Sometime last year I was flicking through the pages of a booklet that my late father had written ‘Welsh Expatriate Engineers of the 19th Century’, looking for any that may have had a connection to the Roath Area. I came across John Vipond Davies, a pioneering civil engineer. He wasn’t born in Cardiff but the Davies family did move here from Swansea. I started some research but must have got distracted and put it aside, as is often the case. Had it not been for a recent enquiry from his granddaughter asking about the family tree I had started to assemble on Ancestry, I may never have gone back to it. I’m glad I did as it’s another fascinating story.
John Vipond Davies was born in Swansea on 13 Oct 1862 to Andrew Davies, a surgeon and JP originally from Haverfordwest, and Emily Davies née Edmonds originally from Wantage, Berkshire.
In the 1881 census the Davies family had moved to 2 Haswell Terrace on Newport Road, near the junction with West Grove. Dr Andrew Davies was working as a physician, possibly at the nearby Infirmary on Newport Road, the building which later became the University.
By 1881 John Vipond Davies had already been educated at Wesleyan College, Taunton, now called Queens College, before attending London University. In the 1881 census in Cardiff he is described as a student of Mechanical Engineering.
Before we embark on looking at his impressive engineering career let’s step aside and look at something else I stumbled across. He played rugby for Cardiff. Not only that but there is a wonderfully clear photograph of him and the team from the 1881 season. Records aren’t necessarily all that complete from those early years of rugby. Cardiff RFC was only formed in 1876. We know he played at least six times for Cardiff including at half back in the Cup Final against Llanelli in March 1881, played at Neath. The match was scoreless at full time and went into extra time. When Cardiff scored a try in the second period of extra time the crowd invaded the pitch rendering further play impossible and Cardiff were declared the winners. It sounds like it was a boisterous affair, with a disputed try, claims of bias against the Cardiff official and a spot of crowd trouble. On their return the Cardiff team were met at station by a large crowd and carried shoulder high to the Queen’s Hotel where I guess a night of revelry ensued.
Getting back to Vipond’s engineering accomplishments, we are lucky to be able to refer to his application to join the Institution of Civil Engineers in which he detailed his early career in some depth. Between 1880 and 1884 he was apprenticed to Parfitt and Jenkins Engineers in Cardiff. These years would have been a busy time for an engineering company in Cardiff as industry, employment and the population all expanded rapidly centred on the coal exporting taking place in Cardiff docks. Parfitt and Jenkins Engineers had a foundry in Tyndall Street and were involved in manufacturing a range of things including locomotives, marine and stationary engines and boilers, points, crossings, turntables, cranes and railway bridges.
We also learn from a newspaper cutting of 1883 that Vipond was one of a group of Cardiff students to gain a distinction in an Cambridge Extension examination at the end of a course studying electricity.
After completing his training he embarks on a variety of roles in the South Wales area. His first job was to prepare plans for a fuel briquetting works for Charles M Jacobs. It was this association with C M Jacobs that took him to America but not for another five or so years. In between he gained experience working for the Blaenavon Coal and Iron Company designing blast furnaces, rolling mills and coke ovens. He also works for a time as a mine surveyor for the family business John Vipond & Co at Varteg.
In 1888 his career takes a different turn when he serves eight months as the 3rd Engineer on the newly built SS Argus, built in Newcastle but registered in Melbourne, Australia. The SS Argus was launched in 1889 so it is unclear if Vipond Davies was just involved in the construction and commissioning or whether he sailed on board too.
It appears to be in 1889 when John Vipond Davies left Wales for America with Charles M Jacobs that his career really took off. In 1892 he was Chief Assistant Engineer to Charles M Jacobs working on an 11 foot diameter railroad tunnel under the East River of New York. The project must have gone well for in 1894 he became a partner in the with C M Jacobs Engineering Company. He worked on railroads and water supply pipelines in Detroit, Ohio, West Virginia and Tennessee. In 1895 C M Jacobs also designed a 11,000 ft bridge to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Perhaps his most prestigious project of the time was the Hudson River Tunnel Project for the Hudson and Manhattan Rail Road company, estimated in 1910 to have cost $60,000,000. The boroughs of New York are separated by rivers and it is perhaps interesting to think the key part Welshman Vipond Davies had in its development.
After achieving much in New York he moved on to design the Moffat Tunnel through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
He also ventured to the West Coast and designed the bridge and tunnel across San Francisco Bay and also a bridge over the Mississippi in New Orleans.
His work was not confined to within USA. He was consulting engineer on twenty six aqueduct tunnels in Mexico and a bit closer to home he designed and supervised the building of the Paris Metro tunnel under the Seine and across the Place de la Concorde.
You too can find out how to build a tunnel if you track down a copy of a book he co-authored and published called Modern Tunnelling in 1923.
Perhaps the only time his career slowed was in 1907 when he broke his hip bravely arresting a team of runaway horses heading towards a group of school children. He was in Flushing on his way to catch an early morning train to Long Island when the horses took fright of a passing automobile. Vipond was clinging to the bridle when he was thrown against a tree, fell to the ground and was run over by a passing van.
In 1914 he was awarded the Telford Gold Medal by the Institution of Civil Engineers in UK. He also became President of the American Engineering Society in New York. An interesting insight into the status engineering at the time is obtained from an address he gave to the memory of engineer and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1920.
One paper reports that as a retirement present his employees presented him with a gold-handled silk umbrella. I wonder what his former team mates at Cardiff RFC would have thought about that. I suspect much banter would have ensued.
He married Ruth Ramsey of Pottsville, Pennsylvania in 1895 and they went on to have three children, John Vipond Jr, Muriel and Margaret, the offspring of which still live in USA today but are proud of their Welsh roots.
His death at Flushing, New York on 4 Oct 1939 at the age of 76 announced him as one of the foremost civil engineers in USA. He is buried alongside his wife at the Presbyterian Cemetery in Pottsville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Thank you to the Davies family for information and images shared.
Thank you to Gwyn Prescott and Cardiff Rugby Museum for information and the image of Vipond Davies’s playing career.
References & further reading:
Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
Institution of Civil Engineers Obituary
Again great stuff. The days when Cardiff rugby meant something. Llanelli supporters haven’t changed much!
His career as a civil engineer should be more widely recognised in Wales. A virtual Roath lhs plaque at least?!