Mulvany, William Thomas (1806–85), engineer, public servant, and pioneer developer of deep mining in the Ruhr, was born in Sandymount, Dublin, eldest among seven children of Thomas James Mulvany (qv) (1779–1845) and his wife Mary (née Field; 1779–1865). His father was a painter of some talent but is principally remembered today for his life of the architect James Gandon (qv) and as one of the founders of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1823. William Mulvany's younger brother, George Francis Mulvany (qv) (1809–69), was also a painter and became the first director of the National Gallery of Ireland in 1862. Another brother, John Skipton Mulvany (qv) (1813–70), was architect to many of the important nineteenth-century railway companies and was responsible for designing railway stations of elegance at Broadstone in Dublin, at Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), and at many other places throughout the country. The youngest brother, Thomas John Mulvany (1821–92), worked with William on the Shannon navigation and in the office of public works, afterwards joined him in his enterprises in the Ruhr, and later went to New Zealand.
William Thomas Mulvany attended the school in Hume Street, Dublin, run by Dr Wall, before entering Trinity College Dublin (TCD) as a medical student in 1823. He left TCD without completing his first year, possibly because of family financial problems, and then studied architectural drawing under the well-known architects Francis Johnston (qv) and John Semple (qv). In 1825 he was engaged on the Irish ordnance survey, and early in 1827 transferred to the boundary survey when it commenced operations under Richard Griffith (qv) (1784–1878), and which carried out work in a district a few months before the ordnance survey proper commenced.
In 1835 Mulvany transferred to the employment of the Shannon commissioners at the time of the commencement of the second survey on the inland navigation of the Shannon. This was under the direction of John Fox Burgoyne (qv) (1782–1871), who was chairman of the Shannon commission as well as of the board of works and appears to have requested the transfer of Mulvany from the boundary commission. At first Mulvany worked under Mr Buck on surveys and designs on the lower Shannon from Lough Derg to the sea (some 70–80 miles; 110–130 km) but a short time later he was promoted to take charge of similar work in the upper Shannon from the source to Lough Boderg. In this capacity he proposed a scheme for the linking of the Shannon and the Erne which took the form of the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell canal. In 1839, when actual works on the Shannon commenced, he was appointed district engineer for the lower Shannon.
While working on the Shannon, Mulvany appears to have played a major role under Burgoyne in the drafting of the 1842 arterial drainage act and in the lobbying of parliament to ensure its passage. Following its enactment, Burgoyne recommended Mulvany for appointment as commissioner for drainage at an annual salary of £400, with a supplement of £200 for acting as commissioner for fisheries. As commissioner for drainage, Mulvany gathered around him a small group of five or six engineers in order to operate the 1842 act. The implementation of the act faced a number of difficulties, including the reluctance of landed proprietors to provide the preliminary expenses and the cautious attitude of the treasury in London in relation to the loans that became necessary when landed proprietors were unwilling to form joint-stock companies for the carrying out of the work.
By the end of 1845 fifty applications had been made, fifteen schemes had been surveyed and designed, and works had been commenced in six of them. After the failure of the potato harvest in 1845, Mulvany reported in November of that year on the possibilities of speeding up progress, and made proposals in regard to the legislative changes necessary to ensure this. These recommendations were carried into law in March 1846 in what became known as the Summary Proceedings Act. By the end of 1846 there were over 300 new applications, and works had commenced in over forty districts. Employment rose from 3,000 in the second quarter of 1846 to 5,000 in the third and fourth quarters and reached 17,000 in the second quarter of 1847. Despite this enormous acceleration, Mulvany and his staff maintained professional standards of engineering and avoided the wasteful expenditure that was characteristic of much of the other relief works.
After the crisis years had passed, the landed proprietors protested strongly against the final cost and the levying of the drainage charges. Under the leadership of the 3rd earl of Rosse (qv), a house of lords committee was established to investigate the question. It is clear from the printed proceedings of that committee that Mulvany was the main target of the Irish landed proprietors and that the result of the inquiry was a foregone conclusion. After the publication of its report, Mulvany was retired on pension as commissioner of drainage at the age of forty-six, the land owners were relieved of any expenditure over and above the original estimates, and ad hoc arrangements were made for the completion of outstanding works.
If William Mulvany's career had ended in 1852 with his enforced retirement, one might be inclined to conclude that his professional ability had not been matched by prudence or by an ability to organise and administer. However, such a view would be quite incompatible with the history of his life over the succeeding thirty years. In 1854 he was asked by Michael Corr of Brussels (son of an associate of Robert Emmet (qv) who fled to the Continent in 1803) if he would take a look at some interest of Corr's at Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr, which region was then notable for its export of agricultural products and not for the vitality of its mining industry. Before the deregulation of mining in 1850, the miners in the Ruhr operated open-cast coal mining under state control and did not have the technology, the capital, or the organisation for deep mining. Mulvany studied the local geology: ‘I said to myself on the spot these people do not understand what they possess here.’
In 1856 Michael Corr and Mulvany, with financial support from two Irish quakers, James Perry of Dublin and Joseph Malcomson of Portlaw, Co. Waterford, founded the Hibernia Mining Company at Gelsenkirchen, and in the following year founded the Shamrock Company at Herne. Mulvany used the new technology of iron casings rather than brick-lined shafts, which enabled deep mining to be carried out.
Mulvany was not only concerned with mining but was also deeply interested and active in transport and in tariff policy. He was also an ‘integrationist’ and as such was concerned with the Association of Mining Interests based in Essen, the Prussian coal commission, and the Association of German Iron and Steel Industrialists in Berlin, and was the virtual founder of the Düsseldorf stock exchange. Less than ten years after arriving in the Ruhr, Mulvany was made a freeman of Gelsenkirchen and later of Düsseldorf. His work in the public interest was acknowledged by the receipt of the gold medal of Prussia from the king.
While an assistant surveyor on the boundary survey, Mulvany married Alicia Winslow (1797–1886), daughter of a very substantial catholic landowner in Co. Fermanagh. They had four daughters: Georgina (1834–9), Alicia (1835–98), Mary (1836–75), and Annabella (1838–1917), and one son, Thomas Robert (1839–1907), who became the British consul in Rhine–Westphalia.
William Thomas Mulvany died in Dusseldorf, 31 October 1885. He was a central figure both in engineering in Ireland and in mining in the Ruhr and is still remembered in each of these contexts. He has been the subject of two extensive biographies in German, by Kurt Bloemers (218; Essen, 1922) and by Olaf Schmidt-Rutsch (417; Cologne, 2003) and a biography in English by John O'Sullivan (159; Cork, 2004). There are also accounts of his career in English by J. Ryan, W. O. Henderson, J. O'Loan, and J. Dooge.