Vignoles, Charles Blacker (1793–1875), civil engineer, was born 31 May 1793 at Woodbrook near Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford. Descended from a notable French huguenot family, his father, Capt. Charles Henry Vignoles, married a daughter of Dr Charles Hutton, FRS, professor of mathematics at the Royal Military Academy. Capt. Vignoles was stationed in Ireland in 1793 and stayed for a time with the Blacker family at Woodbrook, where their only son Charles was born and given the second forename of Blacker. When he was only 6 months old, his father's regiment was ordered to the West Indies. Both his parents contracted yellow fever and died in 1794 in Guadeloupe, then under French control. Dr Hutton's son, Henry, managed to obtain the release of the child and returned with him to England, where he was placed in the care of the Hutton family. Charles's subsequent education was influenced greatly by his maternal grandfather, Dr Hutton.
For a time around 1807 he studied law, but decided instead on a military career, entering Sandhurst, and thereafter obtaining a commission in the army. Following the battle of Waterloo and the consequent reduction in the opportunities for advancement for commissioned officers, Vignoles married Mary Griffith (13 July 1817) and sailed for the Americas, where he completed a map of the Charleston district and a pioneering map and guide to a large part of eastern Florida.
Returning to England in May 1823 he found that the railway age had begun, an era that was to offer boundless opportunities to men endowed with brains, enthusiasm, energy, and a true pioneering spirit. Vignoles possessed all of these and obtained his first engineering post as assistant to James Walker, working on the design of a proposed suspension bridge over the Thames. Other work followed with Walker and John Rennie (qv) jun. on canals, docks, and bridges. His association with Rennie led to his being entrusted with a survey of the line of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.
Having been elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1827, Vignoles began to develop quite a reputation as a railway engineer, becoming chief engineer for a number of lines in the north-west of England. In 1830, he met Robert Stevens, the American engineer who had introduced the flat-bottomed rail into the USA, a meeting that marked the beginning of Vignoles's interest in the rail section that was later to bear his name.
In 1832, Vignoles was asked to report on the proposed railway from Dublin to Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) harbour, and – having, with William Dargan (qv), drawn up plans for the line – was subsequently appointed chief engineer to the railway company. This, Ireland's first public railway, opened 17 December 1834. By the time Vignoles was appointed in 1836, with Sir John Macneill (qv), as one of the engineers to the Irish railway commission, he had become consulting engineer to the Dublin & Drogheda, Cork & Passage, and Cork & Limerick companies, and was also appointed chief engineer of the Great Central Ireland Railway. He advocated a through mail service from London to America and mapped out a possible route from Kingstown to Valentia, including a proposal for an elevated rail connection between Westland Row (renamed Pearse, 1966) and Kingsbridge (renamed Heuston, 1966) termini. Two lines that were successfully completed in Britain were the North Union and the Midland Counties railways, the last mentioned incorporating a substantial bridge over the Trent between Nottingham and Derby.
Between 1835 and 1840 Vignoles was engaged on the Sheffield & Manchester Railway, a difficult line over the Pennines that included the one-mile-long Woodhead Tunnel. As chief engineer, he oversaw the start of the construction of the tunnel to his designs, but major disagreements with the company over his contractual obligations led to his resigning. He suffered heavy financial losses, from which he did not recover for many years.
Meanwhile, in 1841, Vignoles accepted a two-year appointment as professor of civil engineering at University College, London, but the subject attracted few students. During this time, he became a staunch supporter of the atmospheric railway system and succeeded in persuading the directors of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway company to install the system for their extension to Dalkey. This extension, along the line of the tramway that had been used to transport granite from the quarries at Dalkey for use in building the harbour, was opened in March 1844 and proved very successful. In 1844 Vignoles was appointed engineer-in-chief to the Waterford & Limerick Railway.
Possibly the greatest engineering achievement of Vignoles's career was his design and directing of the building of a large four-span suspension bridge across the Dneiper at Kiev for Tsar Nicholas I. Vignoles faced the problem of bridging a river nearly half a mile wide and subject to severe flooding and pack-ice in winter. The bridge, similar in many respects to Telford's bridge over the Menai Straits, was completed by 1853. In the later years of his career Vignoles was engineer-in-chief of the Tuleda & Bilbao Railway in northern Spain, a line built by Thomas Brassey across the Pyrenees that survives virtually unchanged.
In 1855 Vignoles was elected FRS and in 1870–71 served as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Vignoles had five sons and two daughters by his first wife (d. 17 December 1834). He remarried in the spring of 1849. In 1867 he purchased a country house at Hythe on Southampton Water and lived there in semi-retirement till his death from a stroke on 17 November 1875. He is buried in Brompton cemetery. Reproductions of portraits of Vignoles are to be found in the biographies by his descendants, and there is a bust by G. J. Miller (London, 1867) in the Institution of Civil Engineers.