Thursday, 15 March 2012

William Jessops

It may have been noted that I am rather fond of engineering. Indeed, the heavier the engineering - whether planes, trains, bridges, tunnels etc - the better. Given this, it is strange that I went into computer software, where the engineering is as light as it is possible to get. But my love of engineering  - and especially civil engineering - has continued unabated.

In 1992 I found a copy of Samuel Smiles' 'The lives of the Engineers' in the university library. If you wish to read this excellent book, then it is available for download from the Guttenberg Project. The book, written in 1862, describes the lives of the great early Victorian engineers. I read it, rapt at the descriptions of the great men and their equally great works. Many of the names were familiar to me, but there was one sad exclusion: William Jessop was only mentioned in three places. Indeed, the great engineers of the canal age were sadly forgotten in Smiles' fascinating project.

Many of the great names of the canal-building era (spanning from the opening of the Bridgewater Canal in 1761 to about 1840) are well-known: John Smeaton for his pioneering lighthouse on Eddystone Rock, now rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe; James Brindley, responsible for the Bridgewater, the Trent and Mersey and other canals; and Thomas Telford, whose fame is such that a town was named after him.

Yet arguably the most influential canal engineer, and one who was at his best at the height of the canal mania in the 1790s, was William Jessops. Born in Devonport in 1745, at the age of 16 he started work for the famous engineer John Smeaton. Soon the pupil overshadowed his tutor, although the two remained close until Smeaton's death.

Unlike many engineers he was keen to try new technologies; he was a pioneer in ironworking and was responsible for several early cast-iron aqueducts. He was also not entirely wedded to canals and often recommended the construction of plateways (a form of early railways) where canals were impractical.

Rather than give an in-depth description of his life, it is perhaps best to list some of the works with which he was involved to a large degree:

  • Grand Junction Canal
  • Grantham Canal
  • Nottingham Canal
  • Cromford Canal
  • Caledonian Canal
  • Grand Canal of Ireland
  • The West India Docks
  • Bristol Floating Harbour
  • Surrey Iron Railway

He was also responsible for a multitude of harbour and drainage works; he was a master at the manipulation of water. Much of the design of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (routinely attributed to Telford) was performed by Jessop, who oversaw the younger man's work.

He also jointly started one of my favourite Victorian companies - Butterley Engineering, a steelwork company that sadly went into administration in 2009, over 200 years after it was founded. Butterley made the grand spans of the overall roof at St Pancras, and the company's stamps can still be seen on the ironwork. More recently they made the steelwork for the Falkirk Wheel and the Spinnaker Tower.

In addition, he was held in such high regard that he was often called to parliament to give his judgement on schemes proposed by various other engineers, and investors would call on him to inspect plans drawn up by others.

To become a great engineer you need to be a self-publicist; both Brunel and Telford were excellent at this part of their work. Jessop, however, was not - his family did not allow his personal papers to be used and no biography of him was written for decades. For this reason works that he deserves major credit for - such as the Caledonian Canal - are routinely credited to others, such as Telford.

Part of the problem is that he had his fingers in so many pies that he often had to let more junior engineers perform the actual construction. The same is true of other engineers such as Brunel, but they were better at making sure that they got the credit for the resulting works.

Wherever you go in Britain you come across his works: from the Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen in Scotland to the docks that lie in the shadow of Canary Wharf. What is more, his capability to swap between water and iron, canals and railways, helped set the foundation of the railway revolution of the 1830s.

He deserves more recognition.

1 comment:

Alan R said...

Very interesting David. Thanks for that.