To many young men in the nineteenth century, India represented a land of opportunity. Thousands of them crossed the oceans to construct roads and railways. control law and order and administer the British held territories.
Among them were three members of a Heenan family that originated in Parsonstown, King’s County (now County Offaly), Ireland. They helped create one of the seven most extensive railways in the world. The British control of the territory of India required a transportation system that could move people, machinery and materials quickly and easily across thousands of miles. But there was an even greater imperative in the 1850s – the ability to quickly deploy troops in the event of an emergency.
It was a huge technical challenge because of the terrain and the climate. Railway construction didn’t just involve the installation of thousands of kilometers of rails; it also required the preparation of rail-beds, laying of plates, and the building of tunnels and bridges. In short it needed specialists.
Over the course of about 50 years, roughly between 1853 and 1900 Robert, Richard and George Frederick Heenan built railways in the Punjab, and roads and canals in the Princely state Hyderabad. The map below shows the primary locations where they were active.
The three men were all descendants of John Heenan who practised as a doctor in Parsonstown from around 1810 until his death in 1833 and his wife (name unknown). This is a family whose history I’ve been constructing for more than a year. I’ve written about some of the individual members previously but I found new information this week via the applications they made to become members of the Institutes of Mechanical and Civil Engineering. This has enabled me to build an even fuller picture of their careers.
Robert Heenan, the pathfinder
The youngest of their four children was ROBERT HEENAN who was involved in constructing railways from the age of 17. He worked for a time in Ireland but at the age of 24 decided to look for new opportunities in India. He arrived in Calcutta with his new wife KATE MARY DUIGAN, a doctor’s daughter from Westmeath.
He worked for almost all his subsequent life at Bhangulpore (alt spelling Bhagalpur ), a city and state in Bengal on the River Ganges, working for the East Indian railway company. This was at a time of huge expansion of the railway in India – the country’s first line had opened in 1853, the year before he arrived. When the East India company scaled back their workforce in 1872 because their projects had been completed he switched to the State Railways.
While deputising for a senior official in Mooltan (alt spelling Multan) in June 1873 he developed a severe fever from which he did not recover. He died on July 26, 1873 at the age of 45. He left an estate, valued at £300, to his wife.
The only unusual aspect of his will is that he makes an “express wish that my sons should be brought up as members of the Protestant Church of England.” Until this point all the indications were that the family had been practising Catholics so the question is really what happened to bring about this change of faith?
Kate Mary moved to England after her husband’s death and lived in Brighton and Margate on the south east coast. She died there in 1892. Her will mentions “my daughters Harriett and Edith” and “my son George” . I had no idea there was another daughter so I shall have to do some digging around to locate her. I’ve written about Kate Mary here .
I’m going to speculate that the relatives left back in Ireland knew some of the details of Robert’s experience in India and his progression to positions of responsibility. Did his nephews, the three sons of his elder brother GEORGE HEENAN, hear of these and think they could follow in his footsteps?
It seems these three boys had the benefit of a good education. Their father George Heenan (his story is here) was a land agent and surveyor who, during the time of the Great Famine, was agent to Lord Rosse, the second largest landowner in King’s County. Some of his sons were tutored privately alongside the sons of Lorde Rosse.
The first to head to India was the third son: RICHARD who, like his siblings adopted HAMMERSLEY as a middle name in honour of his mother’s family.
Richard Hammersley Heenan
Richard Hammersley Heenan was one of the first people I wrote about when I started my study of the Heenan surname. His profile is available here.
He was the founder of an engineering firm in Manchester, England. From the 1880s, his company – called Heenan and Froude– specialised in the construction of bridges.One of their projects was Blackpool Tower, a tourist attraction in Lancashire, England.
I knew from his obituary that he had gone to India at the age of 17 and worked as an engineer on state owned railways and other public projects in India. In 1879 he was appointed chief engineer to the public works department in the city of Bhawulpoor until ill health forced him to leave the country.
I’ve now found two new records that provide substantial information about his time in India.
in 1871 he applied for membership of the Institute of Civil Engineers, giving his address as Bhawnpoe, Mooltan (alt spelling Multan) which lay in the Province of Punjab during the British Raj period.
His sponsor’s testimonial said that he had been educated at the Parsonstown Model School where he’d gained the first prize for physical science – including mathematics, hydrostatics and electricity. He then went on to work for two railway companies in Ireland before heading to India. Between 1864-8 he worked for the East Indian Railway as an assistant engineer and then, in March 1868, entered the service of the government of India in the PWD (public works department). His application notes that he had “charge of the Hooghly River works at Mayapore.”
In August 1869 he transferred to the Indus Valley State Railway as officiating executive engineer and in November 1870 he was appointed Chief Executive Engineer of the Bhawulpoor State.
Additional information is given in his 1875 application for membership of the UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers. His proposer said his current position was:
Chief Executive Engineer of the Bhawulpoor State. He has large workshops under his charge and all the steamers dredges & c (sic) on the canals & irrigation of the State’.
George Frederick Hammersley Heenan
Richard Hammersley Heenan had an older brother GEORGE FREDERICK HAMMERSLEY HEENAN who joined him in India. I knew next to nothing about George Frederick beyond the fact he was born on 17 May 1844 in Birr and died in Hastings, Sussex, England in September 1926.
But once again records of the engineering institutes have filled in the blanks. In 1879 he applied for membership of the Institute of Civil Engineers. His proposer described him as having initially worked as a sailor “seeing various parts of the world and being frequently engaged in coast and harbour surveying and whilst in the service of the P & O company he was employed in superintending the erection of jetties and other works.”
He then headed to India, in 1869 to work as an assistant to his brother Richard, where he was mainly involved in surveying and levelling for the construction of canals and roads. One of his achievements was the transport of “A large quantity of timber and machinery from to Bhawulpoor (some 500 Miles) down the [sutley] river in safety, considered at that time a difficult operation.”
Come January 1873 he had moved south to Hyderabad where he joined the public works department of the Nizam (a princely ruler) as assistant engineer. He supervised surveying, boring and mining for coal. He was clearly good at his job because he was twice promoted, ending up in 1879 as executive engineer in which capacity
… he has charge of 2 important irrigation channels, the construction and maintenance of 100 miles of first class roads and the construction and maintenance of all government buildings, military and civil.
He is the only member of the whole Heenan/Hammersley Heenan family of whom I have found a photograph. He obviously returned to Ireland at least once because in June 1878 he married WIHILMENA ISABELLA JANE SMITH in Dublin. There are no records to indicate if they had any children or when they left India for good
John Alexander Heenan
The middle brother of these siblings was also in India at this time.
JOHN ALEXANDER HEENAN wasn’t an engineer like his brothers. His career took a very different path although he did end up working in the same public works department as George Frederick. There isn’t much information available about John Alexander other than he was born in Birr in 1845. By 1884 he is in Bombay where he married REBECCA FLORENCE SMITH .
They were in Bengal by March of 1885 where John Alexander was occupied as a tea planter. That didn’t last very long because in 1889 when his second son George was born they were in residence at Saifebad, Hyderabad and John Alexander was occupied as occupation of examiner of accounts for the Nizams, public works department. This continued to be the case until at least 1896.
Hyderabad State, also referred to as the Nizam’s Dominions, was the largest of the Princely states. Not formally a part of British India, the mainly Hindu state was ruled by a series of hereditary Muslim princes called ‘Nizam’ (from Nizam-ul-Mulk – Administrator of the Realm from 1724 to September 1948 when it was forcibly integrated into the Indian Union and the Nizam deposed.
This Heenan family left India some time between April 1896 and 1901. The 1901 census finds them in Wilmslow, Cheshire – just a mile from his brother Richard and his family. John Alexander and Rebecca Florence returned to Ireland in the late years, the 1911 census shows them at Blackrock in Dublin. Oddly he described himself as a retired farmer though the only evidence he ever worked the land came from a baptism record for his first child in 1885.
The records from the two engineering institutes have given me leads that I want to follow up in future research. In particular I want to look for any information about those rail projects in which the family was involved.