George Parker Bidder

While on the subject of Ravensbury, this articles is reprinted from an edition 7 years ago, and still delivers the story of a remarkable man, as well as the place he called home.

A Glimpse of the Past

Jumped from a burning mill.

Under the date January 8th, 1777, "The Universal Magazine" for January, published the following account of a fire at a Wandsworth mill, in it's "Historical Chronicle" column:-

"Wednesday afternoon, about 5 o'clock, a fire broke out in the corn mill of Mr. Bell, at the bottom of the Willow-walk, Wandsworth, which destroyed the mill and part of the dwellinghouse and furniture, before it was extinguished. A gentleman who was there on a visit jumped out of a window to avoid the flames, dislocated his neck, and died instantly."

This report shows briefly and vividly that the fire was a serious one. The name of the visitor is not given, but it was probably Silas Nicholls, aged.46, who, the parish records tell us, was buried on January 12th, 1777, four days after the fire.

"For four weeks in November/December 1995 visitors to Merton Civic Centre and then Mitcham Library, were able to see an exhibition about the life and career of George Parker Bidder.

This great man of the 19th century had a special connection with the Wandle. Born in 1806 in Moretonhampstead in Devon as the son of a stonemason, Bidder as a young child showed evidence of extraordinary mathematical ability. His father began to exhibit the boy as a prodigy who could perform in his head any calculation he was challenged with, and as 'The Calculating Boy' he became known throughout the country.

Unlike some exceptionally gifted children Bidder's abilities did not burn out, and he was fortunate in finding friends and patrons who enabled him to receive formal education. He went on to become one of the great engineers of his day, ranking with Rennie, Brunel and the Stephensons. In fact, Robert Stephenson and he were close friends and professional partners.

Bidder built railways and docks throughout Britain, and was involved in the construction of London's sewers. His skill and experience also led to much work abroad, especially Scandinavia, and he was consulting engineer for projects in India. In 1860 he was elected 10th President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and it was in January of the following year that he took the chair to listen to Frederick Braithwaite's paper 'On the Rise and Fall of the River Wandle; its Springs, Tributaries, and Pollution'. This famous account of the river had a special interest for Bidder for, as he commented at the time, he lived nearby, and owned the lease of the Ravensbury Mill.

His home from 1846-64 was Mitcham Hall, which used to stand near Mitcham Station. He then had Ravensbury Park House built, in Morden, off Bishopsford Road. This became the home of his eldest son, G P Bidder QC, when Bidder Senior retired to Dartmouth in Devon, where in 1878 he died in a house he had re-named Ravensbury.

Mr E F Clark, a great-great grandson of Bidder and an engineer himself, helped two members of Moretonhampstead Historical Society to assemble the exhibition to mark the 75th anniversary of the Newcomen Society. It was displayed at Moretonhampstead and Dartmouth (Newcomen's birthplace) before being shown here.

Fortunately the family has kept many of Bidder's letters, documents and photographs, and together with newspaper cuttings and pictures from the Illustrated London News, most of his life and much of his work was covered. There was a portrait and a poster from his years as 'the Calculating Boy', letters from the young engineer determined to improve his handwriting and cut down his swearing (!) travel documents and technical notes from the middle years, and later glimpses of Bidder as president and family patriarch.

E F Clark's 1983 biography of his ancestor, 'The Calculating Boy', is in the local Wandsworth library and is still in print. The book can be purchased from KSL Publications, Ballards, Knotting Green, Bedford MK44 1AA. It is in hardback, 544 pages, price 21, including postage and packing. Judith Goodman"

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