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Biographical sketch of the late Robert Stevenson : civil engineer online

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DIOGRAPHY oi, oy Allan Stevenson, Jine port, and
\e of Bell Rock Lighthouse, sm. 4to., cloth, 10s 6d 1861

fopy has the bookplate of M. Faraday, and on fly-leaf is written" Professor Faraday I
ith Messrs. Stevenson's Comps."

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F.R.S.E. M.W.S. F.G.S.L. M.I.C.E. ETC. ETC.







Drawn by Miss Stevenson .

Engraved W J.Horsburgh .



ROBERT STEVENSON was born at Glasgow on the 8th
June 1772, and died at Edinburgh on the 12th July
1850, in the seventy -ninth year of his age. His father,
Alan Stevenson, was a partner in a West India House in
Glasgow, and died in the island of St Christopher, while
on a visit to his brother, who managed the business
abroad. His only son Robert, the subject of this memoir,
was then an infant, and, with his mother, was ultimately
left in circumstances of the greatest difficulty; for the
same epidemic fever which deprived him of his father
carried off his uncle also, at a time when his loss operated
most disadvantageously on the business which he had
superintended, and very many years elapsed before any
funds in which my father had an interest were realised.
His mother's circumstances now compelled her to take
advantage of a charity school for him during his infancy ;
and the high spirit of the man is well brought out by
the fact that he devoted his first earnings in life, at the


Cumbrae Lighthouse, to the repayment to that institu-
tion of what he viewed as a debt. In this manner was
my father's early education conducted, although, as the
sequel shows, with success, yet under circumstances which
could not by any means be called favourable. This suc-
cess was chiefly due to the energy of his mother, Jane
Lillie, who was a woman of great prudence and remark-
able fortitude, based on deep convictions of religion. It
appears, from some memoranda left by my father for the
information of his family, that his mother had intended
him for the ministry, with a view to which he had been
sent to the school of a famous linguist of his day, Mr
Macintyre. Circumstances, however, occurred which
entirely changed his prospects and pursuits. Soon after
he had attained his fifteenth year, his mother was
married to Mr Thomas Smith, who had commenced life
as a tinsmith and lampmaker in Edinburgh, and who,
being an ingenious mechanician, afterwards directed his
attention to the subject of lighthouses. So successful
were Mr Smith's endeavours to improve the mode of
illumination, by substituting oil lamps with parabolic
mirrors for the open coal-fires which formerly served for
beacons to the mariner, that his improvements attracted
the notice of Professor Kobison and Sir David Hunter
Blair, and he was appointed engineer to the Northern
Lighthouse Board, immediately after its constitution
by the Act of 1786. In these pursuits my father had
rendered himself useful to Mr Smith, who intrusted
him, at the early age of nineteen, with the superin-


tendence of the erection of a lighthouse on the island
of Little Cumbrae in the river Clyde, according to
a plan which Mr Smith had furnished to the Trus-
tees for the Clyde Navigation. This connection soon
led to his adoption as Mr Smith's partner in busi-
ness, and in 1799 to his marriage with his eldest
daughter ; and as the entire management of the light-
house business had already for some years, with the con-
currence of the Board, devolved upon him, he naturally
succeeded Mr Smith as engineer, an office which he re-
signed in 1843, after having fulfilled its arduous duties
for about half a century.

During the cessation of the works at Cumbrae in
winter, Mr Stevenson, who, even at that time, had de-
termined to follow out the profession of a civil engineer,
and had begun to feel the want of systematic training,
applied himself, it appears, with great zeal to the prac-
tice of surveying and architectural drawing, and to the
study of the mathematical and physical sciences, at the
Andersonian Institution at Glasgow. Of the kindness
of Dr Anderson, who presided over that institution, .he
ever entertained a most grateful remembrance, and often
spoke of him as one of his best advisers and kindest
friends. In the manuscript memoranda already noticed,
he thus records his obligations to him. It was " the
practice of Professor Anderson kindly to befriend and
forward the views of his pupils ; and his attention to me,
during the few years I had the pleasure of being known
to him, was of a very marked kind, for he directed my


attention to various pursuits, with the view to my
coming forward as an engineer."

After completing the Cumbrae Lighthouse, he was
engaged under Mr Smith in erecting lighthouses on the
Pentland Skerries in Orkney, in returning from whence,
in 1794, he made a narrow escape from shipwreck in the
sloop Elizabeth of Stromness. The Elizabeth had pro-
ceeded as far as Kinnaird Head on her southward
voyage, and was then becalmed when within about three
miles of the shore. The captain kindly landed my
father, who continued his journey to Edinburgh by land.
A very different fate, however, awaited his unfortunate
shipmates. A violent gale came on, which drove the
Elizabeth back to Orkney, where she was totally wrecked,
and all on board perished !

Notwithstanding his active duties in summer, he was
so zealous in the pursuit of knowledge that he contrived,
during several successive winters, on his return from Ork-
ney, to attend the philosophical classes at the University
of Edinburgh. In this manner he attended Professor
Playfair's second and third mathematical courses, two
sessions of Professor Kobison's natural philosophy, two
courses of chemistry under Dr Hope, and two of natural
history under Professor Jameson. To these he added a
course of moral philosophy under Dugald Stewart, and
also a course of logic, and one of agriculture. " I was
prevented, however/' he remarks, in the manuscript
memoranda, " from taking my degree of M.A. by my
slender knowledge of Latin, in which my highest book


was the Orations of Cicero, and by my total want of
Greek." Such zeal in the pursuit of knowledge under so
many discouragements, and views so enlarged of the
benefits and value of a liberal education, were charac-
teristics of a mind of no ordinary vigour.

The most important work of Mr Stevenson's life is the
Bell Rock Lighthouse. Of the progress of that great
undertaking he has left a lasting memorial and most in-
teresting narrative in his " Account," a quarto volume of
upwards of 500 pages, which was written to his dictation
by his only daughter. But there are some circumstances
connected with the early history of that work which,
while they could not properly have found a place in his
own narrative, have been noticed in the above-mentioned
manuscript memoranda, from which I shall transcribe a
few paragraphs detailing his early efforts and disappoint-
ments whilst designing that lighthouse :

" All knew the difficulties of the erection of the Eddystone Light-
house, and the casualties to which that edifice had "been liable ; and
in comparing the two situations, it was generally remarked that the
Eddystone was barely covered by the tide at high water, while the
Bell Eock was barely uncovered at low water.

" I had much to contend with in the then limited state of my ex-
perience ; and I had in various ways to bear up against public opinion
as well as against interested parties. I was in this state of things,
however, greatly supported, and I would even say often comforted, by
Mr Clerk of Eldin, author of the System of Breaking the Line in
Naval Tactics. Mr Clerk took great interest in my models, and spoke
much of them in scientific circles he carried men of science and emi-
nent strangers to the model-room which I had provided in Merchants'
Hall, of which he sometimes carried the key, both when I was at home
and while I was abroad. He introduced me to Lord Webb Seymour,


to Admiral Lord Duncan, and to Professors Eobison and Playfair, and
others. Mr Clerk had been personally known to Snieaton, and used
occasionally to speak of him to me."

It is impossible to read this little narrative without
feeling a respect for Mr Clerk's hearty enthusiasm, and
perceiving the beneficial influence which a kindly disposi-
tion, when thus united with an active and inventive
mind like his, is calculated to produce on the prospects
and pursuits of a young man, by stimulating an honour-
able emulation and discouraging a desponding spirit.

" But at length," the memorandum continues, " all difficulties with
the public as well as with the better informed few, were dispelled by
the fatal effects of a dreadful storm from the N.E., which occurred in
December 1799, when it was ascertained that no fewer than seventy
sail of vessels were stranded or lost, with many of their crews, upon
the coast of Scotland alone ! Many of them, it was not doubted,
might have found a safe asylum in the Firth of Forth, had there been
a lighthouse upon the Bell Eock, on which, indeed, it was generally
believed the York, of 74 guns, with all hands, perished, none being
left to tell the tale ! The coast for many miles exhibited portions of
that fine ship. There was now, therefore, but one voice, * There
must be a lighthouse erected on the Bell Eock.'

" Previous to this dreadful storm I had prepared niy pillar-formed
model, a section of which is shown in Plate VII. of the Account of
the Bell Mock Lighthouse. Early in the year 1800, I for the first
time landed on the rock to see the application of my model to the
situation for which it was designed and made. On this occasion I
was accompanied by my friend Mr James Haldane, architect, whose
pupil I had been for architectural drawing. Our landing was at low
water of a spring-tide, when a good space of rock was above water,
and then the realities of its danger were amply exemplified by the
numerous relics which were found in its crevices, such as a ship's
marking-iron, a piece of a kedge-anchor and a cabin stove, a bayonet,
cannon-ball, silver shoebuckle, crowbars, pieces of money, and other
evidences of recent shipwreck. I haft no sooner set foot upon the


rock than I laid aside all idea of a pillar-formed structure, fully con-
vinced that a building on similar principles with the Eddystone would
be found practicable.

" On my return from this visit to the rock, I immediately set to
work in good earnest with a design of a stone lighthouse, and modelled
it. Of this design a section is also given in Plate VII. above noticed.
I accompanied this design with a report or memorial to the Lighthouse
Board, which I gave in the Appendix of my 'Account' at p. 440.
The pillar-formed plan I estimated at 15,000, and the stone building
at 42,000.* But still I found that I had not made much impression
on the Board on the score of expense, for they feared it would cost
much more than forty or fifty thousand pounds. Here, therefore, the
subject rested with the Board for a time.

In order to fortify his views, my father requested the
Board to take the advice of Mr Telford, and ultimately
of Mr Rennie, who concurred with him in thinking a
stone tower practicable. But it appears that still the
banks would not advance money on the security, and
the Board resolved to apply for an Act of Parliament.

" To the very last the bankers were in doubt as to their security on
the dues for so great and hazardous an undertaking ; and the bill
included an authority to borrow 25,000 from the Exchequer. I
attended this bill through Parliament. Mr Rennie and myself were
examined; but the only plans and information otherwise before the
Committee were those already noticed, which I had laid before the
Board in 1800.

" The Lighthouse Act having obtained the royal assent, I began
to feel a new responsibility. The erection of a lighthouse on a rock
about twelve miles from land, and so low in the water that the
foundation- course must be at least on a level with the lowest tide, was
an enterprise so full of uncertainty and hazard, that it could not fail
to press on my mind. I felt regret that I had not had the opportunity
of a greater range of practice to fit me for such an undertaking. But

* The actual cost of the tower was 41,000.


I was fortified by an expression of my friend Mr Clerk, in one of our
conversations upon its difficulties. ' This work,' said he, ' is unique,
and can be little forwarded by experience of ordinary masonic opera-
tions. In this case, Smeaton's Narrative must be the text-book, and
energy and perseverance the pratique' "

Mr Rennie, also, who had been appointed to advise
with my father in case of emergency, was not behind
in administering comfort, and wrote to him, during
the progress of the work, in the following cheer-
ing terms : " Poor old fellow " (alluding to the name of
Smeaton), " I hope he will now and then take a peep
of us, and inspire you with fortitude and courage to
brave all difficulties and all dangers, to accomplish a
work which will, if successful, immortalise you in the
annals of fame/'

How well Mr Stevenson met the demands which, in
the course of his great enterprise, were made on his
perseverance, fortitude, and self-denial, the history of
the operations, and their successful completion, abun-
dantly show. The work was, indeed, in all respects,
peculiarly suited to his tastes and habits ; and Mr Clerk
truly, although perhaps unconsciously, characterised the
man, in his terse statement of what would be required
of him. No one can read his account of the Bell Rock
Lighthouse without perceiving the justness of this esti-
mate of his character. His daily cheerful participation
in all the toils and hazards which were, for two seasons,
endured in the floating light -ship, and afterwards in
the timber house or beacon, over which the waves


broke with prodigious force, and caused a most alarming
twisting movement of its main supports, were proofs not
merely of calm and enduring courage, but of great self-
denial and enthusiastic devotion to his calling. On one
occasion in particular, his fortitude and presence of mind
were most severely tried, and well they stood the test.
I shall give the narrative of this most interesting adven-
ture in his own words ; but I cannot do so without ex-
pressing the regret I have so often felt, that, from some
mistaken delicacy, he had been induced throughout his
" Account" to speak of himself in the third person as
" the writer." This has encumbered the style with arti-
ficial phraseology, has damped the ardour of the narrator,
and in some instances has led to an awkward ambiguity.
The following passage possesses great interest :

" Soon after the artificers landed they commenced work; but the
wind coming to blow hard, the Smeaton's boat and crew, who had
brought their complement of eight men to the rock, went off to
examine her riding-ropes, and see that they were in proper order.
The boat had no sooner reached the vessel than she went adrift, car-
rying the boat along with her ; and both had even got to a consi-
derable distance before this situation of things was observed, every
one being so intent upon his own particular duty that the boat had
not been seen leaving the rock. As it blew hard, the crew, with
much difficulty, set the mainsail upon the Smeaton, with a view to
work her up to the buoy, and again lay hold of the moorings. By the
time that she was got round to make a tack towards the rock, she had
drifted at least three miles to leeward, with the praam boat astern ;
and having both the wind and tide against her, the writer perceived,
with no little anxiety, that she could not possibly return to the rock
till long after its being overflowed ; for, owing to the anomaly of the
tides, formerly noticed, the Bell Eock is completely under water
before the ebb abates to the offing.


" In this perilous predicament, indeed, he found himself placed
between hope and despair ; but certainly the latter was by much the
most predominant feeling of his mind, situate upon a sunken rock,
in the middle of the ocean, which, in the progress of the flood-tide, was
to be laid under water to the depth of at least twelve feet in a stormy
sea. There were this morning in all thirty-two persons on the rock,
with only two boats, whose complement, even in good weather, did
not exceed twenty-four sitters ; but to row to the floating light with
so much wind, and in so heavy a sea, a complement of eight men for
each boat was as much as could with propriety be attempted, so that
in this way about one-half of our number was unprovided for. Un-
der these circumstances, had the writer ventured to despatch one of
the boats, in expectation of either working the Sineaton sooner up
towards the rock, or in hopes of getting her boat brought to our
assistance, this must have given an immediate alarm to the artificers,
each of whom would have insisted upon taking to his own boat, and
leaving the eight artificers belonging to the Smeaton to their chance.
Of course, a scuffle might have ensued, and it is hard to say, in the
ardour of men contending for life, where it might have ended. It
has even been hinted to the writer that a party of the pickmen were
determined to keep exclusively to their own boat against all hazards.

" The unfortunate circumstance of the Smeaton and her boat
having drifted was, for a considerable time, only known to the writer,
and to the landing-master, who removed to the further point of the
rock, where he kept his eye steadily upon the progress of the vessel.
While the artificers were at work, chiefly in sitting or kneeling pos-
tures, excavating the rock, or boring with the jumpers, and while
their numerous hammers, and the sound of the smith's anvil, con-
tinued, the situation of things did not appear so awful. In this state
of suspense, with almost certain destruction at hand, the water be-
gan to rise upon those who were at work on the lower parts of the
sites of the beacon and lighthouse. From the run of sea upon the
rock, the forge -fire was also sooner extinguished this morning than
usual, and the volumes of smoke having ceased, objects in every
direction became visible from all parts of the rock. After having
had about three hours' work, the men began, pretty generally, to
make towards their respective boats for their jackets and stockings,
when, to their astonishment, instead of three they found only two
boats, the third being adrift with the Smeaton. Not a word was
uttered by any one, but all appeared to be silently calculating their


numbers, and looking to each other with evident marks of perplexity
depicted in their countenances. The landing-master, conceiving that
blame might be attached to him for allowing the boat to leave the
rock, still kept at a distance. At this critical moment, the author
was standing upon an elevated part of Smith's Ledge, where he en-
deavoured to mark the progress of the Sineaton, not a little surprised
that the crew did not cut the praam adrift, which greatly retarded
her way, and amazed that some effort was not making to bring at
least the boat, and attempt our relief. The workmen looked stead-
fastly upon the writer, and turned occasionally towards the vessel,
still far to leeward. All this passed in the most perfect silence, and
the melancholy solemnity of the group made an impression never to
be effaced from his mind.

" The writer had all along been considering various schemes pro-
viding the men could be kept under command which might be put
in practice for the general safety, in hopes that the Smeaton might
be able to pick up the boats to leeward, when they were obliged to
leave the rock. He was, accordingly, about to address the artificers
on the perilous nature of their circumstances, and to propose
that all hands should unstrip their upper clothing when the higher
parts of the rock were laid under water j that the seamen should
remove every unnecessary weight and encumbrance from the boats ;
that a specified number of men should go into each boat, and that
the remainder should hang by the gunwales, while the boats were
to be rowed gently towards the Smeaton, as the course to the Pharos
or floating light lay rather to windward of the rock. But when he
attempted to speak, his mouth was so parched that his tongue re-
fused utterance, and he now learned by experience that the saliva
is as necessary as the tongue itself for speech. He then turned to
one of the pools on the rock and lapped a little water, which pro-
duced an immediate relief. But what was his happiness when, on
rising from this unpleasant beverage, some one called out ' a boat !
a boat ! ' and on looking around, at no great distance, a large boat
was seen through the haze making towards the rock. This at once
enlivened and rejoiced every heart. The timeous visitor proved to
be James Spink, the Bell Eock pilot, who had come express from
Arbroath with letters. Spink had for some time seen the Smeaton,
and had even supposed, from the state of the weather, that all hands
were on board of her, till he approached more nearly and observed
people upon the rock. Upon this fortunate change of circumstances


sixteen of the artificers were sent at two trips in one of the boats,
with instructions for Spink to proceed with them to the floating
light.* This being accomplished, the remaining sixteen followed in
the two boats belonging to the service of the rock. Every one felt
the most perfect happiness at leaving the Bell Rock this morning,
though a very hard and even dangerous passage to the floating light
still awaited us, as the wind by this time had increased to a pretty
hard gale, accompanied with a considerable swell of sea. The boats
left the rock about nine, but did not reach the vessel till twelve o'clock
noon, after a most disagreeable and fatiguing passage of three hours.
Every one was as completely drenched in water as if he had been
dragged astern of the boats."

The state of suffering and discomfort as well as danger
on board the floating light, which lay moored off the
rock during the first two seasons of the work, before the
timber Beacon was used as a habitation, is described in
the following passage, which presents a striking illustra-
tion of the continual anxiety that must have existed in
the minds of those engaged in the work, and of the fre-
quent calls for energetic and courageous exertion.

"About two o'clock P.M. a great alarm was given throughout the
ship, from the effects of a very heavy sea which struck her, and almost
filled the waist, pouring down into the berths below, through every
chink and crevice of the hatches and skylights. From the motion of
the vessel being thus suddenly deadened or checked, and from the
flowing in of the water above, it is believed there was not an individual
on board who did not think, at the moment, that the vessel had
foundered and was in the act of sinking. The writer could withstand
this no longer, and as soon as she again began to range to the sea, he
determined to make another effort to get upon deck.

u It being impossible to open any of the hatches in the fore part of
the ship in communicating with the deck, the watch was changed by

* Spink's boat was too large to come close to the rock.


passing through the several berths to the companion-stair leading to
the quarter-deck. The writer, therefore, made the best of his way aft,
and on a second attempt to look out, he succeeded, and saw indeed an
astonishing sight. The seas or waves appeared to be ten or fifteen
feet in height of unbroken water, and every approaching billow seemed
as if it would overwhelm our vessel, but she continued to rise upon the
waves, and to fall between the seas in a very wonderful manner. It
seemed to be only those seas which caught her in the act of rising
which struck her with so much violence, and threw such quantities of
water aft. On deck there was only one solitary individual looking

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Online LibraryAlan StevensonBiographical sketch of the late Robert Stevenson : civil engineer → online text (page 1 of 3)