"Probably no man ever lived in the town whose favour was more eagerly sought; … at one time his fine figure was as familiar as any that was to be seen there." These sentiments from an obituary notice in the Hampshire Independent, 25 July 1888 reflect the importance of Captain Engledue to Southampton.
He was superintendent of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company's fleet, then based in Southampton, between 1849 and the mid 1860s, a pivotal period in the development of both the town and the company. Immense patronage flowed through Engledue's hands, particularly in the commissioning of supplies for the P&O vessels operating from the port. Most were obtained from Southampton tradesmen.
Captain Engledue was a staunch supporter of the Conservative party and, in contradiction of company policy which forbade its officials becoming involved in politics, he was active in parliamentary elections for the borough. He had, however, to walk a political tightrope. One of the Liberal members for Southampton - Brodie McGee Willcox - was joint managing director and chairman of P&O and it fell to Engledue, as the senior P&O representative in Southampton, to accompany him on his canvasses. For a number of years Engledue was joint proprietor, with John Coupland, of the Conservative Hampshire Advertiser. Engledue stood as a Conservative candidate for the borough in 1859 but did not go to the poll. He stood in the general election of 1874 as a second Conservative candidate alongside Russell Gurney but, with rumours that P&O were contemplating to move out of Southampton, he came bottom of the poll.
A keen supporter of Southampton as a railway hub, Engledue was a guarantor of the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway Bill of 1873, planned to give direct communication with the Great Western Railway. More prosaically, local obituaries emphasised his role in establishing an improved omnibus service between Shirley and Southampton.
John Ralph Engledue was a Portsmouth man, baptized at St Mary's Church in Portsea on 15 May 1808. In c.1823 he joined the Royal Navy, serving - over the course of seventeen years - on HM ships Queen Charlotte, Britannia, Genoa, Galatea, Excellent, Forte and Cornwallis The key appointment was as mate on the naval gunnery school HMS Excellent in Portsmouth harbour. This was on the recommendation of senior officers who were much impressed by his work and after having written several articles on the subject of gunnery. He was promoted lieutenant in 1833 after passing the gunnery examinations, subsequently serving as gunnery lieutenant on the Excellent in 1835 and 1836, the Forte and the Cornwallis, serving in the later on the West Indies station for nine months. Engledue claimed, in a memorial dated 23 December 1852, to have been "the first officer who entered upon the duties of gunnery in the Royal Navy, having from his proficiency in that branch been selected by Sir Thomas Hastings [captain of the Excellent] in lieu of an artillery officer, to conduct that duty".
Lieutenant Engledue's involvement with P&O began in August 1837. He was appointed captain of the Don Juan, the largest steamer in the fleet then based in Falmouth, on its maiden voyage after Richard Bourne had signed the company's first mail contract with the government. It was then an Admiralty condition that all ships carrying the mails should be under Royal Navy command. A momentous honour to a 29-year old gunnery officer which ended in disaster as the ship - carrying the company's founder Arthur Anderson and his wife - ran aground off Tarifa in southern Spain a fortnight after he took command. This, however, did not prevent his later appointment as captain of the P&O Steamer Great Liverpool, under contract with the government to carry the mails to Alexandria and armed by its new captain with new percussion locks and sights. His name was removed from the list of navy lieutenants in August 1840. In what was widely regarded as a political move by the Whig Board of Admiralty, he was gazetted to HMS Calcutta. To accept an active commission would jeopardize his lucrative P&O work. He therefore was forced both to leave the navy and relinquish his right to receive half pay. To the public dismay of Southampton Liberals he was restored to the naval list in January 1853 following the recommendations of a Select Committee of the House of Commons. His value as a gunnery officer in the Crimean War could not be ignored. He had already, on his own initiative, begun training men in Southampton on a naval gun he set up. He also advocated the arming of the mercantile marine, and made the P&O fleet a virtual arm of the Royal Navy.
Captain Engledue took service in the P&O in 1840. It was largely through his practical efforts that a permanent line was established between India, China and England. He was appointed superintendent in 1841, responsible for the creation of the string of coaling depots essential now that paddle steamers were replacing sailing vessels. Relations with Mehemet Ali, Pasha of Egypt, were crucial to the success of the project, especially as an ally against the French. Engledue helped to modernize the Egyptian artillery defences and helped train their naval gunners. In September 1842 he was sent to Calcutta as the company's agent in India. He lived in great style on the banks of the River Hooghly, in the most classical building in Garden Reach, the most beautiful and aristocratic of Calcutta's suburbs. The P&O anchorage was opposite the house, and a huge coal depot lay adjacent. Whilst in Calcuta, he took a 20 year lease on the Chirra Punji coal mines.
Captain Engledue moved to Southampton in late 1848/early 1849 as superintendent of the company's fleet. He lived in sumptuous style, with his second wife Eliza Penelope and family first in Wilton House and later, outside the borough, in Winchester Road, Shirley and in Regent's Park. Two children were born during this period: James Allan (baptized 29 December 1849 at All Saints Church) and Lewis Ralph Mackintosh (baptized 19 June 1861 at Millbrook). He became a borough magistrate.
Engledue quit Southampton to live in Kensington on removal of the P&O headquarters to London. Here he was elected to the board of directors, on which he was active until shortly before his death in July 1880, aged 80 years. He was also a director of the National Bank of Ireland and of the London Chartered Bank of Australia. At probate his personal estate was valued at £95,917.17s. He was not an easy man to work with. The Southampton Times obituary thought him "of somewhat hasty temper, and given to express himself in a rather vigorous manner to the men under his direction". The Hampshire Independent, an old political enemy, was more barbed: "He was a man of somewhat rough exterior, and had the reputation of being a stern disciplinarian, but still in some quarters he made many warm friendships." He had a strong physical presence, characterized by the Liberal John Truffles Tucker in a heated debate in All Saints Easter vestry in 1851 - in which it was claimed that the Captain had escaped paying poor rates by moving over the borough boundary - as being "as fat as a hog". The relocation deprived Engledue of a borough vote. A younger brother, Dr William Collins Engledue (1813-59) of Portsmouth, was a surgeon, general practitioner, mesmerist and an authority on celebral palsy. A son, William John Engledue (1840-1906), was a Colonel in the Royal Engineers, latterly serving in India.
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