Robert Napier: Father of Clyde shipbuilding

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robert_napierA SHANDON engineer who built the mansion which became Shandon Hydro is still considered by many to be the “father of Clyde shipbuilding”.

Robert Napier was born in Dumbarton in 1791, the second son of a local blacksmith.

After education at Dumbarton Academy and an apprenticeship to his father he left for Edinburgh where he worked for a time for Robert Stevenson the founder of the great dynasty of lighthouse builders.

In 1815 he set up in business as a smith in Glasgow and soon prospered. In 1821 he leased from his cousin David Napier premises at Camlachie and started building mill and ship’s engines.

One of the first of these was the engine for the paddle steamer Leven, built by James Lang at Dumbarton in 1823.

This engine was so successful that it outlasted the Leven and another two ships to which it was fitted and was eventually presented by Napier’s descendants to Dumbarton, where it still remains outside the Scottish Maritime Museum’s Denny Experimental Tank.

By the 1830s Napier was a major engine builder on the Clyde and, apart from work for Scottish owners such as the Dundee Shipping Company, had won an important order from the East India Company for an armed paddle-sloop Berenice.

Napier had earlier submitted a lengthy report to the East India Company on a steamer service between Bombay and Suez — using his experience with the ships and engines he had supplied the Dundee Company for their service from the Tay to the Thames.

He was given control of the whole contract, supplying the engine from his own works and sub-contracting the building of the hull to the shipyard of John Wood at Port Glasgow. Wood had built Henry Bell’s Comet, the Clyde’s first steamship and his yard had the reputation of being the best on the river.

Despite Napier and Wood’s track record there was surprise and controversy about this important contract going to Napier, who was looked down on by the Thames shipbuilders as a mere provincial engineer. However when Berenice proved to outperform her Thames built sister-ship Atalanta the critics were silenced.

Napier’s report and his work on the Berenice brought him to the notice of James C.Melvill, the Secretary of the East India Company, a relationship that was to prove critical in the next stage of Napier’s career.

In 1838 a Canadian businessman, Samuel Cunard, arrived in Britain with the idea of setting up a regular steamer service that could win the British Government’s highly profitable, but highly demanding, Atlantic mail contract.

He consulted James Melvill, who recommended him to contact Robert Napier about his requirements.

Cunard came to Glasgow to explain his needs and his proposals, the details of which had already been approved by the Treasury and the Admiralty, to Napier.

Plans for establishing and maintaining a trans-Atlantic steamer service had been occupying Napier’s mind for a number of years and he gave Cunard the benefit of his thoughts and planning, arguing that four 1150 ton ships, rather than the three 960 ton ships Sam Cunard had asked him to tender for, would be needed to maintain a reliable service throughout the year.

Cunard discussed Napier’s more ambitious ideas with Melvill who advised him that he should follow Napier’s advice as the Scottish engineer was the leading authority on steam navigation and knew far more about it than the Admiralty did.

Cunard, while valuing Napier’s opinion, was worried about the increased cost that would be involved. He was experiencing considerable resistance from English investors, particularly as the ships were to be built in Scotland.

Melvill suggested that Napier could probably also help with fund raising. Cunard came to Scotland again and Napier set to work to raise the money from his Glasgow friends and business associates, investing £6,000 of the £270,00 capital himself.

The British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company — which later became the Cunard Steam Ship Company — was duly floated and Napier designed and oversaw the building of the first four Cunarders:  Acadia, Britannia, Caledonia and Columbia – built by John Wood at Port Glasgow, Robert Duncan at Greenock, Charles Wood at Dumbarton and Robert Steele at Greenock respectively, while his works produced the machinery for these pioneering vessels.

To this day Cunard liners bear the red and black funnel livery given to these four ships by Robert Napier, who had previously used the same colour scheme on various Scottish coastal steamers he owned.

Napier’s first contract for the Admiralty came in 1838 with an order for engines for Vesuvius and Stromboli — the hulls being built in England at the Royal Dockyards in Sheerness and Portsmouth.

Later questioning in Parliament revealed that Napier’s engines had proved to be cheaper and more reliable than those of the rival Thames engineers and thereafter Napier was a regular Admiralty contractor.

By 1841 the growing demand for larger ships and the consequent change to iron construction — a technology that could not be catered for by the traditional yards such as John Wood’s — resulted in Napier establishing his own iron shipbuilding yard at Govan.

From this yard he was to turn out many of the greatest ships of the age, such as the Cunarder Persia in 1855, at that time the world’s largest ship.

A representative of Cunard said at the trial trip of the Persia: “Mr Napier has built forty large vessels for the Company’s lines, and there never had been a fault or a mistake from the starting to the carrying out of any one of them.”

Napier had urged the Admiralty that they should adopt iron construction and in 1843 he won the contract to build the first iron steamers for the Royal Navy  — the gun-vessels Jackal, Lizard and Bloodhound. In 1861 his yard launched the great iron-clad frigate Black Prince, and this 9800-ton ship was the largest ship built on the Clyde to that time.

Part of Napier’s reputation as “the father of Clyde shipbuilding” comes from the pioneering work his yard turned out, but in part also comes from the many leading shipbuilders who worked for him and went on to found their own companies – men like J. & G.Thomson, whose Clydebank yard became better known as John Browns, and John Elder of the Fairfield yard.

By the time of the launch of the warship Buffel in 1868 (more details below) Napier had won for himself an international reputation; he had been made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by Emperor Napoleon III of France, and a Commander of the Order of the Dannebrog by the King of Denmark.

The Danes paid Napier an even higher tribute when they contracted with his yard to build a warship for the Danish Navy, the Rolf Kraké.

In such contracts an arbiter was appointed to settle any disputes that might arise between the builder and the client — the Danish Government had such confidence in Napier’s integrity that they appointed him as sole arbiter in the contract with his own yard.

Despite these foreign honours his own country never recognised him with a knighthood or a decoration.

His work in building ships for the Royal Navy and the great contribution he made to the modernisation of the Navy by taking ambitious and progressive Royal Navy officers into his yard to learn about modern ship-building and engineering was never officially acknowledged.

This official neglect does not seem ever to have greatly disturbed Napier. He had many other compensations — a long and happy marriage, a wide circle of friends, and of course a successful business.

shandon-hydro-wNapier became an extremely wealthy man, building the splendid mansion house at West Shandon on the Gareloch — later to become Shandon Hydropathic Hotel, which was used as a hospital in both world wars and eventually demolished in 1957.

He also built up an art collection which was auctioned after his death for £49,000 — about £2.2 million in current values.

He died in 1876 at the age of 85.  He was buried in the family vault in the Parish Churchyard of Dumbarton and was accompanied to his last resting place by 1,400 of his firm’s workmen.

William Pearce, later of the Fairfield Shipbuilding Company, one of the many leading shipbuilders who had worked for Robert Napier, said that the motto of the Govan yard had always been “Good Work” and questions of time and cost were always subordinated to the key question: “Is this the best?”

James Melvill of the East India Company wrote to Napier in 1856 that he believed that “the best vessels afloat are those with which you have had to do.”

Sadly there is only one vessel still afloat with which Robert Napier “had to do” but anyone visiting the Buffel in Rotterdam will see a fine example of the quality that once made “Clyde built” a by-word around the world and a very tangible link with “the father of Clyde shipbuilding.”

On 10th March 1868 the Buffel, a new warship for the Royal Netherlands Navy, slipped into the waters of the Clyde from Napier’s shipyard.

What makes the Buffel memorable is the fact that she survives as the centrepiece of Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum. That Buffel still is afloat after a career of 140 years is a tribute to the skills of her Govan shipbuilders, the careful restoration she received and the loving care with which she is maintained today.

In 1864 the Dutch Government set up a commission to consider the country’s needs for coastal defence.

As the Dutch shipbuilding industry at this time did not have the technical capacity or experience to build the type of ships the commission considered necessary, the orders for the new ships went to British and French builders; two of them, for the monitor Tijger and the ram turret ship Buffel — the name is Dutch for buffalo — coming to Robert Napier’s yard.

The ram was an ancient form of ship. Before the age of gunpowder the oar-driven galleys of Ancient Greece and Rome had relied on ram bows to smash their opponents.

However with the rise of heavily rigged sailing ships the ram had fallen out of use, the danger of dismasting one’s own ship when ramming an enemy was far too great. Steam propulsion changed all this and gave the ram a new, if fairly short, lease of life.

Although in the 1860s sail had still not disappeared from ocean-going ships the 400 horsepower engines built by Napier and fitted to Buffel would be quite sufficient for her short voyages along the Dutch coast, and on her trials in the Clyde on 10th July 1868 they propelled her at a respectable 13 knots.

Buffel took advantage of all the recent developments in naval technology. She was an ironclad — that is her sides were plated with 6-inch thick armour plate backed by 10 inches of teak timber.

Her main armament was a pair of the latest 12 ton 9.2 inch calibre muzzle-loading Armstrong cannon firing a 300-pound shell — these guns were mounted in a rotating steam-powered turret. Another two smaller guns firing 30-pound shells were mounted on either side of the main deck and of course her bow was formed in the shape of a ram.

Measuring 205 feet in length and 40 feet in beam and with a displacement of around 2,198 tons she was one of the most powerful ships of her size.

The Glasgow Herald in reporting her launch noted that Buffel: “…may be looked upon as a new type of warship, and from her enormous aggressive as well as resisting power, is expected to prove a very formidable foe in actual engagement.

“… she is more heavily armoured than almost any vessel of her size, and she carries the heaviest guns.”

Commissioned into the Royal Netherlands Navy on 23rd July she steamed from the Clyde to take up her station at the main Dutch naval base of Den Helder.

Buffel was never called upon to go to war and with fast-changing technical developments in shipbuilding, engineering, and naval warfare, she was considered obsolete by the 1890s and converted in 1896 to serve as an accommodation ship at the Dutch naval base of Hellevoetsluis.

Her engines and armour were removed and for almost eighty years she served in this role for various sections of the Royal Netherlands Navy.

napiers_buffelEventually in 1974, at the age of 105, she was finally declared surplus to the Navy’s needs: fortunately she was acquired by the City of Rotterdam and found a permanent home in the maritime museum in the centre of Rotterdam.

Here she was lovingly restored and now is open to visitors who can see areas of Buffel as they were when she left the Clyde in 1868 and other areas restored to represent her career as an accommodation vessel from 1896 to 1974.

The officers cabins, wardroom and captain’s quarters have all been carefully restored to their original condition and give a fine impression of the excellent workmanship that Napier’s yard produced.

Buffel is indeed a testament to Robert Napier’s insistence on quality above all things, a policy which he expressed in a letter to Samuel Cunard when discussing the engines for the first Cunarders in 1839: “I cannot and will not admit of anything being done or introduced into these engines but what I am satisfied with is sound and good.”

  • This is an edited version of an article by the late Brian D.Osborne and is reprinted on this website by kind permission of the author’s father, Malcolm Osborne.