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The Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon
Chapter X. Iron Shipbuilding

Regular ocean navigation was now becoming universal over the world, and companies such as the Royal Mail Company, the Pacific Company, the P. & 0. Company, and others, rapidly came into existence to exploit the several routes.

Following on the Cunard boats Napier constructed a very fine steamer for the Eastern trade called the Precursor, which was acquired by the P. & 0. Company. She cost over £65,000 sterling, which was the largest sum lie had as yet received for a steam-ship.

Hitherto he had given out the hulls of his steamers, placing most of them with his friend Mr John Wood. Troubles, however, were experienced with sub-contractors, and it was also found to be practically impossible to construct wooden vessels that would keep their shape when driven by engines of large power.

To meet these difficulties, and keep abreast of the time, he resolved to add iron shipbuilding to his business, and, with this purpose in view, in 1841 he purchased some acres of ground at Go van, which he fixed on as the most suitable site.

He had been very fortunate in his choice of Mr Elder as manager of his Engine-Works, but as Elder knew little or nothing of shipbuilding except from an engineering point of view, a suitable naval architect had to be found. He was again happy in his selection of his kinsman, Mr William Denny of Dumbarton, to fill this position, as he had the reputation of being one of the best ship - designers of his time. The terms of the agreement entered into are set forth in Mr Denny’s letter of 1st November 1842, which is countersigned by Mr Napier.

Glasgow, lsf November 1842.

Mr R. Napier,—

Sir,—I hereby offer to serve you as a draftsman, modeller, and inspector of any steam-vessels, either of iron or wood, that you may have at any time to build or repair, and to give instruction to your sons regarding drafting and building of vessels.

In a word, I agree to give you the whole of my personal services for three years on being paid by you for the first year at the rate of £150 per annum and £10 of premium for every new vessel that is built and completed under my direction and according to your instructions. For the second year, I am to receive at the rate of £175

per annum and £10 of premium on each vessel built under my superintendence. In the third year, I am to receive at the rate of £200 and £10 for each vessel built under my superintendence for you. I am to be at liberty to complete my present engagement to Messrs Coats & Young, and visit Belfast once each six weeks till the vessel is built, &c. This agreement to be extended by Mr Moncrieff.    William Denny.

R. Napier.

It is specially to be noted that one of Mr Denny’s duties was to instruct Mr Napier’s sons in the art of shipbuilding, and when a few years later he left to found the firm of Messrs William Denny & Brothers, his pupil, Mr James R. Napier, took charge of the yard.

Thus equipped, Napier started to build his first iron vessel, the Vanguard. She was a paddle-steamer of about 700 tons register. In her construction Elder considered that it was impossible to make substantial work with ordinary riveting, so he bored the keel-plates and put in charcoal iron bolts, carefully turned and fitted to the holes and riveted cold. With workmanship of such a high order, and with a graceful form such as Mr Denny always imparted to his models, success was certain, and the vessel was universally admired.

She was launched on 29th June 1843, and at once orders followed in quick succession for similar vessels, the various companies engaged in the Channel trades abandoning wood and going in for iron steamers. As evidencing the satisfaction which his iron vessels gave, we quote a letter received from the Chairman of the Dundalk Steam-Packet Company, whose steamer Dundalk closely followed the Vanguard.

February 22, 1844.

Dear Sir,—As Chairman of the Meeting held on 20th inst., it affords me much pleasure communicating the Resolution enclosed passed on that day. I have to add that but one feeling prevailed on the occasion,—That neither expense nor pains were spared in the building and outfit of the Dundalk, alike gratifying to the Company and creditable to the establishment where so fine a vessel (admitted to be a first-class one) was constructed. Her form is much admired for its symmetry, and her engines, in the opinion of competent judges who have examined them, have been pronounced to be models of skill.

Napier had been endeavouring to induce the Admiralty to adopt iron instead of wood for steamers, and in the end of 1843 he received the following letter from his friend Sir Edward Parry :—

Admiralty, 23rd December 1843.

Dear Sir,—I am directed by the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty to request that you will come to London to communicate with me yourself on the subject of the Tender you have lately sent in for one or more iron vessels with engines.

If you can conveniently be at my office on Wednesday next at 2| o’clock it will answer the intended purpose.—I remain, dear Sir, yours very faithfully,  E. W. Parry.

P.S.—I have appointed Mr Lloyd or Mr Murray to be here to meet you at £-past 2 o’clock on Wednesday.

R Napier, Esq.

The result of the visit he paid was that he was commissioned to build and engine three iron steamers for the Navy. They were called the Jackal, Lizard, and Bloodhound, and these were the first iron vessels in the service.

The prejudice of the officials was strong against iron, as they feared it sounded the knell of the dockyards, and efforts were put forth to make the boats unsuccessful. By increasing the scantlings about 40 per cent above those customary in steamers of a similar type, and by insisting on the frames being spaced only nine inches apart, the vessels were made to draw much more water than originally intended, and they were slow, consequent on the deep immersion of their paddles.

Though the boats were comparative failures in respect of speed, no blame was attached to Napier; and as the workmanship was most satisfactory, about a year later he was entrusted with an order for an iron screw frigate for the Navy. This vessel was called the Simoom, and she was much larger than any steamer he had hitherto undertaken. She was laid down on 20th December 1845, and remained on the stocks for over three years, as the Admiralty had even then acquired the habit of making alterations during construction, which they were unwilling to pay for. At last, on 24th May 1849, she was launched, not without mishap, in the presence of a large concourse of people, and in about two years afterwards she was finished.

The delay in connection with this warship was a serious matter to Napier, as she occupied so much space in his yard; and the inconvenience caused may be the more readily appreciated, when mention is made of the fact that during her construction he entered into thirty new contracts. He made representations to the Admiralty on the subject, and after delay received some recompense, though not of an amount which he considered adequate.

The Simoom was a very efficiently constructed vessel, and she was actively employed in the service as a troopship for nearly forty years.

Mr Napier was characterised by liberality in his views, and he made a point of opening his works to all, more especially to naval officers who were desirous of acquiring a knowledge of marine engines. He had many letters, such as the following one from Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane :—

Yester House, Haddington, October 7, 1851.

My dear Sir,—The Marquis of Tweeddale is very anxious that his son Lord John Hay, a Commander in the Navy, should profit by your splendid Establishment in Glasgow, and should receive your permission to attend and take advantage of the scientific instruction he can receive there; and you will confer a favour upon me by permitting him to do so, and I can safely hold out as an inducement that he will do ample justice to the opportunity that will thus be offered to him, as he is a remarkably fine young man, and was promoted by me when Commander-in-Chief in China entirely from his merits as a promising officer.—I am, my dear Sir, very faithfully yours,

Thos. Cochrane.

Robert Napier, Esq.

This enlightened policy had the effect of establishing close and intimate relations with the Admiralty, and in after years, when these apprentices (or rather we should call them students) came to have power, they had strong leanings to Mr Napier’s firm. Thus Admiral Lord John Hay, writing him in 1871 when lie was in command of H.M.S. Hotspur, concludes his letter with a postscript: “I feel still all the respect that is due to you from myself as one of the old apprentices in your works so many years ago.”

His relations with the naval men with whom he came in contact were of the most harmonious character, and his kindness to them was so much appreciated that a number of them presented him with a valuable piece of plate.

Napier’s reply was in his happiest style:—

“Glasgow, 7th December 1844.

“My dear Sirs,—I am so taken e aback9 (to use a naval word), that I feel at the greatest loss to offer you and your brother officers my grateful acknowledgments for the very kind and delicate manner in which I have been presented with a most elegant and splendid testimonial, intrinsically valuable as a piece of silver plate and as a work of art, but infinitely more so on account of its generous donors, and as expressing by them the most honourable, and to me by far the most gratifying, gift which I have ever received, or am likely to receive, and which I trust will remain as an heirloom in my family while it exists, and act as a landmark to them to be kind and hospitable to all officers of the Royal Navy.

“I feel deeply indebted to you and all whose names have been sent to me along with the valuable silver Candelabrum and Plateau, and beg to assure you all that, when I admitted naval officers to my Works, I felt the greatest pleasure in having it in my power to promote in the smallest degree the advancement of the knowledge of steam machinery amongst the officers of the Royal Navy.

“I have always been highly pleased and delighted at meeting with naval officers, and have often regretted that my engagements otherwise prevented me from paying that attention that I wished to pay. Nothing, I can assure you, would give me greater pride and satisfaction than to have it in my power to have you all seated at my table around this splendid testimonial of your kindness, and have the pleasure of drinking a bumper to the success of one and all of my naval friends; but as there is some doubt of my meeting you all together, I can only say that so long as I have a “roof-tree” above my head, one and all of you shall always have a hearty welcome. Praying that God may bless you all, I am, my dear Sirs, with kindest regards, yours most sincerely,

“R. Napier.

“To Captains Newell and Robb, E.N.,


As years went 011 this cordiality with his naval friends increased, and whenever the Channel Fleet visited the Clyde the invitation to West Shandon was accepted with alacrity, and a most hearty welcome was always extended.

The last of these visits was in 1872, when Mr Napier was over eighty years of age. In accepting the invitation Admiral Hornby wrote him :—

H.M.S. Minotaur, Greenock, July 3, 1872.

Dear Mr Napier,—Pray accept my best thanks for your kind note of yesterday just received, and the hearty welcome to the Clyde which it conveys.

I am very sorry I cannot speak more positively to the time at which I may be able to have the pleasure of calling on you. I hope it will be on Friday afternooD, but I have to receive the Provost of Dumbarton in the forenoon, as he wishes to see the ship, and I am in hopes that my wife may join me here, probably on Friday morning, and if so, arrangements I have made may have to be deferred.

But if you will allow me to take my chance of finding you at home on that day, I hope to be able to reach you between 2 and 4 p.m. and to bring a few officers in our steam-launch to see the beauties of West Shandon, and to make the acquaintance of its illustrious owner.—Believe me, yours very truly,    Geoffrey Hornby.

Robert Napier, Esq.

He was on equally good terms with the powers that be at Whitehall. In concluding a letter in 1868, Sir Spencer Robinson, who was then Controller of the Navy, expressed himself in these gratifying terms :—

May God bless you, my dear old friend. One of the few bright spots in my official career is that it has again brought me into relations with you, and made me know still better than of old all that was valuable, excellent, and sterling in your honoured self.

Few contractors have ever been favoured with such expressions of esteem from the Controller of the Navy, but this extract shows the very intimate relationship that existed between the British Admiralty and Mr Napier.

These busy years did not pass without changes in his immediate family circle. His brother, the Rev. Dr Peter Napier, was in 18M presented to the College Church in Glasgow, but, as was not unusual in those Disruption days, there was a dispute about his settlement.

Canon Melvill of St Paul’s, brother of the Secretary of the East India Company, was an intimate friend of Robert Napier, and as he was one of the most celebrated preachers of the time he sent him a copy of Dr Peter’s sermons. In acknowledging them the Canon wrote as follows :—

East India Company, February 5, 1845.

My dear Napier, — Many thanks for your brother’s sermons. They are excellent both in matter and style, quite good enough for Episcopalians; I had almost said too good for Presbyterians. Certainly if the hearers of such sermons object to the preacher they ought to be doomed to some ranting raving fellow who will wear out a red cushion in twenty-four hours. . . .

Many thanks for your kind invitation to Shan don. You are as good a fellow-as ever lived, and I owe you more than I can pay for all sorts of kindness. . . .—Most truly yours,

Henry Melvill.

Mr Napier, in the midst of his prosperity, was always most attentive to his old parents, and there was an annual gathering at Dumbarton. His cousin, the Rev. Dr Mathieson of Montreal, writing him in the end of 1843, concludes his letter saying—

We can only expect the old folks now should feel the burden of years. Few have attained their days amidst so much peace and comfort. The united ages of the first generation—viz., your father and mother, my own, and Aunt. Nancy,

would amount to a considerable sum. May they all be preserved for many years to come. I hope it will be long before the General Assembly at Dumbarton, on Hogmanay, will be dissolved.

My kindest regards to Mrs Napier and all around your fireside, not forgetting Uncle and Aunt.

Uncle, I daresay, now and then wafts an “ Och, och, poor man,” across the Atlantic.

In 1846 his mother died at the age of eighty-four years, and two years later his father passed away at the same advanced age. A few months later he lost his youngest son Robert, and he was buried beside his grandparents in Dumbarton.

In the immediately ensuing years all his sons and daughters married and set up establishments of their own.

Mr Napier ceased to live in Glasgow, and henceforward resided permanently at his house on the shores of the Gareloch.

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