Thomas Forster Brown (1835-1907)

Thomas Forster Brown

Written by Les Shore

Occupation: Engineer

An eminent mining engineer who was an influential force in the South Wales Coalfield due to being a consultant, serving as a mineral agent, and by engagement in business and technical affairs. He also held notable mineral agent posts in the Forest of Dean and Cornwall. He was born at Garrigill, near Alston, Cumbria, 7 January 1836, to Thomas Forster Brown [1808-1845], who was probably a mineral agent of yeoman stock, and Hannah, née Watson [1808-1838]. His mother died when he was two years old, and subsequently in 1875 his father, having moved to take up a mineral agent’s role with the Governor and Company of Lead Miners, married Miss Ainsley of Middleton, Teesdale, Yorkshire. After his father’s death in 1848, he and his stepmother moved to live in Bishop Auckland, County Durham. 

His grandmother was a sister of Westgarth Forster [1772-1835], who died at Garrigill having acquired extensive knowledge of lead mining. Forty-eight mines operated in the parish of Alston in 1856, which were owned by the Lords of the Admiralty (representing Greenwich Hospital).

A decision made by the Admiralty had a profound effect upon Thomas Forster Brown’s work as a consultant. Between the years 1858 and 1851, for powering Royal Navy vessels, Sir Henry de la Beche [1796-1855] and (later Lord) Dr Lyon Playfair [1819-1898], reported the results of trials appraising the steam raising properties of coal mined in Great Britain. The outcome, the Admiralty listed only coal raised in the South Wales Coalfield for powering naval steam ships. 

After receiving an elementary school education, Thomas Forster Brown attended Bishop Auckland Grammar School, whose roll was probably much less than fifty pupils. An earlier pupil of the school was inventor-industrialist William Armstrong FRS [1810-1900], later Lord Armstrong.

Forster Brown left the school in the autumn of 1851 to pursue mining engineering articles with a distant relation, Thomas Emerson Forster [1802-1875], who was based at Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1863, T. E. Brown, with William Armstrong (not the future Lord Armstrong) and George Elliot (later a baronet), carried out a study of the South Wales Coalfield collieries of the late Thomas Powell [1779-1863]. The study’s finding caused Elliot to form the Powell Duffryn Steam Coal Company. 

In 1855, Thomas Forster Brown became a colliery manager under Robert Simpson of Ryton, the head viewer of the Stella Coal Company. Next, in 1858, through the ‘influence of G. C. Greenwell’, he was appointed manager of the Rhymney Valley’s Machen Colliery situated close to the southern boundary of the South Wales Coalfield. He oversaw the sinking of a number of shafts and engineered the colliery. Although coal was found, the venture was abandoned in 1864. Whilst engaged with the Machen Coal Company, he gave technical advice to the nearby, to the west, Rhos Llantwit Coal Company. The experiences gave him knowledge needed to present an 1865 paper, ‘the Caerphilly Mineral District’ to the South Wales Institute of Engineers. He would present further papers and serve as president of the institute for the years 1871-75 and 1891-93. Thus, in 1874, he hosted at a Cardiff banquet a past pupil of his grammar school, Sir William Armstrong, who was touring south Wales.

The mining engineer’s initial residence in the Machen district brought him into contact with Helen Hicks [1836-1874]. In circa 1864, he married Helen, whose father, William [b.1796], was a grocer living at Machen, when and where she was born. The marriage occurred at St Peter and St Pauls Church, Aston, Warwickshire, on 24th July, 1860. On the marriage certificate, ‘Schoolmaster’ is entered as William Hicks’s profession. The children of the marriage were: Helen Ethel Anne, born in Newland, Gloucestershire, in 1866; Westgarth Forster [1867-1943] and Thomas Percy [b.1869], who were both born in Cardiff, where in 1871 the family resided at Grove House, and employed a governess, who was a French citizen.

In 1865, Forster Brown was appointed Her Majesty’s Deputy Gaveller for the Forest of Dean by the Commissioner of Woods and Forest and for the pursuit of duties occupied an office in Coleford, Gloucestershire. His references for the position were submitted by Robert Simpson, T. Sopwith [1803-1879] (later FRS) and grandfather of pioneering aviator Sir Thomas Sopwith [1888-1989], whose period as a mining engineer saw him employed as a mineral agent in a lead  mining area, and Sir Warrington Smyth FRS [1817-1890], whose background was as a mineral geologist. The Deputy Gaveller’s main duty was the ‘collection from the Dean miners’ for the Crown of ‘dues in respect of coal, iron ore, ochre and stone and the general supervision of the mining customs of the Forest’. Paying rent and mineral royalties were the main dues. Other duties included: awarding coal and iron gales, the term used for mineral tracts; keeping plans and maps of mine workings; and resolving disputes between ‘free miners’ of the Forest of Dean and Hundred of St Briavels. After the Dean Forest (Mines) Act 1838, the qualifications for a ‘free miner’ were confirmed as ‘a male person and abiding within the Hundred of St Briavels, of age of twenty-one years and upwards, who shall have worked a year and a day in a coal or iron mine in the Hundred’. Long before the 1830s, drawing upon ancient custom, free miners claimed they could own a mine by transfer, descent, devise or in partnership, while gale rights could be sold, leased or passed to a foreigner. With the advent of deeper mining, the money of relatively wealthier foreigners enabled capital investment in colliery plant and equipment. Another of his tasks was estimating coal or iron ore resources of a mine put up for sale. When he resigned in 1903, he had served in the post for nearly four decades.

In 1866 he was party to founding a Cardiff-based mining consultancy with Samuel Dobson MICE, which later evolved to become Dobson, Brown and Adams, when G. F. Adams joined the partnership. After the deaths of Dobson and Adams, in 1885, the consultancy became Brown and Rees (Ithel Treharne Rees MICE). William Armstrongs & Sons, Newcastle upon Tyne, absorbed the consultancy business in 1941.

Perhaps the first project winning prestige for Brown and Adams concerned the engineering of Harris’s Deep Navigation Colliery located more or less at the centre of the Taff Valley.  Their colliery engineering services were engaged by Harris’s Navigation Coal Company before shaft sinking began in 1872 and were retained for a long period afterwards. The colliery’s shafts were 200 yards deeper than any other sinking in the coalfield. The technical advances adopted at the colliery included substantial mechanical ventilation for the period. A paper they presented about the engineering of the colliery to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1881 provided the first full published technical account of founding a colliery in the South Wales Coalfield. He had been elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1868 and served as Member of Council for 1898 to 1902. For the 1881 paper, both authors were awarded the institution’s George Stephenson Medal and Telford premiums.

Following the death of Helen, he married in October 1875 Marion Ives Wintle [1851-1914] at the Gloucestershire village of Newnham on Severn’s parish church, St Peter’s. She was born in the village and her father, James Wintle [1804-1899], practiced as a solicitor at Westbury on Severn. The children of this marriage were: Isabel [1878-1946], Edward Otto Forster [1881-1941], Doris [1888-1951] and James Cameron [1893-1916]. In January, he delivered a notable geological paper to the South Wales Institute of Engineers, ‘The South Wales Coalfield’. Moreover, that year, Brown sat on the South Wales Coalfield’s board for examining the competency of prospective colliery managers under the Mines Act, 1872. The colliery manager was the only British industrial manager who, through examination, needed a certificate of competency to practice.

Categorising Forster Brown as a coalowner might be dated to 1873. That year, representing Rhos Llantwit Coal Company, he became a founder member of the Monmouthshire and South Wales Collieries Association serving as chairman in 1888. By 1881, he was a director of The Great Western Colliery Company, which operated in the lower Rhondda Valley, near to Pontypridd, and as a prelude to his election, Messrs Brown and Adams were praised for re-engineering facilities at one of the company’s collieries. Earlier in 1875, Dobson, Brown and Adams were responsible for engineering the development of the company’s Hetty Pit, whose engine house and headgear survive and can act as a physical reminder of the consultants’ activities. By 1882, he was serving as the mineral agent for Lord Windsor [1857-1928], who owned an estimated 16,000 acres of land in Glamorgan. In 1901, he was one of the directors of the Windsor Steam Coal Company.

Forster Brown also became engaged in 1882 with engineering design work culminating seven years later with the opening of Barry Docks and the running of an associated railway to the Rhondda. He, with Henry Marc Brunel [1842-1903], son of I. K. Brunel, gave assistance to the ‘Engineer’ for the Barry project, Sir John Wolfe Barry [1836-1918]. During Parliamentary inquires into the 1884 Barry Dock and Railways Bill, he presented an analysis of the South Wales Coalfield’s mineral resources. The analysis was a crucial aspect of the case made for passing the Act of Parliament enabling the building of Barry Dock and associated railways. The resident engineer for dock and railway construction was Kendal born John Robinson [1833-1909] q.v. With Colonel John Thomas North [1842-1896], known as the ‘Nitrates King’, as chairman, North’s Navigation Collieries (1889) Limited was formed to operate initially a number of existing collieries. In 1889, Thomas Foster Brown was elected a director of the company and Messrs Forster Brown and Adams contracted to design a new colliery, Caerau No. 1 and No. 2, situated in the Llynfi Valley, which began producing coal in 1894.

Forster Brown suffered a troubling period after an explosion killed 112 miners at Park Slip Colliery in August 1892. The press persistently recognised him as being ‘intimately and directly connected’ with the North’s Navigation Collieries (1889) Limited colliery. Although under the law it was the colliery’s manager who was held accountable for the safety of officials and workers, Messrs Forster Brown and Rees were responsible for the engineering design of the colliery. The seriousness of the disaster caused the Home Secretary, Rt Hon H. H. Asquith MP, to travel to see the rescue activities. The minister was led by Forster Brown and Treharne Rees on a tour of the colliery’s surface and they provided him with a description of the colliery’s ventilation system. The Mines Inspectors’ report, issued in 1893, ‘found the ventilation was effective’. The cause of the explosion was gas being ignited due ‘to negligence and breaches of rules of someone working’ the affected underground district. 

By the end of the 1890s, the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron and Coal Company, for example, saw merit in referring to him as an ‘eminent Mining Engineer and Valuer’ in a prospectus. Earlier, during the 1880s, he had provided a similar coal resource valuation service to many other South Wales Coalfield coal companies. In 1889 he produced a report about the prospects for opening, by Messrs Watson and Grayston, of Maryport, a coal mine near Caldbeck, Cumbria. Nothing more was found about the report, but no coal mine ever operated at Caldbeck. Acting for The Glengarnock Iron & Steel Company, Ayrshire, in 1892, he estimated the company’s coal and clayband and blackband ironstone resources. His foreign consulting assignments comprised at least: Colonel J. T. North’s overseas mining ventures; in 1893, the Nyassa Company (East Africa); and 1899, the Russian Collieries & Railway Company, whose registered offices were in London. Forster Brown challenged in 1900 some criticism of the Russian Collieries Company by noting, in a letter, its Ukraine Donetz coal, as coke, was suitable for its purpose, making steel. 

At the end of 1890, Forster Brown was chosen for the position of mineral inspector for HRH Prince of Wales with respect to the Duchy of Cornwall. The position had been made vacant by the death of Sir Warrington Smyth FRS [1817-1890]. An office he appears to have used for the execution of his Duchy of Cornwall duties was located in Westminster, London. In 1896, he gave consulting engineering advice for the development of Carn Brea and Tincroft mines for raising tin ore. He served a period as the president of the Mining Association and Institute of Cornwall and an associated body, the Mine Accident Fund for Devon and Cornwall.  

The year 1891 saw him take on two further noteworthy roles. In February, he was appointed a member of the court of governors of the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, today due to college amalgamations Cardiff University. In August, Cardiff hosted the British Association’s annual set of meetings and he acted as president of the Mechanical Science section and gave an address.

Messrs Foster Brown and Rees and Sir James Szlumper [1834-1926] were appointed in 1894 the ‘Engineers’ for planning and constructing the Vale of Glamorgan Railway. The railway provided a means for moving coal from collieries in the Garw and Lynfi Valleys to Barry Dock, where the construction of a second dock was planned. Among the promoters of the railway was North’s Navigation Collieries Limited. Also that year, he was also one of the ‘Engineers’ for founding the Port Talbot Railway and Docks Company.

On 1st July, 1897, revealed also to be a member of the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers, he was granted the freedom of the city of London when the mayor was Sir George Faudel-Phillips Bt [1840-1922].  The Worshipful Company at the time was offering a prize for improvements in the design of motor cars. Later in July, he presented a paper, ‘The Transvaal Coalfield’, to the South Wales Institute of Engineers. Also that month, he appeared before a Select Committee of the House of Commons as a supporter of a Bill to amalgamate the Alexandra (Newport and South Wales) Docks Company and the Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport Railway. His support for the Bill was prompted by an earlier conversation with the late Sir George Elliot whose apparent interest was to move coal from the Aberdare district to mix with Monmouthshire coal. Elliot was a director of both the dock and railway companies and Powell Duffryn Steam Coal Company, based at Aberaman, near Aberdare.

After election in 1898 as president of the Mining Association of Great Britain, a body founded to coordinate approaches to Government about legislation matters, he served for two years. That year he put up for sale his Cardiff home, 30, The Parade, as part of a move to live at Stoke Bishop, Bristol, maybe in anticipation of retirement. 

The date when Thomas Forster Brown retired is unclear, but he suffered a period of failing health before his death in Yorkshire on the 23 October 1907, at The Grove, Richmond, where he is buried in the town’s cemetry. He left a widow, and three sons, Westgarth Forster, Edward Otto Forster, and James Cameron and two daughters, Helen Ethel and Doris Ives. His last home residence was Springfort, Stoke Bishop, Bristol. Westgarth Forster CBE, MICE, MIMinE, succeeded his father as Deputy Gaveller for the Forest of Dean, mineral inspector for HRH Prince of Wales with respect to the Duchy of Cornwall, as a director of The Great Western Colliery Company and was elected president of the South Wales Institute of Engineers for 1921-22. Edward Otto Forster MICE, MMinE, also pursued a career as a consulting mining engineer and became a managing director of two coal companies. On 27th August, 1916, James Cameron, a Rifle Brigade officer, aged 22, was killed on active service in France.

The dearth of newspaper obituaries about Thomas Forster Brown contrasted with the much later widespread coverage of his will. He left an estate of £132,253 9s 10d gross value with the net ‘personality’ being sworn at £92,095 10s 8d. Among his will’s bequests was £250 to the vicar of Alston for the benefit of the poor of the parish. Meriting attention by obituarist was his pursuit of mining improvements about which, in 1891, he urged members of the Mining Association and Institute of Cornwall to ‘be thorough and well-thought out’. This effectively reveals the nature of his method of working as a mining engineer. A spokesman for the free miners of the Forest of Dean in 1908 recalled his ‘sense of his fairness and good-will towards’ them. Four decades after his move to the South Wales Coalfield, coal output had grown by nearly seven times, with 49 million tons being produced in 1907. Moreover, the coalfield was then the largest coal exporter of any in the world. With the exception of one year, Barry Docks was the United Kingdom’s biggest exporter of coal from 1901 to 1913, a record unsurpassed since.  Probably unaware of his death, weeks earlier, his contribution to such phenomenal industrial growth received profound acknowledgement in a Cardiff Times history of the South Wales Institute of Engineers. As a ‘technical adviser’, Thomas Forster Brown’s was ‘identified with the development of the [South Wales] coalfield to a greater extent than any living man’.


  • The South Wales Institute of Engineers – Sesquicentenary Brochure 1857-2007. (2007)
  • ‘At the Head of Four Rivers – 1: An Ancient Lead Mining Centre’, Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 8 Oct 1897, p.5
  • Leslie M. Shore, Peerless Powell Duffryn of the South Wales Coalfield. (Lightmoor Press, 2012).
  • T. Foster Brown, ‘The Caerphilly Mineral District’, Proceedings of the South Wales Institute of Engineers, vol.IV (1864-1865); Thomas Forster Brown and George Frederick Adams, ‘Deep Winning of Coal in the South Wales Coalfield’, Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol.LXIV (1881); ‘Great Western Colliery, Company Limited’, Western Mail, 26 February 1875.
  • Brian Davies, ‘The Hetty Winding Engine’, Archive, Issue 95, September 2017, Black Dwarf Lightmoor
  •  ‘The Park Slip Disaster’, South Wales Daily News, 17 April 1893.
  •  Cyril Hart, The Free Miners of the Royal Forest of Dean and Hundreds of St Briavels. (Lightmoor Press, ‘Mr Forster Brown’s Resignation’, Gloucester Journal, 30 May 1903
  • ‘The Proposed Coal Mine at Caldbeck’, West Cumberland Times, 15 December 1888.
  • ‘The Mining Association of Cornwall’, Cornishman, 14 July 1898
  • ‘Mining Intelligence’, Cornishman, 17 September 1896, p.6; ‘Section G –Mechanical Science’, Western Mail, 21 August 1891.
  • ‘Local Wills’, Bristol Times and Mirror, 30 November 1907, p.15; ‘Russian Coal’, South Wales Daily News, 5 Jan 1900.
  • ‘The Mining Association of Cornwall’, Cornishman, 14 July 1898.
  • ‘Late Deputy Gaveller of Dean Forest’, Gloucester Journal, 17 October 1908.
  • ‘History of South Wales Institute’, Cardiff Times, 2 November 1907.
  • Leslie M Shore, The Ocean Coal Company and 'The Barry': David Davies's Extraordinary South Wales Enterprises, Lightmoor Press, 2022