 112 feet, and a versed sine of 13 feet; the arches on each side of the centre arch were 70 feet span and 10 feet 9 inches rise; and the two side arches had each a span of 34 feet, with a versed sine of 7 feet 3 inches. Economical considerations necessitated the use of part of the foundations of a former bridge, which somewhat interfered with the general symmetry of the appearance of the new bridge; and the immense rise of tide, (48 feet,) and its great rapidity, rendered it a work of no ordinary [128/29] class. The extreme lightness of the cast-iron work of this bridge, and its general details, are remarkable, and rival those of works of more recent construction. Several smaller bridges were also cast and erected in Shropshire under his direction.

The Chepstow Bridge across the Wye, photographed by Ruth Sharville.

On the death of Mr. Hazeldine, about the year 1817, Mr. Rastrick became the managing partner in the firm of Bradley, Foster, Rastrick, and Co., iron-founders and manufacturers of machinery, at Stourbridge, Worcestershire, taking the principal engineering part in the design and construction of rolling-mills, steam-engines, and other large works. At this time he designed and executed many extensive iron works in the Midland Counties, particularly those at Chillington, near Wolverhampton, and at Shut End, near Stourbridge. He was also consulted as to the alteration and extension of many works in Wales.

In January, 1825, Mr. Rastrick was engaged by the promoters of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, along with Mr. George Stephenson, Mr. Sylvester, Mr. Brunton, Mr. Philip Taylor, Mr. W. (now Sir W.) Cubitt, Mr. James Walker, Mr. Nicholas Wood and others, to visit the different collieries in the North of England, with a view of experimenting and reporting upon the tram-roads, and engines at work upon them. For this purpose a series of experiments was made with the locomotive engines on the colliery tramways at Killingworth and Hetton. In the following April, when the Bill for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was before Parliament, he was the first engineering witness called by the Company, in support of their case, which, it will be remembered, was most vehemently opposed by the Canal Companies. On that occasion he stated, that, ten, or twelve years previously, he had made a locomotive engine, for Mr. Trevithick, to run upon a circular railway, but that it was quite capable of being applied on an ordinary railroad; also, that two years before, in 1823, he had seen one at work at the Middleton Colliery, near Leeds, which had a cog wheel, working into a rack rail, at the side, on Blenkinsop’s system. The evidence he gave, to show the powers, advantages, and safety of the locomotive engine, contributed materially to the ultimate successful issue of that remarkable case. The clear and scientific character of his evidence firmly established his professional reputation, and from that time he was employed to design, or to support in Parliament, a large proportion of the principal lines of railway in the United Kingdom.

The locomotive at the Shut (or Shutt) End Colliery. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

In the years 1826 and 1827, he constructed a line of railway, about sixteen miles in length, between Stratford-on-Avon and Moreton in the Marsh. This line is believed to have been the first that was laid with wrought-iron rails, manufactured under the patent of Mr. Birkenshaw, of the Bedlington Iron Works, in Northumberland. Horse power only was used, which is the case [129/30] to this day. In 1828-29, he constructed the Shut End Colliery railway, from Kingswinford to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal, a distance of three miles and an eighth. This line was opened on the 2nd of June, 1829 (An account of the opening of this railway, and of some experiments to test the power of the locomotive engine, is given in the "Mechanics Magazine," vol. xi. (1829), p. 301), with a locomotive engine, built under Mr. Rastrick's superintendence. This engine had two, or three flues in the boiler, and, in economy, speed, and accuracy of workmanship, equalled, if it did not excel, any engine that had been hitherto produced. He also constructed one of the very early locomotives sent from this country to the United States.

When the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was approaching completion, the Directors had to take into consideration the power to be employed upon it, and they soon arrived at the conviction, that horse power was totally inapplicable. The real question was thus reduced to the relative merits and capabilities of fixed and locomotive engines, both of which systems were in use at the time. To determine this point Mr. Rastrick and Mr. James Walker were requested to proceed to Darlington, and the neighbourhood of Newcastle, to inspect the different railways in those districts, and to ascertain, by a thorough investigation into the power of the engines, the cost of working them, and their actual performance, the comparative merits of the two descriptions of moving power. They made separate reports (Vide "Liverpool and Manchester Railway.-Reports to the Directors on the Comparative Merits of Locomotive and Fixed Engines, as a Moving Power." By James Walker and J. U. Rastrick, Esqrs. Svo. Liverpool, 1829), but both agreed in the opinion, that the locomotive engine, as then known, was not equal to the stationary system, which they recommended the Directors to adopt. As, however, some of the Directors had a feeling in favour of the locomotive, in April, 1829, a premium of £500 was offered for the best locomotive engine, subject to certain conditions and stipulations. The 6th of October of the same year was fixed upon for the trial, and the judges appointed were Mr. Rastrick, with Mr. N. Wood and Mr. Kennedy. The reward, as is well known, was in favour of the "Rocket," constructed by Mr. Stephenson, in which were first combined Mr. H. Booth's multitubular boiler, with the exhausting action of the blast-pipe. Subsequently, Mr. Rastrick, in conjulaction with Mr. Hartley, made experiments on three descriptions of carriages, with a view of ascertaining their comparative amount of friction with outside bearings.

About this time he constructed the short branch of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, from Kenyon to Leigh. In the year 1830, he was engaged with the late Mr. George [130/31] Stephenson, in surveying and determining the course of the line from Birmingham to join the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, afterwards called the Grand Junction, and in selecting a line from Manchester to Cbewe. In all the different applications made to Parliament for these lines, Mr. Rastrick was generally associated with Messrs. Stephenson and Locke, until, in 1833, they together succeeded, in carrying the Acts for their respective portions, after a lengthened contest with the Canal Company and the land-owners. Mr. Rastrick was always consistent in laying down, and advocating, a line of railway direct as circumstances and the nature of a district would admit. In the me of this particular railway, he took no part in the application made to Parliament in the following year, to vary the line, by which the cost was somewhat diminished, by increasing the length.

In the year 1835, the Manchester and Cheshire Junction Railway was brought forward, and Mr. Rastrick was appointed Engineer. This line was opposed by a competing project, called the South Union Railway, which led to one of the longest and most expensive contests then on record. After two years of parliamentary inquiry, the Act was obtained for the original line, with those which have since been made in conjunction, under the names of the North Staffordshire, and the Trent Valley Railways.

As the advocate of direct railway communication, Mr. Rastrick's aid was sought, in 1836, by the promoters of the direct Brighton line; and co-operating with Sir John Rennie, they together succeeded in carrying that line, against several conflicting projects, in the session of 1837. Towards the close of that year, the active superintendence of the line, including a branch to Shoreham, vas confided to him; and the numerous heavy works, comprising the Merstham, Balcombe, and Clayton tunnels, and the Ouse viaduct, near Cuckfield, consisting of thirty-seven arches, and crossing the river at an elevation of 100 feet, were completed by the autumn of 1840. Shortly afterwards he constructed extension lines to Lewes and Hastings, on which the Brighton viaduct is situated, and from Shoreham to Portsmouth, on which, perhaps, the most remarkable work is the drawbridge over the river Arun; also a series of branch lines to Horsham, Newhaven, East Grinstead, Epsom, and other aces, which together now form the series of lines known as the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway.

Left: The Ouse Valley or Balcombe Viaduct, constructed with David Mocatta as architect. Right: Looking through the piers of the Viaduct. Photographs by Colin Price.

The other principal railways executed by Mr. Rastrick, were the Kingswinford, the Bolton and Preston, the original Gravesend and Rochester, (a single line along the towing-path of the canal,) and the Ambergate, Nottingham, and Boston, and Eastern Junction line, from the Midland Railway at Colwich to Grantham.

Among the many projects with which he was connected during his long professional career, but which, from various causes, were [131/32] not carried out, though the surveys were made, and deposited for application to Parliament, a few of the more important may be named:- In 1835, a railway from Stourbridge, by Dudley, to Birmingham. In 1838, a ship canal from Lewes to Newhaven; a railway from the London and Brighton Railway, at London Bridge, to Westminster Bridge, called the South Metropolitan; and the West Cumberland Railway, from Lancaster, crossing the Morecambe Bay and Duddon Sands, by Whitehaven, to the Maryport and Carlisle Railway at Maryport. In 1839, a railway from Manchester to Derby. In 1840, railways from Stockport to Macclesfield, and from Leek to Stoke-upon-Trent, and the Birmingham and Stourbridge Junction Canal. In 1841, the East Anglian Railway, from Bishops Stortford, by Cambridge, Newmarket, Mildenhall, and Thetford, to Norwich and Yarmouth. In 1842, a railway from the Brighton Railway, at Croydon, to the South-Western Railway, at Vauxhall. And in 1845-6 the direct London and Manchester Railway.

The Lynn and Ely, and Lynn and East Dereham, Railways (now called the East Anglian), were surveyed under Mr. Rastrick’s direction, and the Act of Parliament for these lines was passed whilst he was the Engineer. After the Acts were obtained, he was appointed Consulting Engineer, but shortly afterwards Mr. J. S. Valentine (M. Inst. C.E.) was appointed to carry out the works, which were executed under his sole direction.

As a witness Mr. Rastrick always displayed the greatest shrewdness, as well as coolness, and no amount of cross-examination would induce him to give a hasty, or unconsidered answer. When the Bill for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was before Parliament, the late Mr. Baron Alderson, then the leading counsel, had baffled many of the railway witnesses, by cross-examination, on the effect that locomotive engines would produce on horses on the public roads. This was before the multitubular boiler was introduced, and it had been admitted, that the chimney might sometimes become red hot.

Similar questions were addressed to Mr. Rastrick, and were thus answered, in a manner to set at rest that style of examination.

Q. "Is not this tube (meaning the chimney) sometimes red hot? - A. Yes.

Q. "Would not that frighten a horse? - A. I do not think it would, for how is a horse to know it was red hot.

Q. "Then you think if they were to put a red-hot poker to a horse’s nose he could not know whether it was red hot or not? - A. If it was put so near as to burn him, he would be frightened at it; but if you were to take a thing painted red, and another red hot, he would not know the difference.” [132/33]

Mr. Rastrick possessed great vigour and strong determination of character; opposition and difficulties only roused him to greater efforts. He was a man of unremitting application, and he has been known to devote whole nights, as well as days, to the careful consideration of the details of his works, with an energy and minuteness that would have worn out many of his juniors, upon whom his example produced excellent effect, and he was always regarded by his principal assistants with feelings of the highest regard and respect.

He joined the Institution as a Member in the year 1827, and was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a Member of the Society of Arts.

Rastrick's monument over the family vault at the Lewes Road cemetery, Brighton, fashioned to look like a railway turntable. Photograph by Leonard Buss.

He retired from the active duties of the profession about the end of the year 1847, and died on the 1st day of November, 1856, at his residence, Sayes Court, near Chertsey, Surrey, in the 77th year of his age, and was buried in the new cemetery at Brighton. Although old age had enfeebled his bodily frame, yet he evinced, even up to the last moment of his existence, the same indomitable energy and clearness of intellect, for which he had always been so remarkable.


Boase, G. C., and M. W. Kirby. "Rastrick, John Urpeth (1780–1856), civil engineer." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 20 March 2024.

Obituary, John Urpeth Rastrick (1780-1856). Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. E-ISSN 1753-7843 Volume 16 Issue 1857, 1857, pp. 128-133 (session 1856-1857).

Created 20 March 2024