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Shedding light on the Stevenson dynasty

ICE NEWS Professor Roland Paxton, chairman of the ICE's Historic Engineering Works Panel, has written the story of one of civil engineering's foremost families. Mike Winney reports.

Do you know your Stephensons from your Stevensons? A recently published book clears up the confusion by telling the full story of the Stevenson dynasty from 1752 to 1971.

Bright Lights, written by Jean Leslie and Professor Roland Paxton, explains that for four generations all but one of the male Stevensons became engineers who specialised in lighthouses and marine works. The Stephenson engineers, of course, built railways.

The Stevensons were Robert, Alan, Thomas, Charles and three Davids.

The writer Robert Louis Stevenson, the only son of Thomas and grandson of Robert, was the exception .

To complicate matters, the first of the lighthouse engineers was called Thomas Smith. He become the unwitting founder of the engineering dynasty when Jane Stevenson, who had been widowed and then deserted by her second husband, arrived at the Smith residence as housekeeper with her first child Robert. Jane later succeeded in divorcing her absent husband so that she could marry Smith.

In 1797 Robert became a partner in his step father's engineering business and in 1799 he married his step sister. She was Smith's eldest daughter from his first marriage, and also named Jane.

Having mastered that complication, the rest is relatively straightforward, with each Stevenson getting his own chapter. Leslie's forte, as grand daughter of Charles Stevenson, is the family history, its characters and relationships. Paxton examines the professional achievements of the Stevensons.

Lights to guide mariners and warn them of dangerous rocks and islands inevitably have to be built and maintained in extraordinarily inhospitable locations. Fortunately, all the Stevensons appear to have had an enthusiasm for writing and so their extensive diaries and reports give some graphic first hand accounts of what it was like to create structures on remote wave lashed reefs with hand tools, pulley blocks and ropes.

The best tales of course are from Robert who was set to be an engineer until he finally rebelled at 21. In 1870 he spent his summer vacation on the isle of Erraid [off Mull] and graphically described the earlier predicament of workmen building the Dhu Heartach Lighthouse 15 miles to the south-west.

The worker's offshore barrack consisted of a two-storey iron drum mounted on a lattice tower. A gale blew up on 20 August 1868, trapping the engineer and 13 workers on the rock for six days and preventing almost any work.

RLS wrote: 'The sea struck very heavily on the flooring of the lower compartment which is 35 feet above the rock and 56 feet above high water mark'.

Even the regular tours for surveys and inspections of the lights around Scotland and the islands were extraordinarily hazardous - carried out by sailing boats without the benefit of weather forecasts or any of the navigation aids now regarded as essential.

David Stevenson described a survey trip to Shetland begun on 17 February 1854 after the Admiralty had decided that two lights would be needed by 1 October to assist the fleet blockading the Russian navy in the White Sea.

'The weather was wretched,' he wrote, 'and the passage most uncomfortable and on arriving at Lerwick on Saturday night at 11 o'clock, having experienced considerable difficulty in finding the entrance to the bay, we were informed that the last mail received at Shetland from the mainland was on 1 December. There were no steamers trading there at that time and the poor Shetlanders who had been nearly three months without communication received our printed and verbal news with the greatest interest.'

When Stevenson's party landed later at North Unst, the islanders abandoned their houses and retreated to the interior of the island. Stevenson explained: 'We learned afterwards that they were afraid of the press gang or that we might be Russians.'

The book traces the story from Thomas Smith's reflector lights and the general planning of lighthouses through the lifelong dispute between Robert Stevenson and John Rennie over credit for design of the Bell Rock lighthouse to the archival work of David Alan Stevenson who died in 1971, the last engineer in the family.

Bright Lights, The Stevenson Engineers 1752-1971. Jean Leslie and Professor Roland Paxton. £17.95 from ICE Book shop, 1 Great George Street, Westminster.

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