Oliver York (1811–87)

John Oliver York was a British civil and mechanical engineer who undertook construction projects in several western European countries.

He was born at Birmingham in 1811 and studied in the office of a civil engineer. At the age of 21, he was appointed principal engineer at Horseley ironworks at Tipton near Birmingham. The company made cast-iron bridges – many of them to the designs of Thomas Telford – and built iron ships and railway locomotives.

After about eight years at Horseley ironworks, York decided to become an independent engineer in London and was admitted to the Institution of Civil Engineers. He had financial difficulties and was made bankrupt, but at the same time he was awarded a patent for his invention of improvements for the design of railway axles and wheels. When the engineering contractor Thomas Brassey offered him a job running his iron foundry at Evreux in France, York decided to establish himself there. Brassey was the greatest international civil engineering contractor of his time, who would eventually build 1,400 kilometres of railways in France and many thousands of kilometres of railways in other countries. He soon offered York the chance to build and manage another French foundry. 

In 1853, York began to work independently as an agent in construction. He built a railway in France and provided gas lighting for Seville in Spain. He undertook the construction of the Palais de l'industrie for the international exhibition in Paris of 1855, for which he was awarded the legion d’honneur. Over the next ten years he built railways in the south-west of England and became involved with metal mining in Cornwall. He also built more than 300 kilometres of railways around Rome. His sons were also engineers: one built railways in Spain and another built railways in India. Later in life, York once again owned a house in London but he seems to have been in Spain or France when he died in 1887.