William Froude 1810 – 1879

Early Biograph

William Froude (1810–1879), engineer and naval architect, was the fourth son of Robert Hurrell Froude (1770/71–1859), archdeacon of Totnes, and Margaret, née Spedding (1774/5–1821). He was born at Dartington parsonage on 28 November 1810. (Richard) Hurrell Froude (1803–1836) and James Anthony Froude (1818–1894) were his brothers.1

He was educated at Westminster School and Oriel College, Oxford, where he graduated BA with first-class honours in mathematics in 1832, and proceeded to his MA in 1837. His tutors were his eldest brother, Hurrell, and the famous John Henry Newman, who together with I. K. Brunel were, he later wrote, the greatest influences on his life.

He began work on the survey for the South Eastern Railway in 1833 as a pupil of the engineer Henry Palmer. In 1837 he joined the staff of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, for whom he managed the construction of the last section of the Bristol to Exeter railway line. He demonstrated his ability by developing a new design of brick-built skew-bridge, a mathematical approach to reducing the sideways force on a train entering a curve, and a theory of the expansion of steam. In 1839 he married Catherine Holdsworth (d. 1878) from Dartmouth; their daughter, Eliza Margaret, later married the well-known ethnologist Baron Anatole von Hügel.

For the brief period of time during which he was constructing the last section of the railway, William Froude is known to have lived in Cullompton. During the period he played an important part in Parish politics. : He was appointed Vicar’s Churchwarden by Rev. Sykes in 1842, 1843 and 1844, the initial appointment causing some surprise since he was “a comparative stranger, who has only a temporary residence in the town, in connection with the rail-road”. William Froude had arrived in Cullompton in turbulent times and in the middle of a dispute between the Vicar and his congregation over the vexed question of Tithes. Froude would probably have known few persons in Cullompton and, as his father was Archdeacon of Totnes, introduction to the incumbent vicar would have been the first of his connections.

Western Times – Saturday 02 April 1842 – COLLUMPTON

   An unusually numerous, meeting, was held at the Vestry, on Monday last, agreeably to ancient custom, for the purpose of nominating Church-wardens and other officers.

   Mr. Elias Baker, was unanimously called to the chair, and subsequently also unanimously elected as parishioner’s warden, being supported by Mr. Upcott, who had previously on several occasions served the office of vicar’s warden. Mr. Upcott said he thought it desirable that Mr. Baker should be appointed, as he had saved the parish a very great expense, and more particularly now that a new rate was about to be made.

   The CHAIRMAN enquired if any nomination had been made on behalf of the Vicar, when

   The Vicar entered, accompanied by Mr. Chas. White, the tithe collector.

   The VICAR then nominated Mr. William Froude, who, being elected, the Chairman congratulated them on the unanimity of the day’s proceedings.

   Mr. BAKER then said, as Chairman he could not offer them any observations respecting their proceedings, but as there was no difference of opinion to settle, he might be pardoned for making a few remarks. He then adverted to the ineffectual opposition raised against his election last year by the toadies, dependents, and friends of the parson, who made such a sudden demonstration against the independent portion of the parishioners. They were, however, foiled, and would be again. The parishioners had shown that they considered their interests consulted in his appointment, and so long as they might honour him with their confidence they never should be deceived. He would take care that the fabric of the church should be kept in good repair, and that the whole amount of rate should be honestly appropriated to its legitimate purposes. The rate paid at present did not amount to much more than was formerly paid for sacramental wine and bell ringing.    Mr. T.H. BAKER claimed the indulgence of the meeting, in order that he might make a few remarks on the manner in which the Vicar on a former occasion had endeavoured to hinder him from having their family tomb repaired. He then entered into some details of a dispute respecting the right of Mr. Baker to make the re-pairs in question. The Vicar, it appears, resisted the repairs unless he would ask permission. This Mr. Baker refused to do, having his father’s permission as Church warden, and being impressed with the belief that the opposition of the Vicar was founded on a usurpation of rights which did not belong to him. The young gentleman spoke with much earnestness and feeling on

the subject, and the Vicar, from the spirit in which his observations were received by the meeting, must have regretted that he had ever opposed this gentleman in the performance of an act of homage to the best feelings of humanity, a decent reverence for the remains of our departed kindred.
the subject, and the Vicar, from the spirit in which his observations were received by the meeting, must have regretted that he had ever opposed this gentleman in the performance of an act of homage to the best feelings of humanity, a decent reverence for the remains of our departed kindred.

   Mr. Baker stopped his son, observing that he could not permit him to proceed, as he was addressing some remarks which might be offensive to the Vicar. We were none of us at all times accountable for our actions. The enemy of mankind occasionally got hold of the best of us — even holy Job was for a time under the power of Satan.

   Some remarks had been made in the parish, on the causes which led the Vicar to dispense with the services of T. Whitter, Esq. as Warden — to the adoption of a comparative stranger, who has only a temporary residence in the town, in connection with the rail-road.

   Mr. Froude is son of the Archdeacon.

Western Times – Saturday 02 April 1842 – COLLUMPTON


                                                                                                                                     Bristol 24th August, 1842.


  The arrangements referred to in my last half-yearly report, for securing the completion of the works between Bridgewater and Taunton, have proved satisfactory; and this part of the line has been opened to the public within the period stipulated for by the Great Western Railway Company.

   Beyond Taunton and towards Beam Bridge, a distance of upwards of eight miles, and which portion it is necessary should be opened for traffic on or before the 1st July 1843, the works are actively proceeding. The periods limited by the respective contracts, and the present comparative progress of the works, leave no doubt that this stipulation will be complied with; and that the opening will take place at least as much within the time fixed, as in the case of the opening to Taunton.

   The heavy cuttings in the neighbourhood of the White Ball Tunnel which have been carried on vigorously, are in a very forward state. The small works between these and Beam Bridge are commenced, one working shaft having been sunk by the company to the depth of the Tunnel, for the purpose of affording full information to parties tendering for the execution of the Tunnel. This work, divided into four contracts, has been let to experienced contractors, on fair and moderate terms. The principal works beyond the White Ball Hill to Cullompton have also been let in two contracts, comprising a length of nearly five miles, and on satisfactory terms. Between Cullompton and Exeter, arrangements have been made with the landowners for facilitating the execution of the works at the several points where any improvements in the Line, or diminution in the quantity of work, could be effected and the letting and commencement of these will now be so arranged as to profit by the whole of next Summer.

   The completed works between Bristol and Taunton are everywhere in an excellent state.

                                I am, gentlemen, your obedient servant,

                                                                                               I. K. BRUNEL.


Repair of the Church Roof

William Froude rapidly became involved in securing the fabric of the church building by arranging much needed repairs to the Cullompton church roof; a fact which was picked up in a press report at the end of the following year.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Saturday 04 November 1843 – THE CULLOMPTON FARMERS’ CLUB.

   The Chairman proposed: “Trade, Commerce, and Agriculture;” and in doing so referred particularly to the introduction of the railroad, which was making rapid progress in this county. He considered that now that rails had been established over a great part of the kingdom, that portion of it must be far behind, who had not the advantage. He then alluded to the character of the population which had been thus introduced into the district, and which might have proved a great nuisance to the inhabitants, but for the high character of those who had charge of the works. He complimented the various gentlemen who superintended the railway near Cullompton, — Mr. Froude, Mr. Margery, and others.

   F. Leigh. Esq, bore testimony to the good opinion entertained by the Chairman. Between three and four hundred men employed as excavators on the railway had behaved themselves excellently, considering the large number of them; for which they were chiefly indebted to Mr. Froude; as they were also for the perfection of the costly repairs which he had been making in their church.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Saturday 04 November 1843 – THE CULLOMPTON FARMERS’ CLUB.

The Book of Cullompton (p.145) makes the situation clear:  – There have been many benefactors to this parish church, both past and present and one that stands out is William Froude Esq., who lived in Cullompton during the 1840s. He had chosen Cullompton to make his home because it lay approximately halfway between both Exeter and Taunton, and Plymouth and Bristol; for he was Brunel’s chief engineer on this stretch of the Great Western Railway. Froude was a pious and wealthy man and he worshipped in St Andrews Church. He stated that the interior roof was in need of refurbishment. He offered, out of his personal purse, to fund the cost of the refurbishment of the chancel roof if the cost of doing the same for the nave roof would be borne by the local parishioners. Froude put up his money and the work on the chancel was completed, though no funds were received from the local parishioners.2

As Pugsley explains: The nave and chancel of St Andrew’s, Cullompton are carried on five pairs of piers and the interior has a boarded wagon roof coloured in blue, crimson and gold which stretches the whole length of the church. At the time of the construction of the Bristol and Exeter Railway, William Froude – the engineer given responsibility for this section of the line by Isambard Kingdom Brunel – inserted iron stringers to prevent the walls from spreading as a result of vibrations from the trains.3

The reluctance of parishioners to contribute to the work was noted in the local press.

Western Times – Saturday 10 August 1844

Cullompton. — An attempt to raise a subscription for a new roof for the church, by Mr. Froude, the churchwarden, has failed. The vicar would not subscribe to it. Sir T. D. Acland, and Mr. Froude, were the only subscribers.

Western Times – Saturday 10 August 1844

The work on the chancel cost £700, of which Froude himself contributed £400.

Froude’s “home” in Cullompton

There has been a certain amount of conjecture about where Froude was able to make a home during his stay in Cullompton. Fortunately, there is impeccable written information specifying the location which supports evidence provided by the present owner (in 2021).

The tithe apportionments for Cullompton parish are well document and contain the following entry:

LandownerOccupierNo. on planName and Description of Land and PremisesState of CultivationQuantity   in Statute measurePayable to Vicar
Reverend Walker GRAYWilliam FROUDE2479Stoneyford House, Lawn & GardenGarden0 1 001d

An extract from the tithe map identifies the plot in question.

The term tithe map is normally applied to a map of an English or Welsh parish or township, prepared following the Tithe Commutation Act 1836. This act allowed tithes to be paid in cash rather than goods. The map and its accompanying schedule gave the names of all owners and occupiers of land in the parish. 

Fortunately, the nature of the plot in question was of sufficient condition and dimension to make it capable of supporting limited agricultural production. In an urban setting there are normally few such areas. Tithes were effectively a land tax rather than a property tax and historically the receipts supported the rector of the parish.

Plot 2479 was occupied by William Froude and consisted of house, lawn and garden. The owner was the Reverend Walker Gray who had been vicar of Cullompton.

At the end of 1846 Froude temporarily retired from full-time work to assist his ailing father in Dartington. He then acted as harbour commissioner, magistrate, and judge of agricultural machinery. Later he improved the supply of water to the Torquay waterworks, which led him to undertake research on the drag forces on ship’s hulls moving through water and sundry other applications for which he still has an world-wide reputation.

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