Thomas Whitwell – Founder of the Cleveland Institution of Engineers

Thomas Whitwell – Founder of the Cleveland Institution of Engineers

Although born in Kendal, in 1839 he formed the firm of William Whitwell and Co in Thornaby with his brother. He was one of first members of Tees Amateur Boat Club and the Gazette referred to him as ‘one of our most useful fellow townsmen’.

Thomas Whitwell (1839 – 1878) was a founder of the Cleveland Institution of Engineers which was formed, on 15th September 1864, at a meeting of seven local industrialists at Thomas Whitwell’s residence in Church Row, Stockton-on-Tees.

The chief promoters of the Institution were Jeremiah Head, originally articled to Robert Stephenson in Newcastle; Thomas Wrightson who initially worked in W G Armstrong’s works at Elswick; and Thomas Whitwell, who was first an apprentice in Alfred Kitching’s Darlington locomotive works and then in Robert Stephenson’s works in Newcastle. They had studied together and when they later found themselves working in the Cleveland district, they were anxious to draw to themselves kindred spirits to discuss engineering problems as they presented themselves for solution.

Thomas Whitwell was president of the Institute from 1876 to 1878. In August 1878 in the second year of his presidency Thomas Whitwell was accidently killed by scalding steam at W Whitwell and Company’s Thornaby Ironworks and a brilliant career was extinguished.

Though Thomas Whitwell patented a stove pipe system for blast furnaces, it appears to be a small incremental improvement in Iron technology at a time when much improvement was done through collective invention. Other similar stove improvements were being made by others in the Teesside iron industry at the same time. This idea of collective invention seems to be crucial and perhaps his greatest claim was to help disseminate information Whitwell himself said that ‘he had visited most of the works of the iron masters in Cleveland obtaining information about their operations’.

This note has been prepared using ‘Cleveland Iron and Steel: Background and Nineteenth Century History’ by J K Almond, B J D Harrison, J K Harrison and J S Owen, editor C A Hempstead, published by British Steel Corporation, 1979; and other sources.