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MICHELL, Charles Cornwallis (alias Collier)

Born: 1793 03 29
Died: 1851 03 28

Civil Engineer : Surveyor : Architect

Also referred to as CORNWALLIS

Born in Exeter in the United Kingdom of father Samson Michell and mother Anne (nee Collins). Within three months of his birth and baptism in St Thomas Church the family moved to Lisbon, Portugal, where his father served as captain in the Portuguese navy. Here he spent his childhood and became fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and French. On 18 April 1807 he entered as cadet to the Royal Military academy at Woolwich. He received commission as second lieutenant in the royal artillery in late 1809. In 1810 he joined the army in Portugal where he soon was promoted to captain and placed in command of an artillery brigade. He did service in the 1812 campaign at Badayo and the battles of Vittoria and Toulouse in 1813 under the command of Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars. While awaiting repatriation from France to Portugal he met Anne D’Aragnon with whom he eloped and married on 10 October 1814. By 1815 he was back in Portugal where his first two daughters were born, Julia Anne (1815) and Frederica Louisa (1817).

The subsequent peace saw drastic cuts in the British Army and in 1817 he was on half-pay and the retired list. In 1817 his services to the Portuguese military were terminated. In 1820 he was back in Exeter, UK, where he was admitted as Master Mason of the Lodge of Charity located there, consequently adopting as second name 'Cornwallis' in favour of 'Collier'. He retired to Nantes, France as needs for cost-cutting to live with his in-laws there. His third daughter Eveline Marie (1821) was born there. In 1824 he was appointed teacher of military drawing at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst (UK). In 1825 he took up the post of Professor of Fortifications at the Royal Military Academy, Woolich, his old alma mater.

In 1828 he was to take up the post of Sub-Inspector of Militia in the Ionian Islands, but instead went to the Cape in the position of Surveyor-General and Civil engineer to the Cape Colony, a position he kept for all but three years of the rest of his lifetime.

Here his work included the design of buildings and civil structures, and in his architecture he showed a penchant for Gothic Revival, although styling varies according to use and location, from a stark neo-classicism for the Anglican Church of St John, Bathurst to Egyptianate revivalism for the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse.

Lewcock notes that he 'Was Surveyor-General and Government Architect in Cape Town. He was one of the best architect-engineers ever to work at the Cape'.

Michell was a talented and many facetted man, a polyglot and polymath – a soldier, musician, artist, caricaturist, linguist, surveyor, civil engineer and architect as well as being an amateur botanist, geologist, zoologist, and ethnographer. He also served as Justice of the Peace, church trustee, member of the Council of South Africa’s first scientific society and was a dedicated Freemason.

Michell illustrated his son-in-law's, JE ALEXANDER, historical piece published as a supplement in the Grahamstown Journal of 20 August 1835 'On the means of defending farmhouses', incidentally thus being the first illustrator for a publication printed in South Africa.

In his capacity as civil engineer and Superintendant of Works of the Cape Colony he was responsible for the construction of a fresh water reservoir for supplying the naval ships docked at Simon’s Town (1829), a harbour pier in the vicinity of the Amsterdam Battery (1832), Mouille Point Lighthouse (1842, ruined) and improvements to the Green Point Lighthouse and construction of the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse (1851).

Minor public works were the Rondebosch Gaol (1841, demolished) a Port Office for False Bay at the end of Bree Street, a Custom’s Houses for Sir Lowrie’s Pass and Simon’s Town and Public Offices at George (1844).

His more unusual duties included the researching of the use of guano and the introduction of a postage stamp system in the Cape, with the design of the Cape Triangulars (1853) by his friend and protégé Charles BELL.

Michell returned in to Eltham (UK) in 1848 on leave of absence due to ill health and tendered his resignation as Surveyor General and Civil Engineer of the Cape Colony soon after. He died here and is buried in St Mary’s Church, Bexley (UK).

He is commemorated by a stained glass memorial coat-of-arms in a window to the nave of St Paul's in Rondebosch, Cape as designer of the first church there.

[Precised from the monograph by Gordon Richings ‘The life and work of Charles Michell’ (Fernwood Press, 2006, Simon’s Town)]

List of projects

With photographs
With notes

Cole's Pass: 1831. Grabouw, Western Cape - Engineer
Houw Hoek Pass: 1831. Elgin, Western Cape - Engineer
Lighthouse, Cape Agulhas : 1848. L’Agulhas, Western Cape - Design Architect
Lighthouse, Cape Recife: 1851. Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), Eastern Cape - Design Architect
Lighthouse, Mouille Point: 1842 : 1865. Cape Town, Western Cape - Design Architect
Montagu Pass and Toll-house: 1844-1847. George, Western Cape - Engineer
Road Bridge over the Lourens River: 1845. Somerset West, Western Cape - Architect
Rondebosch Gaol: 1841. Rondebosch, Cape Town, Western Cape - Design Architect
Sir Lowry's Pass: 1829-1830 : 1957-1959 : 1978-1983. Gordon's Bay, Western Cape - Engineer
St John's Anglican Church: 1832. Bathurst, Eastern Cape - Architect
St Paul's Church - First: 1834. Rondebosch, Cape Town, Western Cape - Architect
Warden's Post - Fort Warden: c1835. Komgha, Eastern Cape - Engineer

Books citing MICHELL

Fransen, Hans. 2004. The old buildings of the Cape. A survey of extant architecture from before c1910 in the area of Cape Town - Calvinia - Colesberg - Uitenhage. Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers. pp 102, 228

Lewcock, Ronald. 1963. Early Nineteenth Century Architecture in South Africa : a study of the interaction of two cultures, 1795-1837. Cape Town: AA Balkema. pp 271, 276, 288, 291, 353, 384-385, 444

Murray, Tony. 2015. Megastructures and masterminds : great feats of civil engineering in southern Africa. Cape Town: Tafelberg. pp 17, 18, 19, 22, 28-50, 56, 57, 61, 64, 68-70, 72, 91, 100, 107, 157, 158, 306

Potgieter, DJ (Editor-in-chief). 1973. Standard Encyclopaedia of South Africa [SESA] Volume 9 Pop-Sla. Cape Town: Nasou. pp 648a

Richings, Gordon. 2006. The life and work of Charles Michell. Simon's Town: Fernwood Press. pp All

S2A3 (Plug, C - Project Leader and main compiler). 2002-. S2A3 biographical database of southern African science. Webspace: WWW. pp Accessed 12 January 2016