ALLEYNE, Sir John 1820-1912. Businessman and engineer.
Here was a truly fortunate man who was dealt a hand which gave him opportunities to use his boundless energy and inventiveness to become one of the great Victorian engineers and managers. His connection with Dulwich started in 1843 when at the age of 23 he was elected Warden of Alleyn’s College, more usually called Dulwich College, an office he held until 1851. At the time the College’s affairs were at such low ebb he probably had little influence to change the existing idle culture which would ultimately lead to its closure by Act of Parliament six years later.
In 1866/7 he designed and built the shed for the platforms of William Barlow’s magnificent St Pancras station. He constructed its 240 foot span arched roof using massive temporary wooden staging on wheels. The 24 six ton iron ribs were raised two at a time by the power-driven hoists. With a maximum height of 100 feet this was the widest span in the world at the time. This iron shed has lasted over 140 years, and apart from damage caused by a World War 1 Zeppelin, and a World War11 bomb, is a as good as new after the recent £800 million restoration overseen by English Heritage. The renewed pale blue paint, suggested by the first Station Master, faithfully continues to remind passengers of the sky above.
Alleyne was a self-taught engineer who had the good fortune to be appointed manager and chief engineer of the Butterley Iron Works in Derbyshire through his wife’s connections with the firm. The business produced 50% of the world’s pig-iron at the time and was the largest exhibitor of iron at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the International Exhibition of 1862. It also provided all the iron for the St Pancras platform shed, Vauxhall Bridge and the Edinburgh water supply. It cast and made steamship engines for the Royal Navy.
Alleyne came from an old Barbadian family whose ancestor had arrived there within three years of the first settlers, around 1630. The various branches of the family came to be the most prominent landowners on the island. Alleyne’s grandfather Sir John Gay Alleyne, first baronet, was the Speaker of the island’s Assembly and the leading politician there in the second half of the eighteenth century. Surprisingly, one member contributed to the eventual abolition of slavery in 1833 by appearing for the slave in the landmark Somerset Case of 1772.
As a child Alleyne would have been familiar with the sugar cane mills in his native Barbados, and it may have been these that fired his interest in engineering. Before he came to Dulwich, Alleyne was at Harrow for three years, entering at the late age of 17, and then at Bonn University. Details of his attendance and what he studied at Bonn have not been forthcoming, but it is possible that engineering was involved. However his great opportunity arose from leading the Butterley Iron Works with its extensive collieries, rolling mills and workforce of 7000 men.
Alleyne took out 14 patents. His inventions included the “Butterley Beam” which doubled the depth of iron joists for supporting mill floors and iron ship decks, by welding two joists together longitudinally to make them three foot deep. This construction was used in HMS Agincourt in 1861, one of the three largest single screw battleships in the Royal Navy. By coincidence the inventor of the screw-propeller, Sir Francis Pettit Smith had also been a Dulwich resident. Another novel device of Alleyne’s was a puddling furnace with a rotating circular bottom.
In the 1860’s he and his sons designed and built a five-ton steam yacht, and Lapwing, a nine-ton steam launch for which some parts were made at his home workshop at Chevin, near Belper in Derbyshire. Lapwing was sailed at great speed down the Derwent. Other designs produced at home were a church clock and a fire engine, manned by his daughters. They did stalwart work when the local church caught fire in 1903.
Alleyne’s passion for astronomy was another aim in life which he fulfilled, by acquiring the largest privately owned telescope. It was made by Thomas Cooke. Sunspots were studied in relation to the conditions of the earth. His family of two sons and eight daughters were often roused in the middle of the night to observe special astronomical phenomena. Having been dragged out of bed they all said “Yes, yes, we can see it” so they could get back to bed quickly.
The penultimate Warden of Dulwich College died in1912. One of his last achievements was to learn to ride a penny-farthing bicycle when he was over 80. He said, “It’s better than a modern bicycle because if you hit anything there is a better chance that you will fly over the top of the obstacle and not crash into it yourself.”
By Tessa Cox