Who were Edward J. Burrow and Richard Eustace Tickell and why did they record The Vale of Nantgwilt in 1893? by Gerry McGandy


Special thanks to Joyce Cummings and Vic of the Cheltenham Local History Society; without their research in local Cheltenham Newspapers this essay would have been much poorer.

The School of Art collection at Aberystwyth houses eleven landscape prints engraved by Edward John Burrow after drawings by Robert Eustace Tickell. Tickell had them printed in a volume entitled ‘The Vale of Nantgwilt – A Submerged Valley‘ in1894 (Fig. 1). Who were Burrow and Tickell and why did they choose to record these pleasant and picturesque if otherwise unremarkable scenes?

Front page, The Vale of Nantgwilt - A Submerged Valley, 1894, Robert Eustace Tickell

Fig.1 Front page, The Vale of Nantgwilt – A Submerged Valley, 1894, Robert Eustace Tickell

Eustace Tickell was the civil engineer who supervised the construction of the Pen-y-Garreg dam, which formed part of the Elan Valley waterworks scheme of 1892. In his introduction, Tickell gave the following reasons for publishing the volume: 

The object of this book is to commemorate scenes in one of the most charming valleys in Great Britain. Scenes which are soon to be lost for ever, submerged beneath the waters of a series of lakes, which, by a colossal engineering undertaking, are about to be constructed for the purpose of supplying water to the city of Birmingham, nearly eighty miles away. The Vale of Nantgwilt [Fig.2]

Fig.2 Cym Elan, engraving by E.J. Burrow after drawing by R.E. Tickell, 1894

Fig.2 Cym Elan, engraving by E.J. Burrow after drawing by R.E. Tickell, 189

lies at the junction of the rivers Elan and Claerwen on the borders of Radnor and Brecon, to the west of the Wye, into which the Elan falls near the little market town of Rhayader. In this neighbourhood upwards of 45,000 acres of land have been acquired by the Corporation of Birmingham under Act of Parliament…’ (1) Birmingham’s need for water was a direct result of the Industrial Revolution. Along with the needs of a rapidly increasing population (Fig.3) for drinking water and sanitation, the factories and industrial processes that drove this urbanisation used vast amount of water. The valley had to be sacrificed for the greater good and though landowners were compensated for their losses, most of the inhabitants did not own land and received nothing.

Fig.3 Population of Birmingham 1650-2011 (A Vision of Britain)

Fig.3 Population of Birmingham 1650-2011 (A Vision of Britain)

The drowned valleys of the rivers Elan and Claerwen each contained a large and historic country house linked with the lyric poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Thomas Grove purchased the estate of Cwm Elan, which contained the Elan Valley mansion, in 1792. It was described then as “10,000 worthless acres, which he is now converting into a paradise.” A local guide published in 1892 noted that:”…the Cwm Elan Estate was purchased early in the century by Mr Grove, a Wiltshire gentleman, and it is to his fostering care that a great part of its present luxuriant beauty is due.” (Elanvalley.org.uk). Grove was Percy Blythe Shelley’s uncle, and the poet, who came to stay at the house twice, was so enamoured of the landscape he wanted to buy it as a home for his new bride and himself. (Elanvalley.org.uk)

At 600ft long and 140ft high it was to be the highest dam in Europe. Tickell was not only a civil engineer but also an artist and writer. He was born in Cheltenham in 1864 and died in 1941. His abilities as an engineer and experience gained on the Elan project would take him to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as Chief Resident Engineer on the Colombo Drainage Works. His submission to Colombo Municipal Council show that he estimated that these works, which had cost 1.2 million GBP, had saved 1800 lives and would save at least 120 000GBP per year. He concludes by presenting a case for the public funding of such projects;

The point to which particular attention is invited is that the funds allocated to such schemes are stigmatised as ‘Unremunerative Expenditure,’ because the benefit accrues to individuals and does not appear in the revenue accounts. But here is concrete instance which shows a more profitable investment than any of the securities of the British Government today.” (Tickell, Transactions 42). Tickell’s work was rewarded with an OBE (geni.com), and by having a road named after him in Colombo.

Fig. 4, Tickell Road, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Fig. 4, Tickell Road, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

His concern that the government and indeed society was responsible for public works and that such works benefitted both individuals and society was mirrored in Burrow’s work in co-operative and self-improvement societies which will be discussed later. In his submission to the Colombo authorities regarding the costs and benefits of the drainage scheme he meticulously calculates the cost of the sickness and deaths resulting from an inadequate water supply, going so far as to break down the expenses of a Hindi funeral. Such calculations must have been part of his work in the Elan Valley. His comment on Fig. 3, the print Capel Nantgwlt 1893, indicates that he was also aware of the human costs of these projects.

“The little chapel will also have to be destroyed and submerged 90 feet deep. The Baptist chapel, with a burial ground, the school house, and twenty farmsteads will all be engulfed to supply the thirst of Birmingham”. Tickell’s words and work indicate that he was influenced by the Utilitarian principle of the greatest amount of good for the greatest number espoused by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). His sense of regret at the destruction of the community finds a poignant echo in the recorded memories of a farmer’s daughter, Hetty Price, who lived in the valley in the 1880s.

…. On the end of the Chapel was a little house, where a dear old man used to live by himself. He used to lead the singing in the Chapel, and how my sister and I used to love the evenings there! Oh! The memories of it all. It is too sad to think about.” (Elanvalley.org.uk lost valleys).

Fig. 5 Capel, Nantgwllt engraved by EJ Burrow after RE Tickell, 1893.

Fig. 5 Capel, Nantgwllt engraved by EJ Burrow after RE Tickell, 1893.

Edward J. Burrow was born on June 8 1869 at Wellington in Somerset. He was educated at Wellington School and then spent seven years studying chemistry and pharmacy. He arrived in Cheltenham in 1889 at the age of 20 as a pharmacist’s assistant and seemed set for an industrious if unremarkable career. According to his obituary in The Cheltenham Echo (1) “he threw it to the winds. His mind had become captivated by a passion for copper plate engraving and etching.” The Echo goes on to note that the change from a commercial to an artistic calling is usually risky and frequently ends in failure. But that “in the case of young Burrow it led on to a fortune.” (1) He made more than 500 engravings during his career and two of his etchings were to be presented to Queen Victoria at Balmoral in 1892 “Which Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to accept and to express her approval of the same.” (Cheltenham Examiner 1895). It was to be his fascination with recording public buildings and ancient monuments that led to the Burrow Guides which proved to be the financial mainstay of his printing business.

By 1900 he had set up a printing business in Cheltenham, which according to the Aberystwyth School of Art Collection catalogue was “a community of 350 artists, writers, and printers craftsmen – all set up on a profit sharing basis.” His obituary in The Cheltenham Echo confirms this stating that the business was run on “an underlying element of the co-operative principle… he (Burrow) introduced a system of bonuses for employees for work done, efficiency and also for the presentation of ideas that were accepted and finally adopted.”(1). The same source notes that he was vice president of the Labour Co-Partnership Association and in 1925 gave evidence to a government committee on profit sharing and co-partnership. The Cheltenham Looker-On featured an article on Burrow and his business on April 1, 1911 (15). It describes a “great local industry” that was worldwide in its market. “Edward J. Burrow, publisher of the ‘Borough Guides’, Burrow’s RAC Handbooks, and a hundred and one other productions which are distinguished by artistic printing and soundness of information.” (15).

The publishing house of Edward J. Burrow, which still exists today, built its reputation and fortune on a by-product of the Industrial Revolution; tourism. Railways transport had initially been developed as a way to move industrial raw materials and products but from the start they were popular with passengers and railway companies soon capitalised on this, leading to a rapid expansion in passenger services. The total mileage of track in Britain grew from 98 in 1830 to 10433 in 1860. John Macadam’s road surface improvements and Henry Ford’s mass production of cars meant that the era of travel for recreation and edification was no longer the province of those wealthy enough to afford it –

Burrow’s Guides and postcards were The Lonely Planet guides of their day. As his business expanded, so did his social horizons. Burrow was active in Church and self-improvement societies, he represented the UK in Rotary International. Wickham Steed, historian and editor of The Times from 1919 to 1922 had this to say of Burrow; “…when an eminent British Rotarian, Edward J Burrow of Cheltenham, explained last month to the readers of ‘The Review of Reviews’ that the Sixth Object of Rotary is ‘International Service and that it involves ‘the problem of living in harmony with the many other races that go to make up the world as we know it’ I felt he was outlining a very ambitious programme.” (Steed, Wickham. 8) The pharmacist’s assistant from Cheltenham had come a long way.

Here we have two men born and educated in the west of England in the second half of the nineteenth century. Both have a scientific background and are practicing artists (Fig.4) and writers. Burrow is an accomplished pianist and patron of the theatre and Tickell has published a volume of his ancestor’s poetry “Thomas Tickell and the eighteenth century Poets” c1930. Both were successful in their chosen fields, travelled extensively and were concerned with improving civil society. They were, in essence, the direct product of the West Midlands Enlightenment of the previous century. This movement revolved around the members of the Lunar Society, which included the philosopher, inventor and grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin; James Watt whose improvement to the Newcomen steam engine was instrumental in industrialising Britain; Josiah Wedgewood of pottery fame and others such as Samuel Johnson and Joseph Wright of Derby. The movement was influential in the birth of British Romanticism with involvement from Shelley, Wordsworth and Blake.

Fig.4 A London Nocturne, Edward J. Burrow, watercolour, 1918.

Fig.6 A London Nocturne, Edward J. Burrow, watercolour, 1918.

The Midlands Enlightenment has attracted less study than that of its European or Scottish counterparts, but according to (Budge 157) it was the powerhouse of the Enlightenment in England. Jones states that it “formed a pivotal link between the earlier Scientific Revolution and the later Industrial Revolution, facilitating the exchange of ideas between experimental science, polite culture and practical technology that enabled the technological preconditions for rapid economic growth to be attained.” According to Jones these men were not only engaged in “the exchange of scientific and philosophical ideas among the intellectual elites of Europe and America, but were simultaneously engaged in solving the practical problems of technology, economics and manufacture.” (17). Their discourse provided a connection between science and technology so that the “…abstract knowledge of Chemistry and Newtonian Mechanics could become the useful knowledge of technological development, the results of which could in turn feed back into the wider scientific knowledge-base, creating a chain-reaction of innovation” (Jones 231-232). Many were involved in radical religious movements such as The Quakers, another trait shared with the movement by Burrow a century later.

Edward Burrow and Eustace Tickell were well educated in both science and art and both went on to success in their careers. Their collaboration on The Vale of Nantgwllt became an exercise in fusing all three of these factors. It is not known if part of Tickell’s purpose in drawing was part of a technical survey of the valley but the use of artists for this purpose was common. Both shared ideas of social improvement that can be traced to the Midlands Enlightenment which had flourished a hundred years previously and their lives exemplify many of the tenets of this movement. Born into the middle classes they utilised education, hard work and an ability to engage in discourse with polite society to elevate themselves to positions where they could influence the politics and economics of that society.

This examination of their lives and their participation in and extension of the Industrial Revolution leaves many questions unanswered. Was their collaboration purely professional or, given their shared interest in art and politics, did they know each other and even work together? What was the exact nature of Burrow’s business and how did its co-operative and profit sharing elements work? Much of the information on Tickell was uncovered whilst researching Burrow and further research may shed light on their relationship.

Works Cited.

Aberystwyth University, Art Department, Museum and Collections.

A Vision of Britain through time, Population statistics, University of Portsmouth, Birmingham District through time: Total Population. Web 10/01/2016

Budge, G. (2007), Introduction: Science and Soul in the Midlands Enlightenment. Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 30: 157–160.

Colombo Jumbo, The Origins of Street names in Colombo, Tickell Road, Borella, C8 colombojumbo.com web 09/01/2016

Elanvalley.org.uk lost valleys web 10/01/2016

geni.com/people/Richard-Tickell, web 10/01/2016

Jones, Peter M. (2009), Industrial Enlightenment: Science, technology and     culture in Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760-1820, Manchester: Manchester University Press , ISBN 0-7190-7770-2

Steed, Wickham. Rotary’s Sixth Object, Its Possibilities for International Service, The Rotarian, Dec 1927, Vol. 31, No. 6.

Tickell, Richard Eustace, The Vale of Nantgwilt – A Submerged Valley, Illustrative    and Descriptive of the Elan and Claerwen valleys in Radnorshire, Shortly to be submerged by the reservoirs for the water supply of Birmingham. Vertue & Co. London, 1894’

Tickell, Richard Eustace, Transactions of the Engineering Association of Ceylon

Colombo Drainage Works 1923.

The Cheltenham Echo, Mr Ed. J. Burrow F.R.G.S passes at 65, September 19, 1935

The Cheltenham Examiner Sept. 11 1895

The Cheltenham Looker-On, An Important Local Enterprise, April 1,1911





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