Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720 - 1940

Engineer and county surveyor for the southern division of Co. Mayo, 1886-1889, and Co. Down, 1889-1899. Peter Cowan was born in Dundee on 20 March 1859 and was educated at Dundee High School. In 1878 he entered Edinburgh University(1) where he studied until 1881 under Professsor Fleeming Jenkin, aquitting himself with distinction. He became Jenkin's assistant for one year. In 1882 he went to the United States. After serving for a few months under the city surveyor of New York, he became an assistant engineer on the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railway. In 1884 he joined the Canadian Pacific Railway as an assistant engineer on construction. On his return to Britain at the end of 1885, he became an assistant on railway and dock works with Mssr. A.C. Boothby and John Macrae.

In 1886 Cowan passed the qualifying examination for Irish county surveyorships and was appointed county surveyor for the southern division of Co. Mayo, in succession to EDWARD GLOVER EDWARD GLOVER . While he was in Mayo he was appointed engineer to the county piers and roads committee and supervised the building of the Achill viaduct and swivel bridge and the Moy bridge, near Ballina. In 1889 he was transferred to the southern division of Co. Down, and the following year was made responsible for the entire county.(2) In 1899 he moved to Dublin to succeed CHARLES PHILIP COTTON  CHARLES PHILIP COTTON as chief engineering inspector of the Local Government Board, a position which he held for twenty years. He also held the position of Commissioner of Valuation and Chief Boundary Surveyor of Ireland from 1912, following the resignation of Sir JOHN GEORGE BARTON JOHN GEORGE BARTON .

In Dublin during the last phase of his career, Cowan became a reforming campaigner for improvements in the housing of the working class. In 1918, at the request of the Chief Secretary, he produced a report containing general proposals for working-class housing in Dublin(3) and the following year he was placed in charge of the newly-established Housing Department of the Local Government Board. In February 1923, some ten months after he had transferred to the service of the provisional government, his appointment was abruptly terminated despite the fact that his ability and dedication were widely acknowledged.  His 'retirement' was announced in the Irish Times on 19 April.

Cowan is described as a man of brilliant intellect and an extraordinary capacity for work, who took little part in social activities. One of the first county surveyors in Ireland to popularize the steam-rolling of roads,(4) he was well known throughout throughout the country as a result of the public enquiries which he held in almost every town and county in connection with water supply, sewerage and housing. In 1909 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Edinburgh University.(5) Three papers on sanitation, housing and industrial progress which he delivered to the Engineering and Scientific Association of Ireland in 1915-1917 were published in Dublin in 1919 under the title Reconstruction: a trilogy. His pupils and assistants included ANDREW BOYD ANDREW BOYD , JAMES PARSONS BURKITT JAMES PARSONS BURKITT , WILLIAM COLLEN WILLIAM COLLEN , and WALTER KENNEDY WHEELER WALTER KENNEDY WHEELER .

Cowan died on 10 August 1930 in Fleet, Hampshire. While he was in Co. Mayo, he had married Marion Johnston, the daughter of a well-known doctor in Westport.(6) He had three sons and one daughter. Two of his sons, Philip and Sidney, were killed in the First World War, while on service with the Royal Flying Corps,(7) a blow from which he is said never fully to have recovered.

Engineering & Scientific Association of Ireland: president, 1915-1917.(8)
ICEI:(9) member, 1900; council, 1904-1907, 1913-1928; vice-president, 1907-1911; president, 1911-1913.
Incorporated Association of Municipal and County Engineers: member, 1891-1901.(10)
Inst.CE: student, 1880; awarded Miller prize for paper, 'New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railway , and the methods used in its construction', 1884; associate member, 1885; member, 1892; member of council, 1921-24.
Institution of Water Engineers: elected honorary member, 12 March 1915.(11)
RIAI: honorary member, 1920.(12)
RSAI: elected member, 6 June 1892.(13)

Addresses: College Gardens, Belfast, 1892;(14) 33 Ailesbury Road, Dublin, 1900-1918;(15) Castlemount, Castleknock, Co. Dublin, 1923-1930;(16) Glendaragh Cottage, Fleet, Hampshire, 1930.



All information in this entry not otherwise accounted for is from Brendan O'Donoghue, The Irish County Surveyors 1834-1944 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007), 137-143, which gives the fullest account of Cowan's career, and from the obituaries in Min.Proc.ICE 231 (1931-32), 372, and IB 72, 16 Aug 1930, 720. Information about his career is also given in IB 47, 30 Dec 1905, 929 and in IB 65, 7 Apr 1923, 233. Photographs of him (all the same) appear in IB Jubilee Number (1909), 60, IB 52, 16 Apr 1910, 234, and IB 53, 19 Aug 1911, 557.

(1) Not Aberdeen University as stated in obituary in IB.
(2) IB 15 Apr 1890, 98.
(3) For comment on this report see editorials IB 60, 19 Oct 1918, 414-8, and Building News 115, 23 Oct 1918, 269.
(4) IB 47, 30 Dec 1905,929; 52, 16 Apr 1910, 234.
(5) IB 51, 17 Apr 1909, 225.
(6) After Johnston's death, Cowan paid for a fountain to be erected to his memory at the Fair Green, Westport; see IB 53, 28 Oct 1911, 709.
(7) Irish Times, 17 Nov 1917;  Ireland's Memorial Records 1914-1918 (B.O'D.); www.cwgc.org (website of the Commmonwealth War Graves Commission).
(8) IB 59, 3 Mar 1917, 102.
(9) TICEI, lists of officers. & County Engineers, membership lists.
(11) B. O'D.
(12) JRIAI, membership lists.
(13) JRSAI 22 (1892), 204.
(14) See note 9, above.
(15) From Thom's and Post Office directories.
(16) JRIAI, membership lists, and Thom's Directory Ireland 1928.

3 work entries listed in chronological order for COWAN, PETER CHALMERS

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Date: 1885-87
Nature: 'built entirely under his [Cowan's] superintendence'
Refs: Connaught Telegraph, 13 Jul 1889 (information from Brendan O'Donoghue). .

Date: 1896
Nature: Additions & alterations to be undertaken (extension of female hospital and new block for acute cases)
Refs: 43rd Rport on…Lunatic Asylums (1894), 14; Architect 52, 1 Mar 1895, suppl. p.12; IB 38, 15 May, 15 Jun 1896, 106,133

Date: 1898-1900
Nature: Opened 1900. Designed by PCC; built by John Graham under supervision of Henry Hobart.
Refs: B 78, 23 Jun 1900, 621

Author Title Date Details
- 'Dr Cowan's report' 1918 IB 60, 19 Oct 1918, 414-418. (Editorial on Cowan's report on public housing.)
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'Roads: their making and their maintenance' 1905 IB 47, 30 Dec 1905, 930. (Presidential address to Engineering Students' Association, Trinity College, Dublin,.)
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'The economic housing of the working classes in town and country' 1907 IB 49, 13 Jul 1907, 496-498. (Paper read at Congress of Royal Sanitary Institute.)
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'Notes on Byelaws as to new streets and buildings' 1909 IB Jubilee Number (1909), 60-64.
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'Notes on modern roadmaking' 1909 TICEI 35 (1908-9), 130-156.
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'Mr P.C. Cowan's address at the Irish Road Congress' 1910 IB 52, 14 May 1910, 306-9. (Summary of address.)
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'Town development in Ireland' 1911 IB 53, 2 Sep 1911, 582. (Summary of address given at congress of Royal Institute of Public Health.)
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'The qualifications of engineers and architects' 1911 IB 53, 19 Aug 1911, 557.
Cowan, Peter Chalmers [President's address to ICEI] 1911 TICEI 38 (1911-1912), 1-26B. (Summary in IB 53, 25 Nov 1911, 774.)
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'Municipal engineering, architecture and town planning' 1912 IB 54, 3 Aug 1912, 446-8. (Address to Public Health Congress, Berlin.)
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'The improvement of the main roads of Ireland' 1913 TICEI 39 (1913), 143-175.
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'The Science of Health' 1915;1919 IB 57, 30 Jan 1915, 46-48. (Presidential address to Engineering and Scientific Association of Ireland; reprinted in Reconstruction: a trilogy , q.v.)
Cowan, Peter Chalmers 'Industrial progress and prospects' 1917 IB 59, 3 Mar 1917, 102. (Presidential address to Engineering and Scientific Association. of Ireland; reprinted in Reconstruction: a trilogy , q.v.)
Cowan, Peter Chalmers Report on Dublin Housing 1918;1919 Dublin: Cahill & Co., 1918. (Copy in IAA.) Appendix A (on materials and construction) published in IB 61, 5 Apr 1919, 153.
Cowan, Peter Chalmers Reconstruction: a trilogy 1919 Dublin: Talbot Press, 1919 (Three papers delivered to Engineering and Scientific Association of Ireland: 'The Science of Health' (1915), 'The difficulties of the housing problem' (1916), 'Industrial progress and prospects' (1917).)