John Robinson McClean

From time to time, the name of John McClean crops up in our monthly talks, most recently in presentations on the South Staffs Railway and the South Staffs Waterworks Company. But who was this man who had a strong influence on Lichfield's history? Perhaps the time is right to delve a little into his background.

Born in Belfast in 1813, he was educated at Glasgow University. Moving to London he took a seven year apprenticeship with the civil engineers Walker and Burges, one of his first jobs being to work on improvements to the Birmingham Canal Navigation, where he became resident engineer, thus beginning a lifelong association with the West Midlands. McClean subsequently established his own engineering company with his new partner, Francis Stileman. By 1844, he had been appointed Engineer of the Furness Railway and was responsible for its design and construction from Barrow eastwards towards Lancaster. In 1846, he was also appointed Chief Engineer of a new broad gauge railway to be constructed between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. However, this work caused a conflict of interest, when he was also appointed Engineer to the standard gauge South Staffs Railway, also in 1846. At the opening of the South Staffs Railway in 1849, he took a lease on it. It is suggested that he was the only man ever to solely own a railway company. So, during the 1850s, he was engaged in at least three major projects, to which can also be added that of the establishment of the South Staffs Waterworks Company. The object of the Company was to pipe unpolluted water from boreholes around Lichfield to the Black Country, where polluted local water supplies were causing health problems. It's not clear how McClean and his colleagues at the South Staffs Railway came up with the notion that the water could be piped along the railway line, but a company was duly formed with Richard Chawner and Samuel Holden Blackwell and by 1858, water was flowing as far as Walsall.

Whilst engineering the South Staffs Railway, McClean is said to have come upon the area around Hammerwich Pit which excited his interest in coal mining. Fortuitously, the landowner, the Marquis of Anglesey was inviting leases on his land for new collieries. McClean seized his opportunity and with Richard Chawner established the Cannock Chase Collieries Company. He had a reputation as an enlightened employer. Chasetown became his "company town", building schools for boys and girls, a free library and an institute for evening study. In 1865, he built St Anne's Church in Chasetown to the design of Edward Adams. A bust of McClean and memorial tablet can be found in the Church, which is also notable for having electric lighting installed as early as 1883.

Whilst his workload appears substantial, he still had time to advise the Emperor Napolean III on the installation of baths and wash-houses in Paris and the Viceroy of Egypt on the feasibility of a Suez Canal. In 1861, he engineered the 500 mile railway from Lemberg, in Galicia, to Galatz on the Danube. He also advised the Metropolitan Commissioners on drainage works along the Thames and was appointed Engineer in 1862 to the Harbours of Dover, Alderney and Jersey. He oversaw work on Bute Docks at Cardiff, Alexandra Docks at Newport and Surrey Commercial Docks. His skill in appointing suitable assistant engineers doubtless eased what appears to be a substantial workload.

Professionally, he was President of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1864 and 1865 and a Fellow of the Royal Society. By 1868, he had retired from most of his engineering interests, having survived a bout of ill health. He then entered politics with the encouragement of Richard Chawner, a well known Hammerwich-born liberal politican in Lichfield, and became the MP for East Staffordshire. He died in July 1873, aged 60 and is buried with his wife Anna in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Roger Hockney
December 2015