John Rennie.

Autobiography of Sir John Rennie, F.R.S., Past President of the Institute of Civil Engineers online

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The following Autobiography was written by Sir John Rennie in 1867,
shortly after he had retired from the active duties of his profession. As
will be perceived in the sequel, it was composed wholly from memory. Sir
John was subsequently unable to revise it as he would have desired, and
it has since been found impossible to do so. Nevertheless it is believed
that but few substantial errors will be found; while the kindliness with
which the autobiographer invariably speaks of every person with whom he
came in contact, is a guarantee that there can be nothing to offend the
most sensitive person, or which might tend to injure the just claims
and reputations of others. It is now presented to the public in its
original state, having undergone merely some necessary correction, in
the hope that the memoirs of the man who was perhaps unrivalled in his
branch of the profession - and which comprise valuable hints as to the
neglected art of hydraulics, as well as advice to engineers commencing
their career, the result of the experience of a lifetime of no ordinary
duration - together with the reminiscences of one who had seen much both
of men and things,

“Qui mores hominum multorum vidit et urbes,”

may not be unacceptable either to the profession or the world at large.

LONDON, _September, 1875_.



My birth and early education - I enter my Father’s
office - Commencement of Waterloo and Southwark
Bridges - Anecdotes of Mr. Ferguson, of Pitfour - The Stockton
and Darlington Railway, and Surveys between Port Patrick
and Donaghadee - Account of the mode of erecting the arches
of Southwark Bridge - Journey to the Continent and Field of
Waterloo - Account of the building of Waterloo Bridge - It is
opened in State by the Prince Regent, 1817. Page 1


Travels in Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Asia Minor,
Constantinople, and Egypt - Return to England - Death of Mr.
Rennie 36


Eau Brink Cut - Ramsgate Harbour - Sheerness Dockyard - Plymouth
Breakwater - Anecdote of the late Mr. J. Fox - London Bridge and
Approaches - Sir F. Trench’s Plan for Quaying the Thames - Nene
Outfall - Cross Keys Bridge - Norfolk Estuary - Improvement of the
Witham - Ancholme Drainage 157


Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Railway System - The
Manchester and Liverpool, London and Birmingham, and other
early Lines 228


Travels in the North of Europe and Spain 252


Ship Canal from Portsmouth to London - Machinery and
Engine Making - Screw Steam Ships - Hartlepool and Coquet
Harbours - Railways round London - Railway Mania - South-Eastern
Railway - London, Chatham, and Dover Railway 284


Swedish Railways - Surveys in Holland and Portugal 304


Surveys in Portugal and Tunis 343


Surveys at Odessa and Vienna - Harbour at Ponta
Delgada - Ramsgate - Dagenham 377


Retrospect - London Bridge - Sheerness Dockyard - Plymouth
Breakwater and Victualling Yard - Steam Vessels for the
Navy - Harbours - Railways - Broad and Narrow Gauge - Atmospheric
Railway - Water Supply and Sewage 407


The Formation of Natural Breakwaters - The Society of Civil
Engineers - The Education of a Civil Engineer - Some Hints on
Practice - Estimating - Conclusion 427

Index 459



My birth and early education - I enter my Father’s
office - Commencement of Waterloo and Southwark
Bridges - Anecdotes of Mr. Ferguson, of Pitfour - The Stockton
and Darlington Railway and Surveys between Port Patrick
and Donaghadee - Account of the mode of erecting the arches
of Southwark Bridge - Journey to the Continent and Field of
Waterloo - Account of the building of Waterloo Bridge - It is
opened in State by the Prince Regent, 1817.

I was born at 27, Stamford Street, Blackfriars, London, on the 30th
of August, 1794. Having been taught my letters at home, I was sent to
the care of Dr. Greenlaw, who kept a boys’ school at Isleworth. It
was a large house, formerly belonging to the Bishop of London. To the
house were attached excellent gardens and playground. The situation,
moreover, was open and healthy, and the total number of boys was about
fifty, ranging from eight to sixteen years of age. They were well fed
and taken care of by the Doctor’s excellent wife, and his sister-in-law,
Miss Hodgkins. The Doctor’s eldest daughter, Miss Greenlaw, taught the
youngest boys their letters; whilst the Doctor and his assistants devoted
themselves to the education of the others, which education consisted
chiefly of classics, writing, arithmetic, French, and occasionally
geography and the elements of astronomy. During the time that I was
there the most remarkable scholar was the celebrated poet, Percy
Bysshe Shelley, who was then about twelve or thirteen (as far as I can
remember), and even at that early age exhibited considerable poetical
talent, accompanied by a violent and extremely excitable temper, which
manifested itself in all kinds of eccentricities. His figure was of
the middle size, although slight, but well made. His head was well
proportioned, and covered with a profusion of brown locks; his features
regular, but rather small; his eyes hazel, restless, and brilliant;
his complexion was fair and transparent; and his countenance rather
effeminate, but exceedingly animated. The least circumstance that
thwarted him produced the most violent paroxysms of rage; and when
irritated by other boys, which they, knowing his infirmity, frequently
did by way of teasing him, he would take up anything, or even any little
boy near him, to throw at his tormentors. His imagination was always
roving upon something romantic and extraordinary, such as spirits,
fairies, fighting, volcanoes, &c., and he not unfrequently astonished his
schoolfellows by blowing up the boundary palings of the playground with
gunpowder, also the lid of his desk in the middle of schooltime, to the
great surprise of Dr. Greenlaw himself and the whole school. In fact, at
times he was considered to be almost upon the borders of insanity; yet
with all this, when treated with kindness, he was very amiable, noble,
high-spirited, and generous; he used to write verse, English and Latin,
with considerable facility, and attained a high position in the school
before he left for Eton, where, I understand, he was equally, if not
more, extraordinary and eccentric.

Cotemporary with Shelley there was another peculiar character, named
Tredcroft, from the same county, viz. Sussex; he also had considerable
poetical talent, but unfortunately lost his health, and ultimately, I
understand, died completely imbecile at an early age. I remained at this
school until the year 1807, by which time I had acquired a tolerable
knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics, and arithmetic as far as
vulgar fractions and decimals. I was then sent to the celebrated Dr.
Burney’s, at Greenwich, where there were about 100 boys, varying from ten
to eighteen.

Dr. Charles Burney was considered one of the best Greek and Latin
scholars of the day, and was the intimate friend of Porson and numerous
other literary celebrities. His school was therefore very highly esteemed
for classics, but for little or nothing else; for although a certain
quantity of arithmetic and the elements of algebra and geometry were
taught, yet these were quite secondary to the classics.

I therefore made little further progress in anything but classics,
in which I became a tolerable proficient, and had Homer, Thucydides,
Euripides, Sophocles, Virgil, Horace, &c., at my fingers’ ends, whilst
I could scarcely demonstrate the Pons asinorum of Euclid; in fact, in
those days a knowledge of Greek and Latin was considered as including
everything else, and anything like a science or physics was considered of
secondary consequence. I made the acquaintance of two men, who afterwards
much distinguished themselves by their scientific acquirements, namely,
the late Herbert Mayo, the well-known surgeon and physiologist; also the
late Sir George Everest, the scientific Director of the Triangular Survey
of India; and Dr. Milman, late Dean of St. Paul’s. Dr. Burney’s school
was by no means so well managed as that of Dr. Greenlaw in everything
which regarded the comfort of the boys, neither were they so well fed or
looked after, and it was a great relief to me when I left the school in

It then became a question with my father whether I should go to Oxford
or Cambridge, or whether I should finish my education at home, under the
superintendence of proper masters. About this period, and ever since
the year 1802, there was nothing but war heard or talked of all over
the world. The whole country was as it were turned into a camp; every
man capable of bearing arms became a volunteer, and at school even we
were regularly drilled to the use of arms; and I was so excited by the
extraordinary victories of Nelson and the early career of Wellington
that I determined to enter the army, but to this my father was decidedly
opposed, as he wished to bring me up to his own profession. I was
therefore reluctantly obliged to give up all idea of the military
profession and follow that of a civil engineer; and my father wisely
determined that I should go through all the gradations, both practical
and theoretical, which could not be done if I went to the University,
as the practical part, which he considered most important, must be
abandoned; for, he said, after a young man has been three or four years
at the University of Oxford or Cambridge, he cannot, without much
difficulty, turn himself to the practical part of civil engineering.
All idea, therefore, of my going to Cambridge or Oxford was given up.
My father at that period had one department of his business exclusively
devoted to practical mechanics, that is, to the making of machinery of
all kinds; this department, although it formed by no means the principal
part of his profession, nevertheless enabled him to make experiments
which were of great value in the other departments of his business,
and was by no means unprofitable, as the importance of machinery and
mechanical contrivances was then to a certain extent appreciated, and
was daily becoming more so. My father always said that theoretical and
practical mechanics were the true foundations of all civil engineering;
and he therefore insisted that as I had to a certain extent learned the
theoretical, so I must now learn the practical part. I was therefore sent
into the mechanical department, and commenced work planing and sawing
boards, making patterns, and other similar works. After this I was put
to turning both wood and metal; and although I did not attain complete
practical efficiency in these departments, which would have required
several years, nevertheless I learned sufficient to enable me to become a
tolerable judge of workmanship.

I was then put into the drawing office, where I learned to copy
geometrical plans, by which, in a short time, in combination with what I
had acquired in the workshop, I gained a general knowledge of design and

My time was employed in this manner about eight hours daily, but my
evenings were devoted to the acquisition of geometry, algebra, and
trigonometry, plane and spherical; also astronomy under the late
Astronomer Royal, Mr. Pond, and his father-in-law, Dr. Bradley, and
in learning French, Italian, and German. Having acquired to a certain
extent a proficiency in the mathematical sciences, I was placed under the
direction of the late Mr. Francis Giles, a land surveyor of considerable
experience and ability, who was generally employed by my father to make
his various hydraulic surveys for canals and harbours under his immediate
direction, which Mr. Giles executed with his usual fidelity and ability.
Under Mr. Giles I learned the use of the chain, level, and theodolite,
and was enabled to apply my theoretical knowledge in trigonometry, plane
and spherical, to practice. About this period, viz. the year 1813,
having obtained a tolerable knowledge of the rudiments of my profession,
both theoretical and practical, my father determined to place upon my
shoulders a certain degree of responsibility, and put me under the
direction of that late worthy and excellent man, Mr. James Hollingsworth,
whom my father had appointed to be resident engineer of the Waterloo
Bridge, which was then building. I felt the responsibility of this office
a good deal, and entered upon it with every determination and desire
to meet my father’s approbation; and during the inclement winter of
1813-14, when the frost lasted about two months, and the Thames above
London Bridge was frozen over for several weeks, I was obliged to attend
the piling of the foundations of the first and second piers on the Surrey
side of the river night and day for three days each week, which severely
tried my constitution.

At this period Vauxhall Bridge was also in course of construction, and I
was directed by my father to attend to this also, under Mr. Jones, the
resident engineer; but they had scarcely finished the Middlesex abutment
up to the springing of the first arch, and were preparing the caisson
for founding the first pier, when the Company found that they had not
sufficient funds to carry into effect Mr. Rennie’s design, which was very
beautiful. The bridge was to be made entirely of the fine blue sandstone
from Dundee, and was to consist of seven arches, segments of circles,
the centre arch being 110 feet span, with a rise or versed sine of 19
feet, and depth of keystone 4 feet 6 inches; piers 18 feet 6 inches thick
at the springing of the arch, the two arches next the centre being 105
feet span each, with a rise or versed sine of 17 feet, keystone 4 feet
5 inches, and springing stones 9 feet long, and the two piers 17 feet 6
inches thick each. The two next arches were 100 feet span, with a rise
or versed sine of 15 feet, keystones 4 feet 4 inches, and springers
9 feet, and piers 17 feet thick each; the two sub or shore arches 90
feet span each, with a rise or versed sine of 13 feet, keystones 4
feet, and springers 8 feet, abutments 21 feet thick at the springing,
having a total width of waterway of 700 feet. The arches were surmounted
by a Roman Doric cornice and plain block and plinth parapet, and the
projecting points of the piers were surmounted by solid square pilasters,
with a niche in the centre. The roadway was 34 feet wide between the
parapets, and was formed by a very flat segment of a circle rising 1 in
53. The piers were intended to be founded by caissons resting upon a
platform supported by bearing and surrounded by sheeting piles. This was
upon the whole a very elegant, light, and chaste design. Finding that the
Company had not sufficient funds to carry into effect the stone design,
Mr. Rennie proposed another wholly of iron, consisting of eleven arches,
with a total waterway of 732 feet, supported upon cast-iron columns
filled with masonry and resting upon a platform supported upon piles and
surrounded by sheeting piles. The centre arch was to be 86 feet span and
8 feet rise, and the others diminishing regularly to each end so as to
enable the roadway to be formed into a graceful curve rising 1 foot in
60. This also was an extremely light, elegant, and economical design.
The total cost of this elegant design was estimated at 100,000_l._, and
would have been executed first, but at that time even this amount was not
forthcoming. The works then stopped, and some time elapsed before the
Company was resumed, and ultimately constructed the present bridge.

In the year 1814-15 my father was appointed engineer-in-chief of the
Southwark Bridge Company, and as this was proposed to be constructed in
the narrowest part of the river between Blackfriars and the Old London
Bridge, considerable opposition was made to the Act of Parliament for its
construction by the Corporation of London and the Conservators of the
river, on account of the obstruction which they said the bridge would
offer to the navigation; this however was finally overcome, but it was
decided by Parliament that the bridge should be constructed with as large
arches as possible. Accordingly Mr. Rennie submitted a design consisting
of three cast-iron arches, the centre being 240 feet span, with a versed
sine of 24 feet, and two side arches of 210 feet each, with a versed sine
or rise of 18 feet 10 inches each, with piers of 24 feet wide each at the
springing, thus giving a clear lineal waterway of 660 feet, which was a
great deal more than that of the Old London Bridge at that time existing.
This design was approved of and ordered to be carried into effect. By
this time, with the experience of the Waterloo and Vauxhall bridges and
my other studies, I had gained considerable knowledge in bridge building,
and my father was anxious to give me as much encouragement as possible;
although, therefore, he appointed a worthy and practical man, Mr. Meston,
as nominally the resident engineer, yet he confided to me the arduous
task of making out the working drawings under his own direction, and
of carrying them into effect. I therefore felt highly gratified with
this great mark of confidence, and devoted my whole energies to the
work night and day. The ironwork was carried into effect by Messrs.
Walker, of Rotherham, under the able management of their experienced and
able superintendent, Mr. Yeats, and the masonry and piling under the
well-known contractors, Messrs. Jolliffe and Banks; and Mr. Meston, the
resident engineer, faithfully discharged his duties.

As these arches were the largest of the kind ever constructed,
considerable doubts as to their stability occurred to many, and the
subject was discussed amongst scientific men with considerable energy;
and amongst others, the celebrated Dr. Young undertook to investigate
Mr. Rennie’s calculations, and came to the conclusion that the bridge
was well designed, and would be a perfectly safe and stable structure,
and equal to the support of any weight or amount of traffic which could
be brought over it. But in order to fulfil these conditions, it was
absolutely necessary that every detail of materials and workmanship
should be worked out with the greatest skill and accuracy.

As the arches were of such great span with so small rise, the pressure
upon the piers and abutments was chiefly lateral; it therefore became
necessary to construct them in such a manner that they should offer
the most effectual resistance to this pressure. In consequence, the
foundations of the abutments were made on an incline, and the masonry
from thence upwards to the springing of the arches was made to consist
of a series of courses radiating upwards until they reached the angle
of the springing courses; so that, in point of fact, the abutments
formed, as it were, a continuation of the side arches to their base;
and in order to connect the courses of masonry more solidly together,
the courses were connected with each other from the top to the bottom
by several series of vertical bond stones, thus forming one solid
immovable mass. These abutments were supported on a platform composed
of piles, double sleepers, and planking, the piles being 20 feet long,
12 inches in diameter in the middle, and driven solidly into the ground
at right angles to the inclination of the foundation. As the pressure
upon the piers was nearly equal on both sides, it was necessary that the
foundations should be laid level. These also rest upon a wooden platform
of double sills and planking, lying upon piles of the same dimensions
as those of the abutments, driven vertically into the ground below, and
the courses of masonry, which were laid horizontally, were connected
together in the vertical direction by a series of bond stones in a
similar manner to those of the abutments. The abutments and piers were
founded many feet below low-water mark of spring tides, so as to be below
the reach of any possible scour of the river. Those parts of the piers
from immediately below the springing of the arches to a point above the
top of the main solid ribs of the arches were composed of large blocks
of stone set nearly vertically, breaking bond laterally and vertically
with each other, and in the centre of this part of the piers there was a
set of keystones 12 feet long and 2 feet thick, tapering on each side,
forming so many stone wedges. These were very finely worked on all sides.
These wedge stones broke bond laterally with the blocks in front of
them, and were firmly driven into their places for a depth of 2 feet by
means of heavy wooden rams. The masonry of the pilasters and salient
angles of the piers is of the same character as those of the interior
of the pier before described, and worked into them in the same manner,
so as to form one solid bond from one point of the pier to the other.
The whole of the exterior of this part of the piers, as well as of the
abutments, is cased with granite from Scotland or Cornwall; and it was
necessary that the blocks forming this casing should be of the largest
kind, which hitherto was quite unusual, particularly for the facing of
the abutments from whence the arches were to spring, which required
blocks from 15 to 20 tons. These were of such unusual magnitude, and
nothing of the kind had hitherto been used in London, or even elsewhere
in England, that the contractors made considerable objection to obtaining
them, and even went so far as to say that it could not be done. I was
perfectly convinced that it could be done, and that it was merely a
question of a little extra expense, and strongly recommended my father
to insist upon it, as it was absolutely necessary for the security of
the bridge; and he did so, and directed me to proceed to Aberdeen for
the purpose of obtaining them. I accordingly started for Aberdeen; and
when there, carefully examined all the quarries in the neighbourhood,
which I found had only been opened up on a small scale, and were merely
adapted for getting paving stones, the commerce of which with London
was then upon a considerable scale; but the idea of obtaining blocks
of the size required for the Southwark Bridge was considered to be
entirely out of the question; or, even if they could be obtained, the
price would be such that the contractors would not consent to pay. In
fact, so many difficulties and objections were made that I found nothing
could be done in that quarter. I therefore determined to proceed to
Peterhead, 30 miles farther northward, where the red granite abounds in


Online LibraryJohn RennieAutobiography of Sir John Rennie, F.R.S., Past President of the Institute of Civil Engineers → online text (page 1 of 2)