In the latest article for the A to Z Blogging Challenge 2019. we look at a man who was part of what I’ve labelled the Hammersley Heenan dynasty. This is a family originating from Birr (Parsonstown) in King’s County, Ireland whose members made their mark across the world.
Robert Henry Hammersley Heenan
Robert was the fourth son of George Heenan, a doctor, coroner land agent to one of the wealthiest estates in King’s County (now called County Offaly). George featured in one of my earlier A-Z articles.
Robert Henry attended Galway College where he excelled in mathematics and engineering drawing. At the conclusion of his education in 1871 he became a member of the Institute of Engineers in Ireland and for the next three years was employed on railway, dock and river improvement projects in Ireland.
In 1874 he left Ireland for Africa, joining the public works department at the Cape of Good Hope as a draughtsman and engineering assistant. He worked on bridge and road construction projects until 1876 when he transferred to the East London and Queenstown Railway, as assistant engineer and then district engineer.
A further career move saw him become maintenance engineer of the East London to Queenstown Railway and the East London Harbour in 1881. Early in 1885 he was transferred to the Midlands system of railways as district engineer and settled in Port Elizabeth where he served the Port Elizabeth Harbour Board and drew up plans for a new railway station at Port Elizabeth.
From May 1894 he was resident engineer of the Port Elizabeth Harbour Board expanding the harbour and introducing important improvements including hydraulic and electric cranes. He also oversaw the enlargement and strengthening of the jetties so that sea-going vessels berth alongside.
In 1900 upon his appointment as engineer to the Table Bay Harbour Board he re-located to Cape Town. He travelled to England, Europe and the United States to visit various harbours and to order the latest machinery for Cape Town.
After his return in 1901 he was appointed general manager and engineer-in-chief of the Table Bay Harbour Board, and developed the harbour into one of the finest in Africa. During 1905 he drew up several plans of the harbour, indicating a proposed pier, reclamation of land, railways, etc. He retired at the end of 1908 when the Harbour Board was abolished.
He and his family settled in Eltham, Kent but after a few years they decided to emigrate to the United States. In 1922 at the age of 70 he and his wife Edith Maria (nee Fuller) arrived in Quebec on the SS Antonia from Southampton declaring their intention is to become permanent residents in the USA . It’s possible their first destination was Phoenix, Arizona where their daughter Nora was living with her husband Alfred Benson Laing.
In 1929 they are registered as electors in San Diego, California but by 1931 they are in Phoenix, Arizona. The following year, 1932, they moved to Los Angeles, California where Edith died in 1933 and Robert Henry died in July 1936.
The couple had five children, three sons and two daughters. At the time of his death, son John and daughter Nora were living in Hollywood, California; son Claude was resident at Vryburg, South Africa, son Vernon and daughter Eileen was living in London.
Robert Henry Hammersley Heenan: a man of science
Robert Henry Hammersley Heenan was a founding member of the Cape Society of Civil Engineers, becoming the President in 1906.
Outside his work seems to have taken an active interest in a variety of scientific activities.
He was a member of the Cape of Good Hope Meteorological Commission, serving until 1906.
He also seems to have been interested in the concept of the wireless telegraphy. One report indicates that he met Edward Arthur Jennings, a pioneer in the field in South Africa, who was working in Port Elizabeth. Jennings made the same discoveries as Marconi but was never credited with his inventions. During his experiments he was mystified by a crackling noise in his house whenever the trams passed by and he called in various local experts to help provide an answer. According to an article in the Antique Wireless Association of Southern Africa newsletter Hammersley Heenan “jokingly suggested that it must be a message from Mars.”
He was also an early member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, later joining the British Association for the Advancement of Science when it met in South Africa in 1904.
- Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, The National Archives at Washington, D.C.. Accessed via Ancestry.com
- UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960, The National Archives. Accessed via Ancestry.com
- Civil registration, deaths, USA, Death certificates no. 8850-10850, 1933 Accessed via Familysearch.org
- Biographical Database of Southern African Science
- Antique Wireless Association of Southern Africa http://awasa.org.za/Newsletters/2014/105oct14.pdf