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A talk on William Froude (S Devon Branch)

Thu. 21 March 2024 at 2:15 pm

£2 – £4

A talk to be given by Bill Thomson on the noted Devon naval scientist William Froude (1810–1879).

 The cost will be £2 for DA members, £4 for non-members.

Report on the talk

DA member, Bill Thomson, gave an illustrated talk to the South Devon Branch on William Froude – the naval scientist from Devon.

William was born at Dartington in 1810. His father was Robert Hurrell Froude, archdeacon of Totnes. William was educated first at Buckfastleigh, then at Oriel College, Oxford where he graduated in maths and classics. In 1833 he was apprenticed to a civil engineer at a time when the railways were in their infancy.

In 1837 William joined Brunel’s railways and though not designated, became in essence the resident engineer.

He married Catherine Holdsworth in 1839. Catherine came from a wealthy merchant family in Devon and her father was a shareholder in the Bristol and Exeter railway. Together William and Catherine had 8 children – 5 boys and 3 girls. After their marriage they lived in Cullompton, becoming involved in the town and paying for repairs to the chancel roof in St Andrew’s church.

As part of Brunel’s company, William designed and built the Cowley railway bridge which was completed in 1844. This was a particularly difficult assignment as it was a very restricted area between the road and the river. William was also involved in Brunel’s atmospheric railway, which had a short life, beset by problems.

As his father was ill, William resigned from Brunel in 1846 and returned to Dartington to manage the family’s estate. His father died in 1859 and William took a parcel of land in Chelston, Torquay and built himself a house there. His house had a unique element, a bow string girder staircase designed by Henry Brunel.

By the mid 1850s William had become interested in the stability of steam ships and came to the notice of the Royal Navy. He was co-opted onto a resistance project that reported in 1867. William disagreed with the findings of the report and made a minority one. He conducted his own research and modelling and suggested that the Admiralty had a test tank constructed.

In a field next door to his home in Chelston, a test tank was built and William conducted experiments with his accurate scale models. His genius was in his research into friction and wave making resistance. His work was not only valued by the navy but merchant shipowners also became interested. When William died the test tank was moved from Chelston to Plymouth where it continued in use until the Second World War.

In 1869 William became Vice President of the Devonshire Association but Catherine died in the same year and William was unable to take up the post of President. His brother, James, took up the post in his stead.

After Catherine’s death, William suffered from mental health problems and was offered a cruise to the Southern Ocean. Unfortunately he caught dysentery and died in Simonstown, South Africa, in May 1879. There is a memorial to William Froude in the churchyard at Dartington.

Chris Reader
April 2024


Thu. 21 March 2024
2:15 pm
£2 – £4
Event Categories:


South Devon Branch
Annie Maltby: 07771 277761


Newton’s Place
43 Wolborough St
Newton Abbot, Devon TQ12 1JQ