Smeaton & Rennie IV.
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JOHN RENNIE, the architect of the three great London Bridges, the engineer of the Plymouth Breakwater, of the principal London Docks, and other works of great national importance, was born at the farmsteading of Phantassie, East Lothian, on the 7th of June, 1761.  His father, James Rennie, was the owner of the patrimonial estate, situated about midway between Haddington and Dunbar, at the foot of the gently-sloping hills which rise from it towards the south, the village of East Linton lying close at hand, on the farther bank of the little river Tyne.

    The only post road from London to Scotland passed close in front of the house at Phantassie in which John Rennie was born.  It passed westward over Pencrake, and followed the ridge of the Carleton Hills towards Edinburgh.  The old travellers had no aversion to hill tops, rather preferring them because the ground was firmer to tread on, and they could better see about them.  This line of high road avoided the county town, which, lying in a hollow, was unapproachable across the low grounds in wet weather; and, of all things, swamps and quagmires were most to be dreaded.  A portion of the old post-road was visible until within the last few years, upon the high ground about a mile to the north of Haddington.  In some places it was very narrow and deep, not unlike an old broad ditch, much waterworn, and strewn with loose stones.  Along this line of way Sir John Cope passed with his army, in 1745, to protect Edinburgh against the Highland rebels; and it is related that, on marching northward to intercept them, he was compelled to halt for several days, waiting for a hundred horse-loads of bread required for the victualling of his army.

    In 1750, a project was set on foot for improving the high road through East Lothian, and a Turnpike Act was obtained for the purpose—the first Act of the kind obtained north of the Tweed. [p.218]  The inhabitants of the town of Haddington complained loudly of the oppression practised on them, by making them pay toll for every bit of coal they burned; though before the road was made, it was a good day's work for a man and horse to fetch a load of "divot" or Turf from Gladsmuir, or of coal from the nearest colliery, only some four miles distant.  By the year 1763 this post-road must have been made practicable for wheeled vehicles; for in that year the one stage-coach, which for a time formed the sole communication of the kind between London and all Scotland, began to run; and John Rennie, when a boy, was familiar with the sight of the uncouth vehicle lumbering along the road past his door.  It "set out" from Edinburgh only once a month, the journey to London occupying from twelve to eighteen days, according to the state of the roads.

    Dr. Carlyle, in his 'Autobiography,' says, that in 1757, he made an excursion into England, with Sir David Kinloch and some other gentlemen.  The baronet and himself rode in a postchaise, a "vehicle which had but recently been brought into Scotland, as our turnpike roads were then in their infancy." [p.219-1]  A short time before, when Home, the poet, accompanied by some six or seven Merse ministers, were proceeding to London to get the play of Douglas put upon the stage, the entire party rode on horseback.  But Home, like an oblivious poet, forgot to provide himself with a pair of leathern bags to put his manuscript in; and he consequently had to balance himself on his horse by putting his tragedy in one pocket of his great coat and his clean shirt and night-cap in the other.  "By good luck," says the minister, "the Tweed was not come down, and we crossed it safely at the ford near Norham Castle." [p.219-2]

    When Rennie was born, Scotland was a very poor country.  Perhaps East Lothian, being a border county, was one of the poorest.  It had been constantly overrun and despoiled during the wars with England.  Haddington was thrice burnt to the ground.  For four centuries, from Edward I. to Oliver Cromwell, the border counties were constantly liable to invasion.  The last time East Lothian was spoiled was before the battle of Dunbar.  Agriculture had not yet recovered from these frequent attacks.  It had become a lost art.  But about the middle of last century, agriculture began to show signs of revival.  The country as yet consisted mostly of moorland, peat, and bogs.  Very little corn was raised; and when the first wheat was grown in a field near Edinburgh, all the country flocked to see it. [p.220]  James Rennie, the engineer's father, was one of the first to introduce turnips as a regular farmer's crop; for, before his time, neither clover, turnips, nor potatoes were grown in Scotland.  Cattle could with difficulty be kept alive; and the people themselves were often on the brink of starvation.  They were hopeless, miserable, and without spirit.  Some thought that The Union had utterly destroyed Scottish prosperity.  There were even Repealers in those days; [p.221] but they could not successfully combine.  There was very little communication between country and town, or between one town and another; for during the greatest part of the year, the roads were simply impassable.  The Darien Expedition had ruined those who had put their money in it; and the people seemed to have no spirit to make any further attempt to prosper.  It would appear as if neither skill, money, nor enterprise, remained in the land.

    Engineering and architecture, like agriculture, seem also to have become lost arts.  The few small bridges built at the beginning of the eighteenth century were of a frightful character.  They were of a circular form; so that, when erected across a stream of say twenty feet in breadth, they rose ten feet in height from the spring of the arch, and descended ten feet on the other side.  Crossing a bridge of this sort was like climbing over the roof of a house.  The bridge builders of those days had no notion that the segment of a circle, well supported at its springing, was as strong as the full bow.  But bridge-building had not always been in this backward state in Scotland.  It is probable that the whole country—or at least the Lowland part of it—was in a much more flourishing condition previous to the commencement of the fourteenth century, than it was for some four hundred and fifty years after that time.

    The highly improved state of architecture in early times—as is still exhibited in the ruins of the ancient abbeys of Melrose, Elgin, Kilwinning, Aberborthwick, and other religious institutions—lead us to conclude that the other arts and sciences were in a much more forward state than they have been at a more recent period.  The same "Brothers of the Bridge" who erected so many fine old bridges across the rivers of England, were equally busy beyond the Tweed, providing those essential means of intercourse for the community.  Thus we find Old Bridges early erected across most of the rapid rivers in the Lowlands, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical foundations were the richest; and to this day the magnificent old abbey or cathedral of the neighbourhood—in some corner of which the Presbyterian Church continues to hold its worship—serves to remind one of the contemporaneous origin of both classes of structures.

    Thus, as early as the thirteenth century, there was a bridge over the Tay at Perth; bridges over the Esk at Brechin and Marykirk; one over the Dee at Kincardine O'Neil; one at Aberdeen; and one at the mouth of Glenmuick.  The fine old bridge over the Dee, at Aberdeen, is still standing: it consists of seven arches, and, as usual, the name of a bishop—Gawin Dunbar is connected with its erection.  There is another old bridge over the Don near the same city, said to have been built by Bishop Cheyne in the time of Robert the Bruce—the famous "Brig of Balgonie," celebrated in Lord Byron's stanzas as "Balgownie Brig's black wa'."  It consists of a spacious Gothic arch, resting upon the rock on either side.  There was even an old bridge over the rapid Spey at Orkhill.

    Then at Glasgow there was a fine bridge over the Clyde, which used, in old times, to be called "the Great Bridge of Glasgow," said to have been built by Bishop Rae in 1345.  Though the bridge was only twelve feet wide, it consisted of eight arches; somewhat similar to the ancient fabric which still spans the Forth under the guns of Stirling Castle.  This last-mentioned bridge was, until recent times, a structure of great importance, affording almost the only access into the northern parts of Scotland for wheeled carriages.

    But the art of bridge-building in Scotland, as in England, seems for a long time to have been almost entirely lost; and until Smeaton was employed to erect the bridges of Coldstream, Perth, and Banff, next to nothing had been done to improve this essential part of the communications of the country.  Where attempts were made by local builders to erect such structures, they very rarely stood the force of a winter's, or even a summer's, flood.  "I remember," says John Maxwell, "the falling of the Bridge of Buittle, which was built by John Frew in 1722, and fell in the succeeding summer, while I was in Buittle garden seeing my father's servants gathering nettles [for food]."  [p.223]  A similar fate befell the few attempts that were made about the same time to maintain the lines of communication by replacing the old bridges where they had gone to ruin, or substituting new ones in place of fords.

    The mechanical arts had also fallen to the very lowest state.  All kinds of tools were of the most imperfect description.  The implements used in agriculture were extremely rude.  They were mostly made by the farmer himself, in the roughest possible style, without the assistance of any mechanic.  But a plough, which was regarded as a complicated machine, was reserved for the blacksmith.  It was made of young birch trees, and, if the tradesman was expert, it was completed in the course of a winter's evening. [p.224]  This rude implement scratched, without difficulty, the surface of old crofts, but made sorry work in out-fields, where the sward was tough and stones were large and numerous.  Lord Kaimes said of the harrows used in his time, that they were more fitted to raise laughter than to raise mould.  Machinery of an improved kind had not yet been introduced into any department of labour.  Its first application, as might be expected, was in agriculture,—then the leading, and indeed almost the only, branch of industry in Scotland; and the introduction of machinery will be found both curious and interesting, in its bearing on the subject of our present memoir.

    There was one fruitful art, however, remaining in Scotland, which was calculated, more than anything else, to restore the prosperity of the country —and that was, the art of teaching.  The number of schools throughout the country was considerable, in which the rising generation were well and wisely taught.  The "Grammar-schools" in the principal boroughs existed before the Reformation; the parish schools were one of the principal results of the Reformation.  The Grammar-schools were founded by benevolent individuals, who vested in the church, or in the burgh corporations, certain property or sums of money, for the purpose of educating the youth of the towns in which they were established.  That they existed in the towns when Scotland was a Catholic country, is clear from the fact that John Knox himself was educated at the Grammar School of Haddington, of which town he was a native; and he relates that he there learnt the elements of the Latin language.

    But these burgh schools were insufficient for the general education of the people,—who, for the most part, lived in the country, and could scarcely approach the towns during the greater part of the year, by reason of the badness of the roads.  Accordingly, one of the first measures which John Knox proposed to the Lords of the Assembly after the Reformation, was the establishment of a school, supported by the heritors, or proprietors of land, in every parish throughout the country.  In his first 'Book of Discipline' he explicitly set forth, "That every several Kirke have ane schoolmaister appointed, able to teach grammar and the Latin tongue, if the town be of any reputation;" and, if an upland town, then a reader was to be appointed, or the minister himself must attend to the instruction of the children and youth of the parish.  It was also enjoined that "provision be made for the attendance of those that be poore, and not able by themselves or their friends to be sustained at letters;" "for this," it was added, "must be carefully provided, that no father, of what estate or condition that ever he may be, doth use his children at his own fantasie, especially in their youthhead; but all must be compelled to bring up their children in learning and virtue."

    This was admirable advice, but it could not be carried into effect for more than a hundred years.  The civil wars, the attempts made to impose Episcopacy upon Scotland, and the troubles of the nation down to the Revolution of 1688, prevented the people uniting for the purpose of establishing a school in every parish; but at length, in 1696, the Scottish Parliament was enabled, with the concurrence of William III., to put in force the Act of that year, which is regarded as the charter of the parish-school system of Scotland.  It is there ordained, "that there be a school settled and established and a schoolmaster appointed in every parish not already provided, by advice of the heritors and minister of the parish."

    In consequence of the operation of this Act, which was gradually carried into effect, the parish schools of Scotland, [p.226]—working steadily upon the rising generation, all of whom passed under the hands of the parish teachers,—were training up a population whose education and intelligence were greatly in advance of their material condition; and it is to this circumstance, we apprehend, that the true explanation is to be found of that rapid leap forward which the country now took, dating more particularly from the year 1745.  Agriculture was naturally the first branch of industry affected; new crops were introduced, new methods of farming, new machinery for ploughing, harrowing, and reaping the produce of the land.  These improvements were followed by like advances in manufactures, commerce, and shipping—by discoveries in invention, of which the Condensing Steam-Engine, discovered by James Watt, was by far the most important. [p.227]  Indeed, from that period, Scotland has never looked back; but her progress has gone on at a constantly increasing rate and has issued in results as marvellous as they have probably been unequalled.  A century of Work has raised Scotland from the position of one of the poorest and most miserable of countries, to that of one of the best cultivated, most prosperous, and intelligent in Britain.

    Farmer Rennie died in the old house at Phantassie in the year 1766, leaving a family of nine children, four sons and five daughters.  George, the eldest, was then seventeen years old.  He was discreet, intelligent, and shrewd beyond his years, and from that time forward he managed the farm and acted as head of the family.  The year before his father's death he had made a tour through Berwickshire, for the purpose of observing the improved methods of farming introduced by some of the leading gentry of that county, and he returned to Phantassie full of valuable practical information.  The agricultural improvements which he was shortly afterwards instrumental in introducing into East Lothian were of a highly important character.  His farm came to be regarded as a model, and his reputation as a skilled agriculturist extended far beyond the bounds of his own country, insomuch that he was afterwards resorted to for advice as to farming matters, by distinguished visitors from all parts of Europe. [p.228]

    Of the other sons, William, the second, went to sea: he was taken prisoner during the first American war, and was sent to Boston, where he died.  The third, James, studied medicine at Edinburgh, and entered the army as an assistant-surgeon.  The regiment to which he belonged was shortly after sent to India: he served in the celebrated campaign of General Harris against Tippoo Saib, and was killed while dressing the wound of his commanding officer when under fire at the siege of Seringapatam.


    John, the future engineer, was the youngest son, and only five years old at the death of his father.  He was accordingly brought up mainly under the direction of his mother,—a woman possessed of many excellent practical qualities, amongst which her strong common sense was not the least valuable.

    The boy early displayed his strong inclination for mechanical pursuits.  When about six years old, his principal toys were his knife, hammer, chisel, and saw, by means of which he indulged his innate love of construction.  He preferred this kind of work to all other amusements, taking but small pleasure in the ordinary sports of boys of his own age.  His greatest delight was in frequenting the smith's and carpenter's shops in the neighbouring village of Linton, watching the men use their tools, and trying his own hand when they would let him.

    But his favourite resort was Andrew Meikle's millwright's shop, down by the river Tyne, only a few fields off.  When he began to go to the parish school, then at Prestonkirk, he had to pass Meikle's shop daily, going and coming; and he either crossed the river by the planks fixed a little below the mill, or by the miller's boat when the waters were high.  But the temptations of the millwright's workshop while passing to school in the mornings not unfrequently proved too great for him to resist, and he played truant.  He then tried to "make things," and worked at the bench and the forge.  The appearance of his fingers and clothes on his return home, revealed the secret of his employment; when a severe interdict was laid against his "idling" away his time at Andrew Meikle's shop.

    The millwright, on his part, had taken a strong liking for the boy, whose tastes were so congenial to his own.  Besides, he was somewhat proud of his landlady's son frequenting his house, and was not disposed to discourage his visits.  On the contrary, he let him have the run of his workshop, and allowed him to make his miniature water-mills and windmills with tools of his own.  The river which flowed in front of Houston Mill was often swollen by spates or floods, which descended from the Lammermoors with great force; and on such occasions young Rennie took pleasure in watching the flow of the waters, and following the floating stacks, fieldgates, and other farm wreck along the stream, down to where the Tyne joined the sea at Tyningham, about four miles below.

    Amongst his earliest pieces of workmanship was a fleet of miniature ships.  But not finding tools to suit his purposes, he contrived, by working at the forge, to make them for himself; then he constructed his fleet, and launched his ships, to the admiration and astonishment of his playfellows.  This was when he was about ten years old.  Shortly after, by the advice and assistance of his friend Meikle, who took as much pride in his performances as if they had been his own, Rennie made a model of a windmill, another of a fire-engine (or steam-engine), and another of Vellore's pile-engine, displaying a considerable amount of manual dexterity; some of these early efforts of the boy's genius being still preserved.

    Though young Rennie thus employed so much of his time on amateur work in the millwright's shop, he was not permitted to neglect his ordinary education at the parish school.  That of Prestonkirk was kept by a Mr. Richardson, who taught his pupil well in the ordinary branches of education; but by the time Rennie had reached twelve years of age, he seems almost to have exhausted his master's store of knowledge, and his mother then thought the time had arrived to remove him to a seminary of a higher order.

    He was accordingly taken from the parish school, though his friends had not yet made up their minds as to the steps they were to adopt with reference to his further education.  The boy, however, found abundant employment for himself with his tools, and went on model-making; but feeling that he was only playing at work, he became restless and impatient, and entreated his mother that he might be allowed to go to Andrew Meikle's to learn to be a millwright.

    He was accordingly sent to Meikle's, where he worked for two years, and learnt one of the most valuable parts of education—the use of his hands.  He seemed to overflow with energy, and was ready to work at anything—at smith's work, carpenter's work, or millwork; taking most pleasure in the latter, in which he shortly acquired considerable expertness.  Having the advantage of books—limited though the literature of mechanism was in those days—he studied the theory as well as the practice of mechanics, and the powers of his mind became strengthened and developed by means of steady application and self-culture.

    At the end of two years, his friends determined to send him to the burgh school of Dunbar, one of that valuable class of seminaries directed and maintained by the magistracy, which have been established for the last hundred years and more in nearly every town of any importance in Scotland.  Dunbar High School was then a school of considerable celebrity.  Mr. Gibson, the mathematical master, was an excellent teacher, full of love and enthusiasm for his profession; and it was principally for the benefit of his discipline and instruction that young Rennie was placed under his charge.  On entering this school, he possessed the advantage of being fully impressed with a sense of the practical value of intellectual culture.  His two years' service in Meikle's workshop, while it trained his physical powers had also sharpened his appetite for knowledge, and he entered upon his second course of instruction at Dunbar with the disciplined powers of a grown man.  He had also this advantage, that he prosecuted his studies there with a definite aim and purpose, and with a determinate desire to master certain special branches of education required for the successful pursuit of his intended business.

    Accordingly, we are not surprised to find that in the course of a few months he outstripped all his schoolfellows, and took the first place in the school.  A curious record of his proficiency as a scholar is to be found in a work by Mr. David Loch, Inspector-General of Fisheries, published in 1779. [p.233]  It was his duty to hold a court of the herring skippers of Dunbar, then the principal fishing-station on the east coast; and it appears that at one of his visits to the town he attended an examination of the burgh schools, and was so much pleased with the proficiency of the pupils that he makes special mention of it in his book.

    After speaking of the teachers of Latin, English, and arithmetic, he goes on to say:

"But Mr. Gibson, teacher of mathematics, afforded a more conspicuous proof of his abilities, by the precision and clearness of his manner in stating the questions which he put to the scholars; and their correct and spirited answers to his propositions, and their clear demonstrations of his problems, afforded the highest satisfaction to a numerous audience.  And here I must notice in a particular manner the singular proficiency of a young man of the name of Rennie.  He was intended for a millwright, and was breeding to that business under the famous Mr. Meikle, at Linton, East Lothian.  He had not then attended Mr. Gibson for the mathematics much more than six months, but on his examination he discovered such amazing power of genius, that one would have imagined him a second Newton.  No problem was too hard for him to demonstrate.  With a clear head, a decent address, and a distinct delivery, he gave ready solutions to questions in natural and experimental philosophy, and also the reasons of the connection between causes and effects, the power of gravitation, &c., in so masterly and convincing a manner, that every person present admired such an uncommon stock of knowledge amassed at his time of life.  If this young man is spared, and continues to prosecute his studies, he will do great honour to his country."

    Rennie remained with Mr. Gibson for about two years.  During that period he went as far in mathematics and natural philosophy as his teacher could carry him; after which he again proposed to return to Meikle's workshop.  But about this time the mathematical master was promoted to a higher charge—the rectorship of the High School of Perth—and a question arose as to the appointment of his successor.  The loss to the town was felt to be great, and Mr. Gibson was pressed by the magistrates to point out some person whom he thought suitable for the office.  The only one he could think of was his favourite pupil; and though not quite seventeen years old, he strongly recommended John Rennie to accept the appointment.

    The young man, however, already beginning to be conscious of his powers, had formed more extensive views of life, and could not entertain the idea of settling down as the "dominie" of a burgh school, respectable and responsible though that office might be.  He accordingly declined the honour which the magistrates proposed to confer upon him, but agreed to take charge of the mathematical classes until Mr. Gibson's successor could be appointed.  He continued to carry on the classes for about six weeks, and conducted them so satisfactorily that it was matter of much regret when he left the school and returned to his family at Phantassie for the purpose of prosecuting his intended profession.




ANDREW FLETCHER, of Saltoun, fled into Holland during the political troubles in the reign of Charles II., and during his residence there, he was particularly struck by the expert methods employed by the Dutch in winnowing corn and shealing barley.  The chaff was then ordinarily separated from the corn by means of wind upon a knoll, or a draught of air blowing through the barn-door; and barley was shealed by pounding the grains with water in the hollow of a stone, until by that means the husks were rubbed off.

    Fletcher saw that there was a great waste of labour and food in these processes—for oat-and-barley-meal formed the principal food of Scotland—and during his residence abroad he determined to introduce the Dutch methods into his own country.  Writing home to his brother, he desired him to send out to Holland one James Meikle, an ingenious country wright of Wester Keith, [p.236] for the purpose of learning the above arts and importing the requisite machinery into Scotland.

    After a stay of about two months in that country, Meikle returned home, bringing with him a winnowing machine, commonly called a pair of fanners, and the ironwork requisite for a barley-mill.  These were safely transported to Leith, and afterwards conveyed to Saltoun, where the barley-mill was erected and set to work; and for many years it was the only machine of the kind in the British dominions—so slow were people in those days to copy the improvements of their neighbours.  "Saltoun barley" was the name by which dressed pot barley then became known, and it continued to preserve the name long after barley-mills had come into general use.

    James Meikle was equally successful in constructing his fanners for winnowing corn; but they had much superstitious prejudice to encounter,—the country people looking upon the grain cleaned by them with suspicion, as procured by "artificially-created wind."  The clergy even argued that "winds were raised by God alone, and it was irreligious in man to attempt to raise wind for himself, and by efforts of his own;" and one clergyman even refused the holy communion to such of his parishioners as irreverently raised "Devil's wind."  The readers of 'Old Mortality' will remember Mause Headrigg's indignation when it was proposed that her "son Cuddie should work in the barn wi' a new-fangled machine for dightin' the corn frae the chaff, thus impiously thwarting the will of Divine Providence by raising wind for your leddyship's ain particular use by human art, instead of soliciting it by prayer, or waiting patiently for whatever dispensation of wind Providence was pleased to send upon the shealing-hill."  Scott, however, was obviously guilty of an anachronism in this passage, for the first pair of fanners was not set up at Saltoun until the year 1720—long after the period of Cuddie Headrigg's supposed trial—and it was not until seventeen years later that another winnowing-machine was set up in the neighbouring shire of Roxburgh, and employed as an ordinary agency in farming operations.


    Andrew Meikle was the only surviving son of Fletcher's millwright, and like him was a clever mechanic.  He had married and settled at Houston Mill, on James Rennie's Phantassie estate, where he combined the occupations of small farmer, miller, and millwright.  He had himself fitted up the machinery of the mill, of which he was the tenant; and adjoining it was his millwright's shop, where he carried on his small business in connection with millwork—the demands of the district being as yet of an extremely limited character.

    But the march of agricultural improvement had by this time fairly begun in East Lothian. [p.239-1]  The public spirit displayed by Fletcher of Saltoun was imitated by his neighbours.  But probably the gentleman who gave the greatest impulse to agricultural progress in the county, which shortly after extended itself over Scotland, was Mr. Cockburn of Ormiston, to whom belongs the honour of adopting the system of long leases.  He early became convinced that the surest way of stimulating the industry of the farmer was to give him a substantial interest in the improvement of the land which he farmed.  One of his tenants having enclosed his fields with hedges and ditches at his own cost—the first farmer in Scotland who adopted the practice [p.239-2]—his landlord, to encourage his spirit of improvement, granted him a lease of his farm for nineteen years, renewable at the expiry of that term for a like period.

    The results were found so satisfactory, that Mr. Cockburn was induced to extend the practice, and before long it became generally adopted throughout the county.  From that point agriculture advanced with extraordinary rapidity.  The more thriving farmers sent their sons into England—a practice long since reversed—to learn the best methods of farming: they employed better implements and improved methods of culture; their landlords, further to encourage them, built more commodious steadings and farmhouses; and they were greatly helped in this course by the unusual facilities for obtaining credit which persons of standing and property possessed, on the general extension, from about the middle of last century, of what is called the Scotch system of banking. [p.240]

    These measures soon put an entirely new face on the country.  The distinction of "in-field" and "out-field" altogether ceased.  Farms became completely enclosed, and sheep and black cattle were no longer allowed to roam at large.  Fields were thrown together, and small holdings consolidated into large ones.  The moorland and the bog were reclaimed and converted into fruitful farms.  A single instance, of some historical interest, may be given.  When the Royal army lay upon the field of Prestonpans in 1745, their front was "protected by a deep bog," across which Robert Anderson, a young gentleman of the county, who knew every foot of the ground, contrived to lead the Pretender's army by a path known only to himself. That bog, like so many others, has long since been reclaimed by drainage and cultivation, and now forms part of one of the most fertile farms in the Lothians.

    Such was the improving state of affairs in East Lothian when Andrew Meikle began business at Houston Mill.  His reputation as a mechanic and his skill in millwork were such, that he was usually employed in repairing and erecting mills in his own and the adjoining counties.  Being an ingenious and thoughtful man, he eagerly turned his attention to the improvement of agricultural machinery, more especially of that connected with the thrashing, winnowing, dressing, and grinding of grain.  Thus, as early as the year 1768, we find him taking out a patent—one of the very first taken out by any Scotch mechanic—for a new machine contrived by him for dressing and cleansing corn. [p.241]  It was a combination of the riddle and fanners; and, though of no great novelty, it showed the direction in which his inventive faculties were at work.

    Nothing caused so much loss and vexation to the farmer in former times as the operation of separating the corn from the straw.  In some countries it was trodden out by cattle; hence the Biblical proverb, "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn."  Sledges or trail-carts were also used for the same purpose; but the most common instrument employed was the flail.  By either of these methods, however, the process of thrashing was slowly performed, whilst a considerable portion of the grain was damaged or lost.

    Many attempts had been made before Meikle's time to invent a machine which should satisfactorily perform this operation; but without effect.  An East Lothian gentleman, named Michael Menzies, contrived one upon the principle of the flail, arranging a number of flails so as to be worked by a waterwheel; but they were soon broken to pieces by the force with which they fell.  Another experiment was made in 1758 by a Stirlingshire farmer, named Leckie, who invented a machine on the principle of the horizontal flax-mill.  It consisted of a vertical shaft, with four cross-arms fixed in a box, and when set in motion the arms beat off the grain from the straw when let down upon them by hand.  Though this machine succeeded very well in thrashing oats, it cut off the heads of every other kind of corn submitted to its operation.

    Similar attempts were made about the same time by farmers in the south, more especially by Mr. Ilderton at Alnwick, Mr. Smart at Wark, and Mr. Oxley at Flodden, about 1772-3.  The machine employed by these gentlemen was composed of a large drum, about six feet in diameter, resembling a sugar hogshead, round which were placed a number of fluted rollers, which pressed inwards upon the drum by means of springs.  The corn, in passing the cylinder and rollers, was no doubt rubbed out; but a large proportion of it being bruised and damaged by the operation, this plan too was eventually abandoned.  Mr. Oxley is said to have afterwards tried the plan of stripping the corn from the straw by means of a scutcher; but the machine constructed with this object did not answer, and it was also laid aside.

    Mr. Kinloch, [p.242] of Gilmerton in East Lothian, had however seen the last-mentioned machine at work, and he conceived the idea of improving it.  He accordingly had a model made, in which he contrived that the drum, mounted with four pieces of fluted wood, should work upon springs, pressing with less force upon the corn in the process of rubbing it out.  This model was shown to Meikle, with whom Mr. Kinloch had many conversations on the subject; and at the millwright's suggestion several improvements were made in it, one of which was the substitution of smooth feeding rollers for fluted ones.  When the model had been completed, Mr. Kinloch sent it to Houston Mill to be tried by the power of Meikle's water-wheel.  On being set to work, however, it was driven to pieces in a few minutes; and the same fate befell a larger machine after the same model, which Mr. Kinloch got made for one of his tenants a few years later.

    The best result of Mr. Kinloch's experiments was, that they had the effect of directing the inventive mind of Andrew Meikle to the subject.  After several years' thinking and planning, he constructed a thrashing-machine, about the year 1776.  It consisted of a number of flails fixed in a strong beam moved by a crank, which beat out the corn on two platforms, one on each side of the beam.  The performance of this machine, in the presence of some East Lothian farmers who went to see it at work, was on the whole satisfactory, [p.243] yet it did not come up to Meikle's expectations.  On one of the gentlemen observing that the flails and platforms probably would not bear the force of the stroke, the inventor replied, that in case the machine did not answer, he intended to try a method of beating out the corn by means of fixed scutchers or beaters. [p.244]

    Accordingly he proceeded to work out this idea in practice, and after a few years he succeeded in perfecting his invention on this principle, which was entirely new.  These scutchers, shod with iron, were fixed upon a strong beam or cylinder, which revolved with great velocity, and in the process of so revolving, beat off the corn instead of rubbing it off by pressure, as had been attempted by former contrivers.  By dint of study and perseverance he succeeded at length in perfecting his machine; to which he added solid fluted feeding rollers, and afterwards a machine for shaking the straw, fanners for winnowing the corn, and other improvements.

    Meikle is said to have been superintending a mill job at Leith, at the time when he was engaged in working out this contrivance in his mind.  He was accustomed to walk there and back within the same day while his job was in hand, or a distance of about forty miles.  He studied the subject during his journey, and would occasionally stop while travelling to draw a rapid diagram upon the road with his walking-stick.  It is related of him that on one occasion, whilst very much engrossed with the subject of his thrashing-mill, he had, absorbed by his calculations, wandered considerably from the right path.  He stopped short suddenly, and hastily sketching his plan on the road, exclaimed, "I have got it!  I have got it!"  Archimedes himself, when he cried "Eureka," could not have been more delighted than our millwright was at the happy upshot of his deliberations.

    The first machine erected on Meikle's new principle was put up in 1787 for Mr. Stein of Kilbeggie, in Clackmannanshire, who had great difficulty in procuring a sufficient number of barnsmen for thrashing straw to litter the large stock of cattle he had on hand; but the novelty of the experiment, and the doubt entertained by Mr. Stein as to the efficacy of the proposed machine, induced him to require, as a condition, that if it did not answer the intended purpose, Meikle was not to receive any payment for it.  The result, however, proved quite satisfactory, and the thrashing-machine at Kilbeggie, which was driven by water-power, long continued in good working order.  The next he erected was for Mr. George Rennie, at Phantassie, in the same year; and by this time he had so perfected his machine as to enable it to be driven by water, wind, or horses.  That at Phantassie was worked by horse-power.  In 1788 Meikle took out a patent for his invention, describing himself in the specification as "engineer and machinist." [p.246]

    The thrashing-machine proved to be one of the greatest boons ever conferred upon the husbandman, and effected an immense saving of labour as well as of corn.  By its means from seventy to eighty bushels of oats, and from thirty to fifty bushels of wheat, might be thrashed and cleaned in an hour; and it is calculated to have effected a saving, as compared with the flail, of one-hundredth part of the whole corn thrashed, or equal to a value of not less than two millions sterling in Great Britain alone.  In the course of twenty years from the date of the patent, about three hundred and fifty thrashing-mills were erected in East Lothian alone, at an estimated outlay of nearly forty thousand pounds; and, shortly after, it became generally adopted in England, and indeed all over the civilised world.

    We regret, however, to add, that Meikle did not reap those pecuniary advantages from his invention, which a less modest and more pushing man would have done.  Pirates fell upon him on all sides and deprived him of the fruits of his ingenuity, and even denied him any originality whatever.  When growing old and infirm, Sir John Sinclair bestirred himself to raise a subscription in his behalf; and a sum of £1,500 was collected, which was invested for his benefit.  Mr. Dempster, M.P., wrote to Sir John, when on his charitable mission in 1809: "Should your tour in East Lothian procure a suitable reward to the inventor of the thrashing-machine, it will redound much to your and the country's honour; our heathen ancestors would have assigned a place in heaven to Meikle." [p.247]

    Smeaton knew Meikle intimately, and frequently met him in consultation respecting the arrangements of the Dalry Mills, near Edinburgh, and other works; and he was accustomed to say of him, that if he had possessed but one-half the address of other people, he would have rivalled all his contemporaries, and stood forth as one of the first mechanical engineers in the kingdom.

    Among the various improvements which this ingenious mechanic introduced in millwork, were those in the sails of windmills.  Before his time, these machines were liable to serious accidents on the occurrence of a sudden gale, or a shift in the direction of the wind.  By Meikle's contrivance, the machinery was so arranged that the whole sails might be taken in or let out in half a minute, according as the wind required, by a person merely pulling a rope within the mill.  The machinery was at the same time kept in more uniform motion, and all danger from sudden squalls completely avoided.

    His additions to the power of water-wheels were also important, and on one occasion proved effectual in carrying out an improvement of a remarkable character in the county of Perth.  This was neither more nor less than washing away into the river Forth some two thousand acres of peat moss, and thus laying bare an equivalent surface of arable land, now amongst the most valuable in the Carse of Stirling.

    The Kincardine Moss was situated between the rivers Teith and Forth.  It was seven feet in depth, laid upon a bottom of rich clay.  In 1766 Lord Kaimes, who entered into possession of the Blair Drummond estate, to which it belonged, determined, if possible, to improve the tract of land; and it occurred to him that the easiest plan would be to wash the moss entirely away.  But how was this to be done?  The river Teith, which was the only available stream at hand, was employed to drive a corn-mill.  But Lord Kaimes saw that it would answer his intended purpose if he could get possession of it.  He accordingly made an arrangement by which he became owner of the mill, which he pulled down, and then turned the mill-stream in upon the moss.  Labourers were set to work to cut away the stuff, which was thrown into the current, and much of it thus washed away.  But the process was slow, and the clearing of the land had not advanced very far by the year 1783, when Lord Kaimes's son, Mr. Home Drummond, entered into possession of the estate.  A thousand acres still remained, which he determined to get rid of, if possible, in a more summary manner than his predecessor had done.

    Mr. Drummond consulted several engineers—amongst others Mr. Whitworth, a pupil of Brindley's—who recommended one plan; but George Meikle, a millwright at Alloa, the son of Andrew, proposed another, the invention of his father; and Mr. Whitworth, with much candour and liberality, at once acknowledged its superiority to his own, and urged Mr. Drummond to adopt it.  The invention consisted of a newly-contrived wheel, 28 feet in diameter and 10 feet broad, for raising water in a simple, economical, and powerful manner, at the rate of from 40 to 60 hogsheads a minute; and it was necessary to raise it about 17 feet, in order to reach the higher parts of the land.  The machinery, on being erected, was set to work, and with such good results, that in the course of a very few years, four miles of barren moss was completely washed away, and the district was shortly after covered with thriving farmsteads, as it remains to this day.

    Meikle was a thorough mechanical inventor, and, wherever he could, he endeavoured to save labour by means of machinery.  Stories are still told in the neighbourhood in which he lived, of the contrivances he adopted with this object in his own household, some of which were of an amusing character.  One day a woman came to the mill to get some barley ground, and was desired to sit down in the cottage hard by, until it was ready.  With the first sound of the mill-wheels the cradle and churn at her side began to rock and to churn, as if influenced by some supernatural agency.  No-one was in the house besides herself at the time, and she rushed from it, frightened almost out of her wits.  Such incidents as these brought an ill name on Andrew, and the neighbours declared of him that he was "no canny."

    He was often sent for to great distances, for the purpose of repairing pumps or setting mills to rights.  On one occasion, when he undertook to supply a gentleman's house with water, so many country mechanics had tried it before and failed, that the butler would not believe Meikle when he told him he would send in the water next day.  Meikle, however, told him to get everything ready.  "It will be time enough to get ready," said the incredulous butler, "when we see the water."  Meikle pocketed the affront, but set his machinery to work early next morning; and when the butler got out of bed he found himself up to his knees in water, so successfully had the engineer performed his promise.

    Meikle lived to an extreme old age, and was cheerful to the last.  He was a capital player on the Northumbrian bagpipes.  The instrument he played on was made by himself, the chanter being formed out of a deer's shank-bone.  When ninety years old, at the family gatherings on "Auld Hansel Monday," his six sons and their numerous families danced about him to his music.  He died in 1811, in his ninety-second year, and was buried in Prestonkirk churchyard, close by Houston Mill, where a simple monument is erected to his memory, bearing the following inscription:—

"Beneath this Stone are deposited the remains of the late Andrew Meikle, civil engineer at Houston Mill, who died in the year 1811, aged 92 years.  Descended from a race of ingenious mechanics, to whom the country for ages had been greatly indebted, he steadily followed the example of his ancestors, and, by inventing and bringing to perfection a machine for separating corn from the straw (constructed upon the principles of velocity, and furnished with fixed beaters or skutchers), rendered to the agriculturists of Britain and of other nations, a more beneficial service than any hitherto recorded in the annals of ancient or modern science." [p.251]

    Such was the master who first trained and disciplined the skill of John Rennie, and implanted in his mind an enthusiasm for mechanical excellence.  Another of his apprentices was a man who exercised almost as great an influence on the progress of mechanics, through the number of first-rate workmen whom he trained, as Rennie himself did in the art of engineering.  We allude to Peter Nicholson, an admirable mechanic and architect, author of numerous works on carpentry and architecture, which to this day are amongst the best of their kind.  We now pursue the career of Andrew Meikle's most distinguished pupil.




WE have now seen how Rennie was educated—at school and workshop—and how the ingenious Andrew Meikle was not the least useful of his schoolmasters.

    On Rennie's return to Phantassie, after conducting for a time the burgh school at Dunbar, he continued to pursue his studies, especially in mathematics, mechanics, and natural philosophy.  He also frequented the workshop of his friend Meikle, assisting him with his plans, and taking an especial interest in the invention of the thrashing-machine, which Meikle was at that time engaged in bringing to completion.  He was also entrusted to superintend the repairs of cornmills in cases where Meikle could not attend to them himself; and he was sent, on several occasions, to erect machinery at a considerable distance from Prestonkirk.  Rennie thus gained much valuable experience, and acquired some confidence in his own powers.

    He next began to undertake millwork on his own account.  His brother George was already well known as a clever farmer, and the connection helped him to considerable employment.  Meikle was also ready to recommend him in cases where he could not accept the work offered him in distant counties; and hence, as early as 1780, when Rennie was only nineteen years of age, we find him employed in fitting up the new mills at Invergowrie, near Dundee.  He designed the machinery as well as the buildings for its reception, and superintended them to their completion.

    His next work was to prepare an estimate and design for the repairs of Mr. Aitcheson's flour-mills at Bonnington, near Edinburgh.  Here he employed cast-iron pinions, instead of the wooden trundles formerly used—one of the first attempts made to introduce iron into this portion of the machinery of mills.

    These, his first essays in designs, were considered very successful, and they brought him both money and fame.  Business flowed in upon him, and before the end of his nineteenth year he had abundant employment.  But he had no intention of confining himself to the business of a country millwright; for he aimed at a higher professional position, and a still wider field of work.  Desirous, therefore, of advancing himself in scientific culture, and prosecuting those studies in mechanical philosophy which he had begun at Phantassie and pursued at Dunbar, he determined to enter himself a student at the University of Edinburgh.  In taking this step he formed the resolution—by no means unusual amongst young men of even a humbler class—of supporting himself at college entirely by his own labour.  He was persuaded that by diligence and assiduity he would be enabled to earn enough during the summer months to pay for his winter's instruction and maintenance; and his habits being frugal and his style of living very plain, he was enabled to prosecute his design without difficulty.


John Robison (1739-1805), Scottish physicist and inventor,
and professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.
Picture (by Sir Henry Raeburn) Wikipedia.

    He accordingly matriculated at Edinburgh in November, 1780, and entered the classes of Dr. Robison, Professor of Natural Philosophy, and of Dr. Black, Professor of Chemistry both men of the highest distinction in their respective walks.  Robison was an eminently prepossessing person, frank and lively in manner, full of fancy and humour, and, though versatile in talent, a profound and vigorous thinker.  His varied experience of life, and the thorough knowledge which he had acquired of the principles as well as the practice of the mechanical arts, proved of great use to him as an instructor of youth.  The state of physical science was then at a very low ebb in this country, and the labours of Continental philosophers were but little known even to those who occupied the chairs in our Universities; the results of their elaborate researches lying concealed in foreign languages, or being known, at most, to a few inquirers more active and ardent than their fellows; while the general student, mechanic, and artisan, were left to draw their principal information from daily observation and experience.


Joseph Black (1728-99), Scottish physician, physicist, and chemist
known for his discoveries of latent heat, specific heat, and carbon dioxide.
Picture (from Sir Henry Raeburn) Wikipedia.

    Under Dr. Robison the study of natural philosophy became invested with unusual significance and importance.   The range of his knowledge was most extensive: he was familiar with the whole circle of the accurate sciences, and in imparting information, his understanding seemed to work with extraordinary energy and rapidity.  The labours of others rose in value under his hands, and new views and ingenious suggestions never failed to enliven his prelections on mechanics, hydrodynamics, astronomy, optics, electricity, and magnetism, the principles of which he unfolded to his pupils in language at once fluent, elegant, and precise.  Lord Cockburn, in his 'Memorials,' remembers him as somewhat remarkable for the humour in which he indulged in the article of dress.  "A pigtail so long and thin that it curled far down his back, and a pair of huge blue worsted hose, without soles, and covering the limbs from the heel to the top of the thigh, in which he both walked and lectured, seemed rather to improve his wise elephantine head and majestic person."  He delighted in holding familiar intercourse with his pupils, whom he charmed and elevated by his brilliant conversation and his large and lofty views of life and philosophy.  Rennie was admitted to his delightful society, and to the close of his career he was accustomed to look back upon the period which he spent at Edinburgh as amongst the most profitable and instructive in his life.

    During his college career, Rennie carefully read the works of Emerson, Switzer, Maclaurin, Belidor, and Gravesande, allowing neither pleasure nor society to divert him from his studies.  As a relief from graver topics, he set himself to learn the French and German languages, and was shortly enabled to read both with ease.  His recreation was mostly of a solitary kind, and, having a little taste for music, he employed some of his leisure time in learning to play upon various instruments.  He acquired considerable proficiency on the flute and the violin, and he even went so far as to buy a pair of bagpipes and learn to play upon them,—though the selection of such an instrument probably does not say much for his musical taste.  When he left Edinburgh and entered seriously upon the business of life, the extensive nature of his engagements so completely occupied his time, that in a few years flute, fiddle, and bagpipes, were laid aside altogether.

    During the three years that he attended college our student was busily occupied in the summer vacation—extending from the beginning of May to the end of October in each year in executing millwork in various parts of the country.  Amongst the undertakings on which he was thus employed, may be mentioned the repair or construction of the Kirkaldy and Bonnington Flour Mills, Proctor's Mill at Glammis, and the Carron Foundry Mills.  When not engaged on distant works, his brother George's house at Phantassie was his headquarters, where he prepared his designs and specifications.  He had the use of the workshop at Houston Mill for making such machinery as was intended for erection in the neighbourhood; but when he was employed at some distant point, the work was executed in the most convenient places he could find for the purpose.  There were as yet no large manufactories in Scotland where machinery of an important character could be turned out as a whole; the millwright being under the necessity of sending one portion to the blacksmith, another to the founder, another to the brass-smith, and another to the carpenter—a state of things involving a great deal of trouble, and risk of failure,—but which was eminently calculated to familiarise our young engineer with the details of every description of work required in the practice of his profession.

    His college training having ended in 1783, and being desirous of acquiring some knowledge of English engineering practice, Rennie set out on a tour through the manufacturing districts.  Brindley's reputation attracted him first towards Lancashire, for the purpose of inspecting the works of the Bridgewater Canal.  There being no stage coaches convenient for his purpose, he travelled on horseback, and in this way he was enabled readily to diverge from his route for the purpose of visiting any structure more interesting than ordinary.  At Lancaster he inspected the handsome bridge across the Lune, then in course of construction by Mr. Harrison, afterwards more celebrated for his fine work of Chester Gaol.  At Manchester he examined the works of the Bridgewater Canal; and at Liverpool he visited the docks then in progress.

    Proceeding by easy stages to Birmingham, then the centre of the mechanical industry of England, and distinguished for the ingenuity of its workmen and the importance of its manufactures in metal, he took the opportunity of visiting the illustrious Boulton and Watt at Soho.  His friend, Dr. Robison, had furnished him with a letter of introduction to James Watt, who received the young engineer kindly and showed him every attention; and a friendship then began which lasted until the close of Watt's life.

    The condensing-engine had by this time been brought into an efficient working state, and was found capable not only of pumping water—almost the only purpose for which it had originally been intended—but of driving machinery, though whether with advantageous results was still a matter of doubt.  Thus, in November, 1782, Watt wrote to his partner Boulton, "There is now no doubt but that fire-engines will drive mills, but I entertain some doubts whether anything is to be got by them."  About the beginning of March, 1783, however, a company was formed in London for the purpose of erecting a large corn-mill, to be driven by one of Boulton and Watt's steam-engines, and the work was in progress at the time that Rennie visited Soho.  Watt had much conversation with his visitor on the subject of corn-mill machinery, and was gratified to learn the extent and accuracy of his information.  He seems to have been provoked beyond measure by the incompetency of his own workmen.  "Our millwrights," he wrote to his partner, "have kept working, working, at the corn-mill ever since you went away, and it is not yet finished; but my patience being exhausted, I have told them that it must be at an end to-morrow, done or undone.  There is no end of millwrights once you give them leave to set about what they call machinery; here they have multiplied wheels upon wheels until it has now almost as many as an orrery."


James Watt, F.R.S., (1736-1819), Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer.

    Watt himself had but little knowledge of millwork, and stood greatly in need of some intelligent millwright to take charge of the fitting up of the Albion Mills.  Young Rennie seemed to him to be a very likely person; but, with characteristic caution, he said nothing to him of his intentions, but determined to write privately to his friend Robison upon the subject, requesting particularly to know his opinion as to the young man's qualifications for taking the superintendence of such important works.  Dr. Robison's answer was decided; his opinion of Rennie's character and ability was so favourable, and expressed in so confident a tone, that Watt no longer hesitated; and he wrote to the young engineer, after he had returned home, inviting him to undertake the supervision of the proposed Albion Mills, so far as concerned the planning and erection of the requisite machinery.

    Watt's invitation found Rennie again in full employment.  He was engaged in designing and erecting mills and machinery of different kinds.  Among his earlier works, we also find him, in 1784, when only in his twenty-third year, occupied in superintending the building of his first bridge—the forerunner of a series of structures which have not been surpassed in any age or country.  His earliest bridge was erected for the trustees of the county of Mid-Lothian, across the Water of Leith, near Stevenhouse Mill, about two miles west of Edinburgh.  It is the first bridge on the Edinburgh and Glasgow turnpike-road.


    Notwithstanding the extent of his engagements, and his prospects of remunerative employment, Rennie looked upon the invitation of Watt as a favourable opportunity for enlarging his experience; and, after due deliberation, he replied accepting the appointment.  He proceeded, however, to finish the works he had in hand; after which, taking leave of his friends at Phantassie, he set out for Birmingham on the 19th of September, 1784.  He remained there for two months, during which he enjoyed the closest personal intercourse with Watt and Boulton, and was freely admitted to their works at Soho, which had already become the most important of their kind in the kingdom.

    Birmingham was then the centre of the mechanical industry of England.  For many centuries, working in metals had been the staple trade of the place.  Swords were made there in the time of the ancient Britons.  In the reign of Henry VIII., Leland found "many smythes in the town that use to make knives and all manner of cutting tools, and many loriners that make bittes, and a great many nailers; so that a great part of the town is maintained by smythes who have their iron and sea-coal out of Staffordshire."

    The artisans of the place thus had the advantage of the training of many generations; aptitude for handicraft, like every other characteristic of a people, descending from father to son like an inheritance.  There was then no town in England where mechanics were to be found so capable of satisfactorily executing original and unaccustomed work, nor has the skill yet departed from them.  Though there are now many districts in which far more machinery is manufactured than in Birmingham, the workmen of that place are still superior to most others in executing machinery requiring manipulative skill and dexterity out of the common track, and especially in carrying out new designs.  The occupation of the people gave them an air of quickness and intelligence which was quite new to strangers accustomed to the quieter aspects of rural life.  When Hutton entered Birmingham, he was especially struck by the vivacity of the persons he met in the streets.  "I had," he says, "been among dreamers, but now I was among men awake.  Their very step showed alacrity.  Every man seemed to know and prosecute his own affairs."  He also adds, that men whose former disposition was idleness no sooner breathed the air of Birmingham than diligence became their characteristic.

    Rennie did not stand in need of this infection being communicated to him, yet he was all the better for his contact with the population of the town.  He made himself familiar with their processes of handicraft, and, being able to work at the anvil himself, he could fully appreciate the skill of the Birmingham artisans.  The manufacture of steam-engines at Soho chiefly attracted his notice and his study.  He had already made himself acquainted with the principles as well as the mechanical details of the steam-engine, and was ready to suggest improvements, in a very modest way, even to Watt himself, who was still engaged in perfecting his wonderful invention.

    The partners thought that they saw in him a possible future competitor in their trade; and in the agreement which they entered into with him as to the erection of the Albion Mills, they sought to bind him, in express terms, not only to abstain from interfering in any way with the construction and working of the steam-engines required for the mills, but to prohibit him from executing such work upon his own account at any future period.  Though ready to give his word of honour that he would not in any way interfere with Watt's patents, he firmly refused to bind himself to such conditions; being resolved in his own mind not to be debarred from making such improvements in the steam-engine as experience might prove to be desirable.  And on this honourable understanding the agreement was concluded; nor did Rennie ever in any way violate it, but retained to the last the friendship and esteem of both Boulton and Watt.

    On the 24th of November following, after making himself fully acquainted with the arrangements of the engines by means of which his machinery was to be driven, our engineer set out for London to proceed with the designing of the millwork.  It was also necessary that the plans of the building—which had been prepared by Mr. Samuel Wyatt, an architect of reputation in his day—should undergo revision; and, after careful consideration, Rennie made an elaborate report on the subject, recommending various alterations, which were approved by Boulton and Watt, and forthwith ordered to be carried into effect.




WHEN Rennie arrived in London in 1785, the country was in a state of serious depression in consequence of the unsuccessful termination of the American War.  Parliament was engaged in defraying the heavy cost of the recent struggle with the revolted colonies.  The people were ill at ease, and grumbled at the increase of the debt and taxes.  The unruly population of the capital could with difficulty be kept in order.  The police and local government were most inefficient.  Only a few years before, London had, during the Gordon riots, been for several days in the hands of the mob, and blackened ruins in different parts of the city still marked the track of the rioters.

    Though the largest city in Europe, the population of London was scarcely more than a third of what it is now; yet it was thought that it had become so vast as to be unmanageable.  Its northern threshold was at Hicks's Hall, in Clerkenwell.  Somers Town, Camden Town, and Tyburnia were as yet green fields; and Kensington, Chelsea, Marylebone, and Bermondsey were outlying villages.  Fields and hedgerows led to the hills of Highgate and Hampstead.  The West End of London was a thinly-inhabited suburb.  A wide tract of marshy ground extended opposite Lambeth.  The westernmost building in Westminster was Mill-bank.  Executions were conducted in Tyburn fields, now known as Tyburnia, down to 1783.  Oxford Street, from Princes Street eastward as far as High Street, St. Giles's, had only a few houses on the north side.  "I remember it," says Pennant, "a deep hollow road and full of sloughs, with here and there a ragged house, the lurking-place of cutthroats; insomuch that I was never taken that way by night, in my hackney-coach, to a worthy uncle's who gave me lodgings at his house in George Street, but I went in dread the whole way."

    Paddington was "in the country," and the communication with it was kept up by means of a daily stage a lumbering vehicle, driven by its proprietor—which was heavily dragged into the city in the morning, down Gray's Inn Lane, with a rest at the Blue Posts, Holborn Bars, to give passengers an opportunity of doing their shopping.  The morning journey was performed in two hours and a half, "quick time," and the return journey in the evening in about three hours.

    Heavy coaches still lumbered along the country roads at little more than four miles an hour.  A new state of things had, however, been recently inaugurated by the starting of the first mail-coach on Palmer's plan, which began running between London and Bristol on the 24th of August, 1784, and the system was shortly extended to other places.  Numerous Acts were passed by Parliament authorising the formation of turnpike roads and the erection of bridges. [p.264]  The general commerce of the country was also making progress.  The application of recent inventions in manufacturing industry gave a stimulus to the general improvement, and this was further helped by a succession of favourable harvests.  The India Bill had just been renewed by Pitt, and trade with India was brisk.  A commercial treaty with France was on foot, from which great things were expected; but the outbreak of the Revolution, which shortly after took place, put an end for a time to those hopes of fraternity and peaceful trade in which it had originated.  The Government boldly interposed to check smuggling, and Pitt sent a regiment of soldiers to burn the smugglers' boats laid upon Deal beach by the severity of the winter, so that the honest traders might have the full benefit of the treaty with France which Pitt had secured.  Increased trade flowed into the Thames, and ministers and monarch indulged in drawing glowing pictures of prosperity.

    When Pennant visited London in 1790, he found the river covered with shipping, presenting a double forest of masts, with a narrow avenue in mid-channel.  The smaller vessels discharged directly into the warehouses along the banks of the river, whilst the India ships of large burden mostly lay down the river as far as Blackwall, and discharged into lighters, which floated up their cargoes to the city wharves.  London as yet possessed no public docks—only a few private ones, open to the river, of very limited extent,—although Pennant speaks of Mr. Perry's dock and ship-yard at Blackwall, on the eastern side of the Isle of Dogs, as "the greatest private dock in all Europe!"  Another was St. Saviour's, denominated by Pennant "the port of Southwark," though it was only thirty feet wide, and used for discharging barges of coal, corn, and other commodities.  There was also the Execution Dock at Wapping, which witnessed the occasional despatch of seagoing criminals, who were hanged on a gallows at low-water mark, and left there until the tide flowed over their dead bodies.

    Among the commercial enterprises to which the increasing speculation of the times gave birth, was the erection of the Albion Mills.  For the more convenient transit of corn and flour, as well as to secure a plentiful supply of water for engine purposes, it was determined to erect the new mills on the banks of the Thames, near the south-east end of Blackfriars Bridge.  Hand-mills, which had in the first place been used for pounding wheat into flour, had long since been displaced by water-mills and windmills; and now a new agency was about to be employed, of greater power than either —the agency of steam.

    Fire-engines, or steam-engines, had heretofore been employed almost exclusively to pump water out of mines; but the possibility of adapting them to the driving of machinery having been suggested to the inventive mind of James Watt, he set himself at once to the solution of the problem, and the result was the engines for the Albion Mills the most complete and powerful which had been produced by the Soho manufactory.  They consisted of two double-acting engines, of the power of 50 horses each, with a pressure of steam of five pounds to the superficial inch—the two engines, when acting together, working with the power of 150 horses.  They drove twenty pairs of millstones, each four feet six inches in diameter, twelve of which were usually worked together, each pair grinding ten bushels of wheat per hour, by day and night if necessary.  The two engines working together were capable of grinding, dressing, &c., complete, 150 bushels an hour—by far the greatest performance achieved by any mill at that time, and probably not since surpassed.

    But the engine power was also applied to a diversity of other purposes, then altogether novel—such as hoisting and lowering the corn and flour, loading and unloading the barges, and in the processes of fanning, sifting, and dressing so that the Albion Mills came to be regarded as among the greatest mechanical wonders of the day.  The details of these various ingenious arrangements were entirely worked out by Mr. Rennie himself, and they occupied him nearly four years in all, having been commenced in 1784, and finished in 1788.  Mr. Watt was so much satisfied with the result of his employment of Rennie, that he wrote to Dr. Robison, thanking him for his recommendation of his young friend, and speaking in the highest terms of the ability with which he had designed and executed the millwork and set the whole in Operation.

    Amongst those who visited the new mills and carefully inspected them was Mr. Smeaton, the engineer, who pronounced them to be the most complete, in their arrangement and execution, which had yet been erected in any country; and though naturally an undemonstrative person, he cordially congratulated Mr. Rennie on his success.

    The completion of the Albion Mills, indeed, marked an important stage in the history of mechanical improvements; and they may be said to have effected an entire revolution in millwork generally.  Until then, machinery had been constructed almost entirely of wood; it was clumsy, and involved great friction and waste of power.  Smeaton had introduced an iron wheel at Carron in 1754, and afterwards in a mill at Belper, in Derbyshire—mere rough castings, imperfectly executed, and neither chipped nor filed to any particular form; and Murdock (James Watt's ingenious assistant) had also employed cast-iron work to a limited extent in a mill erected by him in Ayrshire; but these were very inferior specimens of ironwork, and exercised no general influence on mechanical improvement.


    Mr. Rennie's adoption of wrought and cast-iron wheels was of much greater importance, and was adopted in all large machinery.  The whole of the the wheels and shafts of the Albion Mills were of iron, with the exception occasionally of the cogs, which were of hard wood, working into other cogs of cast iron; but where the pinions were very small, they were made of wrought iron.  The teeth, both wooden and iron, were accurately formed by chipping and filing to the form of epicycloids.  The shafts and axles were of iron and the bearings of brass, all accurately fitted and adjusted, so that the power employed worked to the greatest advantage and at the least possible loss by friction.  The machinery of the Albion Mills, as a whole, was regarded as the finest that had been executed up to that date, and formed the model for future engineers to work by.  Although Mr. Rennie executed many splendid specimens of machinery in his after career, [p.269] he himself was accustomed to say that the Albion Mill machinery was the father of them all.

    As a commercial enterprise, the mills promised to be successful: they were kept constantly employed, and were likely to realise a handsome profit to their proprietors, when unhappily they were destroyed by fire on the 3rd of March, 1791, only three years after their completion.  Their erection had been viewed with great hostility by "the trade," and the projectors were grossly calumniated on the ground that they were establishing a monopoly injurious to the public; which was sufficiently disproved by the fact that the mills were the means of considerably reducing the price of flour while they continued in operation.  The circumstances connected with the origin of the fire were never cleared up, and it was generally believed at the time that it was the work of an incendiary.

    During the night when the buildings were destroyed, Mr. Rennie, who lived near at hand, felt unaccountably anxious.  A presentiment as of some great calamity hung over him, which he could not explain to himself or to others.  He went to bed at an early hour, but could not sleep.  Several times he went off in a doze, and suddenly woke up, having dreamt that the mills were on fire!  He rose, looked out, and all was quiet.  He went to bed again, and at last fell into a profound sleep, from which he was roused by the cry of "Fire!" under his windows, and the rumble of the fire-engines on their way to the mills!  He dressed hastily, rushed out, and to his dismay found his chef-d'œuvre wrapt in flames which brightened the midnight sky.  The engineer was amongst the foremost in his efforts to extinguish the conflagration; but in vain.  The fire had made too great progress, and the Albion Mills, Rennie's pride, were burnt completely to the ground, and were never rebuilt.

    The Albion Mills, however, established Mr. Rennie's reputation as a mechanical engineer, and introduced him to extensive employment.  His practical knowledge of masonry and carpentry also served to point him out as a capable man in works of civil engineering, which were in those days usually entrusted to men bred to practical mechanics.

    There was not as yet any special class trained to the profession of engineering, and the number of persons who followed it was very small.  Engineers were the product of circumstances, and of their instinct for construction; and this was often the instinct of genius.  Hence they were mainly self-educated: Smeaton and Watt being mathematical instrument makers, Telford a stonemason, and Brindley and Rennie millwrights; force of character and bent of genius enabling each to carve out his career in his own way.

    There was very little previous practice to serve for their guide.  When they were called upon to undertake works of an entirely original character, and could not find an old road, they had to make a new one.  This threw them upon their resources, and compelled them to be inventive: it practised their powers and disciplined their skill, and in course of time the habitual encounter with difficulties brought fully out their character as men, as well as their genius as engineers.

    When the ruins of the Albion Mills had been cleared away, Mr. Rennie obtained leave from the owners to erect a workshop on a landing-wharf in Holland Street, a little below the site of the mills, where he afterwards carried on the business of a mechanical engineer. [p.272-1]  But from an early period the civil branch of the profession occupied a considerable share of his attention, and eventually it became his principal pursuit; though down to the year 1788 he was chiefly occupied in designing and constructing machinery for dye-works, water-works (at London Bridge amongst others), flour-mills, and rolling-mills, in all of which Boulton and Watt's engine was the motive power employed.

    Among the friends whom Mr. Rennie's practical abilities attracted about this time, was the eccentric but ingenious Earl Stanhope [p.272-2], who frequently visited his works to see what was going on in the mechanical line.  His Lordship was himself one of the busiest mechanical projectors of his day, and England owes him a debt of gratitude for his valuable inventions, one of the most useful of which was the printing-press which bears his name.  He also made important improvements in the process of stereotype printing; in the construction of locks and canals; and among his lighter efforts may be mentioned the contrivance of an ingenious machine for performing arithmetical operations.

    Lord Stanhope especially delighted in the society of clever mechanics, in whose art he took great pleasure; because he could thoroughly understand it.  He was, indeed, a first-rate workman himself.  His father-in-law, the Earl of Chatham, said of him, that "Charles Stanhope, as a carpenter, a blacksmith, or millwright, could in any country or in any times preserve his independence and bring up his family in honest and industrious courses, without soliciting the bounty of friends or the charity of strangers."  Lord Stanhope even insisted that his children should devote themselves to acquire an industrious calling, as he himself had done,--believing that a time of public calamity was approaching (arising from the extension of French revolutionary principles), which would render it necessary for every person to depend for their livelihood upon their own personal labour and skill.  Indeed a serious difficulty occurred between him and his wife on this very point, which ended in a separation; and the story went abroad that the Earl was crazed.

    The application of the power of the steam-engine to the purposes of navigation was one of the subjects in which Lord Stanhope took a more than ordinary interest.  As early as the year 1790—before Fulton had applied his mind to the subject—he was in communication with Mr. Rennie as to the best mode of applying this novel power, and in that year he took out his patent for the propulsion of ships by steam; but his plan, though ingenious, was never carried into practical effect. [p.273]  On the 26th of April, 1790, we find Mr. Rennie, in a letter to the Earl, communicating the information which he had required as to the cost of applying Boulton and Watt's improved steam-engine to his newly-invented method of propelling ships without sails.

    Lord Stanhope had also, it appeared, taken objection to the space occupied by the condensing apparatus, and wished to know whether it could not be dispensed with, so that room might be economised.  To this Mr. Rennie replied that it could, and that high-pressure steam might be employed if necessary; also that the cylinders might be used inclined or vertically, as best suited the space available for their accommodation.  His Lordship proceeded to perfect his invention, and made a trial of its powers in Greenland Dock with a flat-bottomed boat constructed for the purpose; but the vessel not moving with a velocity greater than three miles an hour, the plan was eventually abandoned.

    Shortly after the retirement of Mr. Smeaton from the profession, about the end of the year 1791, Mr. Rennie was consulted respecting numerous important canal undertakings projected in different parts of the country.  Amongst them were a proposed navigation to connect Cambridge with Bury St. Edmunds—another between Andover and Salisbury—and a third between Reading and Bath, which was afterwards carried out by him as the Kennet and Avon Canal.  On this, his first work of civil engineering in England, he bestowed great pains,—on the survey, the designs for the viaducts and bridges, as well as on the execution of the works themselves.


The Kennet and Avon Navigation. [p.274] Picture Wikipedia.

    The Kennet and Avon Canal commences at Newbury, at the head of the River Kennet Navigation, passes up the vale of the Kennet for 16l miles by Hungerford to Crofton, where the summit level begins, which is reached by 31 locks, rising in all 210 feet.   It then proceeds by Burnslade, Wootton Rivers, and the valley of the Pewsey, to Devizes; and from Devizes by Foxhanger, Semington, Bradford, and the vale of the Avon to Bath, joining that river just above the Old Bath Bridge, where the Bristol navigation terminates.   The total length of the canal is 57 miles, the total descent on the west side of the summit being 404 feet 6 inches, divided into 48 locks.   The Kennet is crossed several times,—at Hungerford by a brick aqueduct of three arches.   At the summit a tunnel 500 yards in extent was necessary, approached by deep cuttings.

    The strata between Wootton Rivers and Devizes being mostly open chalk and sand, great difficulty was experienced in forming a water-tight bed for the canal, as well as in preventing slips of the adjacent ground.  At that part of the line which lies between the river Biss and Trowbridge, the works were carried along the face of a steep slippery hill.  Then near Bradford the cutting is mostly through open rock, and beyond that through beds of tough clay interspersed with strata of fuller's earth.  The water at these points worked serious mischief, for after a heavy fall of rain it would filter through the earth, and the weight of the mass pressing down from above, tended to force out the soft clay, causing extensive slips.  On one occasion not less than seven acres of land slid into the canal, forcing the whole down into the river in the valley below.  To remedy this source of mischief, soughs or small tunnels were carried into the hillside for a considerable distance, at a level much below that of the canal.  These again were crossed by other intercepting drains, so that numerous distinct outlets were provided for the water to prevent its reaching the canal works, which were thus made to stand firm, after great difficulties had been overcome, and much expense incurred.


Avoncliffe Aqueduct, Kennet & Avon Canal. [p.276]

    Besides these works there were the usual bridges, aqueducts, culverts, &c., all of which were executed in a substantial manner.  Among the finest architectural structures forming part of the canal, is the aqueduct over the river Avon, about a mile from Limpley Stoke and six miles from Bath which is greatly admired for the beauty of its elevation; and indeed, wherever there is an aqueduct or a bridge upon the line of this canal, it will be found excellent in workmanship and tasteful in design.  As a whole, the navigation was pronounced to be one of the best executed in the kingdom; and the works have stood admirably down to the present time.  In a commercial and national point of view the undertaking was of considerable importance, connecting as it did the navigation of the metropolis with that of Bristol and St. George's Channel, as well as opening up an extensive intermediate district; although it did not prove very remunerative to its proprietors.
    Another important line of navigation, on which Mr. Rennie was shortly after engaged, was the Rochdale Canal, projected for the purpose of opening up a direct water communication between the manufacturing districts of West Yorkshire and South Lancashire, to avoid the circuitous route of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.  The main line extended from the Duke of Bridgewater's Canal at Manchester, by Rochdale and Todmorden, to the river Calder at Sowerby Bridge, a distance of 31½ miles, with a branch to join the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Wanless, and other branches to Bury and Bolton.  From the rugged nature of the country over which the canal had to be carried —having to be lifted from lock to lock over the great mountain-ridge known as "the backbone of England"—few works have had greater physical obstacles to encounter than this between Rochdale and Todmorden.


    A little before the traveller by railway enters the tunnel near Littleborough, on his way between Manchester and Leeds, he can discern the canal mounting up the rocky sides of the hills until it is lost in the distance; and as he emerges from the tunnel at its other end, it is again observed descending from the hill-tops by a flight of locks down to the level of the railway.  In crossing the range at one place, a stupendous cutting, fifty feet deep, had to be blasted through hard rock.  In other places, where it climbs along the face of the hill, it is overhung by precipices.

    On the Yorkshire side, at Todmorden, the valley grows narrower and narrower, overhung by steep, often almost perpendicular rocks of millstone-grit, with space, in many parts, for only the water-way, the turnpike road, and the little river Calder in the bottom of the ravine.  At some points, where space allowed, there were mills and manufacturing establishments jealous of their water-supply, which the engineer had carefully to avoid.  It was also necessary to provide against the canal being swept away by the winter's floods of the Calder, which rushed down with immense violence from Blackstone Edge.  Large reservoirs had to be carefully contrived to store up water against summer droughts, for the purposes of the navigation, as well as to compensate the numerous mills along the valley below.  One of these, fourteen feet deep, was dug in a bog on Blackstone Edge, and others, of large dimensions, were formed at various points along the hill-route.  But as these expedients were of themselves insufficient, powerful steam-engines were also erected to pump back the lockage water into the canal above, as well as into side-ponds near the locks to serve for reservoirs, and thus economise the supply to the greatest extent.


The Rochdale Canal.  Picture Wikimedia Commons (Clare Bell).

    No more formidable difficulties, indeed, were encountered by George Stephenson, in constructing the railway passing by tunnel under the same range of hills, than were overcome by Mr. Rennie in carrying out the works of this great canal undertaking.  The skill and judgment with which he planned them reflected the greatest credit on their designer; and whoever examines the works at this day—even after all that has been accomplished in canal and railway engineering will admit that the mark of a master's hand is unmistakably stamped upon them.  The navigation was completed and opened on the 21st of December, 1804; and we need scarcely add that it proved of immense service to the trade of Yorkshire and Lancashire,—bringing important manufacturing districts into easy and economical connection with each other, enabling cheap fuel to be brought to the doors of the population of the valleys along which it passed, placing them in direct communication with the markets of Manchester and Liverpool, and, through the latter port, opening up a water road to the world at large.

Rennie's Wyre Aqueduct—a single span, 110 feet long and 34 feet high — carries the Lancaster  Canal over the River Wyre.  It was opened in 1797.  Picture Wikipedia.

    The Lancaster Canal was another enterprise conducted by Mr. Rennie in the same neighbourhood.  A navigable communication between the coal-fields near Wigan and the lime districts about Lancaster, Burton, and Kendal, connecting these towns also with the intervening country as well as with Liverpool, Manchester, and the towns of South Lancashire, had long been regarded as an object of importance.  A survey had been made by Mr. Brindley as early as 1772, but nothing further was done until some twenty years later, when a company was formed, with Mr. Rennie as engineer.  The line surveyed by him commences near Wigan, and proceeds northward by Chorley, Preston, and Garstang, to Lancaster, where, skirting the east side of the town, and crossing the Lune by a noble aqueduct, it then passes by Haughbridge to its northern terminus at Kendal; the total length of the main line being 75¾ miles, and the branches two miles more.  The aqueduct over the Lune is the principal architectural work on the canal, consisting of five semicircular arches of 75 feet span each; the soffits being 50 feet, and the surface of the canal 62 feet above the average level of the river.  The total length of the aqueduct—which forms a prominent feature in the landscape—is 600 feet.  The whole is built of hard sandstone, the masonry being in imitation of rockwork, the top surmounted by a handsome Doric cornice and balustrade.  It exhibits, in fine combination, the important qualities of strength, durability, and elegance in design; and even at this day it will bear a favourable comparison with the best works of its kind in the kingdom.


    Mr. Rennie continued throughout his life to be extensively consulted as a canal engineer. [p.281-1]  Though navigations were then mostly valued for purposes of internal communication, he seems early to have appreciated the uses of the railway, if not as a substitute for them, at least as an adjunct.  Thus, when laying out a new branch of the Grand Trunk Canal at Hanley, in the Potteries, he recommended the addition of a short descending railway, connecting the navigation directly with the manufactories at Burslem.  Referring to this method of communication, he observed that the railroad "would form a quick and cheap mode of carrying goods.  Indeed," he added, "I do not know a cheaper or better, and, in my opinion, it might be substituted with great advantage for the branch canal in question.  I have therefore to submit whether, as a matter worthy of the consideration of the proprietors, this branch might not be saved, and a railroad substituted in its place."  This report was written, be it observed, early in 1797, long before railroads had been introduced; and the suggestion affords striking evidence of Mr. Rennie's sagacity in so early detecting and appreciating the advantages of this new method of communication.


The Lune Aquaduct [p.281-2].
© Copyright Humphrey Bolton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    In 1802 Mr. Rennie was requested to examine the works of the Royal Canal of Ireland.  The origin of this project was curious.  The Grand Canal had already been formed to connect the navigation of the Liffey with that of the Shannon near Banagher; and though enormous blunders had marred its construction, and its cost had consequently been excessive, the traffic upon it was so great as nevertheless to render it exceedingly profitable to its proprietors.

    The managing committee consisted for the most part of persons of high rank, but amongst them was a retired shoemaker, who had invested a very large sum in the undertaking, and made himself exceedingly busy in its concerns.  Offence seems to have been taken at this person; and his meddling in various matters, without authority, caused a rupture between him and the other members of the committee.  They thwarted him at every turn, outvoted him, snubbed him, and "sent him to Coventry."

    Vowing revenge, the shoemaker threw up his seat at the board, and, on parting with his colleagues, said to them, "You may think me a very insignificant person, but I will soon show you the contrary.  I will sell out forthwith, start a rival canal, and carry all the traffic."  The threat was, of course, treated with contempt, and the shoemaker was laughed out of the board-room.

    But the indignant man set to work with energy, got up a company, laid down a line of navigation from Dublin to the Shannon near Longford, passing by Mullingar; he secured the support of the landed gentry through whose property the line passed, and eventually succeeded in obtaining an Act of Parliament authorising the construction of the Royal Canal of Ireland.  The works were begun with great eclat; but, before they had proceeded far, it was found that the levels were entirely wrong, and there were numerous difficulties to be overcome, for which no provision had been made.

    Then it was that Mr. Rennie was called in, and found the whole concern in confusion; the works at a standstill in many places, in bogs, in cuttings, in embankments, and in limestone rocks, and the proprietors involved in almost endless claims for compensation.  He found it necessary to resurvey the whole line and to alter the plans in many essential respects; after which the works proceeded.  It proved to be a work of an extraordinary character as regarded the difficulties, mostly unnecessary, which had been encountered in its construction; as respected the beneficial results to the proprietors, it proved an almost total failure.

    The shoemaker, no doubt, had his revenge upon his former associates, inflicting great injury upon the Grand Canal by the diversion of much of its traffic; but he accomplished this at a terrible sacrifice to many, and at the almost total loss of his own fortune.


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