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Autobiography of Sir John Rennie, F.R.S., Past President of the Institute of Civil Engineers Comprising the history of his professional life, together with reminiscences dating from the commencement of the century to the present time.

Autobiography of Sir John Rennie, F.R.S., Past President of the Institute of Civil Engineers
Comprising the history of his professional life, together with reminiscences dating from the commencement of the century to the present time.
Title: Autobiography of Sir John Rennie, F.R.S., Past President of the Institute of Civil Engineers Comprising the history of his professional life, together with reminiscences dating from the commencement of the century to the present time.
Release Date: 2017-03-12
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Portrait of Sir John Rennie




Logo of E. & F. N. Spon





The following Autobiography was written by Sir JohnRennie in 1867, shortly after he had retired from theactive duties of his profession. As will be perceivedin the sequel, it was composed wholly from memory.Sir John was subsequently unable to revise it as hewould have desired, and it has since been found impossibleto do so. Nevertheless it is believed that but fewsubstantial errors will be found; while the kindlinesswith which the autobiographer invariably speaks ofevery person with whom he came in contact, is a guaranteethat there can be nothing to offend the mostsensitive person, or which might tend to injure thejust claims and reputations of others. It is now presentedto the public in its original state, having undergonemerely some necessary correction, in the hope thatthe memoirs of the man who was perhaps unrivalledin his branch of the profession—and which comprisevaluable hints as to the neglected art of hydraulics, aswell as advice to engineers commencing their career,[vi]the result of the experience of a lifetime of no ordinaryduration—together with the reminiscences of one whohad seen much both of men and things,

“Qui mores hominum multorum vidit et urbes,”

may not be unacceptable either to the profession or theworld 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
[viii]CHAPTER V.
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—Commencementof Waterloo and Southwark Bridges—Anecdotesof Mr. Ferguson, of Pitfour—The Stockton andDarlington Railway and Surveys between Port Patrick andDonaghadee—Account of the mode of erecting the archesof Southwark Bridge—Journey to the Continent and Fieldof Waterloo—Account of the building of Waterloo Bridge—Itis 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 taughtmy letters at home, I was sent to the care of Dr. Greenlaw,who kept a boys’ school at Isleworth. It was alarge house, formerly belonging to the Bishop ofLondon. To the house were attached excellent gardensand playground. The situation, moreover, was openand healthy, and the total number of boys was aboutfifty, ranging from eight to sixteen years of age. Theywere well fed and taken care of by the Doctor’s excellentwife, and his sister-in-law, Miss Hodgkins. The Doctor’seldest daughter, Miss Greenlaw, taught the youngestboys their letters; whilst the Doctor and his assistantsdevoted themselves to the education of the others,which education consisted chiefly of classics, writing,arithmetic, French, and occasionally geography and theelements of astronomy. During the time that I wasthere the most remarkable scholar was the celebrated[2]poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was then about twelveor thirteen (as far as I can remember), and even at thatearly age exhibited considerable poetical talent, accompaniedby a violent and extremely excitable temper,which manifested itself in all kinds of eccentricities.His figure was of the middle size, although slight, butwell made. His head was well proportioned, and coveredwith 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 countenancerather effeminate, but exceedingly animated.The least circumstance that thwarted him produced themost violent paroxysms of rage; and when irritated byother boys, which they, knowing his infirmity, frequentlydid by way of teasing him, he would takeup anything, or even any little boy near him, tothrow at his tormentors. His imagination was alwaysroving upon something romantic and extraordinary,such as spirits, fairies, fighting, volcanoes, &c., and henot unfrequently astonished his schoolfellows by blowingup the boundary palings of the playground withgunpowder, also the lid of his desk in the middle ofschooltime, to the great surprise of Dr. Greenlaw himselfand the whole school. In fact, at times he wasconsidered to be almost upon the borders of insanity;yet with all this, when treated with kindness, he wasvery amiable, noble, high-spirited, and generous;he used to write verse, English and Latin, with considerablefacility, and attained a high position in theschool before he left for Eton, where, I understand, hewas equally, if not more, extraordinary and eccentric.

Cotemporary with Shelley there was another peculiarcharacter, named Tredcroft, from the same county, viz.Sussex; he also had considerable poetical talent, butunfortunately lost his health, and ultimately, I understand,died completely imbecile at an early age. Iremained at this school until the year 1807, by which[3]time I had acquired a tolerable knowledge of the Greekand Latin classics, and arithmetic as far as vulgarfractions and decimals. I was then sent to the celebratedDr. Burney’s, at Greenwich, where there wereabout 100 boys, varying from ten to eighteen.

Dr. Charles Burney was considered one of the bestGreek and Latin scholars of the day, and was the intimatefriend of Porson and numerous other literary celebrities.His school was therefore very highly esteemedfor classics, but for little or nothing else; for although acertain quantity of arithmetic and the elements of algebraand geometry were taught, yet these were quite secondaryto the classics.

I therefore made little further progress in anythingbut classics, in which I became a tolerable proficient,and had Homer, Thucydides, Euripides, Sophocles,Virgil, Horace, &c., at my fingers’ ends, whilst I couldscarcely demonstrate the Pons asinorum of Euclid; infact, in those days a knowledge of Greek and Latin wasconsidered as including everything else, and anythinglike a science or physics was considered of secondaryconsequence. I made the acquaintance of two men,who afterwards much distinguished themselves by theirscientific acquirements, namely, the late Herbert Mayo,the well-known surgeon and physiologist; also the lateSir George Everest, the scientific Director of the TriangularSurvey of India; and Dr. Milman, late Dean ofSt. Paul’s. Dr. Burney’s school was by no means sowell managed as that of Dr. Greenlaw in everythingwhich regarded the comfort of the boys, neither werethey so well fed or looked after, and it was a greatrelief to me when I left the school in 1809.

It then became a question with my father whether Ishould go to Oxford or Cambridge, or whether I shouldfinish my education at home, under the superintendenceof proper masters. About this period, and ever since theyear 1802, there was nothing but war heard or talked[4]of all over the world. The whole country was as itwere turned into a camp; every man capable of bearingarms became a volunteer, and at school even we wereregularly drilled to the use of arms; and I was soexcited by the extraordinary victories of Nelson andthe early career of Wellington that I determined toenter the army, but to this my father was decidedlyopposed, as he wished to bring me up to his ownprofession. I was therefore reluctantly obliged to giveup all idea of the military profession and follow thatof a civil engineer; and my father wisely determinedthat I should go through all the gradations, both practicaland theoretical, which could not be done if I wentto the University, as the practical part, which he consideredmost important, must be abandoned; for, hesaid, after a young man has been three or four years atthe University of Oxford or Cambridge, he cannot,without much difficulty, turn himself to the practicalpart of civil engineering. All idea, therefore, of mygoing to Cambridge or Oxford was given up. Myfather at that period had one department of his businessexclusively devoted to practical mechanics, that is, tothe making of machinery of all kinds; this department,although it formed by no means the principal partof his profession, nevertheless enabled him to makeexperiments which were of great value in the otherdepartments of his business, and was by no meansunprofitable, as the importance of machinery andmechanical contrivances was then to a certain extentappreciated, and was daily becoming more so. Myfather always said that theoretical and practical mechanicswere the true foundations of all civil engineering;and he therefore insisted that as I had to a certainextent learned the theoretical, so I must now learn thepractical part. I was therefore sent into the mechanicaldepartment, and commenced work planing and sawingboards, making patterns, and other similar works.[5]After this I was put to turning both wood and

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