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William Yolland CB, FRS FRSA (17 March 1810 – 4 September 1885) was an English military surveyor, astronomer and engineer, and was Britain’s Chief Inspector of Railways from 1877 until his death. He was a redoubtable campaigner for railway safety, often in the face of strong opposition, at a time when railway investment was being directed towards the expansion of the networks rather than the prevention of accidents. He was a member of the three-man committee of inquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster.[1]


Yolland was born in Plympton St Mary, Devon, the son of the land agent to Lord Morley, Plymouth, and his father promoted the boy’s interest in surveying and land management by enrolling him at a school specialising in mathematics.[1] He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1828 and completed his technical training at the Royal School of Military Engineering in Chatham, Kent, in 1831.

After service in Britain, Ireland and Canada he was posted to the Ordnance Survey in 1838. He made such a strong impression there, particularly with his mathematical knowledge and publications on astronomy,[2] that in 1846 he was nominated to head the organisation by its departing Superintendent, General Thomas Colby.[3] He was, however, thought too young for the post and an older officer (a sapper who had no survey experience) was appointed instead.[4] This new Superintendent, Colonel Lewis Alexander Hall, despatched Yolland back to Ireland to avoid his embarrassment in commanding a more qualified officer, but the survey there was of greater importance than Hall had realised: Parliament had noticed that revenue was being lost as land assessments for tax were not up to date and Yolland’s progress there was followed with interest. In 1849 he was called to appear before a parliamentary select committee to explain how his method of mapping settlements in Ireland could be applied in England, as more detailed town maps were urgently needed to assist in the planned reforms of town sanitation. The interest in Yolland’s work in Ireland survives to this day: as a young man he appears as a leading character in Translations, a modern play set in nineteenth century Co. Donegal.[5] The account of Yolland in Brian Friel's play is fictionalised, however, as he is called George Yolland and is missing, possibly dead, at the play's end. General Colby appears as "Captain Lancey".[5] Yolland's technical account of establishing a triangulation base near Lough Foyle (1827-9) was incorporated as the "geodesy" section of the Royal Military Academy's curriculum for the training of military engineers.[6]

On his return to England he was placed in charge of the Ordnance Survey's new offices in Southampton, where he produced a set of maps of the City itself; in 1852, with Captain Tucker; R.E., he completed a plan of the city of York.[7]

In 1851 Yolland was appointed to one of the judging panels for The Great Exhibition, serving with Colonel Hall in the military engineering category.[8]

When Colonel Hall retired in 1854 it was expected that, at the second opportunity, Yolland would be offered the Superintendent's post. However Hall, who had continued to resent his subordinate's abilities, succeeded in blocking the appointment.[3] Yolland left the Ordnance Survey immediately afterwards.[9] The Railway Inspectorate of the Board of Trade was invariably staffed from the Royal Engineers and Yolland, although still an army officer (by then a major) had no difficulty in securing a post with that organisation. Additionally, he was appointed to a commission to report on the best methods of scientific and technical training for military officers.[6] His findings were accepted and his report was still influencing the training of military engineers (in Britain and the United States) at the end of the twentieth century.[10]

Yolland retired from the army in 1863, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, although he retained his position with the Railway Inspectorate. At a time when Britain’s railway mileage was expanding at a great rate, his duties included the inspection of new lines and he took full opportunity to insist that the latest safety features, such as signal interlocking and block working, should be deployed.[11][12] Yolland's campaign for continuous automatic brakes (he favoured the spring-and-ratchet system invented by James Newall) was initially less successful.[a] At that time the Inspectorate had no statutory powers with regard to existing lines; all too frequently Yolland found himself reporting, in his characteristic rigorous manner, the organisational failures and neglect that had led to serious accidents.

In 1877 he was appointed HM Chief Railway Inspector in succession to Henry Whatley Tyler. He died on 4 September 1885 in Atherstone, Warwickshire.[6][2]

Shipton-on-Cherwell accident (1874)Edit

Shipton-on-Cherwell Disaster (1874)

One of the worst railway crashes he investigated occurred on the Great Western Railway near Oxford.[16] The accident occurred on 24 December 1874 at Shipton-on-Cherwell, just north of Kidlington when a passenger train was derailed and crashed down the embankment. The investigation led by Yolland established the root causes very quickly, and further details emerged at the public enquiry set up by the Board of Trade. By tracing the marks on the sleepers behind the derailed train, Yolland established that the small 4 wheel carriage behind the locomotive had suffered a broken wheel, which disintegrated and caused the derailment. The driver braked hard and the carriages behind cannonaded into the 4 wheeler, crushing it entirely, as well as themselves running off the track. The accident occurred near to a small bridge crossing the Oxford canal and 34 passengers died from their injuries.

Tay bridge disaster (1879)Edit

Fallen Tay Bridge from the north

He was a member of the Board of Inquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster, with fellow members Henry Cadogan Rothery and William Henry Barlow. A train was lost on the night of 28 December 1879 while crossing the Tay estuary just south of Dundee. The centre section of the 2-mile-long bridge collapsed during a storm, with the loss of all on board the train. The inquiry sat initially in Dundee to hear eye witness accounts of the accident, and then in London for expert evidence. They produced their final report in June 1880, and concluded that the bridge was "badly designed, badly built and badly maintained". Yolland went on to report on the state of other Bouch bridges, especially a very similar structure at Montrose, the South Esk Viaduct. The bridge was in a dire state according to Yolland in his Railway Inspectorate report, needing to be demolished and replaced by a safer structure. The directors of the owning company, the North British Railway, did not "feel free to adopt this suggestion" and the Board of Trade allowed the company to build a less expensive replacement.[17][18]

Honours and awardsEdit


  1. ^ Newall, based in Bury, Lancashire, was carriage builder to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. He also was patentee for a gas-fuelled carriage lighting system.[13][14][15]
  1. ^ a b Vetch (2004)
  2. ^ a b "Obituary". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. London: Royal Astronomical Society. 46: 201. 1886. Bibcode:1886MNRAS..46..202.. doi:10.1093/mnras/46.4.202.
  3. ^ a b Owen, Tim; Pilbeam, Elaine (1992). Ordnance Survey: Map makers to Britain since 1791. Southampton, England: Ordnance Survey. pp. 44–46. ISBN 0-319-00498-8.
  4. ^ Hewitt, Rachel (2010). "A Great National Survey". Map of a Nation: A Biography Of The Ordnance Survey. Kensington, London: Granta. p. 297. ISBN 9781847080981.
  5. ^ a b Bullock, Kurt (2000). "Possessing Wor(l)ds: Brian Friel's Translations and the Ordnance Survey". New Hibernia Review. St Pauls, MN. 4 (2). ISSN 1092-3977.
  6. ^ a b c "Obituary". The Times: 6. 7 September 1885.
  7. ^ Plan of York, 1852 (Sheets 1 - 21): Surveyed in 1850, by Captain Tucker; R.E. Engraved in 1851, under the direction of Captain Yolland, R.E. at the Ordnance Map Office, Southampton, and Published by Lt. Colonel Hall R.E. Superintendent, 1st. Sept., 1852.
  8. ^ Bowring, Edgar (1852). Reports by the juries on the subjects in the thirty classes into which the exhibition was divided. p. 209. OCLC 606234586.
  9. ^ "Office of Ordnance Corps of Royal Engineers". London Gazette. 23 January 1855.
  10. ^ Preston, Richard A (1980). Perspectives in the History of Military Education and Professionalism. Colorado Springs: US Air Force Academy. p. 34. OCLC 612532779.
  11. ^ Gordon, William John (1910). "Interlocking Signals". Our Home Railways. 1. London: Frederick Warne and Co. p. 198.
  12. ^ "Colonel William Yolland called in and examined". Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee on Railway Companies. 10. London: House of Commons. June 1870. pp. 115–125. OCLC 952817846.
  13. ^ Nock, O.S. (1955). The Railway Engineers. London: B.T.Batsford Ltd. p. 239.
  14. ^ Fairbairn, William (November 1859). "On experiments to determine the efficiency of self-acting brakes for railway trains". The Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal. xxii (308): 357.
  15. ^ Bradshaw's General Railway Directory, Shareholders' Guide, Manual and Almanack (XVI ed.). London. 1864. p. Front matter.
  16. ^ Yolland, William (April 1875). "Shipton-on-Cherwell Railway Accident, 24th December 1874" (PDF). Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  17. ^ "Site Record for Montrose, South Esk Viaduct". Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Retrieved 19 January 2012.
  18. ^ Yolland, William; Calcraft, Henry (29 November 1880). "North British Railway". Return of Accidents and Casualties. London: HMSO. pp. 277–280.


  • Simmons, Jack and Biddle, Gordon (1997): The Oxford Companion to British Railway History. Oxford University Press.
  • Vetch, R. H., revised Matthew, C. G. (2004): Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. The first edition of this text is available at Wikisource: "Yolland, William" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  • Peter R. Lewis, Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay: Reinvestigating the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, Tempus, 2004, ISBN 0-7524-3160-9.
  • Peter R Lewis and Alistair Nisbet, "Wheels to Disaster!: The Oxford train wreck of Christmas Eve, 1874", Tempus (2008) ISBN 978-0-7524-4512-0