Hemans, George Willoughby (1814–85), railway engineer, was born 27 August 1814 at Ryllon near St Asaph, north Wales, son of Capt. Alfred Hemans of the 4th (King's Own) Regiment and the poet Felicia Hemans (née Browne; 1794–1835) who were married in 1812. In 1818, after a short and unhappy marriage, his parents separated and his father, who had long been in poor health, moved to Rome. George's early education was undertaken by his mother, who remained at St Asaph. Hemans spent three years at the military college at Sarèze in France, where he won every prize, in foreign languages, science, and drawing, and left with no less than six medals.
As his mother had died in 1835 after a long illness, Hemans was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Col. George Browne (qv), a Dublin magistrate and commissioner (1837–58) of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Browne obtained some work for Hemans with the ordnance survey in Ireland, following which he was able to place his nephew as a pupil with John (later Sir John) Macneill (qv) at his office in London. This was probably the most important step in the young Hemans's career, as Macneill employed him on surveys of several lines of projected railway in Scotland and Ireland. Around 1840, Macneill appointed Hemans as resident engineer on the Dublin & Drogheda Railway (D&DR) and entrusted to him the complete works, including the erection of Ireland's first major wrought‐iron lattice girder railway bridge, over the Royal Canal in Dublin. For his paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers on the subject of the bridge, Hemans received a Walker premium. After the opening of the D&DR in 1844, Hemans worked for Macneill on sections of the Great Southern & Western Railway (GS&WR) main line between Dublin and Cork. His address as a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland was given as Rutland Square, the location of Macneill's Dublin office.
Now an experienced young engineer, Hemans was (August 1845) appointed chief engineer to the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland (MGWR). He was responsible for the design and supervision of construction of the main line from Dublin to Galway, including major bridge crossings of the rivers Shannon and Suck and of Lough Atalia. The section from Enfield to Mullingar caused considerable difficulties, constructed as it was across deep bog in order to avoid the severe curves of the Royal Canal. Hemans overcame the problems with innovative engineering, literally laying the foundations for the design of both road and rail transportation routes across the bogs of the midlands and west of Ireland. The line to Galway was opened on 20 July 1851. He was connected with several other railway companies, including lines in Ulster and Munster. He is said to have constructed more railways in Ireland than any other engineer of his time.
In 1854 Hemans moved to London and rapidly attained a deserved reputation as a parliamentary engineer. Railways in England and Wales, constructed under his supervision, included the Vale of Clywd and lines in Sussex and Herefordshire. Jointly with John Frederic La Trobe Bateman, he prepared plans for the utilisation of London's sewage. These works were actually commenced, but due to the financial crash of 1866 and the ensuing depression, the project was abandoned.
In 1861 Hemans laid plans for connecting the GS&WR at Kingsbridge (later Heuston) station with the MGWR at Cabra. This necessitated a viaduct across the Liffey and a tunnel under the Phoenix Park. The link was completed by 1877. He also planned the line from Liffey Junction to the North Wall and Spencer Dock at the entrance to the Royal Canal. He advocated the construction of a new cattle market at North Wall, served by rail, to replace that at Smithfield, but the dealers objected to the proposed location and the cattle market was eventually built near the North Circular Rd, cattle having to be driven through the streets to the quayside for onward shipment.
When it was planned to open St Stephen's Green as a public park, Hemans presented a design for improvements, including a grand entrance opposite the top of Dawson St., but this was not adopted. The same year (1864) he designed entraining embankments in Co. Clare to reclaim much of the sloblands at the mouth of the River Fergus.
By the 1860s the growing problem of disposal of sewage was exercising the minds of the leading engineers. Hemans proposed spreading Dublin's sewage over the North Bull, but the residents of Clontarf objected. By 1870 Hemans, who had been engineer to a sewage utilisation scheme for London (not proceeded with), which would have entailed conveying the sewage by a culvert 10 ft (3.05 m) in diameter and 40 miles (64.37 km) long out to the Maplin Sands, was still advocating spreading sewage over land (a form of recycling) rather than dumping at sea.
Railway work having declined in Britain and Ireland, Hemans sought work abroad. In 1870 he was appointed engineer‐in‐chief for the province of Canterbury in New Zealand, and subsequently, to the New Zealand government. However, in 1872 he suffered a severe stroke that left him paralysed and incapable of speech or writing for the rest of his life.
Hemans was a council member of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland from 1849 and served as president in 1856–7, being the first to deliver a presidential address. He was also an active member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, serving on its council from 1856 and remaining as a senior vice-president till 1875, when he resigned. He was also a member of the RIA. George Willoughby Hemans died 29 December 1885 at his home in London. His portrait (engraved by G. B. Black, London, 1863) is in the Institution of Engineers of Ireland in Dublin.