By Sharon O’Connor

Samuel Perkes was a noted Victorian civil engineer who lived in Dulwich in the 1860s. His name has been forgotten now, perhaps because most of his work was overseas but, if his obituary is to be believed, he was on a par with Brunel in the range of his projects and inventions. His main claim to fame, however, was the major part he played in saving the young Queen Victoria from an assassination attempt. On 10th June 1840, Perkes was visiting London and was outside Buckingham Palace when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert drove out in an open carriage. Security was very different then and, as the carriage turned onto Constitution Hill, he was just a few feet away from the Queen when eighteen - year - old Edward Oxford fired two pistols at her. He and another bystander wrestled Oxford to the ground and handed him over to the police. Today Perkes would have been given a medal but, back in 1840, he just received a letter of thanks from Prince Albert. He later gave evidence at the Old Bailey trial where Oxford was found not guilty, by reason of insanity. After the trial Perkes wrote to the newspapers to correct their reporting of the case and their spelling of his name. In fact, the Old Bailey had missed the second ‘e’ in his name and the newspapers had simply followed suit, but you can tell from his letter how much being called Mr Perks, rather than Mr Perkes, hurt.

Born in 1816 in Dudley, the son of a pub landlord, Perkes was initially a builder. In 1838 he married Matilda Lowe, a straw - hat maker and, by 1847, they were living in Liverpool where he was employed as a civil engineer on railway construction projects and bridges - including an innovative suspension footbridge in Chester’s Grosvenor Park. He also built and exported iron buildings to the US from a factory in Birkenhead and his innovative designs for folding iron bedsteads were sold worldwide - winning a first - class medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition.

During the Crimean War, Perkes worked with Florence Nightingale, reorganising hospitals, including the Castle Hospital in Balaclava. She also introduced him to the famous chef Alexis Soyer, who had cooked for Queen Victoria at her coronation. Soyer, who had helped feed people during the Irish Famine, brought with him the field stove he had invented in Ireland and he and Perkes worked together on improving hospital kitchens. Perkes named his son Inkerman after the 1854 battle and called his youngest daughter Florence Nightingale Perkes.

He travelled all over the world for his work. In 1856 he was in Bombay (now Mumbai) working for the Honourable East India Company on harbour, gas and water works, including the sewer system, street lighting and the proposed Central India Tramway. He even re - designed an oil press, for which he co - founded the Bombay Oil Pressing Company. His other inventions ranged from a machine for extracting ore from quartz, used in gold mining, to a wind - powered cotton gin. He patented improvements in mine ventilation systems and ship building. He even patented from abroad: in 1862 he sent details from Bombay to Dulwich for his wife Matilda to register for him. He was also careful to register his patents in America so he could reap the benefits there.

In 1866 Perkes, on a brief stay in Dulwich, was one of the first on the spot at a major fire at the Crystal Palace and apparently gave directions which helped prevent the flames extending beyond the Tropical Department where the fire had started. A few days later he left for Madras to work for the Madras Irrigation and Canal Company but, unfortunately, on his way back from India in December 1869, he was taken ill with liver disease and died in Venice. The grandiose notice of his death in the newspapers described him as ‘Samuel Perkes, Civil Engineer, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of the Geological Society, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and of Her Majesty’s Government, Her Majesty’s Government India, Madras Irrigation and Canal Company and the late Honourable East India Company Society.’ No wonder he was annoyed when newspapers misspelt his name.

Samuel and Matilda Perkes had nine children and, at his death, the family were living at Belvedere House on Park Road (now Park Hall Road). In 1870, the newly widowed Matilda moved to another property at the north end of Dulwich Village but, in 1879, she had to relocate because the house was to be demolished to allow for the construction of East Dulwich Grove. She then moved to Marlowe House, one of the large Georgian Houses in Dulwich Village. Given the number of Samuels Perkes’ inventions and patents, he must have left the family very well - off - yet Matilda was always complaining to the Dulwich Estate how hard up she was. It is not clear why she and her unmarried daughters left Dulwich in 1886, but perhaps she just wanted better weather, as the family moved to San Remo on the Italian Riviera. She lived out her remaining years in a large house called Villa Rosina, dying there in 1895 aged 79. Her daughter Victoria continued living there for another 30 years.