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Napier, Robertlocked

(1791–1876)
  • Michael S. Moss

Robert Napier (1791–1876)

by unknown photographer, 1850s

Heritage Images Partnership

Napier, Robert (1791–1876), marine engineer, was born at Dumbarton on 18 June 1791, the eldest surviving son of James Napier, an iron-founder and engineer, and Jean Ewing. He had five younger brothers and a sister. Educated in Dumbarton, and destined for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, he chose to be an apprentice in his father's works, where he became skilled in ornamental metalwork and millwrighting. He completed his time in 1812, and went to work in Edinburgh for Robert Stevenson, the lighthouse builder. After moving to the Glasgow works of William Lang in 1814, he set up on his own as a smith, the following year. He married, in 1818, his cousin Isabella, daughter of John Napier, his father's brother, and half-sister of David Napier, an established marine engineer with a works at Camlachie to the east of Glasgow. They raised six children including James Robert Napier (b. 1821) who also became a noted marine engineer.

When David Napier moved his business to Lancefield beside the Clyde on the other side of the city in 1821, Robert took over the Camlachie works, and appointed David Elder as his works manager. His first contract was for water pipes for Glasgow corporation, followed by a stationary steam engine for a mill in Dundee. Wishing to build marine engines like his cousin, he won an order in 1823 for the paddle steamer Leven from the Dumbarton shipbuilder James (A'thing) Lang, who had previously purchased his engines from Duncan McArthur, the leading engine builder in Glasgow at the time. The engines, which incorporated several novel features, outlasted three hulls. Further orders were quickly placed with the firm. In the spring of 1827 he spent time promoting his skill as an engine builder in London, which was confirmed later in the year, when two steamers fitted with his engines won a race sponsored by the Northern yacht club. The race attracted the attention of Thomas Assheton Smith, who over the next twenty years ordered a series of innovative steam yachts from Napier. Smith was well connected, and gave Napier access to those with influence in London society, and in government. Following this success Napier purchased the Camlachie works, and the Vulcan Foundry, previously Duncan McArthur's machine shop, which was not far from his cousin's Lancefield works.

In 1830 Napier handed over the Camlachie works to one of his brothers, and with Elder's help re-equipped the Vulcan Foundry to build large marine engines. Although one of the first contracts of the new shop for the Dundee and Leith Steam Packet Company was beset with difficulty and delay, the engines, when finally delivered, performed so well that they greatly enhanced Napier's reputation. To secure supplies of iron and coal, Napier took a fourth share in the Muirkirk Iron Company, and acquired the Barrowfield coal works. By now a prosperous man, he built a magnificent country house down the Clyde at West Shandon overlooking the Gareloch, as much to entertain important customers as a retreat. While his new home was being completed he won orders from the East India Company, and the Admiralty. In 1835 he leased the Lancefield works from his cousin David, who moved to London following a tragic accident to one of his steamers, and purchased them in 1841.

From the early 1830s Robert Napier had been interested in the possibility of establishing a regular and profitable steamship service across the north Atlantic. It was not until the foundation of Samuel Cunard's British and North American Steam-Packet Company in 1839 that he received contracts for Atlantic steamers, and then only after investing in the new company. Over the next twenty years Napiers built a series of larger and larger liners for Cunard. In later life Cunard attributed his line's achievement to the quality, and reliability, of Napier's first engines. In 1842 Napier began building his own iron ships at a yard in Govan on the other side of the Clyde from his Lancefield works; previously all his hulls had been of wood, and constructed by John Wood of Port Glasgow. Among his early hull contracts were the first three iron steamers for the Admiralty. In 1848 he took over the bankrupt Parkhead Forge in the east end of Glasgow to supply wrought iron plates and forgings for his works. Orders from Cunard and the Admiralty brought a steady flow of contracts from other passenger shipping companies, including Donald Currie's Castle Line, and the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, and foreign countries such as Turkey, Holland, and France.

By the early 1850s Robert Napier dominated the fast-expanding Clyde marine engineering and shipbuilding industry, attracting a galaxy of able young managers and apprentices, many of whom went on to found or control their own businesses. In 1852 he moved permanently to West Shandon, which he had much enlarged, partly to house his large collection of old masters, porcelain, sculptures and other curios. Renamed Robert Napier & Sons in 1852, the business was left in the day-to-day management of his sons, James R. Napier, one of the most distinguished marine engineers of his generation, and John Napier. Although orders continued to flow, Napiers began to lose its technical advantage to competitors such as Denny and Elder. There were also problems, not least in the construction of the first ironclad ship, Black Prince, in 1859–60, which lost money because of the difficulty of manufacturing wrought iron armour plate to the Admiralty specification. With Napiers on the verge of bankruptcy, William Beardmore senior was recruited to Parkhead, and solved the problem. However, Napier's financial problems persisted, exacerbated by an open disagreement between Robert and his sons about the future direction of the enterprise. By 1871 the Bank of Scotland was unwilling to advance any further money to help win new custom, and Napiers were forced to sell their interest in the Parkhead Forge. The firm recovered largely because Robert Napier was persuaded finally to retire. His wife died on 23 October 1875, and he died at West Shandon, Dunbartonshire, on 23 June 1876. He undoubtedly deserved the accolade as father of Clyde shipbuilding, laying down the river's reputation for quality and reliability.

Sources

Archives

  • U. Glas., Archives and Business Records Centre, corresp. and papers
  • U. Lpool L., Cunard collection

Likenesses

  • A. Edouart, silhouette, 1832, Scot. NPG
  • E. Burton, mezzotint, 1847 (after J. G. Gilbert), BM
  • photograph, 1850–59, Sci. Mus. [see illus.]
  • photographs, U. Glas.
  • portrait, repro. in Napier, Life of Robert Napier

Wealth at Death

£45,941 19s. 6d.: confirmation, 29 Nov 1876, CCI

£57,229 4s. 11d.: additional estate, 22 July 1878, CCI

(1876–)