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Famous British personalities

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John Howard

(1726 - 1790)
Profession: Humanitarian
English philanthropist whose work to improve prison conditions is continued today by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

On his appointment as high sheriff for Bedfordshire 1773, he undertook a tour of English prisons which led to two acts of Parliament 1774, making jailers salaried officers and setting standards of cleanliness. After touring Europe 1775, he published State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with an account of some Foreign Prisons 1777. He died of typhus fever while visiting Russian military hospitals at Kherson in the Crimea.
He was born in Lower Clapton, London. His father was a wealthy upholsterer at Smithfield Market in the city. His mother died when he was five years old, and, described as a "sickly child", he was sent to live at Cardington, Bedfordshire, some forty miles from London, where his father owned property. His father, a strict disciplinarian with strong religious beliefs, sent the young John to a school in Hertford and then to John Eames' Dissenting Academy in London.

After school, John was apprenticed to a wholesale grocer to learn business methods, but he was unhappy. When his father died in 1742, he was left with a sizeable inheritance but no true vocation. His Calvinist faith and quiet, serious disposition meant he had little desire for the fashionable endeavours of an English aristocratic lifestyle. In 1748, he left England to tour France and Italy.

Upon his return, he lived in lodgings in Stoke Newington, where he again became seriously ill. He was nursed back to health by his landlady, Sarah Loidore, whom he then married despite her being thirty years older than him. She died within three years, and he distributed her meagre belongings amongst her remaining family and poor neighbours.





Thomas Gainsborough

(1727 - 1788)
Profession: Artist
English painter

Considered one of the great masters of portraiture and landscape painting. Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk. He showed artistic ability at an early age, and when he was 15 years old he studied drawing and etching in London. In 1768 he was elected one of the original members of the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1774 he painted, by royal invitation, portraits of King George III and the queen consort, Charlotte Sophia. Gainsborough executed more than 500 paintings, of which more than 200 are portraits. The effect of poetic melancholy induced by faint lighting characterizes Gainsborough's paintings. Forest scenes, or rough and broken country, are the usual subjects of his landscapes, most notably Cornard Wood and The Watering Place, both in the National Gallery, London





Captain James Cook

(1728 - 1779)
Profession: Explorer
James Cook was born on the 27th October 1728 in the small Yorkshire town of Marton. Unlike the majority of Naval officers of the time he was not the son of rich or noble parents. In fact he was the son of a Scottish farm labourer and a Yorkshire girl. He was intelligent enough to impress his father's employer who paid for the young James Cook's schooling.

After he finished school his parents apprenticed him to a grocer in Whitby, where he was not especially happy. It was there, however, that he got a taste for life on the sea. In those days the port of Whitby was a bustling place, always busy with all kinds of ships: fishing vessels, navy ships, and colliers. It was on a collier that Cook served first.

In 1755, the year before the Seven Years War broke out between England and France, Cook left his ship and signed up with the Royal Navy. In the Navy James Cook worked his way up through the ranks, eventually rising to command his own vessel, unusual for an enlisted man. His first mission was to map the estuary of the St. Lawrence River prior to a naval assault on Quebec. It was those surveys that made Cook's name, along with the information he obtained from observing and recording an eclipse of the sun in 1766. The surveys were so accurate that they remained in use until the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

His surveys and scientific observations, coupled with his own scientific ability and his being in the right place at the right time led to his being chosen to captain the Endeavour in 1768 on a mission to explore the great unknown of the Pacific Ocean and scientifically record everything that was encountered. It was the first of the three great voyages of discovery he led in the South Pacific.

James Cook died near the end of the third voyage. He was killed by Hawaiian islanders possibly because of an incident in which one of his lieutenants shot and killed one of the island's chiefs. He died in February 1779.





Josiah Wedgwood

(1730 - 1795)
Profession: Artist
English potter

His works are among the finest examples of ceramic art. Wedgwood was born in Burslem, Staffordshire, into a family with a long tradition as potters. At the age of nine, after the death of his father, he worked in his family's pottery business. In 1759 he set up his own pottery works in Burslem. There he produced highly durable cream-coloured earthenware that so pleased Queen Charlotte Sophia, wife of George III of Great Britain, that in 1762 she appointed him royal supplier of dinnerware. From the public sale of what has become known as queensware, Wedgwood was able, in 1768, to build near Stoke-on-Trent a village, which he named Etruria, and a second factory equipped with tools and ovens of his own design. At first only ornamental pottery was made in Etruria, but by 1773 Wedgwood had concentrated all his production facilities there. Etruria Hall is now a museum to Wedgwood and is surrounded by commercial redevelopment following the National Garden Festival.

During his long career Wedgwood developed revolutionary ceramic materials, notably basalt and jasperware. Wedgwood's basalt—a hard, black, stonelike material known also as Egyptian ware or basaltes ware—was used for vases, candlesticks, and realistic busts of historical figures. Jasperware, his most successful innovation, was a durable unglazed porcelain most characteristically blue with fine white cameo figures inspired by the ancient Roman Portland Vase. Many of the finest designs in Jasperware were the neoclassical work of British artist John Flaxman.

Wedgwood was one of the first potters to market his wares not only to the European aristocracy, but also to middle-class society. The enormous popularity of his wares severely affected the competing porcelain and faience industries. Other innovations by Wedgwood include a device for measuring high oven temperatures, an improved green glaze, and efficient factory distribution methods. After Wedgwood's death in Etruria, his descendants carried on the business, which still produces many of his designs. Wedgwood was the grandfather of British naturalist Charles Darwin.





James Watt

(1736 - 1819)
Profession: Engineer
James Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland. He moved to Glasgow in 1754 to learn the trade of instrument maker. While he was employed on surveys for canals, he was also studying steam technology.

In 1763, while repairing a Newcomen engine, he found he could greatly improve the machine. His invention of the 'separate condenser' and the introduction of crank movements could make steam engines more efficient. After other improvements, he went into partnership with Matthew Boulton, and the new steam engine was manufactured at Birmingham in 1774. Several other inventions followed, including the double-acting engine, the centrifugal governor for automatic speed control, and the pressure gauge.

With this invention he provided one of the most essential components of early industrial revolution. The term horse-power was first used by him, and the power unit, the watt, is named in his honor.





Sophia Jex-Blake

(1740 - 1912)
Profession: Scientist
English physician

Active in opening the medical profession to women in England.

A graduate of Queen's College, London, she began (1866) her medical studies in the United States and continued them in Edinburgh, but she met much opposition there and was unable to obtain a degree.

She carried the battle to Parliament, which finally passed a law enabling the medical schools to give degrees to women.

Jex-Blake was influential in founding medical schools for women in London and Edinburgh





Sir Francis Beaufort

(1744 - 1858)
Profession: Statesman
Rear-Admiral, Sir Francis Beaufort, Knight Commander of the Bath, was born in Ireland in 1744. He entered the Royal Navy at the age of 13 and was a midshipman aboard the Aquilon. Beaufort is said to have had an illustrious career on the seas and by 1800 had risen to the rank of Commander. In the summer of 1805 Commander Beaufort was appointed to the command of the Woolwich, a 44 gun man-of-war. It was at this time that he devised his wind force scale. By 1838 the Beaufort wind force scale was made mandatory for log entries in all ships of the Royal Navy. Beaufort last served as Hydrographer to the Admiralty. He died in 1858 two years after his retirement





William Jessop

(1745 - 1814)
Profession: Engineer
British canal engineer who built the first canal in England entirely dependent on reservoirs for its water supply (the Grantham Canal 1793-97), and designed (with Thomas Telford) the 300 m / 1,000 ft long Pontcysyllte aqueduct over the river Dee. Jessop also designed the forerunner of the iron rail that later became universally adopted for railways.

Jessop was born in Devonport, Devon, and became a pupil of civil engineer John Smeaton, working on canals in England and Ireland first with him and then independently.

Jessop's first tunnel was the 2.8 km / 1.7-mile long Butterley Tunnel on the Cromford Canal he built in Derbyshire, and this led to the forming of the Butterley Iron Works in 1790, making rails and bridges.

Jessop was chief engineer 1793-1805 of the Grand Union Canal, which linked London and the Midlands over a distance of 150 km / 95 miles. He was also responsible for the Barnsley, Rochdale, and Trent navigation, and the Nottingham and Ellesmere canals.

Jessop was also chief engineer of the Surrey Iron Railway, built 1801-02. He worked on the construction of a large wetdock area on the Avon at Bristol, on the West India Docks and the Isle of Dogs Canal in London, on the harbours at Shoreham and Littlehampton, and on many other projects.

Jessop was chief engineer 1793-1805 of the Grand Union Canal, which linked London and the Midlands over a distance of 150 km / 95 miles. He was also responsible for the Barnsley, Rochdale, and Trent navigation, and the Nottingham and Ellesmere canals.

Jessop was also chief engineer of the Surrey Iron Railway, built 1801-02. He worked on the construction of a large wetdock area on the Avon at Bristol, on the West India Docks and the Isle of Dogs Canal in London, on the harbours at Shoreham and Littlehampton, and on many other projects.





Thomas Telford

(1757 - 1834)
Profession: Engineer
Thomas Telford, the son of a shepherd, was born in Westerkirk, Scotland in 1757. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a stonemason. He worked for a time in Edinburgh and in 1792 he moved to London where he was involved in building additions to Somerset House. Two years later he found work at Portsmouth dockyard.

In 1787 he became surveyor of public works for Shropshire. By this time Telford had established a good reputation as an engineer and in 1790 was given the task of building a bridge over the River Severn at Montford. This was followed by a canal that linked the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham with Chester and Shrewsbury. This involved building an aqueduct over the River Dee. On the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Telford used a new method of construction consisting of troughs made from cast-iron plates and fixed in masonry.

After the completion of the Ellesmere Canal Telford moved back to Scotland where he took control of the building of Caledonian Canal. Other works by Telford include the Menai Suspension Bridge (1819-1826) and the Katherine's Docks (1824-1828) in London.

Telford was also an important road builder. He was responsible for rebuilding the Shrewsbury to Holyhead road and the North Wales coast road between Chester and Bangor. During his life Telford built more than 1,000 miles of road, including the main road between London and Holyhead. Thomas Telford died in 1834.





William Blake

(1757 - 1827)
Profession: Writer
William Blake, the son of a draper from Westminster, was born on 28th November, 1757. At the age of eleven Blake entered Par's Drawing School in the strand. Three years later he was indentured as an apprentice to James Basire, engraver to the Royal Society of Antiquaries. After marrying Catherine Boucher on 18th August 1782, Blake became a freelance engraver. His main employer was the radical bookseller, Joseph Johnson, and publisher of works by Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Johnson, who been involved in establishing London's first Unitarian Chapel in 1774, also influenced Blake's religious views.
Blake began to experiment with a new method of engraving. The first of his illuminated works, Natural Religion, appeared in 1788. The poetry and their illustrations were drawn in reverse on copper plates in an impervious liquid, then the plain parts eaten away with acid. After the prints were taken they were coloured by hand. Natural Religion was followed by Songs of Innocence (1789), Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) and Songs of Experience (1794), a book that deals with topics of corruption and social injustice.

In his books The French Revolution (1791), America: A Prophecy (1793) and Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), Blake developed his attitude of revolt against authority, combining political belief and visionary ecstasy. Blake feared government persecution and some of work such as The French Revolution was printed anonymously and was only distributed to political sympathisers.

In 1800 William Blake moved to Felpham in Sussex, where he was commissioned by William Hayley to decorate his library with eighteen heads of poets. Hayley also employed Blake to make the engravings for a Life of Cowper. While at Felpham began work on his epic poems, Milton and Jerusalem. In these poems Blake provides a complex mixture of prophecy, social criticism and biblical legend.





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