William Ockenden

William Ockenden was amongst the least successful engineers to have worked on Irish canals (or rather river navigations). He worked on the Munster Blackwater: his Lombardstown to Mallow canal never reached Mallow. He worked on the Nore, where he was to connect Kilkenny to the tidewater; he started at the inland end and had completed only about seven miles by the time of his death. And he worked on the Limerick Navigation, where he built what is now known as the Park Canal, which was the subject of considerable criticism from later engineers. He worked on all three navigations at the same time.

According to the Dictionary of Irish Architects, which cites V T H and D R Delany, he was “believed to have been a native of Holland”, but a footnote says that his name is English and suggests (citing a genealogy website) that he might have been the son of an English Presbyterian who settled in the Netherlands.

On another genealogy website, the learned Linde Lunney asks an unanswered question. She notes that a 1760 book about Killarney is by William Ockenden, who is said in one place to be the engineer and in another to have been the MP for Marlow (on the Thames). Could one man have filled both roles?

The Gentleman’s and London Magazine: and monthly chronologer  MDCCLXI [1761] Volume XXX, Dublin certainly thought so:

List of Deaths for the Year 1761 […] July 2. In London, William Ockenden Esq; member in two parliaments for Great Marlow in Bucks, and engineer of the inland navigation in this kingdom, which he executed with great judgment and integrity.

Ockenden was a subscriber to the 1739 pro-imperialism play Gustavus Vasa by the Irish playwright Henry Brooke; it was the first play to be banned under the Licensing Act 1737. Might Ockenden have known Brooke when he was “residing happily in Ireland” before inheriting Temple Mills and other property near Marlow from his maternal uncles? On the other hand, a William Ockenden subscribed to the anonymous A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy London 1728 and to Thomas Leland’s The History of the Life and Reign of Philip, King of Macedon; the father of Alexander Vol I London, 1758; was this the same or a different Ockenden?

The MP does not seem to have inherited English property until 1739, receiving more in 1741. He became an MP in 1744 and stayed as such until 1754. The History of Parliament Online site gives the same date of death, 2 July 1761, as the Gentleman’s […] Magazine, and says that Ockenden owned mills at Weybridge in Surrey as well as Temple Mills at Bisham.

These snippets, though, say nothing about William Ockenden’s engineering career. Yet the engineer was not unknown: between 1749 and 1754 (not all accounts agree) William Ockenden, a Trustee of Ramsgate Harbour, made proposals for the harbour’s design. There was a dispute, followed by a suspension of work and a House of Lords inquiry in 1756. In 1791 John Smeaton, by then Engineer to Ramsgate Harbour, wrote a report that was very critical of Ockenden’s role:

How it happened that this contracted Plan of Mr Ockenden’s, which was productive of so much mischief and delay, came to be so strenuously espoused by him, is not now easy to say; certain it is, that on a calm Review, it amounted to no more than to make a less Harbour at a greater Expence than a larger; and that without any apparent inducement, unless what is alledged [sic] in the Committee’s last Report, p22, is to be looked on as such, viz “that the Contraction will leave the Harbour large enough to contain more Ships than will ever have occasion to lie there at the same time.” […]

Finally, how it came to be adopted by the Trustees at large; many of whom were able and experienced Seamen, can only be accounted for, by supposing that Mr Ockenden, having had occasion to consider works of Civil Engineery [sic] in his private affairs, became the leader of the majority; but still, why Mr Ockenden, who was a man of fortune, and then, or had been, in Parliament, and does not appear to have had any immediate interest in this business, should have wished, in that strenuous manner, to lead the Trustees into a scheme so unnecessary, is to me at this day equally wonderful and unaccountable.

Ockenden also turned up in Tuscany where, between 1753 and 1755, he advised on what seems to have been an uncompleted scheme for piers to facilitate the export of Carrara marble. After that, Bartlett’s bog in Limerick, where work began on 13 June 1757, must have been a dampening experience.

But can we be certain that these William Ockendens are one and the same? The only explicit links between the MP and the engineer are the date of death and the comments (made thirty years after that) by John Smeaton. I have not been able to find a list of the Ramsgate Harbour trustees appointed under the act; I would like to have a little more evidence about the identity of the Ockendens.

Addendum: here is some information about Ockenden and Omer from a 1759 account by Henry Brooke, to whose play Gustavus Vasa Ockenden had subscribed,

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