Smeaton & Rennie III.
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Smeaton's Tower, Plymouth. [p.130]
© Copyright Lewis Clarke and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

CAPTAIN LOVET, the lessee of the lighthouse, having died in 1715, his property was sold, and Mr. Robert Weston, in company with two others, became the purchasers of the lease.  On the destruction of Rudyerd's timber building, Mr. Weston applied to the Earl of Macclesfield, President of the Royal Society, for his advice under the circumstances, and requested him to point out an architect capable of undertaking the reconstruction of the lighthouse in an efficient manner.  Mr. Smeaton's account of the reply made by the Earl to Mr. Weston is so characteristic of him, that we quote his own words.

    Lord Macclesfield replied:

"that there was one of their own body whom he could venture to recommend to the business; yet that the most material part of what he knew of him was, his having within the compass of the last seven years recommended himself to the Society by the communication of several mechanical inventions and improvements; and that though he had at first made it his business to execute things in the instrument way (without having ever been bred to the trade), yet on account of the merit of his performances he had been chosen a member of the Society, and that for about three years past, having found the business of a philosophical instrument maker not likely to afford an adequate recompense, he had wholly applied himself to such branches of mechanics as he (Mr. Weston) had appeared to want; that he was then somewhere in Scotland, or in the north of England, doing business in that line; that what he had to say of him further was, his never having known him undertake anything but what he completed it to the satisfaction of those who employed him, and that Mr. Weston might rely upon it, when the business was stated to him, he would not undertake it unless he clearly saw himself capable of performing it." [p.131]

    This description seems to have been enough for Mr. Weston, who immediately addressed Mr. Smeaton on the subject.  News then travelled so slowly, and the particulars which had got abroad relating to the accident at the Eddystone were so meagre, that Smeaton did not know that the lighthouse had been totally destroyed.  When he at length received Mr. Weston's letter, more than a month after the accident, he fancied that it was only the repair of some of the upper works that was required of him, and he replied that he had engagements on hand that he could not leave upon an uncertainty.  The answer he received was, that the former building was totally destroyed—that the lighthouse must be rebuilt—and the letter concluded with the words, "thou art the man to do it."

    Smeaton then returned to town and proceeded to consider the matter.  The subject was wholly new to him; but he determined to investigate it thoroughly, and he lost no time in doing so.  One of the earliest conclusions he arrived at was, that stone was the proper material with which to rebuild the lighthouse, though the superiority of timber was strongly urged upon him.  The popular impression, which also prevailed amongst the Brethren of the Trinity House, was, that "nothing but wood could possibly stand on the Eddystone;" and many were the predictions uttered as to the inevitable failure of a structure composed of any other material.  The first thing which our engineer did was to examine carefully the plans and models of the two former lighthouses; by which he sought to ascertain their defects, with a view to avoiding them in the new erection.

    In the course of this inquiry, he became more and more convinced that the great defect of the late building had been its want of Weight, through which it had rocked about in heavy storms, and would probably have been washed away before long if it had not been burnt; and he came to the conclusion, that if the lighthouse was to be contrived so as not to give way to the sea, it must be made so strong as that the sea must be compelled to give way to the building.  He also had regard to durability as an important point in its re-erection.  To quote his own words:

"In contemplating the use and benefit of such a structure as this, my ideas of what its duration and continued existence ought to be, were not confined within the boundary of one Age or two, but extended themselves to look towards a possible Perpetuity."

    Thus, before Smeaton had proceeded very far, he had come to the firm conviction that the new lighthouse must be built of Stone.  Nevertheless, he resolved to preserve the conical form of Rudyerd's building, but to enlarge considerably the diameter of the foundation, and thus increase the stability of the whole superstructure.  The idea of the bole of a large spreading oak-tree presented itself to his mind as the natural model of a column, presenting probably the greatest possible strength.

    Another point which he long and carefully studied, was the best mode of bonding the blocks of stone to the rock and to each other, in such a way as that not only every individual piece, but the whole fabric, should be rendered proof against external force.  Binding the blocks together by iron cramps was considered, but dismissed as insufficient, as well as impracticable.  Then the process of dovetailing occurred to him—a practice then generally applied to carpentry, though scarcely as yet known in masonry.  Still more suitable for his purpose was the method which he had observed adopted in fixing the kerbs along the London footpaths, by which the long pieces or stretchers were retained between the two headers or bond-pieces, whose heads being cut dovetail-wise, adapted themselves to and bound in the stretchers; and the tye being as good at the bottom as at the top, this arrangement, he conceived, was the very best that could be devised for his purpose.

    From these beginnings he was readily led to think that if the blocks themselves, both inside and out, were all formed into large dovetails, they might be arranged so as mutually to lock themselves together, being first engrafted into the rock; and in the round and entire courses, along the top of the rock, they might all proceed from and be locked into one large centre stone.  By thus rooting the foundations into the rock, and also binding every stone by a similar dovetailing process to every other stone in each course, upon which the sea could only act edgeways, he conceived that he would be enabled to erect a building of a strength sufficient to resist the strongest force of winds and waves that was likely to be brought against it.

    Having thus thought out the subject, and deliberately matured his views—carefully studying, amongst other works, 'Wren's Parentalia' and Price's account of the building of Salisbury Cathedral—he proceeded to design a lighthouse on the principles we have thus summarily described; and, with a few modifications rendered necessary by the situation and the various circumstances which presented themselves in the course of the work, he proceeded to carry his design into effect in the building of the third Eddystone Lighthouse.

    All this had been done before Mr. Smeaton had even paid a visit to the site on which the lighthouse was to be built.  The difficulty of reaching the place was great, and time was precious.  Besides, he thought it best to prepare himself for his first visit by completing his thorough preliminary investigation of the whole case.  It was not until the end of March, 1756, that he set out from London to Plymouth for the purpose of making his first inspection of the rock.  He was no less than six days in performing the journey, of which he says, "I had nothing to regret but the loss of time that I suffered, which was occasioned chiefly by the badness of the roads."

    At Plymouth he met Josias Jessop, to whom he had been referred for information as to the previous lighthouse.  Mr. Jessop was then a foreman of shipwrights, called a quarterman, in Plymouth Dock, and was a person of much modesty, integrity, as well as of singular ingenuity in mechanical matters. [p.135]  Smeaton also found him to be a competent draughtsman and an excellent modeller, and he cheerfully acknowledged the great assistance which he obtained from him during the progress of the work.  Smeaton showed Jessop the plan of the stone building which he had already made.  The foreman expressed his great surprise on first looking at it, having made up his mind that the lighthouse could only be reconstructed of wood.  But he readily admitted the superiority of a stone structure, if it could only be made to stand in so very exposed and dangerous a situation.

    Mr. Smeaton was anxious to go off to the rock at once; but the wind had been blowing fresh for several days, and there was so heavy a sea in the Channel, that it was not until the 2nd of April that he could set sail.  On reaching the Eddystone, the sea was breaking upon the landing-place with such violence, that it was impossible to land.  All that Smeaton could do was to view the cone of bare rock—the mere crest of the mountain whose base was laid so far down in the sea-deeps beneath—over which the waves were lashing, and to form a more adequate idea of the very narrow as well as turbulent site on which he was expected to erect his building.

    Three days later he made a second voyage, and he rejoiced on this occasion to be able to set his foot for the first time upon the Eddystone.  He stayed there for more than two hours, and thoroughly examined the rock; being at length compelled to leave it by the roughness of the sea, which began to break over it as the tide rose.  The only traces that he could find of the two former lighthouses were the iron branches fixed by Rudyerd, and numerous traces of those fixed by Winstanley.

    On a third attempt to make the rock, Smeaton was foiled by the wind, which compelled him to re-land without even having got within sight of it.

    After five more days—during which the engineer was occupied in looking out a proper site for a work-yard, [p.136] and examining the granite in the neighbourhood for the purposes of the building—he made a fourth voyage, and although the vessel reached the rock, the wind was blowing so fresh and the breakers were so wild, that it was again found impossible to land.  He could only direct the boat to lie off and on, for the purpose of watching the breaking of the sea and its action upon the reef.

    A fifth trial, made after the lapse of a week, proved no more successful.  After rowing about all day with the wind ahead, the party found themselves at night about four miles from the Eddystone, near which they anchored until morning; but wind and rain coming on, they were forced to return to harbour without accomplishing their object.  The sixth attempt was successful, and on the 22nd of April, after the lapse of seventeen days, Smeaton was able to effect his second landing at low water.  After a further inspection, the party retreated to their sloop, which lay off until the tide had fallen, when Smeaton again landed, and the night being perfectly still, he says, "I went on with my business till nine in the evening, having worked an hour by candle-light."

    On the 23rd he again landed and pursued his operations; but this time he was interrupted by the ground swell, which sent the waves high upon the reef; and, the wind rising, the sloop was forced to put back to Plymouth.  Mr. Smeaton had, however, during these visits, secured some fifteen hours' occupation on the rock, and taken dimensions of all its parts, to enable him to construct an accurate model of the foundation of the proposed building.  He succeeded in obtaining such measurements as he thought would enable him to carry out his intention but to correct the drawing, which he made to a scale, he determined upon attempting a seventh and final voyage of inspection on the 28th of April.  But again the sea was found so turbulent, that a landing was impossible.

    Another fortnight passed, the weather still continuing unfavourable; but meanwhile the engineer had been maturing his design, and making all requisite preliminary arrangements to proceed with the work.  Among the other facilities required for carrying on the operations, was the provision of an improved landing-place, which he regarded as of essential importance.  He also drew up a careful code of regulations for the guidance and government of the artificers and others who were to be employed in constructing the lighthouse.  Having done all this, he arranged to proceed to London, but not until he had paid three more visits to the rock for the purpose of correcting his measurements,—in one of which he got thoroughly drenched by the spray.

    On his return to town, Mr. Smeaton made his report to the proprietors, and was fully authorised by them to carry out the design which he had now matured.  He accordingly proceeded to make a complete model of the lighthouse, as he intended it to be built.  He thus states the reasons which prevailed with him in undertaking the construction of this model with his own hands:

"Those who are not in the practice of handling mechanical tools themselves, but are under the necessity of applying to the manual operations of others, will undoubtedly conclude that I would have saved much time by employing the hands of others in this matter; and on the idea of the design being already fixed, and fully and accurately as well as distinctly made out—that is, supposing the thing done that was wanted to be done—it certainly would have been so; and had I wanted a duplicate of any part, or of the whole, when done, I should certainly have had recourse to the hands of others.  But such as are in the use of handling tools for the purpose of contrivance and invention, will clearly see that, provided I could work with as much facility and despatch as those I might happen to meet with and employ, I should save all the time and difficulty, and often the vexation, mistakes, and disappointments that arise from a communication of one's own ideas to others; and that when steps of invention are to follow one another in succession and dependence on what preceded, under such circumstances it is not eligible to make use of the hands of others."

    His expertness in handling tools now proved of the greatest use to him.  As every course of stones in it involved fresh adaptations and the invention of new forms to give the requisite firmness and stability to the whole, it is obvious that he secured greater accuracy by executing the work with his own hands, than if he had entrusted it to any model-maker to carry out after given dimensions and drawings, however accurately they might have been laid down upon paper.  After more than two months' close work, the model was ready, when it was submitted to a meeting of the proprietors and unanimously approved; as it also was by the Lords of the Admiralty, before whom it was afterwards laid.  The engineer then set out for Plymouth to enter upon the necessary arrangements for preparing the foundations,—arranging with Mr. Roper, at Dorchester, on his way, for a supply of Portland stone, of which it was finally determined that the lighthouse should be built.

    Artificers and foremen were appointed, working companies arranged, vessels provided for the transport of men and materials, work-yards hired and prepared, and Mr. Jessop was appointed the general assistant, or, as it is now termed, the Resident Engineer, of the building.  Mr. Smeaton himself fixed the centre and laid down the lines on the afternoon of the 3rd of August, 1756, and from that time forward the work proceeded, though with many interruptions, caused by bad weather and heavy seas.  At most, only about six hours' labour could be done at a time; and when the weather was favourable, in order that no opportunity should be lost, the men proceeded by torchlight.


    The principal object of the work done during the first season was to get the dovetail recesses cut out of the rock for the reception of the foundation-stones.  To facilitate this process, and avoid the delay and loss of time involved by frequent voyages between the Eddystone and the shore, the 'Neptune' buss was employed as a store-vessel, and rode at anchor, at a convenient distance from the rock, in about twenty fathoms water.  But, as the season advanced, it became more and more difficult to carry on the operations.  For many days together the men could not land, and, even if they had been able to land, they must have been washed off the rock unless lashed to it.  At such times the provisions in the 'Neptune' occasionally ran short, no boat being able to come off from Plymouth in consequence of the roughness of the weather.  Towards the end of October, the yawl riding at the stern of the buss broke loose by stress of weather, and was thus lost.  Mr. Smeaton was most anxious, however, to finish the boring of the foundation-holes during that season, so as to commence getting in the lower courses at the beginning of the next.  The men, therefore, still persevered when the weather permitted, though sometimes they were only able to labour for two hours out of the twenty-four.  About the end of November, the whole of the requisite cutting in the rock had been accomplished without accident, and the party prepared to return to the yard on shore, and proceed with the dressing of the stones for the work of the ensuing year.

    The voyage of the buss to port, however, proved a very dangerous one, and the engineer and his men narrowly escaped shipwreck.  Not being able, in consequence of the gale that was blowing, to make Plymouth Harbour, the 'Neptune' was steered for Fowey, on the coast of Cornwall.  The wind rose higher and higher, until it blew quite a storm; and in the night, Smeaton, hearing a sudden alarm and clamour amongst the crew overhead, ran upon deck in his shirt to ascertain the cause.  It was raining hard, and quite a hurricane was raging.  "It being very dark," he says, "the first thing I saw was the horrible appearance of breakers almost surrounding us; John Bowden, one of the seamen, crying out, 'For God's sake, heave hard at that rope if you mean to save your lives!'  I immediately laid hold of the rope, at which he himself was hauling as well as the other seamen, though he was also managing the helm.  I not only hauled with all my strength, but called to and encouraged the workmen to do the same thing."

    The sea was now heard breaking with tremendous violence upon the rocks.  In this situation, the jib sail was blown to pieces, and, to save the mainsail, it was lowered, when fortunate4y the vessel obeyed the helm, and she rounded off.  The night was so dark that nothing of the land could be seen, and the sailors did not know at what part of the coast they were; and in this uncertainty the vessel's head was put round to sea again, the waves occasionally breaking quite over her.  At daybreak they found themselves out of sight of land, and the vessel driving towards the Bay of Biscay.  Wearing ship, they stood once more for the coast, and before night they sighted the Land's End, but could not then make the shore.  Another night and day passed, and, a vessel coming within sight, signals of distress were exhibited, and from her the 'Neptune' learned in what direction to steer for the Scilly Islands.  The wind coming round, however, they bore up for the Land's End again, passed the Lizard, then Deadman's Point, then Rame Head, and finally, after having been blown about at sea for four days, they came to an anchor in Plymouth Sound, greatly to the joy of their friends, who had begun to despair of their reappearance.

    The winter on shore was fully occupied in dressing stones for the next summer's work.  Mr. Smeaton himself laid out all the lines on the workroom floor, [p.142] in order to insure the greatest possible accuracy in size and fitting.  Nearly four hundred and fifty tons of stone were thus dressed by the time the weather was sufficiently favourable for the commencement of the building.  At the same time he bestowed great pains upon experiments, which he himself conducted, for the purpose of determining the best kind of cement to be used in laying the courses of the lighthouse, and eventually fixed upon equal quantities of lime called blue lias and that called terra puzzolano, a sufficient supply of which he was fortunate enough to procure from a merchant at Plymouth, who had imported it on adventure, and was willing to sell it cheap.  It was also settled to use the finest grout for the intervals between the upright or side joints of the dovetailed part of the work.

    During the early spring, Smeaton made several visits of inspection to the quarries where the rough stones were being prepared, in order to satisfy himself as to the progress of the work.  On one of such occasions a severe storm of thunder and lightning occurred at Lostwithiel, by which the church spire was shattered; and this turned his attention to the best mode of protecting his lighthouse against a similar accident.  In the mean time he transmitted an account of the storm and the effects of the lightning on Lostwithiel Church to the Royal Society, amongst whose papers it stands recorded. [p.143]  Dr. Franklin had shortly before published his mode of protecting lofty buildings by means of conductors, and Smeaton eventually determined, for the security of his lighthouse, to adopt his plan.

    The building on the rock was fairly begun in the summer of 1757, sheers having been erected and the first stone, of two and a quarter tons weight, having been landed and securely set in its place on the morning of Sunday the 12th of June.  By the evening of the following day the first course of four stones was safely laid. [p.144]

    The work then proceeded from time to time, as the weather permitted; and the second course, of thirteen pieces, was completed by the 30th of the same month.  The workmen were occasionally interrupted by ground-swells and heavy seas, which kept them off the rock for days together.  At length, on the sixth course being laid, it was found that the building had been raised above the average wash of the sea, and the progress made after that time was much more rapid.  From thence the rest of the structure was raised in entire regular courses.

    The manner in which the stones were prepared in the yard, arranged in courses, and brought off in the vessels, so that they could be landed in their proper order and fixed in their proper places, was simple and effective.  When the separate pieces of which a course was to consist were hewn, they were all brought together in the work-yard, fitted upon the platform in the exact sites they were to occupy in the building, and so marked and numbered that they could readily be restored to their proper relative positions.  So much preliminary care having been taken, no difficulty or confusion occurred in the use of the materials, whilst the progress of the building was also greatly accelerated.  For the actual details of the manner in which the masonry was proceeded with, we must refer the professional reader to Smeaton's own 'Narrative,' which is remarkably minute, and as a whole exceedingly interesting.

    The careful manner in which the details of the foundation work were carried on is related by Smeaton at great length.  One of his expedients is worthy of notice—the method by which he gave additional firmness to the stones dovetailed into the rock, by oak-wedges and cement inserted between each.  To receive the wedges, two grooves were cut in the waist of each stone, from the top to the bottom of the course, an inch in depth and three inches in width.  The carpenters dropped into each groove two of the oaken wedges, one upon its head, the other with its point downwards, so that the two wedges in each groove lay heads and points; on which the one was easily driven down upon the other.  A couple of wedges were also pitched at the top of each groove; the dormant wedge, or that with the point upward, being held in the hand, while the drift wedge, or that with its point downward, was driven with a hammer.  The object of this wedging was to preserve the whole mass steady together, in opposition to the violent agitation of the sea.  In addition to this, a couple of holes being bored through every piece of stone, one course was further bound to another by oak trenails, driven stiffly through, and made so fast that they could more easily be torn asunder than pulled out again.  "No assignable power," says Smeaton, "less than would by main stress pull these trenails into two, could lift one of these stones from their beds when so fixed, exclusive of their natural weight, as all agitation was prevented by the lateral wedges."


    Mr. Smeaton superintended the construction of nearly the entire building.  If there was any post of danger from which the men shrank back, he immediately stood forward and took the front place.  One morning in the summer of 1757, when heaving up the moorings of the buss preparatory to setting sail for the rock, the links of the buoy-chain came to a considerable strain upon the davit-roll, which was of cast iron, and they began to bend upon the convexity of the roll.  To remedy this, Smeaton ordered the carpenter to cut some trenails into short pieces, and split each length into two, with the view of applying the portions betwixt the chain and the roll at the flexure of each link, and so relieve the strain.  But some one said that if the chain should break anywhere between the roll and the tackle, the person that applied the pieces of wood would be in danger of being cut in two by the chain or carried overboard along with it.  On this Smeaton, making it a rule never to require another to undertake what he was afraid to do himself, at once stepped forward and took "the post of honour," as he called it, and attended to the getting in of the remainder of the chain, link by link, until the operation was completed.

    Whilst working at the rock, an accident occurred to him which might have been attended with serious consequences, but which merely enabled him to display his usual cheerful courage.  The men were about to lay the centre stone of the seventh course on the evening of the 11th of August, when Mr. Smeaton was enjoying the limited promenade afforded by the level platform of stone which had with so much difficulty been raised; but, making a false step into one of the cavities made for the joggles, and being unable to recover his balance, he fell from the brink of the work down among the rocks on the west side.  The tide being low at the time, he speedily got upon his feet and at first supposed himself little hurt, but shortly after he found that one of his thumbs had been put out of joint.  He reflected that he was fourteen miles from land, far from a surgeon, and that uncertain winds and waves lay between.  He therefore determined to reduce the dislocation at once; and laying fast hold of the thumb with his other hand, and giving it a violent pull, it snapped into its place again, after which he proceeded to fix the centre stone of the building.


    The work now went steadily forward.  Occasional damage was done by the heavy seas washing away the stones, tools, and materials; but these losses were quickly repaired, and by the end of the season the ninth course of stones had been laid complete.  The following winter was very tempestuous.  The floating light-vessel, stationed about two miles from the rock, was driven from its moorings by the force of the sea, but eventually got safe into harbour.  It was the 12th of May before another landing could be effected by Smeaton and his workmen, when he was no less delighted than surprised to find the entire work as he had left it six months before.  Not a block had been moved.  The cement was found to have set as hard as the stone itself, and the whole of the building which had been raised was one solid mass.

    The rock-tackle, with sheers and windlass, having been again fixed, the erection proceeded as before.  The fundamental Solid was completed by the 8th of August; and, the fine weather continuing, the Solid work, which included the passage from the entry-door to the well-hole for the stairs, made great progress; until, on the 24th of September, 1758, the twenty-fourth course was finished, which completed the solid part of the pillar and formed the floor of the storeroom.  The building had now been raised thirty-five feet four inches above its base, or considerably beyond the heavy stroke of the waves.  Above this point were to be formed the requisite apartments for the lighthouse-keepers.  The walls of these were twenty-six inches thick, constructed in circles of hewn blocks, sixteen pieces forming each circle, all joggled and cramped, so as to secure perfect solidity.  The stones were further grooved at the ends, and into the grooves tightly-fitting pieces (rhombs) of Purbeck marble were fixed solid with well-tempered mortar, making the whole perfectly firm and water-tight.


    While living at Plymouth, Smeaton used to come out upon the Hoe with his telescope, in the early grey of the morning, and stand gazing through it in the direction of the Rock.  The Hoe is an elevated promenade, occupying a high ridge of land extending between Mill Bay and the entrance to the harbour, the citadel occupying its eastern end.  It forms the sea-front of Plymouth, and overlooks the strikingly beautiful scenery of the Sound.  St. Nicholas's Island, strongly fortified, lies immediately in front of it; beyond, rising green from the water's edge, is Mount Edgcumbe Park, with its masses of noble woods backed by green hills.  The land juts out in rocky points on either side the bay, some of which are capped with forts and batteries; whilst in the distance lies the magnificent barricade of the Breakwater, midway between the bluffs of Redding and Staddon Points, boldly interposing between the swell of the Sound and the long ocean waves rolling in from the Atlantic.

    From the Hoe the Spanish Armada was first descried making for the English coast.  It was the look-out of Drake, as it now was of Smeaton, but with a far different object.  After a rough night at sea, he had no eye for the picturesque beauties of the Sound: his sole thought was of his lighthouse; for though he had done all that human care, forethought, and skill could do, to root his column firmly upon that perilous rock, he was not yet altogether free from anxiety as to the security of the foundation.  There were still many who persisted in asserting that no building erected of stone could possibly stand upon the Eddystone; and, again and again, the engineer, in the dim grey of the morning, would come out and peer through his telescope at his deep-sea lamp-post.  Sometimes he had to wait long, until he could see a tall white pillar of spray shoot up into the air, and then a glimpse of the column itself.  Thank God! it was still safe.  Then, as the light grew, he could discern his building, temporary house and all, standing firm amidst the waters; and, thus far satisfied, he could proceed to his workshops, his mind relieved for the day.

    The work proceeded so satisfactorily during the season of 1758, that Smeaton resolved to make a vigorous effort to get the lower storeroom completed, and a light erected above it for use during the ensuing winter.  At the beginning of October, the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth courses were laid, and very strongly secured.  A groove was cut round their upper surfaces, in which was placed a circular chain of great strength.  Upon each chain, when placed within the grooves, melted lead was poured until the cavities were filled up.  They were thus hooped, as it were, round the building.  The reason of such excessive strength at this part of the work was, that these courses received the vaulted floor which formed the ceiling of the under storeroom and the floor of the upper one.

    By the 10th of October, Smeaton had nearly completed all the necessary arrangements for establishing a light and lightkeepers at the Eddystone during the ensuing winter; when he received an unexpected and painful refusal from the Corporation of the Trinity House, to the effect that "on reading the Acts of Parliament, the application from the merchants and owners of ships, and Winstanley's narrative of the first lighthouse erected there, they are of opinion that a light cannot be exhibited on the Eddystone Rock till the lighthouse is rebuilt."  Smeaton was, therefore, under the necessity of erecting merely a temporary house over the work for its protection during the winter; when he speeded off to London to finish his further drawings.

    The third year's operations had now ended, and the engineer proceeded with the designs for the iron rails of the balcony, the cast and wrought-iron and copper works as well as with the glass for the lantern, all of which were, like the rest of the work, manufactured under his own eye.  The year 1759 was so stormy that it was not before the 5th of July that the workmen could land upon the rock, and recommence their building operations for the year; but from this point they proceeded with great rapidity—the whole of the stones being now in readiness to be placed—so that in thirteen days two entire rooms with their proper coverings had been erected; and by the 17th of August the last pieces of the corona were set, and the forty-six courses of masonry were finished complete.

    The column was now erected to its specified height of seventy feet.  The last mason's work done was the cutting out of the words "LAUS DEO" " upon the last stone set over the door of the lantern.  Round the upper storeroom, upon the course under the ceiling, had been cut, at an earlier period, "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it."  The iron work of the balcony and the lantern were next erected, and over all the gilt ball, the screws of which Smeaton fixed with his own hands, "that in case," he says, "any of them had not held quite tight and firm, the circumstance might not have been slipped over without my knowledge."  Moreover this piece of work was dangerous as well as delicate, being performed at a height of some hundred and twenty feet above the sea.  Smeaton fixed the screws while standing on four boards nailed together, resting on the cupola; his assistant, Roger Cornthwaite, placing himself on the opposite side, so as to balance his weight whilst he proceeded with the operation.


    The engineer's work was now so nearly ended, and his anxiety had become so great, that he could not leave it, but took up his abode in the lighthouse, putting his own hands to the finishing of the window-fittings (for skilled workmen were difficult to be had at the lighthouse) and seeing to the minutest details in the completion of the undertaking.  At length the lantern was glazed, the lightning-conductor fixed, the rooms were fitted up, and the builder looked upon the work of his hands as finished and complete.  The light was first exhibited on the night of the 16th of October, 1759, and the column still stands as firm as on the day on which it was erected. [p.153]  About three years after its completion, one of the most terrible storms ever known raged for days along the south-west coast; and though incalculable ruin was inflicted upon harbours and shipping by the hurricane, all the damage done to the lighthouse was repaired by a little gallipot of putty.

    The Eddystone Lighthouse has now withstood the storms of more than a century.  Sometimes, when the sea rolls in with more than ordinary fury from the Atlantic, driven up the Channel by the force of a south-west wind, the lighthouse is enveloped in spray and its light is momentarily obscured.  But again it is seen shining clear like a star across the waters, a warning and a guide to the homeward-bound.  Occasionally, when struck by a strong wave, the water shoots up the perpendicular shaft and leaps quite over the lantern.  At other times, a tremendous wave hurls itself upon the lighthouse as if to force it from its foundation.  The report of the shock to one within is like that of a cannon: the windows rattle, the doors slam, and the building vibrates and trembles to its very base.  But the tremor felt throughout the lighthouse in such a case, instead of being a sign of weakness, is the strongest proof of the unity and close connection of the fabric in all its parts. [p.154]

    Many a heart has leapt with gladness at the cry of "The Eddystone in sight!" sung out from the maintop.  Homeward-bound ships, from far-off ports, no longer avoid the dreaded rock, but eagerly run for its light as the harbinger of safety.  It might even seem as if Providence had placed the reef so far out at sea as the foundation for a beacon such as this, leaving it to man's skill and labour to finish His work.

    On entering the English Channel from the west and the south, the cautious navigator feels his way by early soundings on the great bank which extends from the Channel into the Atlantic, and these are repeated at fixed intervals until land is in sight.  Every fathom nearer shore increases a ship's risks, especially in nights when, to use the seaman's phrase, it is "as dark as a pocket."  The men are on the look-out, peering anxiously into the dark, straining the eye to catch the glimmer of a light, and when it is known that "the Eddystone is in sight!" a thrill runs through the ship, which can only be appreciated by those who have felt or witnessed it after long months of weary voyaging. [p.155-1]  Its gleam across the waters has thus been a source of joy and given a sense of deep relief to thousands; for the beaming of a clear light from one known and fixed spot is infallible in its truthfulness, and a safer guide for the seaman than the bearings of many hazy and ill-defined headlands.


The Eddystone Lighthouse beside the remains of Smeaton's Lighthouse.  [p.155-2] Picture Wikipedia.

    By means of similar lights, of different arrangements and of various colours, fixed and revolving, erected upon rocks, islands, and headlands, the British Channel is now lit up along its whole extent, and is as safe to navigate in the darkest night as in the brightest sunshine.  The chief danger is from fogs, which alike hide the lights by night and the land by day.  Some of the homeward-bound ships entering the Channel from North American ports first make the St. Agnes Light, on the Scilly Isles, revolving once in a minute, at a height of 138 feet above high water.  But most Atlantic ships keep further south, in consequence of the nature of the soundings about the Scilly Isles; and hence they oftener make the Lizard Lights first, which are visible about twenty miles off.  These are two in number, standing on the bold headland forming the most southerly point of the English coast, against which the sea beats with tremendous fury in south-westerly gales. [p.156]

    From this point the coast retires, and in the bend lie Falmouth (with a revolving light on St. Anthony's Point), Fowey, the Looes, and Plymouth Sound and Harbour; the coast-line again trending southward until it juts out into the sea, in the bold craggy bluffs of Bolt Head and Start Point, on the last of which is another house with two lights,—one revolving, for the Channel, and another, fixed, to direct vessels inshore clear of the Skerries shoal.  But between the Lizard and Start Point, which form the two extremities of this bend in the land of Cornwall and Devonshire, there lies the Eddystone Rock and Lighthouse, standing fourteen miles out from the shore, almost directly in front of Plymouth Sound and in the line of coasting vessels steaming or beating up Channel.  From this point the Channel gradually contracts, and the way becomes lighted on both sides up to the Downs.

    On the south are seen the three Casquet Lights on the Jersey side; and on the north the two fixed lights on Portland Bill.  The next is St. Catherine's, a brilliant fixed light on the extreme south point of the Isle of Wight.  Next are the lights exhibited at different heights on the Nab, and then the single fixed light exhibited on the Owers vessel.  Beachy Head, on the same line, exhibits a powerful revolving light 285 feet above high water, its interval of greatest brilliancy occurring every two minutes.  Then comes Dungeness, exhibiting a fixed red light of great power, situated at the extremity of the low point of Dungeness Beach.  Next are seen Folkestone, and then Dover, harbour lights; whilst on the south are the flash light, recently stationed on the Varne Bank; and, farther up Channel, on the French coast, is seen the brilliant revolving light on Cape Grisnez.

    The Channel is passed with the two South Foreland Lights, one higher than the other, on the left; and the Downs are entered with the South Sandhead floating light on the right: and when the Gull and the Sandhead floating lights have been passed on the one hand, and the North Foreland on the other, then the Tongue, the Prince's Channel, and the Girdler, are passed.  The Nore Light comes next in sight; and from thence it is as easy for the navigator to pilot his ship up the Thames as for a foot-passenger to thread his way along the streets of London. Such, in a few words, is the admirable manner in which our coasts are lighted up for the guidance of the mariner, and such are among the benefits to navigation which have followed close upon Smeaton's great enterprise—the building of the Eddystone Lighthouse.





THE completion of the Eddystone Lighthouse was regarded as a matter of much interest, and excited so eager a curiosity on the part of the public, that for sometime Mr. Smeaton's rooms at Gray's Inn were the resort of numerous visitors, who called there for the purpose of inspecting the model of his extraordinary building.  This at length so broke in upon his time, that he found it necessary to depute his wife to attend to these curious persons, and explain to them the details of the model.  It does not, however, appear that his success led to his extensive employment on engineering works for several years, otherwise we should not have found him, in 1764, offering himself a candidate for the receivership of the Derwentwater Estates, to which office he was appointed at the end of that year.

    There was as yet, indeed, but small demand for constructive skill.  The roads were still in a very bad state, bridges were much wanted in most districts, and little had been done to provide harbour accommodation beyond what nature had effected.  The country was too poor or too spiritless to undertake the improvement of the means of commercial intercourse on any comprehensive scale.  The industrial enterprise of England had not yet begun; and the country was content to jog along in its old paths, displaying its energies principally in warfare by land and sea.  The victory of Wolfe on the heights of Abraham occurred in the same year that Smeaton completed his lighthouse on the Eddystone, and doubtless excited a far more general interest.

    It is true the trade and commerce of the country were making some progress, [p.160] though both had to labour under serious imposts and heavy restrictions.  The public expenditure was great, provisions were dear in proportion to wages, and food-riots were frequent.  Under these circumstances internal improvements, involving any considerable outlay, were of a very limited character.  When Smeaton was called upon to examine an undrained district, or a dangerous and inaccessible harbour, or a decaying bridge, he had little difficulty in advising what was best to be done; for his reports were searching, explicit, and almost exhaustive.  But then arose the invariable impediment.  The requisite improvements could not be executed without money; but money was scarce, and could not be raised.  Hence the greater number of his reports, though containing much excellent and carefully-considered advice, fell dead upon the minds of those to whom they were addressed; and no action was taken to carry them into effect until the country had become richer, and a new race of capitalists, engineers, and contractors had sprung into existence.


Long Lees Lock, on the Calder and Hebble canal between Brighouse and Salterhebble. [p.161]
© Copyright Phil Markham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    One of the earliest subjects on which Mr. Smeaton was consulted, was the opening up of river navigations.  In 1760 he reported to the magistrates of Dumfries as to the improvement of the Nith; but his advice—to form a navigable canal rather than deepen and straighten the river at a much greater cost—was not carried out for want of funds.  He was also consulted as to the lockage of the Wear, the opening up of the navigation of the Chelmer to Chelmsford, of the Don above Doncaster, of the Devon in Clackmannanshire from Melloch Foot to the Forth, of the Tetney Haven navigation near Louth, and the improvement of the river Lea, which has been a fertile source of contention amongst engineers down even to our own day; but it does not appear that any works of importance followed the elaborate advice which Smeaton gave on those subjects.

    The first engineering undertaking on which he was employed was in his own native county, where he was required to make extensive repairs in the dams and locks on the river Calder in Yorkshire.  He carried out several essential improvements in that navigation, for the purpose of resisting the damage caused to the works by the rapid floods which swept down from Blackstone Edge.  At the same time he was consulted as to the Aire navigation, from Leeds to its junction with the Ouse, which he also succeeded in improving.

    Another subject on which he was early and often consulted was the recovery of the flooded ground in the Lincoln Fens, and in the low-lying lands near Doncaster and Hull, in Yorkshire.  The river Witham, between Lincoln and Boston, was still a source of constant grief and loss to the farmers along its banks.  It had become choked up by neglect, so that not only had the navigation of the river become almost lost, but a large extent of otherwise valuable land was constantly laid under water.  In reporting on this subject in 1761, Mr. Smeaton was associated with Mr. John Grundy and Mr. Langley Edwards; and the result of their joint examination was an elaborate report, accompanied by plans, in which they clearly pointed out the causes of the existing evils and the best mode of remedying them.  For the purpose of improving the outfall, they recommended the cutting of an entirely new river, about twelve and a half miles in length, from a place called Chapel Hill to a little above Boston.  They also at the same time recommended a plan for the drainage of Wildmore and West Fens by a new cut and sluice in place of the old Anthony's Gout, with sundry other improvements which they set forth in detail.  But the total estimated cost being upwards of £40,000, which was then considered a "mint of money" for a comparatively poor county to raise, the recommendation of the consulting engineers produced no result; and the greater part of the lands remained drowned until they were effectually cleared of their surplus water by Mr. Rennie, about half a century later.

    Mr. Smeaton was also consulted, in 1762, about the improvement of the Fossdyke, an old cut joining the Trent and the Witham, which had been allowed to fall into decay; but only a few pottering improvements were made, in lieu of the thorough measure of general drainage which he so strongly recommended.  After the lapse of twenty years Mr. Smeaton was again called in, and further advised the proprietors on the subject; but although he then submitted a much more limited scheme, it was still beyond the capability of the county to undertake it.

    At a still later period he was consulted as to the drainage of the North Level of the Fens, and the improved outfall of the river Nene at Wisbeach.  In his report on this subject, he went at great length into the probable causes of the flooding of the fens, and from these he reasoned out the improvements necessary for their effectual cure.  The principal measure which he proposed was to build a powerful outfall sluice upon the mouth of the Nene.  In this report he brought the observations which he had made while on his journey through the Low Countries to bear upon the case; and he argued that, as the outfall channels at Middlesburgh and Ostend were kept wholly open by sluices, the same method would equally apply at Wisbeach.  But, like his predecessor Vermuyden, Smeaton did not seem sufficiently to take into account the different circumstances of the two tracts of country; and it is perhaps fortunate that his plans were not carried out, as subsequent experience has shown that, if executed, they would most probably have proved failures.

    Considerable success, however, attended his operations in improving the drainage of the Isle of Axholme, originally executed by Vermuyden.  The lower lying lands in the district had fallen into a wretched condition, through neglect of the outfalls; and when Smeaton was consulted as to a remedy, he advised the diversion of the old river Torne, which was carried out; and, where not diverted, it was widened and deepened.  The result was satisfactory; though, many years after, we find Mr. Rennie describing the drainage as still very imperfect, and urgently demanding an effectual remedy.


Isle of Axholme drains: the River Torne and South Engine Drain/Folly Drain.
© Copyright Steve Fareham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    It would occupy too much space to detail the works of a similar kind on which Mr. Smeaton was consulted.  We may content ourselves with merely mentioning the more important, which were these: the drainage of the lands adjacent to the river Went, in Yorkshire; the Earl of Kinnoul's lands lying along the Almond and the Tay, in Perthshire; the Adling Fleet Level, at the junction of the Ouse and the Trent; Hotham Carrs, near Market Weighton; the Lewes Laughton Level, in Sussex; the Potterick Carr Fen, near Doncaster; the Torksey Bridge Fen, near Gainsborough; and the Holderness Level, near Hull.  These works, though of a highly useful character, possess but small interest in a narrative, and we therefore proceed to describe the undertakings of a different character on which our engineer was about the same time employed.

    Having fully proved his mastery of the art of construction, and his skill in overcoming the difficulties arising from insecure foundations, by his erection of the Eddystone Lighthouse, he was frequently called upon for advice as to the repairs of old bridges, as well as the erection of new ones.  Thus, in 1762, we find him consulted as to the repairs of Bristol Old Bridge; and in the following year he was called upon by the Corporation of London to advise them as to the best means of improving, widening, and enlarging Old London Bridge.  Although considerable alterations and improvements had been made in it, the structure was in a very rickety state, and was a source of constantly recurring alarm to the public.

    When Labelye's New Westminster Bridge was opened for traffic in 1749, the defects of London Bridge became more apparent than ever.  The Corporation even went so far as to entertain a project for rebuilding it.  The city surveyor, however, after examining the foundations of the piers in 1754, declared them still to be good, and capable of lasting for ages!  His report relieved the public anxiety for a time, and the old patching process went on as before.  The bridge was still overhung with houses on either side, and the roadway between them was very narrow and dark.

    Labelye's opinion was then taken as to the improvement of the structure, and he recommended the removal of the starlings, which so blocked up the waterway as to cause a fall of nearly five feet between the piers, during the greater part of every tide.  He also advised the removal of some of the piers, as had been recommended by Sir Christopher Wren, and throwing several of the arches together.  The discussions of the Common Council, however, ended in the proposal to erect a new bridge at Blackfriars, and the removal at the same time of the houses from the old bridge, both of which measures were eventually carried out.  The great middle pier was also removed, and the two adjoining locks were thrown into one by turning a new arch, which occupied the whole space.


    It was now found, however, that the increased scour of the water passing under the new archway placed the adjoining piers in great peril, by washing away the bed of the river under their foundations.  The apprehensions of danger were such that but few persons would pass either over or under the bridge, and the Corporation, becoming alarmed, sent in all haste for Mr. Smeaton.  He was then living at his house at Austhorpe, near Leeds, from whence he was summoned by express to town.  On his arrival, he proceeded to survey the bridge and examine the foundations which were giving way.  His advice to the Corporation was, to buy back immediately the stones of the City gates, which had recently been taken down and the materials sold, and throw them into the river outside the starlings, for the purpose of protecting them against the scour of the river.  Another object of this measure, as explained in Smeaton's reports, was to restore the old dam by again raising a barrier of stones across the waterway, and thus increase the head of the current under the other arches, so as to drive the wheels, by means of which a considerable part of the water required for the supply of the City, was still raised.


    Smeaton's recommendations were adopted as the most advisable course to be pursued under the circumstances; and horses, carts, and barges were at once set to work, and the stones were tumbled into the stream at the base of the tottering piers.  By these means the destruction of the foundations was temporarily stayed, and the process of patching up the old bridge went on from time to time for sixty years more; until it was at length effectually remedied by the erection of New London Bridge.

    In connection with the bridge works, Smeaton also furnished a design for a new pumping-engine, which was placed in the fifth arch, and worked by the rise and fall of the tide.  Before the invention of the steam-engine, this was an economical though an irregular method of obtaining motive power.  The same tides that lifted great ships up the river and let them down again twice in each day, then drove pumping-engines and even flour-mills—the driving-wheels turning one way as the tide rose and another way as it fell. [p.168-1]  This power was, however, shortly superseded by the still more economical power of steam: for the steam engine, though involving a considerable expenditure of coal, proved cheaper in the end, because it was so much more certain, regular, and expeditious than the natural power of the tides.


Queensbury Bridge, Amesbury, Wiltshire. [p.168-2]
© Copyright Chris Talbot and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The bridges erected after Smeaton's original designs, were those of Perth, Coldstream, and Banff; the only one which he erected in England being at Hexham, in Northumberland, which proved a failure. [p.168-2] He was consulted about the new bridge at Perth as early as the year 1763, when he visited the place, fixed upon the best site for the structure, and afterwards furnished the design, which was carried into effect. The river Tay being subject to sudden floods--in one of which a former bridge had been swept away—it was necessary to take every precaution with the foundations, which were got in by means of coffer-dams. That is, a row of piles was driven into the bed of the river, on which a quantity of "gravel and even mould earth mixed together" was thrown in all round the piles, with a view to render the enclosed space impervious to water. Pumping power was then applied, and the bed of the river was laid dry within the coffer-dam thus formed, after which the gravel or clay was dug out to a proper depth, until a solid foundation was secured for the piers. Piles were driven into the earth under the intended foundation-frame, and the building proceeded upward in the usual way. [p.168-3] The bridge is a handsome structure, consisting of seven principal arches, and is about goo feet in length, including the approaches. It was completed and opened for traffic in 1772, and has proved of great service to the locality.


    Smeaton's employment at Perth on this occasion introduced him to a considerable amount of engineering business in the North.  He was consulted at Edinburgh respecting the improved supply of water for that city, and at Glasgow about the security of its old bridge.  But the most important work on which he was employed in Scotland, about this time, was the designing and construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal for connecting the navigation of the eastern and western seas.  The success of the Duke of Bridgewater's Canal had directed public attention in all parts of the kingdom to the formation of similar lines of internal communication; and the movement had also extended to Scotland.


Perth Bridge, Perth And Kinross, Scotland.
© Copyright Lis Burke and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    James Watt, then carrying on a small business as a mathematical instrument maker in Glasgow, had been employed to survey a "ditch canal," of a very limited capacity, by a round-about route, through the Perthshire lochs; but his genius being as yet unrecognised, the projectors thought it desirable to call in an engineer of higher standing, and Smeaton was accordingly consulted by them in 1764.  He had before been employed to examine the Grand Trunk line, as surveyed by Brindley, and his report on the subject was regarded as a very able one.  Brindley was also consulted respecting the Forth and Clyde scheme, but his time was so much occupied with the projects which he was engaged in carrying out in the western counties of England, that he could not undertake the working survey; and it was accordingly placed in the hands of Smeaton.  He reported upon the several schemes which had been proposed for connecting the Forth with the Clyde, and advocated the plan which in his judgment was the best calculated to carry out the intentions of the projectors.  He declared himself in favour of forming the most direct line across the country between the two Friths, of such a capacity as to accommodate vessels of large burden.

    Lord Dundas, the leading promoter of the scheme, adopting the view put forward by the engineer, took the requisite steps to obtain an Act authorising the construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal, which passed accordingly, and the works were commenced in 1768.  The canal runs almost parallel with the line of the wall of Antoninus, built by the Romans to restrain the incursions of the Caledonian tribes, many vestiges of which are still traceable along the canal, and at Bowling, [p.170] the point at which the main canal joins the Clyde, a few miles below Glasgow.

    The canal is about 38 miles in length, and includes 39 locks with a rise of 156 feet from the sea to the summit level.  It was one of the most difficult works of the kind which had, up to that time, been constructed in the kingdom.  The engineer had to encounter numerous rocks and quicksands.  The canal in some places passed over deep rivers, and at others along embankments more than 20 feet high.  It crossed many roads and rivulets, and two rivers, the Luggie and the Kelvin, —the bridge over the latter being 275 feet long and 68 feet high.  The depth of the canal was 8 feet, and vessels of 19 feet beam and 68 feet keel were capable of easily passing through it, between the east and west coasts.


Forth & Clyde Canal.  There are thirty-nine locks on the canal; this is number fifteen, which
is situated where the canal passes through the Camelon area of Falkirk. [p.171]
© Copyright Paul McIlroy and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    Although the total cost of the undertaking was estimated at only about £150,000, and the important uses of the navigation were unquestionable, the greatest difficulty was experienced in raising the requisite funds; and long before the canal could be opened to the Clyde, the works came to a complete standstill.  Twenty years passed before the money could be raised to finish them, and this was only effected by the aid of a public grant.  At length the canal was opened in 1790, having been finished by Mr. Whitworth (one of Brindley's pupils), and the opening of the communication between the eastern and western oceans was celebrated with great rejoicings,—the Chairman of the Canal Committee performing the feat by launching a hogshead of water brought from the Forth into the Clyde.


    Mr. Smeaton was next employed to build a bridge across the Tweed at Coldstream.  He furnished several designs, and that eventually selected by the trustees was executed under his superintendence.  It consisted of five principal arches of the segment of a circle, the centre one being 60 feet 8 inches from pier to pier; the two next, 60 feet 5 inches; and the two land or side arches, 58 feet.  The design presents no features worthy of special notice, nor was any unusual difficulty experienced in getting in the foundations.  The piers were founded on piles driven deep into the bottom of the river; and the building, where beneath the level of the stream, was carried on, as at Perth, within coffer-dams.  To give additional protection to the piers during winter time, when heavy floods sweep down the valley of the Tweed, they were surrounded by strong sheet-piling, [p.172] as well as by rubble slopes pointing up-stream.  The bridge was finished at a total cost of about £6,000, and was opened for carriage traffic in October 1766, having been rather more than three years in building.


Smeaton's Bridge over River Tweed at Coldstream linking England with Scotland.
© Copyright james denham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    Whilst engaged on his engineering business in Scotland, Mr. Smeaton formed the acquaintance of Dr. Roebuck, the enterprising but unfortunate projector of the Carron Iron Works, near Falkirk.  That gentleman was one of the first who attempted to develop the iron trade of Scotland, which has since become so important.  He was then engaged in the double task of carrying on iron works at Carron and working coal-mines at Borrowstonness.  Dr. Roebuck was a man full of expedients, and possessed an uncommon knowledge of mechanics.  Smeaton was a kindred spirit, whom he very early sought out and invited to his house at Kinneil, near Borrowstonness, for the purpose of consulting him as to the pumping machinery of his mines, and the various arrangements of his iron manufactory at Carron.

    Dr. Roebuck was one of the first to employ coal in iron-smelting on a large scale, and for that purpose he required the aid of the most powerful blowing apparatus that could be procured.  Mr. Smeaton succeeded in contriving and fixing for him about the year 1768, a highly effective machine of this kind, driven by a water-wheel. [p.173]  He also supplied the same Company with a design for a double-boring mill for cylinders and guns—the manufacture of carronades, or "smashers," having been an early branch of the business at Carron Works.  At the same time Smeaton pointed out how the water power of the little river Carron might be so concentrated and increased by damming, as to work the apparatus he contrived with the greatest possible effect.  He was afterwards repeatedly consulted by the Carron Company as to the manufactures carried on at the works—such as the making of shot-moulds, the best form of slide-carriages for guns, the construction of furnaces, and such like matters, of which the plans and descriptive details are to be found in his published reports. [p.174]

    Another fine bridge, of which Smeaton furnished the design in the year 1772, was that subsequently erected over the river Deveron, near the town of Banff, in Scotland.  It is of seven arches, segments of circles, and is of the total length of 410 feet between the abutments, with a roadway 20 feet wide over all.  The design is similar in most respects to those of the bridges previously erected by the same engineer at Perth and Coldstream; and the beauty of its situation, in the immediate vicinity of Duff House, the mansion of the Earl of Fife, and its noble surrounding grounds, render it an object of even greater pictorial interest.


    The only peculiarity to be noted in the designs of Smeaton's bridges, is the circular perforations left in the spandrels of the arches, somewhat after the method adopted by Edwards at Pont-y-Pridd, and in several Continental bridges.  This had the effect of lightening the weight which pressed upon the piers and on their foundations, and was doubtless an advantage.  He also invariably adopted segmental or elliptical in preference to semicircular arches, probably because of the less cost of bridges after the former design.  Much ability was displayed by our engineer in the designing of his centres, which have been much admired for their strength as well as economy of material.

    Smeaton was much less successful in the construction of his only English bridge, than he was with his Scotch ones.  He was called upon to furnish the design for a structure across the Tyne at Hexham, in 1777, and a very handsome bridge of nine arches was erected, under the superintendence of Mr. Pickernell, the resident engineer.  It had scarcely been finished ere a subsidence in the foundations of one of the piers took place, which was attempted to be remedied by sheet-piling and filling up the cavities in the river's bed with rough rubble-stones.  But it appeared that the foundations had been imperfectly laid from the beginning.  In the spring of 1782 a violent spate swept down the Tyne, and in the course of a few hours Smeaton's beautiful Hexham Bridge lay a wreck in the bottom of the river.

    Writing to Pickernell, he said,—"All our honours are now in the dust!  It cannot now be said that in the course of thirty years' practice, and engaged in some of the most difficult enterprises, not one of Smeaton's works has failed!  Hexham Bridge is a melancholy instance to the contrary."  Thus the same engineer who had founded a lighthouse far out at sea, so firmly as to bid defiance to the utmost fury of the waves, was baffled by an inland stream.  "The news came to me," he says, "like a thunderbolt, as it was a stroke I least expected, and even yet I can scarcely form a practical belief as to its reality.  There is, however, one consolation that attends this great misfortune, and that is, that I cannot see that anybody is really to blame, or that anybody is blamed; as we all did our best, according to what appeared; and all the experience I have gained is, not to attempt to build a bridge upon a gravel bottom in a river subject to such violent rapidity."

    The fault committed seems to have been, that Smeaton was satisfied with setting his piers upon a crust of gravel slightly beneath the bottom level of the river, and that the increased scour of the stream under the arches, caused by the contraction of the water-way, had washed away the bottom, and thus undermined the work. [p.178]  But the founding of piers in deep rivers was as yet very imperfectly understood; and the art was not brought to its perfection until the time of Rennie, who went down through the bed of the river, far beneath all possible scour, until he had reached a solid foundation, which he also piled, and on that secure basis he planted the strong masonry of his piers.

    Among his various works, Smeaton was also employed in the designing of harbours.  With the exception, however, of Ramsgate, these were for the most part confined to the improvement of the existing accommodation.  At St. Ives, in Cornwall, where he formed his first harbour, in 1766, nature had provided a convenient haven, enclosed in a bay between two headlands, one of which was formed by "the Island," and the other by Penolver Point, as shown in the above plan.  It was well protected from the north, west, and south, and from the prevalent storms along the coast, which mostly blow from a south-westerly direction.  All that was wanted to give shelter for shipping from the remaining quarters, the east and north-east, was the provision of a pier running nearly south from Castle Point.  The works were carried out after Smeaton's design; and as the port is the seat of considerable trade, arising from the pilchard fishery and the mining operations of the country inland, the facilities thereby provided for shipping, and the protection to navigation along the coast, proved of great advantage to the district.


    Our engineer was also consulted respecting numerous other harbours: Whitehaven, Workington, and Bristol, on the west coast; Christchurch, Rye, and Dover, on the south; and Yarmouth, Lynn, Scarborough, and Sunderland, on the east; but in nearly every case, want of money prevented the improvements suggested by him from being fully carried out.  This was pre-eminently the case at Bristol, where the merchants gave him an unanimous "vote of thanks" for his report and plan for keeping the ships at the quay constantly afloat by docking the river, and also for enlarging the harbour by a new canal through Cannon's Marsh.  But nothing was done.  The Bristol vessels continued to lie upon the mud and get "hogged;" and a considerable time elapsed before the commercial interests became alive to the necessity of improving the conveniences of the harbour.  This was eventually accomplished by William Jessop, a pupil of Smeaton's, but not until Liverpool had taken the lead of Bristol among the western ports, because of the convenient accommodation which it had provided for shipping, as well as on account of its more ready connection with the best markets.


    The principal harbour works actually executed by Mr. Smeaton were those of Ramsgate.  The proximity of this harbour to the Downs and the mouth of the Thames rendered it of considerable importance; and its improvement for purposes of trade, as well as for the shelter of distressed vessels in stormy weather, was long regarded as a matter of almost national importance.  The neighbourhood of Sandwich was first proposed for a harbour of refuge as early as the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the subject was revived in succeeding reigns.  In 1737, Labelye, the architect of Westminster Bridge, was called upon to investigate the subject; and ten years later, a Committee of the House of Commons, after taking full evidence and obtaining every information, reported that "a safe and commodious harbour may be made into the Downs near Sandown Castle, fit for the reception and Security of large merchantmen and ships of war, which would also be of great advantage to the naval power of Great Britain."


    The estimated cost of the proposed harbour was, however, considered too formidable, although it was under half a million; and the project lay dormant until a violent storm occurred in the Downs in 1748, by which a great number of ships were forced from their anchors and driven on shore.  Several vessels, however, found safety in the little haven at Ramsgate, which was then used only by fishermen, the whole extent of its harbour accommodation consisting merely of a rough rubble pier.


    This circumstance seems to have had the effect of directing attention to Ramsgate as the proper place for a harbour of refuge for vessels in distress from bad weather in the Downs.  The Legislature was petitioned on the subject, and an Act was passed in 1749, enabling a harbour to be constructed at Ramsgate.  A large number of plans was sent in, from which the Trustees made selections, adopting the cast stone pier of one amateur, and the west wooden one of another.  The plan of the east pier was made by one of the Trustees, and that of the west pier by a captain resident at Margate.  Whilst the works were in progress, the Harbour Trustees proposed to reduce its area, and consequently the extent of accommodation for shipping.

    On this decision becoming known, the shipping interest memorialised Parliament on the subject, in 1755, and an inspection of the works was ordered, during which they were entirely suspended, and remained in that state during the next six years.  Differences arose between the officers appointed by the Government and the Harbour Trustees as to the plan most proper to be carried out.  At length the Trustees gave way, and that part of the works which had been executed with a view to the contraction of the harbour was taken up, and the piers proceeded in the direction originally intended.  It was, however, a matter of great vexation to observe that even while the construction of the piers was in progress, and especially when they were carried out so far as to bend towards each other, with the object of affording the requisite protection to the shipping within them, large quantities of sand and silt began to collect in the harbour, threatening to choke it up altogether.  And this accumulation of silt went on, notwithstanding every effort made to remove it.

    At this juncture Mr. Smeaton was, in 1774, called upon to advise the Harbour Board as to the steps most proper to be taken in the matter.  After a careful examination, he ascertained that no less than 268,700 cubic yards of sand and mud had already silted up, every tide bringing in a fresh quantity and depositing it in the still water of the harbour, which was without any natural scour to carry it away.  He accordingly recommended a plan for accomplishing this object by means of sluices, supplied by an artificial backwater.  He pointed out that Ramsgate Harbour, having a sound bottom of chalk, was well adapted for the execution of this scheme, and that provided the silt could be thus scoured out, the tide, running cross-ways upon the harbour's mouth, would easily carry it away.  Mr. Smeaton accordingly accompanied his report with a plan showing the details of his design.  He proposed to enclose two spaces of four acres each, and to provide them with nine draw-gates: four upon the westernmost, and five upon the easternmost basin, the whole being pointed in three different directions: two towards the curve of the western pier, four towards the harbour's mouth, and three towards the curve in the eastern pier.  To give the sluices all possible effect, he proposed to construct a caisson, shaped something like the pier of a bridge, which, being floated to its place, and then sunk, might be used to direct the current to the right hand or the left according to circumstances.  Several experiments having been made with a lighter filled with water and scuttled when the tide was out, the efficacy of the scouring process was thus ascertained.  It was finally resolved to adopt the general features of Smeaton's plan, though it was not carried out in the exact manner designed by him.  But it was shortly found that the process of sluicing endangered the foundations of the piers.

    Our engineer was accordingly again called in, when he recommended further improvements, including a new dock, the first stone of which was laid in July 1784.  In the course of the excavations numerous springs were tapped, which broke through the pavement with which the dock had been laid, and Portland blocks were then substituted; but this not proving effectual, the engineer was again sent for, and from that time forward the execution of the further works in connection with the harbour was placed entirely in his hands.  The dock was rebuilt, a timber floor laid in the most complete manner throughout, and an additional thickness given to the walls.  The east pier was rebuilt of stone, and carried out into deep water to a farther extent of 350 feet.

    In carrying out the elongated pier, Smeaton first employed the diving-bell in building the foundations, making use of a square wooden chest, partly of iron, weighing about half a ton.  It was 4 feet 6 inches in height and length, and 3 feet wide, affording room for two men to work in it; and they were provided with a constant supply of fresh air by means of a forcing pump placed in a boat which floated above them.

    The works, when finished, were found to answer remarkably well.  The harbour included an area of forty-two acres, the piers extending 1310 feet into the sea, the opening between the pier-heads being 200 feet in width.  The inner basin is used as a wet dock, and also contains a dry dock for the repair of ships.  With its many defects, and its limited depth, the harbour is nevertheless the best upon that coast, and in stormy weather affords a refuge to vessels of considerable draught of water that run for protection there at high tide.

    Besides the harbours constructed or improved by him at different points of the English coast, Smeaton was frequently employed during his Scotch journeys in inspecting the northern harbours and advising the local authorities as to the means of increasing their security and accommodation.  Thus the harbour at Aberdeen was altered after his plans in 1770, and a greater depth of water was secured over the bar and in the channel of the river Dee, by the erection of the old North Pier, and other additions which served their purpose, until the enlarged trade of the town required the more ample accommodation hereafter to be described in the Life of Telford.  He also inspected and reported on the harbours of Dundee and Dunbar, then of very limited capacity, and several improvements of a minor character were carried out by his advice.  The small harbours of Portpatrick on the west, and Eyemouth on the east coast, were constructed after his plans; and in his report on Scarborough Pier, dated August 1781, he states that they had "given entire satisfaction."

    Both of these harbours were in a great measure formed by nature, and the improvement of them demanded comparatively small skill on the part of the engineer.  He had merely to follow the direction of the rocks, which provided a natural foundation for his piers at both places.  Of his little harbour at Eyemouth he was somewhat proud, as it was one of the first he constructed, and it very effectually answered its purpose at a comparatively small outlay of money.  It lies at the corner of a bay, opposite St. Abb's Head on the coast of Berwickshire, and is almost land-locked, excepting from the north.  Smeaton accordingly carried his north pier into deep water for the purpose of protecting the harbour's mouth from that quarter, as well as enlarging the accommodation of the haven.  The harbour was thus rendered perfectly safe in all winds, and proved of great convenience and safety to the fishing-craft that chiefly frequent it.


    It would occupy too much space to refer in detail to the various other public works on which Mr. Smeaton was employed in the course of his professional career.  There was scarcely a crazy old bridge in the kingdom on which he was not called upon to report.  He was consulted respecting canal projects almost until the close of his life: amongst others, on the improvement of the Birmingham Canal, the Ure Canal, the Dublin Grand Canal, and various other schemes of the same sort.  He was the principal authority on lighthouses; and, amongst others, he erected two on Spurn Point, at the entrance to the Humber, between the years 1771-6, which had before been lighted by coal-fires.  The Government consulted him respecting their dockyards at Plymouth and Portsmouth.  Water companies consulted him as to water supply, and landowners and coal owners as to the best method of draining their lands or working their mines.  He was called upon to design many weirs, sluices, and dams, and his dam on the Coquet, north of Newcastle, was considered one of the most complete works of its kind.


    He was ready to supply a design of any new machine, from a ship's pump or a fire-bucket to a turning-lathe or a steam-engine.  His machinery was neatly designed, and he was very particular as to its careful execution and finish.  The water-pumping engine which he erected for Lord Irwin, at Temple Newsam, near his own house at Austhorpe, to pump the water for the supply of the mansion, is an admirable piece of workmanship, and continues at this day in good working condition.

    His advice was especially sought on subjects connected with mill-work, water-pumping, and engineering of every description—flour-mills and powder-mills, wind-mills and water-mills, fulling-mills and flint-mills, blade-mills and forge hammer mills.  From a list left by him in his own handwriting, it appears that he designed and erected forty-three water-mills of various kinds, besides numerous wind-mills.  Water-power was then used for nearly all purposes for which steam is now applied—such as grinding flour, sawing wood, boring and hammering iron, fulling cloth, rolling copper, and driving all kinds of machinery.


"Chimney Mill",  Spital Tongues, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. [p.190-1]
© Copyright Anthony Foster and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    Smeaton also bestowed much patient study on the development of the infant powers of the steam-engine.  In order to investigate the subject by experiment, he expressly erected a model engine, after Newcomen's principle, at his house at Austhorpe; and by improving it in all its arrangements, he succeeded in rendering it as complete as it was possible to make it—his Chacewater engine of 150-horse power being regarded as the finest and most powerful of its kind which had until then been erected.

    Mr. Farey says of his labours in this respect: "Although Mr. Smeaton did not add anything to the invention of Newcomen, he established just proportions for engines of all sizes; and the performance of the engines he constructed greatly exceeded the common sort, as they had been usually made before his time." [p.190-2]

    In this field of invention, however, he found himself distanced by Watt, the superior merit of whose condensing-engine—notwithstanding the time and labour Smeaton had bestowed on the improvement of Newcomen's—he generously acknowledged; frankly admitting, after he had inspected Watt's invention, that "the old engine, even when made to do its best, was now driven from every place where fuel could be considered of any value."

    The fame of Smeaton, therefore, does not rest upon his improvements in this machine, though what he accomplished in bringing out the full powers of Newcomen's engine cannot fail to elicit the admiration of the practical mechanic.





WHILST Mr. Smeaton was thus extensively employed as an engineer throughout the three kingdoms, his home continued to be at Austhorpe, near Leeds, where he had been born.  The mechanical experiments of his boyhood had been conducted there, as well as those of his maturer years.  His father had allowed him the privilege of a work-shop in an outhouse, which he long continued to occupy; after which, when the house had become his settled home, he erected a shop, study, and observatory, all in one, for his own special use.  The building was in the form of a square tower, four storeys high, standing apart from his dwelling, on the opposite side of the yard, as represented on the annexed engraving.  The ground-floor contained his forge; the first floor his lathe; the second his models; the third was his drawing-room and study; and the fourth was the attic, which was used as a lumber-room.  From the little turreted staircase at the top, a door opened on to the leads.  A vane was fixed on the summit, which worked the hands of a dial on the ceiling of Smeaton's drawing-room, so that by raising his head he could at any moment ascertain precisely which way the wind blew.

    When he entered his sanctum, strict orders were given that he was not to be disturbed on any account.  No one was permitted to ascend the circular staircase which led to his study.  When he heard a footstep below, he would call out and inquire what was wanted.  His blacksmith, Waddington, was not allowed even to announce himself, but was ordered on all occasions to wait in the lower apartment until Mr. Smeaton came down; and as the smith was equally paid for his time, whether he was sitting there or blowing his forge, it was much the same to him.

    When not engaged in drawing plans or writing reports, the engineer's time was principally occupied with astronomical studies and observations.  Even in the height of his professional career, and when fully employed, he continued to indulge in this solitary pleasure, and for many years he was a regular contributor of papers on astronomical subjects to the Royal Society. [p.194]  The instruments with which he was accustomed to illustrate his papers, were of the most beautiful workmanship, all made by his own hands, which had by no means lost their cunning.  Indeed, he was nowhere so happy as in his workshop amongst his tools, except it might be at his own fireside, where he was all but worshipped.

    His contrivances of tools were endless, and he was perpetually inventing and making new ones.  There are large quantities of these interesting relics still in existence in the possession of the son of the blacksmith, who lives in the neighbourhood.  When the author lately made inquiry after them, they were found laid in a heap in an open shed, covered with dirt and rust.  One article, after having been well scrubbed with a broom, at length displayed the form of a jack-plane, the tool with which Smeaton himself had worked.  Picked out from the heap were also found his drill, the bow formed of a thick piece of cane; his trace, his T square, his augurs, his gouges, and his engraving tools.  There was no end of curiously arranged dividers; pulleys in large numbers, and of various sizes; cog-wheels; brass hemispheres; and all manner of measured, drilled, framed, and jointed brasswork.

    His lathe is still in the possession of Mr. Mathers, engineer, Hunslet; [p.195] but many of the other interesting remains of the great engineer are equally worthy of preservation.  To mechanics, there is a meaning in every one of them. They do not resemble existing tools, but you can at once observe that each was made for a certain reason; and one can almost detect what the contriver was thinking about, when he made them so different from those we are now accustomed to see.

    Even in the most trifling matters,—such as the kind of wood or metal used, the direction of the fibre of the wood, and such like,—each detail has been carefully studied.  Much even of the household furniture seems to have been employed in their fabrication, possibly to the occasional amazement of the ladies in Smeaton's house over the way.  We are informed that so much "rubbish," as it was termed, was found in that square tower at his death, that a fire was kindled in the yard, and a vast quantity of papers, letters, books, plans, tools, and scraps of all kinds, were remorselessly burnt.

    We have said that Smeaton was a born mechanic; and a mechanic he remained to the last.  He contrived and constructed from pure love of invention.  Among the traditions which survive about him at Whitkirk, is this, that when new gates were erected at the entrances to Temple Newsam Park, near his house at Austhorpe, he volunteered to supply the designs, and they were made and hung after his plans.  He also contrived a threshing-machine; the grain being rubbed out of the ear by means of a number of nails fixed in a continuous wooden belt.  The people of the neighbourhood, however, think that his most wonderful work is the ingenious hydraulic ram, contrived by himself, by means of which the water is still raised in the grounds of Temple Newsam.

    His pursuits in his workshop, and at his desk, were varied by visits to his blacksmith's shop.  One of his principal objects, on such occasions, was to experiment upon a boiler—the lower part copper and the upper part lead—which he had fitted up in an adjoining building, for the purpose of ascertaining the evaporative power of different kinds of fuel, and other points connected with the then little understood question of steam power.  He was on very familiar terms with the smith, and if he thought him not very handy about a piece of work he was engaged upon, he would take the tools himself and point out how it should be done.  One of the maxims which he frequently quoted to his smith was, "Never let a file come where a hammer can go."

    When getting work done in other parts of the country, if a workman appeared to him unhandy, or at a loss how to proceed, he would take up the tools and finish the piece of work himself.  "You know, Sir," observed the son of Smeaton's blacksmith, still living, "workmen didn't know much about drawings at that time a-day, and so when Mr. Smeaton wanted any queer-fangled thing making, he'd cut one piece out o' wood, and say to my father, 'Now, lad, go make me this.'  And so on for ever so many pieces; and then he'd stick all those pieces o' wood together, and say, 'Now, lad, thou knows how thou made each part, go mak it now all in a piece.'  And I've heard my father say, 'at he's often been cap't to know how he could tell so soon when owt ailed it, for before ever he set his foot at t' bottom of his twisting steps, or before my father could get sight of his face, if t' iron had been wrong, thear'd been an angry word o' some sort, but t' varry next words were, 'Why, my lad, thou s'ud a' made it so and so: now go mak another.' "

    Mr. Smeaton's professional engagements called him frequently to London, where he spent part of every year, occupying chambers in Gray's Inn.  He had joined his friend Mr. Holmes, in 1771, in the proprietorship of the works for supplying Deptford and Greenwich with water, and he devoted considerable attention to the requisite mechanical arrangements.  On the occasion of his visits to London, it was a source of great pleasure to him to attend the meetings of the Royal Society, as well as to cultivate a friendship with the distinguished members of the Royal Society Club. [p.198-1]

    He was a frequent witness before Committees of both Houses of Parliament [p.198-2] in support of Bills for authorising the construction of bridges, canals, and water-works; and was accustomed on such occasions to give his evidence in a modest, simple, and straightforward manner, such as is calculated to win confidence and respect, far more than that glib and unscrupulous style which has since become the fashion.  Moreover, he was known to be a most conscientious man, and that he would not express an opinion on any subject until he had thoroughly mastered it.

    During the time spent by Mr. Smeaton in town, he was accustomed to meet once a week, on Friday evenings, in a sort of club, a few friends of the same calling,—canal-makers, bridge-builders, and others of the class then beginning to be known by the generic term of Engineers.  The place of meeting was the Queen's Head Tavern in Holborn; and after they had come together a few times, the members declared themselves a Society, and kept a register of membership,—free social conversation on matters relating to their business being the object of their meetings.  Some personal disagreement, however, occurring, through the offensive behaviour of one of the members, Mr. Smeaton withdrew from the club, which came to an end in 1792.  Mr. Holmes says of him, that though of a very kindly and genial nature, he was occasionally abrupt, and, to those who did not know him, apparently harsh in his manner; and that he would sometimes break out hastily when anything was said that did not tally with his ideas; not being disposed to yield upon any point on which he argued, until his mind was convinced by sound reasoning. [p.199]

    Mr. Smeaton earned a fair income by the practice of his profession; but he was no worshipper of money.  Though he had an insatiable appetite for work, and was occupied in useful pursuits from youth to old age, his pecuniary wants were very moderate.  Those were not the days when great fortunes were made by engineering; and Mr. Smeaton was satisfied to be paid two guineas for a full day's work.  Moreover, he refused new engagements, rather than imperfectly perform what he had already undertaken.

    He also limited his professional employment, that he might be enabled to devote a certain portion of his time to self-improvement and scientific investigation.  The maxim which governed his life was, that "the abilities of the individual were a debt due to the common stock of public wellbeing."  This high-minded principle, on which he faithfully acted, kept him free from sordid self-aggrandisement, and he had no difficulty in resisting the most tempting offers which were made to attract him from his settled course.

    When pressed on one occasion to undertake some new business, and when the prospect of a lucrative recompense was held out to him, he called in the old woman who took charge of his chambers at Gray's Inn, and pointing to her, said, "Her attendance suffices for all my wants."  When urgently called by duty, he was ready with his help; but he would not be bought.

    The Princess Dashkoff once urged him to go to Russia in order to enter the service of the Empress; holding out to him very tempting promises of reward.  He politely refused: no money would induce him to leave his home, his friends, and his pursuits in England; and, though not rich, he had enough and to spare.  "Sir," exclaimed the Princess, unable to withhold her admiration, "I honour you!  You may have your equal in abilities perhaps; but in character you stand alone.  The English minister, Sir Robert Walpole was mistaken, and my Sovereign has the misfortune to find one Man who has not his price." [p.201-1]

    Influenced by the same spirit, Mr. Smeaton, towards the close of his life, believing that he should be rendering a service to his country by publishing an account of the various works in which he had been engaged as an engineer, avoided as much business as he consistently could, in order to devote himself to that work; and he eventually determined to retire altogether from the profession. [p.201-2]

    The only portion of his works that he lived to describe in words, was his 'Narrative of the Construction of the Eddystone Lighthouse.'  Indeed, he states that he found the task of describing this work even more difficult than that of erecting it; and he seems to have become inordinately impressed with a sense of the importance of literary composition.  He very naively observes in the Preface:

"I am convinced that to write a book tolerably well is not a light or an easy matter; for, as I have proceeded in this work, I have been less and less satisfied with the execution.  In truth, I have found much more difficulty in writing than I did in building, as well as a greater length of time and application of mind to be employed.  I am indeed now older by thirty-five years than I was when I first entered on that enterprise, and therefore my faculties are less active and vigorous; but when I consider that I have been employed full seven years, at every opportunity, in forwarding this book, having all the original draughts and materials to go upon, and that the production of these original materials as well as the building itself were despatched in half that time, I am almost tempted to subscribe to the sentiment adopted by Mr. Pope, that 'Nature's chief masterpiece is writing well.'  It is true that I have not been bred to literature, but it is equally true that I was no more bred to mechanics: we must therefore conclude that the same mind has in reality a much greater facility in some subjects than in others."

    Smeaton's story of the Eddystone Lighthouse is, however, told in a very effective manner.  It possesses an interest almost dramatic, exhibiting a contest between the strong, skilled, and determined man, and the tremendous forces of nature.  It is truly observed by the late Lord Ellesmere, in his 'Essays on Engineering,' that bloody battles have been won, and campaigns conducted to a successful issue, with less of personal exposure to physical danger on the part of the commander in chief, than was constantly encountered by Smeaton during the greater part of those years in which the lighthouse was in course of erection.  In all works of danger he himself led the way—was the first to spring upon the rock and the last to leave it; and by his own example he inspired with courage the humble workmen engaged in carrying out his plans, and who, like himself, were unaccustomed to the special terrors of the scene.

    The portrait prefixed to this volume gives a good representation of Mr. Smeaton's countenance, the expression of which was gentle, yet shrewd.  In person he was of a middle stature, broad and strong made, and possessed originally of a vigorous constitution.  In his manners he was simple, plain, and unassuming.  He had the bluntness and straightforwardness of speech which usually mark the north-countryman, and never acquired that suavity and polish which are more common amongst educated men in our southern districts.  He spoke in the dialect of his native county, and was not ashamed to admit it. [p.203]  Yet he mixed in good society when in town, though his diffidence, as well as his reluctance to bestow too much time on social enjoyment, caused him to contract his circle as his professional engagements increased.

    His daughter has related the anecdote of his meeting, on one occasion, with the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, which led to a pleasant intercourse with that family.  Mr. Smeaton was walking with his wife in Ranelagh Gardens—the fashionable place of resort at that time—when he observed an elderly lady and gentleman fix their marked attention upon him.  At length they came up, and the lady, who proved to be the eccentric Duchess of Queensberry, said to Mr. Smeaton, "Sir, I do not know who you are or what you are; but so strongly do you resemble my poor dear Gay (the poet) that we must be acquainted.  You shall go home and sup with us; and if the minds of the two men accord, as do the countenances, you will find two cheerful old folks, who can love you well; and I think (or you are a hypocrite) you can as well deserve it."

    Mr. Smeaton and his wife accepted the invitation, and it proved the commencement of one of his most pleasant London friendships.  It happened that the Duke and Duchess had a great love of card-playing, which Smeaton detested.  But his good nature would not permit him to hold aloof when asked to take a hand.  He played, however, like a boy, his attention never following the game.  On one occasion, when it was Pope Joan, and the stake in "Pope" had accumulated to a considerable sum, it became Mr. Smeaton's turn by the deal to double it.  Regardless of his cards, he took up a scrap of paper, made some calculations on it, and laid it on the table.  The Duchess eagerly asked what it was.  He replied, "Your Grace will recollect that the field in which my house at Austhorpe stands may be about five acres, three roods, and seven perches, which, at thirty years' purchase, will be just my stake; and if your Grace will make a Duke of me, I presume the winner will not dislike my mortgage."  The hint thus given in a joke was kindly taken, and from that time they never played but for the merest trifle.

    In his own home he was beloved and revered.  His wife died in 1784, after which his two daughters kept house for him until his death.  The eldest has left on record a charming picture of his domestic character, which we cannot do better than transcribe:—"Though communicative on most subjects," she says, "and stored with ample and liberal observations on others, of himself he never spoke.  In nothing does he seem to have stood more single than in being devoid of that egotism which more or less affects the world.  It required some address, even in his family, to draw him into conversation directly relating to himself, his pursuits, or his success.  Self-opinion, self-interest, and self-indulgence, seemed alike tempered in him by a modesty inseparable from merit—a moderation in pecuniary ambition, a habit of intense application, and a temperance strict beyond the common standard. . . . Devoted to his family with an affection so lively, a manner at once so cheerful and serene, that it is impossible to say whether the charm of conversation, the simplicity of instruction, or the gentleness with which it was conveyed, most endeared his home—a home in which from infancy we cannot recollect to have seen a trace of dissatisfaction or a word of asperity to any one.  Yet with all this he was absolute!  And it is for casuistry, or education, or rule, to explain his authority; it was an authority as impossible to dispute as to define."

    Mrs. Dixon illustrates the benevolence of her father's character by referring to a painful and trying event in his life.  Mr. Smeaton had befriended a young man whom he had employed as a clerk, and he had successfully exerted himself to procure for him a situation of trust and responsibility, at the same time becoming bound for him, jointly with another gentleman, in a considerable sum.  The young man fell into bad habits: his expenses outran his income; he committed a forgery to meet the deficiency, and he was detected, apprehended, and given up to justice.

    The same post brought Mr. Smeaton the intelligence of the young man's ruin, the claim for the amount of the forfeited bond, and the refusal of the other person to pay the moiety.  Mrs. Smeaton's health being delicate at the time, her husband suppressed all appearance of emotion; nor, until all was put in train for settlement, did a word or look betray the exquisite distress which these painful circumstances had caused him.  He even exerted himself to save the prisoner's life, in which he eventually succeeded, and he did all that he afterwards could to soothe the remorse of the wretched youth who had betrayed him. [p.206]

    Of Mr. Smeaton's intellectual powers it would be difficult to speak too highly.  James Watt always mentioned him in terms of sincere admiration, speaking of him as "father Smeaton."  Writing to Sir Joseph Banks, he said: "In justice to him we should observe that he lived before Rennie, and before there were one-tenth of the artists there are now.  Suum cuique; his example and precepts have made us all engineers."  Even after the great works of the railway era, and the variety of practical ability which they called forth and fostered, Robert Stephenson pronounced Smeaton to be the engineer of the highest intellectual eminence that had yet appeared in England.  Speaking of him to the author in 1858, he observed, "Smeaton is the greatest philosopher in our profession, that this country has yet produced.  He was indeed a great man, possessing a truly Baconian mind, for he was an incessant experimenter. [p.207]  The principles of mechanics were never so clearly exhibited as in his writings, more especially with respect to resistance, gravity, and the power of water and wind to turn mills.  His mind was as clear as crystal, and his demonstrations will be found mathematically conclusive.  To this day there are no writings so valuable as his in the highest walks of scientific engineering; and when young men ask me, as they frequently do, what they should read, I invariably say, 'Go to Smeaton's philosophical papers; read them, master them thoroughly, and nothing will be of greater service to you.'  Smeaton was indeed a very great man."

    From what we have said, it will be obvious that Smeaton was, throughout his whole career, a most industrious man,—indeed, industry was the necessity and habit of his life.  His daughter describes him as having been incessantly occupied from six years old to sixty.  He was a great economist of time, and laid it out in such a way as to obtain from its use the greatest amount of valuable result.  When at home, his forenoons were devoted to writing reports, and to the various business arising out of his professional engagements; and his afternoons were occupied by the pursuits in which he took most pleasure,—working at his forge or in his workshop, making mechanical experiments, or preparing his papers on scientific subjects for the Royal Society.


    Though naturally possessed of an excellent constitution, and capable of enduring much fatigue, it is most probable that he taxed his brain too much, and "o'er informed his tenement of clay," by his continuous and intense application to study during the long periods of his seclusion at Austhorpe.  His robust frame became fragile, and his strength was further impaired by the abstinence which he was subsequently compelled to adopt. [p.208]  Moreover, it appears that brain disease was hereditary in his family, and he long apprehended the stroke which eventually terminated his life.  This only made him the more eager to employ to the most advantage the time which it might yet be permitted him to live; and he dreaded above all things the blight of his mental powers—to use his own words, "lingering over the dregs after the spirit had evaporated"—chiefly as depriving him of the means of doing further good.

    The last public measure on which he was professionally engaged in London, was the passing of the Bill through Parliament for the construction of the Birmingham and Worcester Canal.  It was very strongly opposed, and its support in Committee cost him much application, thought, and anxiety.  His friends saw him visibly breaking down, and apprehended that the powers of his vigorous mind were beginning to fail.  The Bill passed by a small majority, and Mr. Smeaton went down to his home at Austhorpe for repose.

    Shortly after, when walking in his garden, he was struck by paralysis.  Happily his faculties returned to him, and he expressed his thankfulness to the Almighty that his intellect had been spared.  He was very resigned and cheerful, and took pleasure in seeing the usual social occupation of the family going on about him.  He would, however, complain of his growing slowness of apprehension, and excuse it with a smile, saying, "It could not be otherwise: the shadow must lengthen as the sun goes down."  Some phenomena relating to the moon formed the subject of conversation one evening, when its fulness shone very bright into his room.  Fixing his eyes upon it, he said, "How often have I looked up to it with inquiry and wonder, and thought of the period when I shall have the vast and privileged views of an hereafter, and all will be comprehension and pleasure!"

    He even continued to dictate letters to his friends; and in one of these, addressed to Mr. Holmes, after describing his health and feelings, he said: "In consequence of the foregoing, I conclude myself nine-tenths dead, and the greatest favour the Almighty can do me (as I think) will be to complete the other part; but as it is likely to be a lingering illness, it is only in His power to say when that is likely to happen."  His suffering, however, did not last long; and after the lapse of about a month from the writing of this letter, the engineer's spirit found repose.

    He died on the 28th of October, 1792, in the 68th year of his age; and was buried with his forefathers in the old parish church of Whitkirk, where a tablet with the following inscription was erected to his memory:—



St Mary's Church, Whitkirk, Leeds.
© Copyright Vernon Dunhill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


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