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Rennie’s magnificent legacy 250 years on

This Tuesday (7 June) marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of John Rennie, the great contemporary, and at times rival, of Thomas Telford.

Giant legacy

A giant of a man − he stood 1.93m tall − and was viewed by the renowned portrait painter Thomas Lawrence “as Jupiter, for there never was a more magnificent head”.

His civil engineering reputation today relies on the magnificence of his bridges and the scale of his dock and harbour works.

Rennie, like Telford, was a Scot from East Lothian. He benefited from a sounder financial upbringing that enabled him to attend classes at Edinburgh University, and was something of a genius at mathematics.

Like Telford he was apprenticed in a trade − in his case millwork − and like Telford he came to England to make his reputation, initially as the installer of millwork at Albion Mills, beside Blackfriars, the first great steam-powered mill in London.

Pioneer

With James Watt he pioneered the use of cast iron millwork and the centrifugal governor. Having forged a national reputation as a mechanical engineer with his works in Southwark, Rennie begun to receive civil engineering commissions.

From 1789 he was surveying canal lines and construction work followed on the Stroundwater (1792-93), Lancaster (1792-03), Crinan (1794-09) and Kennet and Avon (1794-10), to name a few. Of the latter, the French engineer, Baron Dupin, spoke of the “construction of many beautiful works of art”, and author Samuel Smiles of its “tasteful design”.

The Lune ­aqueduct on the Lancaster was similarly commended by Smiles: “It exhibits in fine combination, the important qualities of strength, durability, and elegance in design.”

Those qualities were what characterised Rennie’s approach, and were reflected in the great bridge and dock designs of the early nineteenth century.

Kelso (1800-04) was viewed by some as ushering in a new era in British bridge building − with its large pieces of masonry, elliptical arches, and well-designed temporary works. Generally, it was Waterloo and Southwark bridges that aroused greatest admiration.

Big spender

Southwark, with the largest cast iron arches ever installed, effectively bankrupted the ironwork supplier.
Waterloo was described by Robert Stephenson as “an example of arch construction … unrivalled as regards its colossal proportions, its architectural effect, and the general simplicity and massive character of its details”.

His great dock schemes − London docks (1801-05), East India docks, Howth and Dun Laoghaire harbours, Plymouth breakwater, and Sheerness dockyard, were valued at millions of pounds, and remain impressive to this day.

Although he was criticised for the expense of his works, he stressed their durability and fitness for purpose.
He had at times an arrogance reflecting self-belief: in an aside on the scale of his fees with General Brownrigg he spoke of being a Field Marshal in his own profession.

These were strong similarities to Brunel − his inability to delegate was commented on by his son, Sir John Rennie: “He never trusted to any assistant, he designed everything to the minutest particular with his own hand.”

Like Brunel he also commanded great loyalty among friends and colleagues.

  • ICE is organising a number of events to commemorate Rennie’s birthday including an exhibition at One Great George Street from July to August, a special issue of the Engineering History and Heritage journal and the Smeaton Lecture on 19 July. There are also a number of regional celebrations, kicked off by the ICE West Midlands’ unveiling of a plaque on the Rudyard Dam on 7 June.

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