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A guest post by LH Member Laurence Scales. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter April 2022.

Three major engineering achievements in London around 1800 (I’m deliberately stopping short of the Brunels) were the Albion Mills for grinding flour, the mass production of paper, and the construction of the West India Docks. I shall not chart these projects in detail but, instead, the long road by which Britain raised engineers capable of such ‘undertakings of magnitude and novelty’ (a phrase from Thomas Telford).

Drawn by its rich metal ores, the Romans invaded Britain. Frontinus, Roman governor of Britain, who likely passed through Londinium, wrote a work on land surveying, one profession from which civil engineering developed. After leaving Britain, he was put in charge of Rome’s aqueducts. On that matter he wrote:
‘With such an array of indispensable structures carrying so many waters, compare, if you will, the idle Pyramids or the useless, though famous, works of the Greeks!’

We now take for granted living in a governable country in which large projects like aqueducts are possible. For that reason Medieval times are not known for aqueducts. But harnessing water power was a triumph of the supposedly backward Medieval period. Across the Roman Empire, watermills were a great rarity. The Domesday Book of 1086 records thousands of mills across Britain, all watermills at that time. Many mills were located then in the London periphery along the Lea and Wandle rivers.

The Medievals built bridges and castles, and we have some of their ‘useless, though famous, works,’ the cathedrals. Cathedrals were carefully proportioned, but not from any scientific knowledge, and many collapsed. Ailnolth, who worked at the Tower of London, became known as ‘ingeniator’, ancestor of our word engineer, though not known for any feats. Then, engineering was primarily a military discipline, as much demolition as construction.

Protestant Reformation in the early 16th Century set northern Europe on its distinctive and industrialising course. Protestantism started to seep into England after Henry VIII assumed authority over the church. It fostered literacy and appealed to, and encouraged, society’s strivers among whom we can count engineers. Watt, Rennie, Jessop, Donkin and others would emerge from the yeoman middle class which began to expand from Henry’s reign. However, as Victorian author, Samuel Smiles, observed:
‘The educated classes eschewed mechanical callings which were neither regarded as honourable nor remunerative…’

Luckily, engineers were only needed in small numbers until the ‘industrial revolution’. Professional engineers now outnumber their peers in the law, medicine and architecture although you would never think so from the daily news.

To help defend against a Catholic crusade against him, Henry imported foreign engineers. Stefan von Haschenperg built fortifications and brought mechanical and chemical knowledge. Italians helped Henry to build up his navy at new shipyards on the Thames. German metalworkers bolstered both armoury and arsenal. Englishmen began to pick up skills from Henry’s imports.

The 16th Century also saw European trade swell in the Atlantic, benefiting well placed port cities such as London. Dr John Dee imported surveying and navigational instruments and imparted new know-how he garnered from continental Europe. Instruments began to be made in London, notably by Humphrey Cole. Over centuries instrument makers would absorb a peck of science along with their filing and sawing.

English books appeared on surveying. Civil engineering in Britain arose as a temporary or contingent occupation, tacked on to surveying. Frontinus’ successors, Edmund Colthurst and Edward Pond, surveyed a gently sloping and even course for a ‘New River’, which has supplied water to London since 1613.


The New River.

Italy (with Galileo), France (with Descartes) and Britain (with Sir Francis Bacon) can together be credited for inventing modern science in the early 17th Century. Most ‘scientists’, including these and until Victorian times, were motivated by their religious devotion. Arabs and then the Roman Church kept the knowledge from ancient Greece alive until such time as it could be built upon. However, Bacon reacted against the stale scholastic education he received at Cambridge (that is, Christian orthodoxy coupled with Aristotle’s natural philosophy) after which Protestant Britain took advantage of her relative intellectual freedom by questioning received wisdom and starting to bank new knowledge.

After a similarly stultifying education, Isaac Newton, working in Bacon’s, Descartes’ and Galileo’s wake, set down some of the main pillars of modern engineering: laws of motion, a law of cooling, and fluxions (which sounds like a bowel disorder but was his name for calculus, the mathematical analysis of curves).

Newton’s bane and brilliant contemporary, Robert Hooke, discovered the law of springs or elasticity, though it was only picked up by structural engineers in the 19th Century. Hooke assisted in the design of St Paul’s Cathedral with his discovery that the appropriate form for an unsupported dome (to avoid it cracking apart) was for it to have a section like a hanging chain. That is not a hemisphere, but a curve called a catenary which he could only imitate, not describe with mathematical precision.

After Newton, pure physics and mathematics languished in Britain. Continental savants were prolific with ideas but they by-passed engineers. However the practical career engineer became more prominent. London was not just built on trade (yes, including the slave trade) but also fueled by shiploads of Newcastle coal. London’s growth was thus never limited by increasing deforestation. But, in 1707, the River Thames burst through a sluice at Dagenham. As nothing effective was done the breach was soon enlarged by the tide, and the soil thus eroded formed shoals, endangering London’s river trade. After a battle, in which new earthworks were continually washed away, the bank was repaired in 1719 by Captain John Perry, for which service he was neither properly recompensed nor honoured. The source of his expertise is unclear but he had previously built canals in Russia.


Thames Estuary.

Aftershocks of the Reformation included the banishment of Huguenots from France, many of whom came to England. John Theophilus Desaguliers arrived in London in 1692 as a child. Desaguliers lectured lucidly upon the new knowledge from Newton (whose Principia was abstruse) and published volumes on his experimental philosophy. Other popularisers followed, their efforts exciting and helping the brightest craftsmen to advance themselves. Understanding force and motion began to enter the British engineers’ skillset. One of Desaguliers’ pupils, from another Huguenot family, Charles Labelye, designed and built the first Westminster Bridge (1750) which owed something to the scientific principles he had learnt. Labelye also used Huguenot James Valoue’s horse-powered pile driver. But the foreigner Labelye was abused rather than honoured and eventually left the country.

The 17th Century saw aristocratic power curbed, and the rule of law strengthened, fostering a climate in which British inventors, engineers and investors might more confidently benefit by their various contributions. In France, poverty, patronage and state control of industry retarded technological development. 18th Century France had magnificently engineered roads and canals, but few manufactured goods to transport over them.

Steam power for draining mines came from military engineer Thomas Savery, who lived off Fleet Street. His was a crude contraption for siphoning up water. Savery varied the explanation behind his invention patented in 1698. One story had his inspiration coming from washing a tobacco pipe while it was still hot. His ‘miner’s friend’ continued a century in use. This was despite the appearance c.1712 of Newcomen’s radically different engine. That had first to be used under Savery’s patent because, as far as law was concerned, they were both ‘fire engines’. Newcomen’s engine helped to keep London in coal, and thriving.

In 1763, Yorkshireman John Smeaton (1724–1792), based at Gray’s Inn, was among the first to be styled ‘civil engineer’. Young Smeaton abandoned the law to train himself as a scientific instrument maker (luckily for him there was no such guild before 1956 to compel apprenticeship). With little else behind him but the good opinion of London’s Royal Society to which he had contributed papers, Smeaton was engaged to rebuild the Eddystone Lighthouse off Plymouth Sound, completed in 1759. In the course of its construction Smeaton reinvented concrete able to set underwater.

German physicist Lichtenberg wrote in 1770 that his English host ‘could scarcely find words to describe what wretched people English artificers generally were in matters of theory.’ There were exceptions. In 1759, Smeaton brought science to the watermill and greatly increased their efficiency. All over the country mills were revamped to drive more or heavier machinery. It brought Smeaton, and ordinary millwrights, plenty of work. For this reason steam and water power long overlapped.

Decades passed before James Watt superseded Newcomen’s engine, working in Glasgow and Birmingham. Watt, a Scot, learnt his trade of scientific instrument making in London. By virtue of its size, London became a significant early user of steam engines. Rather than the concentration of textile mills normally associated with the industrial revolution, London had many industries, especially brewing and distilling, which invited mechanisation. It had little water power. By 1804 London had four times as many steam engines as Manchester.

The Albion Mills (1786), south of Blackfriars Bridge, was a London showpiece for Watt. Erected by another Scot, John Rennie (1761–1821), it is now more famous for fire that destroyed it. (Although millwrights had no guild Rennie initially faced a ‘closed shop’ working in London). Very unusually, Rennie attended university classes while starting out as a millwright. He combined theory with practical skill. Instead of peg teeth, for smooth running, the Albion’s gear teeth ‘both wooden and iron, were accurately formed by chipping and filing to the form of epicycloids.’


Millwrights were versatile. To John Hall, a millwright in Kent, was brought a French invention in model form, for making paper more cheaply, continuously in rolls. There was no future for it in revolutionary France. The man who wrestled it into production was Hall’s apprentice, Bryan Donkin (1768–1855), who set up an engineering works in Bermondsey, backed by the Fourdriniers, London stationers. He installed the machine at Frogmore watermill in 1804 where you can still see papermaking today. Like Rennie, he developed into a consulting engineer. This yeoman engineer, made possible the 19th Century explosion of literature, textbooks and journalism.


Paper making machine. Wellcome Images.

Assisting Smeaton at Plymouth was quartermaster Josias Jessop. His son William was thirteen at the time the new lighthouse was lit and he became Smeaton’s apprentice. William Jessop (1745–1814) went on to construct the West India Docks (1802), London’s first walled commercial dock, among the greatest construction projects of its time, and according to The Times ‘an object of beauty and astonishment’.

As Britain entered the 19th century it was about to become the workshop of the world. But it had almost nothing to compare with France either in the way of engineering schools, or natural philosophers (scientists) interested in practical problems. What it did have, and you may not have met this argument before, was a relatively socially mobile society. People could sometimes rise by their own talents. It also had a coal fuelled economic powerhouse called London.

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