The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding
Brian D. Osborne
(Printed, 1991, by Dumbarton District Libraries, Dumbarton, Scotland)Robert Napier, the man often described as ‘the father of Clyde shipbuilding”, was born on 21st June 1791, to James and Jean Napier, in their home in Walker’s Close in the High Street of Dumbarton. The boy grew up to become one of the great Victorian industrialists and to do more than any other man of his age to make the Clyde the world’s pre-eminent shipbuilding river. James Napier came from an established Dumbarton family of engineers, blacksmiths and mill-wrights; he and his brother John were in partnership locally, while a third brother, Robert, left to become blacksmith to the Duke of Argyll at Inveraray. James, John and Robert’s mother was Jean Denny, from another Dumbarton family destined to achieve fame as shipbuilders and engineers.
The firm did mill-wright work for the textile industry of the Vale of Leven and sub-contract finishing work on cannon cast at the Clyde Iron Works. The Napiers’ works boasted two steam engines, one a Newcomen type used to power a boring mill. Robert was born into a prosperous family business at a time when the effects of the Industrial Revolution were becoming increasingly evident – as demonstrated by the Newcomen engine. His childhood and apprenticeship almost exactly coincide with the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Wartime demand for munitions and equipment increased the prosperity of firms such as the Napiers up and down the land.
Robert was sent to the Burgh School where, in addition to the regular curriculum, he had lessons in drawing, a course of study whose long term effects were perhaps seen in his later interest in painting and the fine arts. His father had hoped Robert would enter the ministry of the Church of Scotland but the boy’s interests lay in the family business and the chance of a university education went to his younger brother Peter, who became Minister of Blackfriars Church in Glasgow. At sixteen Robert became apprenticed to his father. At first no formal indenture was signed but near capture in a raid on Dumbarton by a Navy press-gang led, two years after he started work, to a contract being drawn up – an indentured apprentice being exempt from forced conscription.
His five year apprenticeship complete Robert worked on for a time in Dumbarton as a Journeyman with his father but then moved to Edinburgh to gain wider experience. After a difficult start, when, in his own graphic phrase: … he had often to count the lamp-posts for his supper, he secured a position with Robert Stevenson, the founder of another dynasty of famous engineers, the engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board and famed as the builder of the Bell Rock lighthouse.
In 1815 he went into business on his own account. Borrowing £50 from his father, he rented premises in Greyfriar’s Wynd off the High Street of Glasgow and took on two apprentices. On 21st August he was admitted as a Burgess of Glasgow and four days later entered the body which regulated the city’s engineering trades, The Incorporation of Hammermen – as the Register records: Robert Napier, Smith in Glasgow, a Freeman’s son, made and gave in a Bored Hammer as his Essay, and showed his burgess ticket …
He was not the first Napier with a Glasgow connection as the Register shows, his father was a Freeman and his uncle John had in 1802 set up business near Jamaica Street. Robert soon became active in the affairs of the Hammermen, becoming Collector in 1818 and Deacon in 1820. In 1818 he married his cousin Isabella, John Napier’s daughter and moved to a house in Weaver Street near Glasgow Cathedral. His work in these first years was varied – in the early 1820’s he had a contract to manufacture pipes for a Glasgow waterworks scheme and produced a 12 h.p. steam engine for a Dundee mill.
This last was useful experience for his entry into the field of marine steam engines which came in 1823 – just eleven years after Henry Bell’s “Comet” had sailed down the Clyde to revolutionise maritime transport. Napier always acknowledged Henry Bell’s pioneering efforts; in 1826 he, with the other leading Clyde engineers signed a testimonial to the part Bell had played in the development of steam navigation. In 1851 he erected a statue of the pioneer in Rhu churchyard and in 1872 was a major contributor to the cost of erecting the Bell Monument in West Clyde Street, Helensburgh.
Robert’s local connections undoubtedly helped him to win, from the Dumbarton ship-builder and shipowner James Lang, the engine contract for the “Leven” steamer. This may have been Napier’s first marine engine but it was a good one – so good that it was later fitted to another ship, “Queen of Beauty” and later presented to Dumbarton by Napier’s heirs. This remarkable relic of the first days of steam still survives and has now found an appropriate resting place outside the former Denny Ship Model Experiment Tank. The ” Leven” engine was built at Robert’s new premises at Camlachie Foundry which he had leased in 1821 from his cousin (and brother-in-law) David.
In 1827 a light-hearted event proved to have profound implications for Napier’s career. The Northern Yacht Club at their August Regatta promoted a steamboat race for a twenty guinea cup. The Clyde’s crack boats competed but the two fastest vessels proved to be the Napier engined “Clarence” and “Helensburgh”, a success which greatly enhanced Napier’s reputation. In 1828 Robert established the Vulcan Foundry in Glasgow’s Washington Street and his order book continued to grow. Not the least of Napier’s contributions to Clyde shipbuilding were the many leading shipbuilders and engineers who trained under him or who were, at a formative stage in their careers, employed by him. For example James Thomson was employed as Napier’s leading smith in 1828 and later went on with his brother George (also an ex-Napier employee) to found the Clydebank shipyard of j & G Thomson, which is probably better known by its later name of John Brown & Company, and many other Clydeside yards were run by old Napier men.
By the early 1830’s Napier had become a figure of note in engineering circles and was being consulted on the possibilities of a steamship service from Liverpool to New York. An expanding workload persuaded him to lease, in 1836, David Napier’s Lancefield Works. Robert had previously specialised in building engines for coastal steamers but 1835 saw an important contract from the East India Company to engine their ocean-going paddle sloop “Berenice”. English engineers criticised this major contract going to a provincial builder. When, however, “Berenice” beat her Thames built consort “Atlanta” by 18 days on their maiden passages to India the critics were answered.
Robert’s greatest contribution to international shipping came through his work for Samuel Cunard. Cunard, a Canadian business-man and shipowner, planned a regular transatlantic liner service with an eye to the valuable Government mail contract and came to England early in 1839 to open up negotiations. Despite warnings from London and Liverpool interests, suspicious of the developing Clyde shipbuilding industry, Cunard decided to come to Scotland for his ships. Napier had given much thought to a transatlantic service and so was soon able to produce specifications for the planned 800 ton, 300 h.p. ships. He however soon convinced Cunard that larger and more powerful ships would meet his needs better, offering to cut his profit in order to get Cunard to invest in the bigger vessels.
In fact the three 375 h.p. 960 ton ships contracted for were never built. As a result of changed Government requirements and pressure from Napier, who as always detested the idea of a sub-standard job: … I cannot and will not admit of anything into these engines but what … is sound and good the contract eventually provided for four 420hp 1150 ton ships one of which, the “Caledonia”, was built in Dumbarton at Charles Wood’s premises at the Dockyard.
The extra ship and the increase in size raised Cunard’s costs and there was little evidence of support from English investors. Napier, with a group of Glasgow friends and business partners, was able to float the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Coy. (which later became the Cunard Steam Ship Coy. Ltd.) with Samuel Cunard as the main shareholder, Napier himself investing £6100 of the initial capital of £270,000. Establishing this great shipping company was no easy task – the mail contract might be lucrative but the penalty clauses for delay were severe. It was largely Napier’s reputation and his proven ability to provide reliable and powerful engines which persuaded his fellow Glaswegians to invest in Cunard’s high-risk venture.
As significant as the Cunard connection was Napier’s first Admiralty contract. This came in 1838 and was for engines for the paddle sloops “Vesuvius” and “Stromboli”. Ordering these engines from Clydeside (the ships being built at Sheerness and Portsmouth respectively) was a radical departure for a highly conservative Admiralty. In any case still somewhat suspicious of steam-ships, they preferred dealing with the Thames-side builders and engineers. Despite the success of the Napier-built engines the Admiralty reverted to their usual suppliers and did not place further orders in Glasgow. Some official embarrassment was doubtless caused by a Parliamentary Question, asking for original costs, costs of repairs and time out of commission for steam vessels ordered between 1839 and 1843. The reply proved Napier’s engines to be cheaper and more reliable than those from the English yards. Thereafter Napier was a regular Admiralty contractor!
Up to 1841 Napier had been solely an engine builder, although often acting as a contract manager for his clients; the hull contracts very often going to John Wood at Port Glasgow. Wood was however solely a builder of wooden ships and the demand for iron construction was growing fast. Napier took steps to expand his company to meet these new challenges; his brother James left a partnership with their cousin William to join Robert, who exercised his option to buy Lancefield. Later that year he bought land and established his own iron shipbuilding yard at Govan. In 1842 his company was strengthened by appointing his talented kinsman William Denny (II) as … draftsman, modeller and inspector … and to give instruction to your sons regarding drafting and building of vessels.
The new yard, whose first launch came in June 1843 with the aptly named “Vanguard” for the Dublin & Glasgow Steam Packet Coy., was soon busy with the contract for the Royal Navy’s first iron steamers, the gun-vessels “Jackal”, “Lizard” and “Bloodhound”. Napier’s connection with the Navy was not confined to building its ships. The Navy was adjusting, with difficulties, to the new age of steam but lacked facilities to train its officers in engineering. Napier was asked to allow the attachment of naval officers to his yard to learn something of the vessels they would be serving in.
Napier’s record of achievements is remarkable. In 1849 he built “Leviathan”, the world’s first train ferry, for the North British Railway’s service from Granton to Burntisland. When the beautiful Cunarder “Persia” was launched in 1854 she was the world’s largest ship. The ironclad “Black Prince” launched from Govan in 1861 was, at 9800 tons, the largest ship built on the Clyde to that time.
His fame and reputation was now international. A juror at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition in 1851 he served in a similar capacity at the Paris Exhibition of 1855 and was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion D’Honneur by Napoleon III. In 1863 he became President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Although by the late 1860’s he had largely retired he still maintained his overseas links. In 1867 Napoleon III appointed him a Royal Commissioner at the Paris Exhibition and he was presented to the Empress Eugenie. Napier was consulted and respected by Governments all over Europe. He received high honours from France and Denmark but not from his own country. The British Government, which Napier had served so well in the modernisation of the Navy and the training of its officers, never honoured him. Quite why is unclear. Perhaps he had made himself unpopular in his earlier days by his forthright and independent attitude and the efforts of supporters to prove the superiority of his products had doubtless proved irritating to some vested interests.
There is no evidence that Napier was upset by this lack of official recognition. He had many other compensations; a long and happy marriage, the success of his business, the respect of his peers. He was also a keen art collector and his home, West Shandon, housed a remarkable collection of paintings, furniture, porcelain etc. In 1833 he had bought land by the Gareloch to build a cottage but later decided to build an imposing mansion capable of housing this art collection and designed to his tastes by the Glasgow architect John Thomas Rochead. After his death the house sold for £37,500. The art collection, which included old masters of the Dutch, French and Italian schools as well as work by nineteenth century artists like Raeburn and Horatio McCulloch realised £49,000, a figure which needs to be multiplied some 25 to 30 times to translate to present day values. West Shandon was completed by 1852 and many visitors to the area were welcomed there by the tall, distinguished figure of Robert Napier. It was his custom, unusual to the point of eccentricity in the formal Victorian era, to greet all his female visitors with a “Shandon salute” – a kiss on the cheek. This courtesy he even made so bold as to extend to Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, who visited him in 1871 after her marriage to the Marquess of Lorne (later the 9th Duke of Argyll). The Princess was, it is reported, amused rather than offended by the old man’s gallantry.
His wife Isabella died in 1875 after a marriage of 57 years. Napier’s grief was profound and he lost interest in his usual pursuits. Shortly afterwards he suffered a serious illness from which he made only a partial recovery and on 23rd June 1876 died at West Shandon aged 85.
He was buried in the family vault in the Parish Churchyard of Dumbarton. The body came by road from Shandon by the Gareloch, where ships at anchor flew their flags at half mast, through Helensburgh, where the streets were lined and the bells of the three town churches tolled for an hour. Fourteen hundred of his firm’s workmen came from Glasgow and Govan by special train to Dalreoch and accompanied the coffin for the last mile to its burying place.
An obituary in the ‘Glasgow Herald” summed up Napier’s character well: The value of a life like that of Robert Napier is its great earnestness and singleness of purpose. He might have become a rich man much sooner than he did if he had scamped his work and had only pecuniary results in view. These he utterly disregarded. He was a poor financier, but he was a noble workman, with a soul above money and meanness in all its forms.
One might dispute whether he was in fact so poor a financier as the writer suggests. His estate which included the shipyard and large property interests in Glasgow and shareholdings in a various other industrial concerns realised well over £400,000 – or perhaps £10 to 12 million in today’s values. That he was a noble workman cannot be denied. Sir James Melvill of the East India Company wrote to Napier in 1856 and told him that he was: … the man who, above all other living men, was given practical effect to the inventions of Watt, and has passed to the world the great blessing of steam navigation. I in my conscience believe that the best vessels afloat are those with which you have had to do.
By his pioneering efforts, his noted insistence on quality and good workmanship, his technical innovation, and his encouragement of many of the leading shipbuilders and engineers of his day and of the next generation, Robert Napier did more than any other to establish the Clyde’s world-wide reputation and may indeed with justice be called “the father of Clyde shipbuilding.”
Copyright ©1991 Brian D. Osborne
[With thanks to Mr Brian D. Osborne for his permission to reproduce this article]