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Pole, Williamlocked

  • Stanley Smith

Pole, William (1814–1900), engineer, musician, and authority on whist, was born on 22 April 1814 at Birmingham, the fourth son of Thomas Pole. He was educated at Mr Guy's private school in the city before being apprenticed in 1829 to Charles H. Capper, engineer, an agent for the Horseley Iron Company, where Pole obtained much of his technical education and worked in the drawing office. He moved to London in 1837 and worked as a draughtsman for a number of engineering firms. Between 1839 and 1843 he taught himself advanced mathematics, as well as a number of European languages. In 1841 at the meeting in Plymouth of the British Association for the Advancement of Science he became interested in the operation of the Cornish pumping engine and published A Treatise on the Cornish Pumping Engine (1844). He presented two related papers to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1843, one on friction losses in beam engines and the other on the density and pressure of steam.

In 1844, uncertain of his future in engineering, and with a bent for the application of advanced mathematics to technical problems, Pole took up the post of professor of engineering at the Elphinstone College in Bombay. He had been recommended to the India Office by the president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and he was to set up the engineering course there for Indian students, who in 1846 assisted with part of the survey for the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. However, due to ill health Pole left India in 1847. He spent nine months on the return journey, visiting the pyramids, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, where he arranged to translate Ernst Alban's book, The High Pressure Steam Engine Investigated (1847).

In 1848 Pole worked on the Lambeth Water Company's Thames Ditton works and with David Thompson patented an improved pumping engine. Pole revised the mathematical part of Edwin Clark's book The General Description of the Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges (1850) for Robert Stephenson and in 1852 was awarded the Society of Arts silver medal for his calculations on the forces in the crank of a steam engine. In the same year he became assistant to James Meadows Rendel, and worked on railway schemes in India, as well as on projects in Italy and Germany. They reported on the harbours at Genoa and Spezzia, and Pole personally explained their recommendations to Count Cavour. After surveying the Prussian coast, to select the site of a harbour, Pole was consulted by Ferdinand De Lesseps about the proposed Suez Canal. After Rendel's death in 1856 Pole became assistant to John Fowler, whom he accompanied to Algeria to survey for the proposed French railways in that colony. In 1858 he opened his own office at 3 Storey's Gate, Westminster.

From 1859 to 1867 Pole was professor of engineering at University College, London. In 1860 he gave lectures to the Royal Engineers at Chatham and in 1865 to the Royal School of Naval Architecture. The latter series was subsequently published as Iron as a Material of Construction in 1877. He was elected an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1840 and a member in 1856. Pole gave a total of nine papers to the Institution during his career, on subjects ranging from steam engines to aerial navigation. He also wrote a biography of Sir William Siemens (1888), edited and completed the Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart. (1877), contributed five chapters to The Life of Robert Stephenson by J. C. Jeaffresor (1864), and assisted Isambard Kingdom Brunel's son, also Isambard, with the life of his father which was published in 1870. He gave a well received paper on colour blindness to the Royal Society in 1859, and was elected FRS in 1861 and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1877.

Pole's expertise was often called upon, and he served on a number of committees and commissions of inquiry. In 1861 he was a member of Sir John Dalrymple Hay's committee to investigate the application of iron armour to warships and was responsible for writing most of the five-volume report. In 1865 he was secretary to the royal commission investigating the principles of railway legislation, and in 1867 secretary to the royal commission on London's water supply, whose 1869 report was largely Pole's work. In the later 1860s he also reported on continuous water supply and on the Martini-Henry rifle, and devised examinations for engineering candidates at the India Office. He acted from 1870 until 1899 as one of the gas referees, appointed annually by the Board of Trade under the 1868 City of London Act. From 1882 until 1884 he was secretary to the royal commission on the disposal of sewage in the River Thames and in 1884 acted as secretary of a departmental committee concerned with the South Kensington science museums.

From 1871 until 1883 Pole acted as consulting engineer in England for the Japanese government, designing structures and providing advice about the setting up of the railway system in Japan. He was made a knight commander of the imperial Japanese order of the Rising Sun in 1883 in recognition of his work. In 1873 he aided W. H. Barlow with calculations for a bridge across the Forth at Queensferry and in 1880 gave scientific evidence to the court of inquiry concerned with the Tay Bridge disaster. Much of his engineering practice was concerned with water supply to towns and he advised on the schemes for Liverpool and Manchester.

Pole had a wide range of artistic and musical interests, in addition to his professional practice. These included astronomy (he accompanied an expedition to Spain in 1860 to observe the total eclipse of the sun), painting on glass, and photography. He wrote for The Times, the Quarterly Review, the Fortnightly Review, the Philosophical Magazine, and Macmillan's Magazine and provided numerous obituaries for the Institution of Civil Engineers, on whose council he served for twelve years until he succeeded Charles Manby as secretary in 1885. He was a council member of the Royal Society in 1863 and was a vice-president in 1876 and 1889. Pole was a friend and supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites and his third son, William, was chosen by William Holman Hunt to pose as the young Jesus for The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple.

As a young man, Pole taught himself to play the organ and when he was seventeen acted as organist at a Wesleyan chapel in Birmingham. He later moved to the Congregational chapel in Carrs Lane and received tuition from Thomas Munden. In London in 1836 he won, in open competition, the post of organist at St Mark's Church, North Audley Street, a post he held until 1844 and again from 1850 until 1866. He produced, in 1851, a report on the musical instruments at the Great Exhibition and was on the jury for musical instruments at the 1862 Exhibition. In the 1850s and 1860s he arranged recitals of little-known works by Bach and Mozart in his own home and wrote programme notes for orchestral concerts. In 1860 he took the degree of Bachelor of Music at St John's College, Oxford, impressing Sir F. Ouseley by having passed 'the most brilliant musical examination he had ever witnessed' (Hale Central Library Collection, No. 169, Sir F. Ouseley, 5 June 1880), and took a music doctorate at Oxford in 1867. In 1877 he gave a course of lectures on the theory of music, published in 1879 as The Philosophy of Music. This led to Pole's being asked to draw up the regulations for a University of London degree in music, for which he acted as examiner from 1878 until 1891. He wrote a history of the Mozart Requiem, contributed to Grove's Dictionary of Music, and wrote arrangements for songs. Pole composed a setting of Psalm 100 performed at Tenbury in 1861, which he later arranged as an eight-voice motet, and this was performed at the 1882 Chester festival. In 1889 he was elected vice-president of the Royal College of Organists.

It was for his writings about whist, however, that Pole was best known to the general public, being called by his obituary in The Times 'one of the fathers of modern whist'. He started playing in 1860, and his Essay on the Theory of the Modern Scientific Game was first published in 1864, with a twentieth edition in 1904. In 1883 he published The Philosophy of Whist, which went through seven editions by 1900. He published a further eight books and pamphlets on the subject between 1864 and 1900.

Despite his many attainments, Pole was not responsible for any major engineering structures. His office, first in the family home in London at 3 Storey's Gate, later in Parliament Street, was small, consisting of only two rooms, and he employed only one or two clerks, preparing all the calculations and reports himself. He was well respected within the engineering profession, was responsible for writing most of the Institution of Civil Engineers' Report on the Education of Engineers in 1870, and wrote another version in 1890 which was never published. Unfortunately, his work behind the scenes with numerous royal commissions and committees resulted in his never achieving the public recognition that might have been expected.

Pole's wife, Matilda, who went out to Bombay in 1846 to marry him, was the youngest daughter of Henry Gauntlett, rector of Olney, Buckinghamshire, a well-known church musician. Her brother H. J. Gauntlett, a lifelong friend, was a composer and organist, an adviser to Hills, the organ builders, and arranged in 1844 for one of their ‘noble organs’ to be sent out and erected in Bombay. Pole and his wife had a large family, three of whom performed a specially composed song at their golden wedding celebrations in 1896. Their eldest son, G. H. Pole, trained as an engineer but later took holy orders and became the principal of the divinity school in Osaka, Japan. Their third son was William Poel the actor and founder member of the Elizabethan Stage Society.

Pole died on 30 December 1900 at his home at 9 Stanhope Place, Hyde Park, London, two months after the death of his wife. The funeral service, at which his eldest son assisted, was held at St James's Church, Paddington, on 2 January 1901.


  • W. Pole, Some short reminiscences of events in my life and work: abbreviated from manuscript notes (privately printed, London, 1898)
  • PICE, 143 (1900–01), 301–9
  • MT, 42 (1901), 103–4
  • The Times (31 Dec 1900), 8
  • The Times (3 Jan 1901), 4
  • testimonial and other letters to and concerning William Pole, 100 in all, Hove Central Library, Autograph collection
  • W. P. Courtney, English whist and English whist players (1894)
  • ‘Poel, William’, DNB


  • BL, travel journal, Add. MS 42557
  • Hove Central Library, Sussex, corresp.
  • Inst. CE
  • Royal College of Music, London
  • CUL, letters to George Stokes
  • RS, letters to Sir John Herschel


  • lithograph, 1877, repro. in Pole, Some short reminiscences
  • photograph (in later life), repro. in MT

Wealth at Death

£32,897 6s. 9d.: resworn probate, June 1901, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Musical Times
Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers
S. Sadie, ed., , 20 vols. (1980); 2nd edn., 29 vols. (2001)
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)