(7 Jun 1761 - 4 Oct 1821)
from Biographical Illustrations of St. Paul’s Cathedral (1843)
[p.79] The profession of a civil engineer is one which, in Great Britain, has only risen to any marked celebrity or wealth of very late years Amongst the individuals who have in this profession lately elevated the fame of their country, not only into equality with, but to superiority over the contemporary nations of the world, in every art and every science, John Rennie must long continue proudly remembered; for the monuments of his ability cannot but endure to the remotest ages of our history, and be distinctly honoured while there is a record of our national greatness in existence.
He was born June 7, 1761, at Phantassie, in the county of Haddington, in Scotland, and there received those essential rudiments of education, for which his moral country is generally celebrated, at the parish school of Prestonkirk. He lost his father, who was a farmer, when only five years old, and early evinced a preference for mechanical employment, and ingenious pursuits. The first object of the kind which attracted his attention, and stimulated exertion, was the erection of a new mill upon the farm of Andrew Meickle, a neighbour, now well-known to agriculturists as the inventor of the thrashing-machine. It was young Rennie’s fortune to witness the progress of Mr. Meickle’s labours in the construction of this valuable piece of mechanism, and he watched the work with an assiduity, which, far from retarding the advancement of his studies, actually increased the rapidity with which he seized on them: they impelled him to keep his knowledge of the principles of science, coequal with the practice to which he saw them reduced in the workshop adjoining his father’s farm.
At twelve years of age Rennie left the parish school, and entered into Mr. Meickle’s employment, in which he remained for two years. He spent two years at Dunbar, which were principally devoted to general education. His master was so well satisfied with his proficiency, that upon obtaining himself a more lucrative employment, he strongly recommended Rennie as his successor. The latterm however, preferred to return to Mr. Meickle’s workshop, where he made himself a perfect millwright. At the age of eighteen he spent a winter at Edinburgh, and attended the lectures of Professors Robinson and Black. Under their recommendation he went to England with a letter of introduction to Messrs. Bolton and Watt, the memorable inventors of the steam-engine. By those gentlemen he was employed as engineer to their factories, near Birmingham, at a guinea a week. Soon after the period of this engagement, an erection of fresh works was required for the multiplied business of the firm, and it was determined to construct the Albion-Mills, Blackfriars. Rennie drew the plans of this establishment, and to his care the execution of the machinery principally entrusted: a confidence which, upon the completion of the undertaking, was amply justified by the excellence of the work, which was universally estimated to be without a parallel.
Besides the reputation thus acquired, Rennie’s abilities became otherwise generally known through the skill with which he raised several other mills; so that in 1791, he felt himself happily justified in entering into business upon his own account. Of his labours about this period, two in particular deserve mention—the Crinan and Lancaster Canals, of which the former is memorable for the ingenious labour required, and numerous difficulties surmounted in the course of its execution; and the latter is celebrated for the aqueduct that it carries over the river Lune. To detail the characteristic merits, and prominent success of these constructions, or of other works we shall have occasion to enumerate, would demand great length of space, and, perhaps, after all, prove somewhat dry and uninteresting to any but a strictly scientific reader.—It shall not, therefore, be our object to describe, one after the other, all the employments on which Rennie’s time and capacity were so reputably exercised, but [p.80] limit our notice to a brief account of such of his works as are conspicuous for the highest deserts. The metropolis is the principal theatre of his fame: the London Docks, the East and West India Docks, were all planned and finished by him in a style which commands the wonder of strangers, and the continued approbation even of those who are the best and have been the longest acquainted with the various uses to which they are so admirably adapted. They are not to be reviewed with a general glance of commendation, simply as harbours for the largest commercial navies in the world; the unexampled economy of labour for which they provide, and the different works ingeniously combined within the same space; the disposition of the stores and magazines, and the arrangement of the moveable bridges, exhibit a noble system of facilities equally deserving of praise, on the score of architectural and mechanical genius. While upon that division of his labours, by which the dangers of the sea have been reduced, and the land made more accessible, it may be most apposite to speak of the Breakwater at Plymouth, a monument of genius, which would of itself have sufficed to immortalize the man, who, by raising such a bulwark, may be said to have actually overcome the ocean, and defied the tempest. It is distinguished by those properties of massive and essential greatness that characterize the works of this engineer—the forms are devised with a judgment, the dimensions measured with a prudence, and the solidity of the whole secured by an invincible force, which cannot even be regarded without a feeling of the deepest awe.
This Breakwater is an effort of art, interesting enough to admit of a few more descriptive words. The risks to which ships were exposed, when obliged by stress of weather, or want of time, to make directly for Plymouth Harbour, having been long felt, and loudly complained of, the government expressed a determination, to do all that was possible for the correction of an evil, from which their own navy suffered oftener, and more severely, than any other vessels. Designs were advertised for, and many sent in: Rennie’s was preferred; a line of works was run across the Sound, from east to west, for the length of 1700 yards, which left an entrance open, and free at either end. The extremities incline to the north in an angle of 104° from the centre; and are each a curve of 550 yards; but where the sweep ceases, a straight line of 1000 yards connects them together. The breadth of the extreme base is 400 feet, at a depth of thirty feet under low water-mark; this gradually diminishes at every rise of ten feet, until, at some height above high water-mark, it is only forty-eight feet wide. From one end to the other, there is a smooth walking path along this causeway full six feet wide, and well-protected; and the sides are accommodated with jetties, so boats may land at all tides, and in every weather. Besides the Breakwater,—most of the stones, or rather masses, of which are of a greater weight than ten tons each,—a contiguous task was also directed by Rennie, at the same period, which has occasioned great convenience, and the addition of much security; this was the labour of clearing away from the fine pool, thus formed, many rocks which roughly jutted up from the bottom, and had often done considerable damage to the vessels floating away from their moorings. For this purpose diving-bells were used with singular dexterity and success; they were each six feet wide, and seven high; and were furnished with shelves for the tools of the workmen, who descended two at a time, and picked out the solid rocks with their axes, and deposited the fragments thus knocked off into canvas-bags provided for the purpose. After toiling for two hours, one party was relieved by another. The additional pay for working in this manner under water, was 1s. 6d, for each descent.
Amongst all his works Rennie is most celebrated for his bridges, of which those of Waterloo, Southwark, and London Bridges are the most famous; the first two were raised under his own supervision, and the last is taken from the designs which he left behind him for the purpose. Southwark Bridge was the first built, in order of time; and was also the first erection in this or any other country, in which the bold idea of using solid masses of cast-iron, and of a size far exceeding the largest stones, that are adopted for similar ends, was introduced. The design of the arches is, to the eye, as simple in beauty as their strength is daily proved to be grand in effect. It is impossible to consider the extent to which they spread, the elevation to which they rise, and the huge forms by which they are wrought, without admitting that metallurgy has in this country been carried to the highest pitch of perfection; and that the powers of modern man are elevated in an unparalleled degree above the triumphs of his predecessors in ancient times. Waterloo Bridge is, perhaps, that monument of Rennie’s glory which is oftenest praised by the traveller, and most enjoyed by the native; and there are many circumstances to be mentioned, which seem to justify the preference. Independently of the beauty of the design, so simple and solid, and the neatness of its execution, the merit of the level roadway, and the prodigious labour of smoothing the approaches; the fact that it is confessedly the finest bridge in the world, raised at a cost of a million and a half of money, and finished within the moderate space of six years, all tend to create impressions which justify the warmth of national pride in its favour.
Besides these splendid structures, a long list of magnificent public works remains to be adduced as evidence of Rennie’s claims to be considered the first engineer of his day. With every undertaking of magnitude in the country—canals, bridges, harbours, docks, or lighthouses—he was connected through a quarter of a century. Among his bridges, those of Kelso, Leeds, Musselburgh, Newton-Stewart, Boston, and New Galloway, are to be specially commended. The first of these, which consists of a level roadway, resting upon five elliptical arches, has always been greatly admired, not only for architectural strength and beauty, but for a peculiar harmony in the design with the character of the surrounding scenery. The Aberdeen canal, the Great Western, the Kennet and Avon, the Portsmouth, the Birmingham, and the Worcester canals, are the most important of the works of this nature which he executed. He also erected the docks of Hull, Leith, Greenock, Liverpool, and Dublin ; the modern harbours of Berwick, Kingstown, Howth, Newhaven, and Queensferry. He was instrumental also in effecting great improvements in the national dockyards at Portsmouth, Chatham, and other places; the new naval arsenal at Pembroke was constructed from his designs; and he likewise furnished the plan of the Bellrock lighthouse, executed by Mr. Stevenson.
[p.81] Besides these, his grander labours, Rennie engaged at different periods in other buildings, which proved how various were his powers, and perfect his taste in each. To describe, or even to specify all these, would induce too much of detail; but it may be mentioned that the Auction Mart, in Bartholomew-lane, and the London Institution, in Moorfields, have always been instanced as very favourable specimens of his skill in architecture. There were also many learned and scientific associations, the proceedings of which he attended, and took a viva-voce part in. Of these, the Royal Societies of London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, the Astronomical and Geological Societies, are those best known to the public, and most identified with his name.
In private life the virtues of Mr. Rennie are described by his friends to have been as estimable as his talents were proved valuable. For the greater period of his life his health was excellent, and his strength uncommon. There was every prospect that both would long endure; but as his years approached to number threescore, illness suddenly attacked, and for some time lingered in his frame, until Thursday, the 4th of October, 1821, on which day he expired. His funeral, being public, was attended by the most distinguished men in the metropolis. His grave is in the crypt of the cathedral, where it is marked by an altar tomb of polished granite, with this becoming inscription:—
Born at Phantassie, in East Lothian,
7th July, 1761.
Deceased in London, 4th Oct. 1821.
is dedicated to his private virtues,
the affection and the respect of
his Family and his Friends,
But the many splendid and useful Works
under his superintending genius,
England, Scotland, and Ireland,
have been adorned and improved,
are the true monuments of
his public merit.
Waterloo and Southward Bridges,
Sheerness Docks, &c. &c.
To sum up the general merits of this eminent engineer is no ungrateful task:—he lived admired, and died lamented. He cultivated his profession with enthusiasm; and was as remarkable for the profundity with which he studied all the theories appertaining to it, as for the efficiency with which he executed every practice deducible from them. His bodily exertions were indefatigable. He made it a point to see and examine every work which assimilated in its nature or purposes with any of his own projects or undertakings. His reading was considerable, and the selection of books in his library evinced great judgment. The integrity with which he discharged the many public trusts he was appointed to was also exemplary. Upwards of fifty millions of money were expended under his hands with an economy that left him, at his death, far less wealthy than the magnitude and cost of his occupations would have led his friends to believe. There was never a subterfuge or evasion to be traced in the noble outlines of strength and durability for which his labours are so remarkable. He inspected every material himself, and never permitted a contractor to speculate upon a chance through which to elude the terms of his agreement. On these grounds it may be said, as proudly as justly, that he lived and laboured for futurity. His reputation was based as much upon the honesty of his deeds as the greatness of his plans, and his enjoyment reposed in the perfect success of his undertakings.
“The great merit,” says the Scottish Biographical Dictionary, “of Mr. Rennie as an engineer is allowed to have been his almost intuitive perception of what was necessary for certain assigned purposes. With little theoretical knowledge, he had so closely studied the actual forms of the works of his predecessors, that he could at length trust in a great measure to a kind of tact which he possessed in his own mind, and which could scarcely have been communicated. He had the art of applying to every situation where he was called to act professionally the precise form of remedy required for the existing evil—whether it was to stop the violence of the most boisterous sea—to make new harbours, or to render those safe which were before dangerous and inaccessible—to redeem districts of fruitful laud from the encroachments of the ocean, or to deliver them from the pestilence of stagnant marsh—to level hills, or to tie them together by aqueducts or arches, or, by embankment, to raise the valley between them—to make bridges that for beauty surpass all others, and for strength seem destined to last to the latest posterity: in all these tasks Rennie had no rival. Though he carried the desire of durability almost to a fault, and thus occasioned more expense perhaps than other engineers would have considered strictly necessary, he was admired as much for his conscientiousness in the fulfilment of his labours as for his genius in their contrivance. He would suffer no subterfuge for real strength to be resorted to by the contractors who undertook to execute his plans. Elevated by his genius above mean and immediate considerations, he felt in all his proceedings as if he were in the court of posterity: he sought not only to satisfy his employers, but all future generations.” Though the practical was Mr. Rennie’s glorious forte, he was nevertheless partial to those mixed investigations where experiment and theory are combined. But his inquiries of this nature were never given to the world; he never contributed to a periodical publication, probably for want of sufficient leisure.
- 7 Jun - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Rennie's birth.