Sir William Cubitt (1785-1861)

Railway & canal engineer; inventor of patent windmill sails and of the prison treadwheel


Brief biography

Early life

William Cubitt was born in 1785 at Dilham in North Norfolk, where his father was a miller. The family later moved to Southrepps, then to Bacton Wood Mill, near North Walsham. In 1800 William was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker and joiner, later working for a manufacturer of agricultural machinery.

He invented and in 1807 patented what became the standard design for self-regulating windmill sails, then set up in business at Horning as a millwright.

General engineering

In 1812 he entered into a contract with Ransome & Son, the principal ironfounding firm in Ipwich, to develop their general engineering business. This he did successfully, in particular designing and installing various iron bridges and supervising the first Ipswich gasworks.

He invented the prison treadwheel, installing the first one in Bury St Edmunds Gaol in 1819, followed by ones at Cold Bath Fields (London), Swaffham, Worcester, Liverpool and elsewhere.

Waterways and docks

Cubitt's first waterway project was the Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation, then he engineered the straightening of the northern part of the Oxford Canal. He became Telford's successor on what is now known as the Shropshire Union Canal and on the Ulster Canal. His largest waterway scheme was the improvement of the River Servern, including building four locks and weirs.

Docks schemes included Lowestoft, Ellesmere Port, Cardiff and Middlesbrough.


Cubitt was consultant engineer to the South Eastern Railway from London to Dover and for the Great Northern Railway from London to Doncaster. The latter, which included the loop via Lincoln, had the greatest length of line agreed in one Act of Parliament.

The Great Exhibition

For his work as Chairman of the Building Committee and, in effect, consultant engineer for the building of the Crystal Palace, Cubitt received his knighthood.

Institution of Civil Engineers

In 1823 Cubitt became the 58th member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which had been founded five years previously. He became Vice President in 1833 and was President in 1850 and 1851.

Family and personal

In 1809 William Cubitt married Abigail Sparkhall of Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk, whose mother was also a Cubitt; they had three children, their son Joseph becoming a well-known railway engineer. Abigail died whilst the children were young, and in 1820 he married Elizabeth Jane Tiley of Reading.

William Cubitt died in 1861 and is buried in West Norwood Cemetery.


Sites to visit


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - errors

Unfortunately, the entry on Sir William Cubitt contains a number of errors:


The 'other' William Cubitt

Sir William Cubitt, the engineer, is often confused with his namesake and near contemporary who was an engineering contractor.

William Cubitt (1791-1863) was the brother of Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855) who founded the building firm which constructed the London Institute, Finsbury Circus and developed much of Belgravia, Bloomsbury, Pimlico and Clapham Park; Thomas also remodelled Osborne House and built the east front of Buckingham Palace. His younger brother was Lewis Cubitt (1799-1883), the architect, whose best known building is Kings Cross Station.

William was a partner in Thomas's building firm but in about 1827 to set up his own firm, concentrating on civil engineering contracting. The reasons for the split are not clear. William could have been concerned about the high risks of speculative building, or it may have been that Thomas's style was too autocratic, and William wanted to be more involved in policy decisions. He built much of the southern section of the London & Birmingham Railway, including the sections from Boxmoor to Tring and Euston to Camden, the portico and the original station buildings at Euston, and Camden engine shed. Other contracts included the new Fishmongers' Hall (1831-33), repairs to Westminster Bridge (1838-44) and rebuilding the Stock Exchange (1853). He was also responsible for the reclaiming and development of Cubitt Town in the Isle of Dogs. He retired completely from the firm in 1854.

William was Sheriff of London in 1847 and Lord Mayor in 1860/61 & 1861/62; MP for Andover from 1847 to 1861 and in 1862; and Prime Master of the Fishmongers' Company.

There is no known direct family relationdhip between Sir William Cubitt and the 'Buxton' Cubitts.


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