Smeaton & Rennie I.
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THE Commercial greatness of England is of almost as modern a character as its Engineering.  England had very little foreign commerce before the middle of last century.  It did not begin to assume any special importance until the steam-engine had been invented by James Watt.

    The Maritime greatness of England is also of comparatively recent growth.  Although the sea is now regarded as the national business of Englishmen, scarce two centuries have elapsed since England was unable to defend her coasts against foreign pirates.

    At a time when Spain, Holland, France, Genoa, and Venice were great maritime powers, England was almost without a fleet, its trade with other countries being conducted principally in foreign ships.  Until the middle of the sixteenth century, the Foreign Company of Merchant Adventurers monopolized almost the entire foreign trade of London.  Their headquarters were in the Hanse Towns of Germany, and they carried on their trade with England under the protection of a special code of mercantile law.  They occupied large premises in Upper Thames Street, London—where they had their Guildhall, dwellings, and warehouses, surrounded by a strong wall,—together with a wharf on the Thames. [p.2-1]

    The privileges of the foreign merchants were withdrawn in 1552, because they were considered prejudicial to the growth of native commerce; but what the state of the English merchant navy was about that time, may be inferred from the fact stated by the Secretary to the English Company of Merchant Adventurers, that in 1540 there were not more than four merchant ships of above 200 tons each, belonging to the river Thames! [p.2-2]

    Bristol, then next in importance to London, possessed several large foreign-built ships; but the principal craft belonging to that port was only of from 50 to 100 tons burden.  In Queen Elizabeth's time Liverpool was a poor decayed town, and petitioned, in 1571, to be relieved from a royal subsidy; the entire shipping of the place amounting to only 223 tons,—the largest vessel being only of 40 tons burden.

    It is astonishing, however, to find what bold and daring things were done by the Englishmen who navigated these ships.  The sea-going blood was in them, and wherever the ship would float, the seamen were ready to go.  Sir Humphry Gilbert crossed the Atlantic, and sailed along the coast of America in the 'Squirrel,' of only 10 tons!  Sir Francis Drake's fleet, which left the English shores for the circumnavigation of the globe, consisted of five vessels, the largest of which was not of 100 tons burden. [p.3]

    In those early days, the Companies of English Merchants seem to have laid the foundations of our colonial greatness.  They were most enterprising in the discoveries which they promoted.  Thus the Merchant Adventurers of the Muscovy Company endeavoured to find a way, by the North-East Sea, to Japan and China.  The brave navigator Hudson made his first voyage into the Frozen Seas in an ill-found little little craft of about 80 tons, accompanied by a crew of twelve men and a boy.  Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman penetrated to the Kara Sea through the Tugor Strait, in two little ships—one of 40 tons, with nine men and a boy, and the other in a boat of 20 tons, with five men and a boy.

    Martin Frobisher was another of these early maritime heroes.  Under the patronage of some private persons, and of the Company of Foreign Merchants, he set out, in the reign of Elizabeth, to discover the North-West Passage to China.  His fleet consisted of two small craft of 24 tons each—scarcely the size of Thames yachts, and both poorly found—accompanied by a pinnace of 10 tons!  And some years later—for the discovery of the North-West Passage seems to have continued the dream of mariners down to our own time—Robert Fotherby, in 1615, assisted by the East India Company and the Company of Foreign Merchants, set out in the 'Richard,' accompanied by Robert Baffin as his pilot, to discover the same passage to glory and wealth.

    The royal navy was on a par with the mercantile; and at the time when the Spanish Armada bore down upon the English coast, it consisted of only twenty-three ships, eight of which were under 120 tons.  There were only nine of 500 tons and upwards, the ship of the greatest burden being of 1000 tons, carrying only forty guns.  The principal part of the fleet which held at bay the Armada until the storms had scattered it, were coasting-vessels of small burden, belonging to Lyme, Weymouth, and other ports along the southern coast.  Of the whole seventy-five vessels which constituted the squadron under the Lord Admiral and Sir Francis Drake, not fewer than sixty were from 400 tons down to as low as 20 tons.  About the same period, the small but flourishing republic of Venice possessed a fleet of more than three thousand vessels of various kinds, carrying upwards of thirty-six thousand seamen.

    The English navy, however, made gradual progress.  Its growth was quickened by the commercial spirit of the people.  In 1613 there were ten vessels of 200 tons belonging to the port of London.  The suppression of the foreign monopoly of the carrying trade had the effect of giving a considerable impetus to the English shipping business; and by the year 1640 we find the number of ships and sailors more than trebled.  We had not yet, however, obtained our proper ascendency.  Van Tromp was still able to sail up the Channel with a broom at his masthead, showing that he had swept his English foes from off the seas.  The Dutch, in fact, then displayed those qualities of commercial enterprise, adventurous discovery, and fighting power at sea, on which the English people now pride themselves.

    The Dutch not only beat our fleets, but fished our coasts, just as the English, Scotch, and French fishermen now fish the coasts of Ireland; and the Dutch then upbraided us for our idleness and stupidity, as we now upbraid the Irish.  The writer of a pamphlet published in 1614,—"Tobias Gentleman, a fisherman and mariner,"—pointed to the great amount of wealth yearly taken out of His Majesty's seas by the Hollanders, whereby they had grown rich and powerful, possessed of a great fleet, and were able to dictate terms to the Spaniards; whereas the English coasting people were poor, idle, and negligent, and constrained even to beg bread of the "plump Hollanders."  Tobias was indignant at seeing the foreigners, whose industry and diligence he nevertheless praised, using our seas as a rich treasury, and drawing wealth from them as from a gold-mine.  Six hundred Dutch busses, of some six score tons each, were employed in the herring-fishery along the British coast,—from the mouth of the Thames as far north as Shetland,—besides numerous others in the cod-fishery; protected by some twenty, thirty, and even forty ships of war to prevent their being pillaged by the Dunkirkers, who were the chief pirates of those times.

    That these Dutchmen should come into our markets and sell us our own fish, carrying away great quantities of gold and silver, whilst English ships lay rotting, was a thing that, Mr. Gentleman thought, should not be borne.  "It is much to be lamented," he said, "though we have such a plentiful Country and Store of able and idle people, that not one of His Majesty's Subjects is there to be seen, all the whole Summer, to fish or to take one Herring: but only the North-sea Boats of the Sea-coast Towns, that go to take Cods; they do take so many as they need to bait their Hooks, and no more.  We are daily scorned by these Hollanders for being so negligent of our Profit and careless of our Fishing; and they do daily flout us that be the poor Fishermen of England, to our Faces at sea, calling to us and saying, Ya English, ya zall or oud scone dragien, which in English is this: You English, we will make you glad to wear our old shoes." [p.6]

    From this curious tract it would appear that much even of our commonest English industry is of modern growth; and that the herring fishery, which it might be supposed was indigenous in England, is as modern as most other branches of employment.  Down to about the end of last century the only fishing was conducted close in-shore, the fishermen shooting the nets from their small cobles; and it was not until the year 1787 that the Yarmouth men began the deep-sea herring fishery. [p.7-1]

    Another remarkable feature of those early times was the piracy which prevailed round the English coasts.  The seas were as unsafe as the roads, and a system of plundering passing ships was as common as that of robbing mail-coaches.  Sea-roving doubtless ran in the blood of the coast population, themselves the descendants of the pirate Northmen.  There were many daring spirits amongst them, and when a bold leader started up and fitted out a ship to make a dash at Spanish galleons, or a descent on the French coast, he had never a lack of desperadoes to follow him—thorough-going seamen, equally ready to brave the storm and the battle—to face the hurricanes of the Atlantic in a cock boat, or to fight against any odds.  Hence Scaliger, when describing the English of his day, said of them, "They make excellent sailors and pirates" "Nulli' melius piraticam exercent quam Angli." [p.7-2]

    Drake sailed along the Spanish main, sacked the Spanish towns, burnt the Spanish ships, and carried off their gold, although no declaration of war had yet been made by Elizabeth against Spain.  Drake's vessels were the property of private persons, who sent them forth upon adventure on the high seas; and there were not wanting others to follow his example, especially after war had been declared between the two countries.  The records of the Corporation of London contain some curious entries relative to the fitting out of ships, which were sent to sea, for the capture of Spanish galleons and the subsequent division of the spoil.  In 1593 we find a richly-laden carrack captured by Sir Walter Raleigh, and brought into the Thames a prize.  On the 15th of November, in that year, a Committee was appointed "on behalf of such of the City Companies as had ventured in the late fleet, to join with such honourable personages as the Queen hath appointed, to take a perfect view of all such goods, prizes, spices, jewels, pearls, treasures, &c., lately taken in the carrack, and to make sale and division thereof" [p.8]  It appears that about £12,000 (then about four times the value of our present money) was divided amongst the Companies who had adventured, and that about £8,000 was similarly netted by them on a subsequent occasion.

    Similar ventures were often made, both before and after Raleigh's time.  In Richard II.'s reign, one Philpot hired a thousand men and sent them to sea, where they captured fifteen rich Spanish vessels.[p.9-1]  Harry Page, of Poole, ravaged the coasts of Spain, France, and Flanders, bringing home the plunder of many churches, numerous prisoners, and prizes laden with rich cargoes.

    But the piratical propensity was not only displayed against our continental neighbours, but by the seagoing population of one town against those of another.  In 1342 Yarmouth and Hull sent out a piratical fleet against London and Bristol; and ports as near each other as Lyme and Dartmouth, in the adjoining counties of Dorset and Devon, waged deadly feud and strove to capture each other's vessels. [p.9-2]

    The sailors of the Cinque Ports were at war with those of Yarmouth, and in Edward I.'s reign, regular safe conducts were granted to certain Cinque Ports vessels requiring to visit that port, as if it were an enemy's.  The Yarmouth men were even at war with those of Lowestoft, Camden relating of them that "they often engaged their neighbours, the Lestoffenses, or men of Lowestoff, in sea-fights, with great slaughter on both sides."

    Robert de Battayle, of Winchelsea, plundered a passing ship belonging to some merchants of Sherborne; but the feat must have been regarded as creditable, for a few years later his townsmen chose him for their mayor.  At the end of the sixteenth century three noted pirates—Hamilton, Twittie, and Purser—ravaged the coasts of the south-western counties.  In 1582 Purser attacked the ships, both English and French, riding in Weymouth Harbour, and carried off a Rochelle ship of 60 tons.  But Weymouth itself also sent out piratical vessels, which picked up many rich prizes.

    Down even to the middle of the seventeenth century piracy was quite common along the Devonshire coast.  The weakness of the royal navy is sufficiently obvious from the fact that Turks and Algerines sailed along the Channel, up the Severn, and into the Irish Sea, capturing ships; while the Dunkirk pirates assailed with impunity the east coast towns, from Dover to Berwick-upon-Tweed.  The Emperor of Morocco was even bribed to cease from his piratical expeditions and to protect British trade; and the bribe continued to be paid until the year 1690.  Sea-robbers were masters of the Channel as late as the reign of Charles I. [p.10]

    When piracy was at last put a stop to along the English coasts, the more desperate pirates took service under the Turks, while many more sailed away to the West India Islands and turned buccaneers. [p.11]  Hugh Miller, in his autobiography, speaks of his great-grandfather, John Feddes, as "one of the last of the buccaneers;" and he states that the house in which he himself was born "had been built, he had every reason to believe, with Spanish gold."

    Such being the early state of British shipping, there was very little need of harbours.  The navigable tidal rivers were found amply sufficient for the accommodation of the shipping, then of comparatively small burden, by means of which trade was then carried on.  London possessed a great advantage in her fine river, the Thames, up which the natural power of the tide lifted vessels of the largest burden into the heart of the land, and lowered others down again to the sea, twice in every twenty-four hours.  The river served as harbour, dock, and depot in one, and provided ample waterway, with abundant quay accommodation, which sufficiently served the purposes of trade down almost to our own day.

    Among the early ports, Bristol ranked next in importance to London: it was also provided with a convenient river, the Avon, up which ships were floated by the tide to port.  At the siege of Calais, in Edward III.'s time, Bristol furnished almost as many ships and mariners as London; and it went on increasing in importance down to the end of the seventeenth century.  Liverpool was then scarcely known as a seaport, and, indeed, was little better than a fishing village.  Before the art of engineering had advanced so far as to enable harbour walls to be built in deep water, the tidal rivers sufficiently answered the purpose of harbours.  Hence London on the Thames, Bristol on the Avon, Hull on the river Hull, Chester (the principal shipping-port for Ireland) on the Dee, Gloucester on the Severn, Boston on the Witham, and Newcastle on the Tyne.

    At Bristol the ships lay upon the mud at low water, the course of the river Froom having been turned, in early times, in order to make "a softe and whosy (oozy) harboure for grete shippes;" and the habit of lying on the mud made the Bristol ships so bulge and swell out, that until quite recently "a Bristol hog" could be recognised by the practised sailor's eye far off at sea.  Bristol was only provided with floating docks at the beginning of the present century, long after Liverpool had overcome the difficulties of the currents in the Mersey, and provided for herself a system of docks, now considered superior to everything else of the kind in the world.

    The ample line of the British coast, broken by innumerable deep-water bays and inlets, also afforded considerable convenience for the shipping of early times.  The small size of the craft enabled them to be beached with ease, and the utmost that was done in the way of harbour works was to empty large stones roughly into the sea so as to form a breakwater or a pier at the harbour head.  But the sea was found a fickle and dangerous neighbour, and those early works were often washed away.  Mr. Roberts gives the rough representation, shown in the annexed cut, of the mode of constructing the ancient pier at Lyme Regis; and most probably the same method was pursued elsewhere.

    The rocks which lay upon the shore were floated over the line of the proposed sea-work by means of casks, and dropped into their places.  Strong oak piles were then driven into the ground along either side of the rocks for the purpose of holding them together.  Great reliance was placed upon timber, and especially upon oak.


    The Cob or harbour at Lyme Regis [p.13] was so successfully put together in this way, that Queen Mary ordered the workmen to be impressed and forwarded to Dover, to execute a similar work for the protection of the harbour at that place. They were next employed at Hastings, where they reared a pier of huge rocks edgeways, but without timber. But the seas of the ensuing winter completely overthrew the structure; and again, in 1597, the workmen erected another pier, using much timber in cross-dogs, bars, and braces. The work was thirty feet high, "bewtyfull to behold, huge, invariable, and unremoveable in the judgment of all beholders;" but on the next All Saints day a storm upon a spring tide scattered the whole, and to this day Hastings remains without a stone pier.


The Cob at Lyme Regis [p.14].
© Copyright David Lally and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    Among the numerous fine natural harbours on the south coast were those of Portsmouth, Plymouth; Weymouth, Falmouth, and Dartmouth, all situated at the mouths of rivers or bays, as their names indicate.  None of them had piers until a comparatively recent date, the only landing-places at Portsmouth and Southampton being on "the Hard."  The Cinque Ports, on the coast of Kent, were mostly beach harbours, and were constantly liable to be choked up by the gradual movement of the shingle up Channel; so that Winchelsea, Romsey, and Hythe thus became completely lost.  For the same reason Dover was always a port most difficult to be preserved.  The shingle, rolling along the coast by the south-westerly winds, blocked up the port by a bank which extended from east to west, until the pent-up inland waters, collecting behind it, forced their way to sea, thus maintaining an opening more or less partial.

    Various attempts were made to preserve Dover Harbour in early times, the most important improvements being those conducted by Sir John Thompson, master of the Maison Dieu in the reign of Henry VIII.  He enclosed a small basin with a quay by driving two rows of piles into the sea bottom as far out as the Mole Rock, and filling in the interstices with blocks of stone and chalk.  The stones were floated along shore from Folkestone by means of empty casks, as at Lyme.  It is said that not less than £50,000 were expended on these works; but the imperfect manner in which they were constructed may be inferred from the fact that the sea very soon made several breaches in the wall and the pier, and the beach accumulated, as before, all round the bay, so that a boat drawing only four feet of water could scarcely enter the harbour.

    Foreign engineers were then called in—amongst others, Ferdinand Poins, a Fleming, and Thomas Diggs, who had studied harbour construction in the Netherlands; and various additions were made by them to the works in the reigns of Elizabeth and James.  The harbour was always, however, in danger of becoming silted up down to our own times; and the improvement of it formed the subject of repeated reports of Perry, Smeaton, Rennie, and Telford.

    Along the east coast of England, the early harbours were few and bad.  Thoresby relates that in his time (1682) Whitby, in Yorkshire, possessed a harbour formed by a rough quay projecting at the mouth of the river; but he adds that there was no other haven for ships between that place and Yarmouth, in Norfolk.  Yarmouth has, like Dover, been the subject of much unavailing engineering, in consequence of the peculiar difficulties of its situation.  It stands on the banks of the rivers Yare and Burr, from the former of which it received its name.  It was always liable to be silted up by the sands which abound along shore.  Nevertheless it continued to maintain some trade; and down to the time of Henry VIII. it was regarded as the most important maritime town along the east coast.  But the channels leading to it were so liable to become choked up, that its prosperity was very irregular, and sometimes its navigation was all but lost.


    The Yarmouth people were reduced to even greater straits than ordinary in the reign of Elizabeth, when they adopted the usual expedient of sending abroad for an engineer of reputation to recover their navigation; and Joyse Johnson, a celebrated man in his day, came over from Holland to direct the works.  He caused a strong pier of piles to be formed, which had the effect of directing the current in such a manner, in a north-easterly direction, as to give a temporary relief.  The difficulty, however, was not surmounted, as we still find the inhabitants fighting against the sea-banks which hemmed in the port, during the reigns of James and Charles, and even during the Commonwealth; until eventually a south pier was formed, the continuation of which, in a fine curve, was carried up the river, and formed an extensive wharf, affording considerable accommodation and security for shipping.  The original north pier was subsequently abandoned, and a new north pier was erected, on a plan chiefly intended to assist in warping ships into the harbour.

    Yarmouth long had a weather-beaten jetty—a great favourite with landscape painters—which extended into the sea on the eastern side of the town.  On this site a jetty was built in 1560, with a crane at the end to facilitate the landing of goods.  It was rebuilt in 1808, and became one of the principal landing-places on the east coast.  Exiled sovereigns landed there to seek the shelter of England, and embarked there to seek the returning loyalty of their subjects.  Nelson twice landed there, amidst enthusiasm, to receive the embraces of his countrymen.

    The English docks, which are now the pride of English engineers, have for the most part been constructed during the present century.  Liverpool set the example of dock-making at the beginning of last century, and it has continued to keep the lead of all other towns and cities to this day.  The first dock constructed in Great Britain was "The Old Dock" at Liverpool, under the powers of an Act passed in the eighth year of Queen Anne's reign, [p.18] when the population of the town was under 6,000 in number.  The Liverpool people were perhaps forced by necessity to make the dock.  Sandbanks were closing up the Dee, and driving the little shipping there was from Chester to Liverpool.  But the ships, when lying in the rapid current of the Mersey—which was also exposed to the heavy gales from the westward—could not easily be unloaded; and it was consequently found necessary to make inlets or docks along the strand, for the purpose of giving the ships shelter during the process of loading and unloading.  Hence the first Act to provide Liverpool with a dock.  It not only afforded 652 feet of quay space for the shipping, but it was shut in from the tides by means of dock-gates, and was consequently a floating dock.  In 1760 the Salthouse Dock was opened, and still later the George's Dock.  Dry docks were also provided, open to each tide, and these are now mostly used for the purposes of the coasting-trade.

    The King's Floating Dock was opened in 1785, and the Queen's Dock in 1789.  Then followed the great Prince's Dock, which was opened in 1821, when the Old Dock, which could only accommodate smaller ships, was filled up, and the modern Custom House was erected on its site.  The docks, which have since then been constructed in Liverpool, are of immense magnitude.  They occupy about 300 acres, and are able to accommodate shipping of more than five millions of tons burden.

    There was no public dock on the Thames until the beginning of the present century.  There were two private docks: one, the Greenland Dock, for whaling ships; the other, Mr. Perry's dock, for the accommodation of East India ships.  The Greenland Dock is said to have included the commencement of Canute's Trench, stated, on the authority of Stowe, to have been cut early in the eleventh century from thence to Battersea.  Mr. Perry was a ship-builder, who constructed his private dock at Blackwall, for the purpose of getting the East India shipping out of the river, and placing them, and the traffic they contained, under lock and key.

    Before there were any public docks on the Thames, the merchandise was kept afloat in barges, for want of room to discharge it at the legal quays.  An Indiaman of 800 tons could scarcely be delivered of her cargo in less than a month, and the goods had then to be lightered from Blackwall nearly to London Bridge.  In addition to the rapid increase of foreign trade towards the end of last century, there was also a rapid increase in the coal trade.

    A strong prejudice had long existed in London and elsewhere, as to the use of "sea-coal."  Edward I. issued a proclamation against its use, and a man was actually hanged during his reign, for committing the crime of burning it within the limits of the City.  But as the forests became consumed for the production of "charre coal" for domestic purposes, and for iron-smelting, [p.19] there was no alternative but to fall back upon the rich stores of coal found in the northern parts of England.

    Then it was that the Newcastle coal shipping-trade sprang into importance, and has ever since proved the principal nursery of our seamen.  The fleets of colliers entering the Thames, added to the other shipping, caused a great throng of vessels in the river; and what with the coal-lighters and merchandise-barges,—which carried the goods and coal up the river,—and the warehouses and coal-yards on shore, it became a very crowded and often a very confused scene.  The merchandise, borne from the vessels to the warehouses, became liable to serious depredations; and the losses from this cause, as well as the over-crowding of the river, at length led to the provision of floating docks at various points, and to a further vast development of the port of London.

    The Thames was, for a long time, not only the harbour, but the great silent highway of the Metropolis.  The city lay mostly along the banks of the river, and the streets and roads long continued so bad, that passengers desiring to proceed eastward or westward, almost invariably went by boat.  There were also ferry-boats constantly plying from side to side of the river, and so long as London Bridge presented the only means of crossing by coach or on foot, the number of persons daily using the ferries was necessarily very considerable.  A horse-ferry plied between Lambeth Palace and Mill-bank, the tolls of which belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there was another across the river at Hungerford, both being rendered comparatively unnecessary when the second bridge was erected at Westminster.  The extent of the river traffic may be inferred from the circumstance stated by Stowe, that in his time the Watermen's Company could at any time furnish twenty thousand men for the fleet.  But as the streets of the metropolis were improved, as more bridges were built, and when the use of coaches had extended—against which the watermen strongly protested—their numbers rapidly diminished, until at length they have almost become extinct.


London Docks in 1845.  Illustrated London News.

    While the engineering and shipbuilding of England were in so backward a state, comparatively little use was made of the sea for the purposes of travelling.  The state of the roads prevented travelling by land; the state of the ships prevented travelling by sea.  Travelling by road was accompanied by the risk of highway robbery, and travelling by sea was accompanied by the risks of piracy and shipwreck.

    At the present time, when a steamship can make the voyage between England and Australia with such regularity that you may count upon her arrival almost within three days, and when steamers of thousands of tons burden sail almost daily between New York and Liverpool, and their arrival may be depended upon to a day and almost to an hour, the loss of time in long and even short voyages, would now be regarded as something extraordinary.  A passage might be made in a Leith smack between London and Edinburgh in four or five days; but during contrary winds, it might last for three or four weeks; and the smack might in the meanwhile be driven over to the coasts of Norway.  At the beginning of the present century it took six weeks to bring the North Cork regiment of militia from Cork Harbour to Colchester.

    There was a considerable difference in getting from London to the Continent in the old times and the new.  The ancient Continental route used to be through Gravesend Manor, belonging to the Abbot of Tower Hill, who, "finding that by the continual recourse to and from Calais, the passage by water between London and Gravesend was much frequented, both for the great ease, good, cheap, and speedy transportation (requiring not one whole tide), made offer to the young King Richard the Second, that if he would be pleased to grant unto the inhabitants of Gravesend and Milton the privilege that none should transport any passengers by water from Gravesend to London but they only, in their own boats, then should they, of these two parishes, undertake to carry all such passengers, either for twopence each one with his farthell (a truss of straw) or otherwise, making the whole fare or passage worth four shillings." [p.22]  To this proposal the King consented, and hence the route to and from the Continent long continued to be by Gravesend.  Ambassadors to the Court usually took boat at Gravesend for London; and perhaps a finer entrance into the great Capital of the kingdom could not have been selected.

    The comfort of the Long Ferry for the commoner sorts of people could not, however, have been very great.  The passengers were required to bring with them their respective trusses of straw to lie on.  They were also, when the tide was low, under the necessity of landing in the mud a mile or two short of their destination, and either wade their way to shore or pay for being carried thither on the backs of mud-larks.  The boatmen only rendered themselves liable to a penalty if they landed the passengers more than two miles short of their destination!

    Fielding has left an account, in his 'Voyage to Lisbon,' of the tediousness and discomfort of voyaging, about the middle of last century.  His ship was fixed to sail from opposite the Tower Wharf at a certain time, when Fielding, ghastly and ill, was rowed off to it in a wherry, running the gantlope through rows of sailors and water-men, who jeered and insulted him as he passed.  The ship, however, did not set out for several days, and Fielding was compelled to spend the intervening time in the confines of Wapping and Redriff.  The vessel at length sailed, and, reaching Gravesend, anchored for the night.  Next evening they sailed for the Nore, and the day after that they anchored off Deal, and lay there for a week.  It took four days more to beat down Channel to Ryde, where Fielding was landed in the mud fifteen days after his embarkation at the Tower; and a long, long time elapsed before the termination of his voyage at Lisbon.

    When coaches began to run upon the improved road between London and Dover, passing by Blackheath and Dartford to Rochester and Canterbury, the principal part of the continental traffic was diverted from Gravesend, though the comfort of the journey does not seem to have been very much improved.  Smollett gives a rather dismal account of his progress from London to Boulogne in 1763, which presents a curious contrast to the facilities of travelling by the modern Boulogne steam route.  After tediously grumbling his way through Rochester and Canterbury, fleeced by every innkeeper on the road, he at last reached Dover in a very bad temper.  He pronounced the place to be a den of thieves, where the people live by piracy in time of war, and by smuggling and fleecing strangers in time of peace.  He did them the justice, however, to admit, that "they make no distinction between foreigners and natives.  Without all doubt a man cannot be much worse lodged and worse treated in any part of Europe; nor will he in any other place meet with more flagrant instances of fraud, imposition, and brutality.  One would imagine they had formed a general conspiracy against all those who go to or return from the Continent."

    But Smollett's troubles had scarcely yet begun, as he found to his cost before he reached Boulogne.  He sent for the master of the packet-boat—a comfortless tub, called a Folkestone cutter—and hired it to carry him across the Strait for six guineas, the master demanding eight.  "We embarked," he says, "between six and seven in the evening, and found ourselves in a most wretched hovel.  The cabin was so small that a dog could hardly turn in it, and the beds put me in mind of the holes described in some catacombs, in which the bodies of the dead were deposited, being thrust in with the feet foremost: there was no getting into them but endways, and indeed they seemed so dirty, that nothing but extreme necessity could have obliged me to use them.  We sat up all night in a most uncomfortable situation, tossed about by the sea, cold and cramped, and weary and languishing for want of sleep.  At three in the morning the master came down and told us we were just off the harbour of Boulogne; but the wind blowing off shore he could not possibly enter, and therefore advised us to go ashore in the boat."

    Smollett went on deck, when the master pointed out through the spray raised by the scud of the sea where the harbour's mouth lay.  The passengers were so impatient to get on shore, that after paying the captain and "gratifying the crew" (which was no easy matter in those days), they committed themselves to the ship's boat to be rowed on shore.  They had scarcely, however, got half way to land, before they perceived a boat coming off to meet them, which the captain pronounced to be the French boat, and that it would be necessary to shift from the one small boat to the other in the open sea, "it being a privilege of the boatmen of Boulogne to carry all passengers ashore."

    Smollett then proceeds:—

"This was no time or place to remonstrate.  The French boat came alongside, half filled with water, and we were handed from the one to the other.  We were then obliged to lie upon our oars till the captain's boat went on board, and returned from the ship with a packet of letters: we were then rowed a long league in a rough sea, against wind and tide, before we reached the harbour, where we landed, benumbed with cold, and the women excessively sick.  From our landing-place we were obliged to walk very near a mile to the inn where we purposed to lodge, attended by six or seven men and women, barelegged, carrying our baggage.  This boat cost me a guinea, besides paying exorbitantly the people who carried our things; so that the inhabitants of Dover and Boulogne seem to be of the same kidney, and indeed they understand one another perfectly well." [p.26]

    The passage of the ferry between England and France continued much the same until a comparatively recent period; Fowell Buxton relating that as late as the year 1817 the packet in which he sailed from Dover to Boulogne drifted about in the Channel for two days and two nights, and only reached the port of Calais when every morsel of food on board had been consumed.  Steam has entirely altered this state of things, as every traveller knows; and the same passage is now easily and regularly made four times a day, both ways, in about two hours.

    The passage of ferries in the northern parts of England was equally tedious, uncomfortable, and often dangerous.  In 'A Tour through England in 1765,' it is stated that at Liverpool passengers were carried to and from the ferry-boats which plied three times a day to the opposite shore, "on the backs of men, who wade knee-deep in the mud to take them out of the boats."

    Between Hull and Barton a packet plied once a day across the Humber, the travellers wading to the boats through a long reach of mud; but whether the voyage would occupy two hours or a day, no one could predict when embarking.  If the weather looked threatening, the travellers would take up their abode at the miserable inn on the Barton side until the wind abated.  Now the voyage is regularly and frequently performed every day, to and from New Holland, in less than half-an-hour.

    The ferry of the Frith of Forth was also a formidable affair, and a voyage to Fife was often full of peril.  The passage to Kinghorn or Burntisland was made in an open boat or a pinnace, and the boatmen usually waited, it might be for hours, until sufficient passengers had assembled to go across.  The difficulty of passing the Forth ferries was experienced by Mr. Rennie as late as 1808, when returning across the Frith from Pettycur, where he had been examining the harbour with a view to its improvement for the packet-boats which plied between there and Leith.  "The wind blew fresh," he says, "from about three points westward of South, and after beating about in the Frith for nearly three hours, we were obliged to return to Pettycur; and, to save time, I went round by Queen's Ferry," a place nine miles to the westward, from whence it was three miles across the Forth, and then other nine miles to Edinburgh; the distance directly across from Pettycur being only seven miles.  This state of things, we need scarcely add, has been entirely altered by the facilities afforded by modern steam navigation.

    The passage of the Bristol Channel was equally uncertain and dangerous. Gilpin gives a graphic account of the perils of his voyage across from Cardiff in 1770, in his 'Observations on the River Wye.'  On descending towards the beach he heard the ferryman winding his horn, as a signal to bring down the horses.  The old ferry-boat was usually furnished with falling ends for the admission of cattle and heavy articles; and where the ferry was across a river, there was usually a chain passing along the side of the boat on pulleys, and fixed to each bank, by which it was hauled across.  But from Cardiff to the other side of the Bristol Channel was several miles, and it was accordingly rather of the nature of a voyage.  The same morning on which Gilpin crossed, the ferry-boat had made one ineffectual attempt to make the farther side at high water; but after toiling three hours against the wind, it had been obliged to put back.

    When the horses were all on board, the horn again sounded for the passengers.  "A very multifarious company assembled," says Gilpin,

"and a miserable walk we had to the boat, through sludge, and over shelving, slippery rocks.  When we got to it we found eleven horses on board and above thirty people; and our chaise (which we had intended to convert into a cabin during the voyage) slung into the shrouds.  The boat, after some struggling with the shelves, at length gained the Channel. After beating about for near two hours against the wind, our voyage concluded, as it began, with an uncomfortable walk backwards through the sludge to high-water mark."

    The passage of this ferry was often attended with loss of life when the tide ran strong and the wind blew up Channel.  Moreover, the ferrymen were by no means skilful in the management of the boat.  A British admiral, who arrived at one of these ferries, and intended to cross, observing the boat as she worked her way from the other side, declared that he durst not trust himself to the seamanship of such fellows as managed her; and turning his horse, he rode some fifty miles round by Gloucester!




LIKE our docks and harbours, our lighthouses are among the youngest triumphs of modern engineering.  Everything in England is young.  We are an old people, but a young nation.  Our trade is young; our mechanical power is young; our engineering is young; and the civilisation of what are called "the masses" has scarcely begun.  Not a hundred years have elapsed since the best prize that could befall the barbarians of Devon and Cornwall was a rich shipwreck, and when false lights were displayed on shore to lure the passing vessel to its destruction. [p.30]

    The lighting up of our coast by means of beacons and lighthouses for the purpose of insuring greater safety to ships approaching our shores by night, received very little attention in early times.  So long as the mercantile navy was comparatively insignificant, and the amount of our foreign trade was but small, the lighting up of our shores after dark was of much less importance than it is now.

    It was only when the commerce of the country began to develop itself—when our merchants sent out their vessels richly freighted to all parts of the world, and the sea was made a great highway for English trade and commerce—that it became a matter of absolute necessity, as well as of simple economy, to render the sea highway as safe as possible, by planting lighthouses upon all the dangerous rocks and headlands round the coast.

    The idea of the Lighthouse is, of course, very old.  The ancient commercial nations were familiar with its use.  They erected, a tower on some dangerous part of the coast, which was a landmark by day and a lighthouse by night.  The Phœnicians, though they did not go far out to sea, but crept cautiously along shore, had marks by which they could easily sail along from one part of the shore to another.  The Colossus of Rhodes is supposed to have been a gigantic brazen statue, surmounted by a hand bearing a lighted chauffer, for the guidance

    The most distinguished of the early lighthouses was that erected on the Island of Pharos, at the mouth of the Nile.  The island is now connected with the mainland, and forms the site of the modern Alexandria.  From that early lighthouse, all subsequent ones built by the Romans were called after the name of the island—Pharos.  Many were erected along the most frequented parts of the Latin coast.  One of the most remarkable was that built by Claudius at Ostea the chief port of ancient Rome.  Pliny mentions those built at Ravenna, Pozziola, and Messina; and also the Pharos of the Isle of Capri, which was overthrown by an earthquake a few days before the death of Tiberius.[p.32]


The Pharos of Alexandria: an impression by German archaeologist Prof. H. Thiersch (1909) [p.31].  Picture Wikipedia.

    The most important lighthouses erected by the Romans in the North of Europe were those erected on the heights above Boulogne, and on the heights above Dover.  Their object was to light vessels passing across the Channel from one port to the other, and also those passing from the coasts of France to their stations at Portus Rutupiæ (now Richborough), near Sandwich, or to Regulbium (now known as Reculvers) on the Thames, by way of the channel which then separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland.

    The tower at Boulogne is supposed to have been erected by Caligula.  The original name was the Turris Ardens, but this eventually became corrupted into Tour d'Ordre.  It was repaired by Charlemagne in the ninth century, and continued to exist until the sixteenth century, when Boulogne was in the hands of the English.  It was then surrounded by ramparts, and provided with artillery, which were used to command the town and the entrance to the port.  Quarries have been dug out where it stood, the cliff has also fallen away, and the site of the Tour d'Ordre has long been destroyed.

    From a description of the Pharos left by Claude Châtillon, engineer of Henry IV., it would appear that it was built about a stone's throw from the edge of the cliff, above and overlooking the high tower and the castle.  The tower was octagonal in shape.  At the base it was 192 feet in circumference, and about 64 in diameter.  It was constructed of grey stone, with thin red brick, and yellow stones laid across at intervals.  It was built in two stories, each retiring about a foot and half inside the other, so that it had, in some measure, the form of a pyramid.  Each story had an opening towards the sea, of about the size of an ordinary door.  There is also supposed to have been a chamber to contain the light, above the two stories, which, however, had ceased to exist at the date at which it was examined by M. Châtillon.


The Pharos at Dover Castle.
© Copyright Steve Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


    The sister Pharos at Dover is of a similar character to that which existed at Boulogne.  It is also of Roman build, as is apparent by the foundations being laid in a bed of clay, and by the Roman tiles, of the usual depth, laid in tiers across the work, and falling into each other like a half-dovetail, thereby rendering them close and compact.  The Pharos occupies the highest point of the lofty rock on which the castle is built, and commands the English Channel as far as the eye can see.  The coast of France, with Cape Grinez in the foreground, lies exactly opposite.  The tower is octagonal without, and square within.  At the base it is about 33 feet in diameter, and, originally, it may have been about 72 feet high.  At the summit it has three round holes on the three exterior sides, evidently for the purpose of a look-out, or for showing a light seawards.

    Bede seems to have been under the impression that the Romans, during their long stay in Britain, erected lighthouses at different parts of the coast.  Thus he interprets Streonshalh (the name of Whitby, in Yorkshire, in his time) into Sinus Fari, the bay of the lighthouse.  The Romans had a road from York to Dunum Sinus, now Dunsley Bay, a few miles to the north-west of Whitby; and on an eminence in the midst of the village of Dunsley there still remain the ruins of a building which at one time may have been the guide-tower to the navigation, and thus gave rise to Bede's name of the Bay. [p.34]

    Bede also relates that, before the Romans left, they built towers along the sea-coast to the southward, because there also the irruptions of the barbarians were apprehended, "and so they took leave of their friends, never to return again." [p.35]  The southern coast of England was in those days subject to the frequent attacks of Frisian and Saxon pirates—and hence the appointment, during the Roman days, of a Duke of the Saxon shore—which shore included the opposite coasts of both France and England.  The towers may have been erected along the English shore, as our Martello towers were erected some seventy years ago—and they may, possibly, have been used as lighthouses for the purpose of warning the people inland of the appearance of the pirates; but this is merely a supposition.

    Many centuries elapsed after the Romans had left England, before anything further was done to light up the coasts by night.  There was no necessity for doing so.  The country had no commerce, no shipping, and was very thinly peopled.  What civilisation the Romans had left was rapidly dying out.  Then foreigners began to land from the opposite coasts.  They planted themselves firmly on the soil, and made Britain their home.  It took a long time for them to grow into a maritime people.  They merely came across in boats from the nearest points of the opposite coast; and, with a fair wind, the voyage might be made in daylight within a few hours.

    It was not until the piratical Northmen began to cruise along our shores, that beacons and fire-towers began to be erected along the coasts, sometimes by the natives to warn the people inland against their arrival, and at other times by the pirates themselves to guide them on their way.  The Norsemen knew every headland along the coast; and the names they gave them are retained to this day.  From Dungeness and Grinez in the South, to Caithness in Scotland, and the Naze in Norway, the names of the headlands round the German Ocean are mostly of Norse derivation.  The Northmen were among the first to navigate the Irish Sea, and along the west coast of England and the east coast of Ireland, they gave names to most of the projecting headlands along the coast.

    Near the entrance to the river Boyne, there is a solid mass of masonry known as "The Finger," an ancient landmark, and probably a fire-beacon, erected by the Northmen, who then held possession of Dublin, of Wexford, of Waterford, and of Limerick, and had extensive colonies settled in different parts of Ireland.  On the opposite coast, in England and Wales, they had similar beacons and fire-towers.  Near St. Ann's Head, at the northern entrance to Milford Haven, in Wales, there are the remains of an ancient beacon and lighthouse, which was all the more necessary to give light to the Norse ships entering the port,—as Milford Haven was the favourite piratical station of the Northmen, from which they made their descents upon Ireland, or on the Western Counties of England from Cornwall to Gloucester.

    The Northmen had also settlements in the Isle of Man and the Northern Counties of England.  At the entrance to Morecambe Bay there is a small island called the Isle of Walney, at the southern end of which is a place still called Peel.  It was originally so called because of a pile or tower that served for a lighthouse to guide the Northmen on their voyages from the Isle of Man to Lancaster; and the neighbouring headland became known as Fire-ness or Furness, which it retains to this day.  Flamborough, on the eastern coast of England, was also in early times used by the Danes or Northmen as a lighthouse; and the name speaks of the rude fires of coal or wood that used to "flame" by night on that dangerous headland.[p.37]  The Danes held a large area of nearly three thousand acres, enclosed by a formidable rampart—still called the Danes' Dyke.  They most probably occupied it permanently, or, at all events, between the successive arrivals of their fleets; when it was necessary to light up the headland to direct their ships to the landing-place situated in the bay immediately under the Head.

    South of Flamborough is a very dangerous part of the coast adjoining the northern entrance to the Humber.  It is a narrow tapering neck of land, about two miles in length, over which the sea sweeps in high tides.  The neck ends in Spurn Head.  The first occupant of this place was a courageous hermit, who built a chapel to pray for poor mariners, and exposed a light in his windows to guide them up the Humber at night.  Another anchorite, Richard Reedburrow, afterwards built a tower for a beacon, which is said to have been the first lighthouse built on that part of the coast.

    In ancient times, fires were also lighted for the guidance of seamen, at Foulness, near Cromer, at Lowestoft-ness, and at Orford-ness—all Norse names.  A long spit of land lies between the river Alde and the long sea near Orford—extending from near Aldborough to Haversgate Island—which was always a source of danger to mariners.  A lantern used to be hung out at a part of the narrow strip of land, still called the Lantern Marshes, where two splendid lighthouses have since been erected.

    The first idea of a lighthouse, said Professor Faraday, is the candle in the cottage window, guiding the husband across the water or the pathless moor.  But on Orfordness a lantern answered the same purpose.  The main point was the production of a steady light; and it mattered not whether it was given forth by a candle, a lantern, pitch-pots, coals, or oil.  Wood was also frequently employed; but it was found too perishable.  Lambarde says of the lights shown along the coast, that "before the time of Edward III. they were made of great stacks of wood; but about the eleventh yeere of his raigne it was ordained that in our shyre (Kent) they should be high standards with their pitch-pots." [p.38]

    Many attempts were made to light up the south coast at the most dangerous places.  Some six hundred years since, when Winchelsea—now several miles inland—was a seaport, Henry III. issued a precept commanding that every ship laden with merchandise going to that port for the two following years, should pay two pence for the maintenance of the light there, for the safety of sailors entering by night, unless it were shown that the Barons had been accustomed to maintain that light at their own cost. [p.39]  It appears that the Barons were in certain cases required to maintain the fire-lights, and to receive the sum of two pence from each vessel, usually called "fire-pence."


    One of the most dangerous parts of the south coast was Dungeness, consisting of a long low bank of shingle, running far out into the sea, and not easily discernible at night.  It is not known when the first light was shown on this part of the coast; but Lambarde makes mention of its being lit up by beacons in the time of Edward III.  Speaking of Dungeness, Lambarde says, "Before this neshe lieth a flat into the sea, threatening great danger to sailors.  In the reign of Edward III. it was first ordered that beacons in this country should have their pitch-pots, and that they should no longer be made of wood-stacks or piles, as they be yet in Wiltshire and elsewhere."  It has been observed, upon this passage, that the statement of Lambarde must imply that either a beacon was now first erected on the Ness Point, or that there had previously been one composed of wood, for which a pitch-pot was now introduced, as being considered preferable. [p.40]

    While these beacons were used to light up the coast for the benefit of mariners, they were also used for the purpose of alarming the nation when a foreign invasion was expected.  When Richard II. succeeded Edward III. in 1377, fire-beacons were ordered to be established along the south coast, the keepers of which were enjoined to set them on fire so soon as they saw the enemy's vessels approach.  England was at that time without a fleet, and notwithstanding that the hill of St. Catherine's in the Isle of Wight was furnished with a chantry and a lighthouse, where a priest was maintained to say mass and keep the light burning, the French, nevertheless, landed and carried away a great deal of spoil, as they afterwards did at Winchelsea, Plymouth, Dartmouth, and elsewhere.

    Pitch-pots were not found to serve for coast-lights.  In heavy storms, when lights were of the greatest value, the pitch-pots would either be blown out or drowned out, and then all would be darkness again.  Coal was next introduced.  It was set fire to, on an open chauffer, and fed from time to time by the lighthouse keepers.  Wood continued to be used where coal was not available.  Thus the Tour de Cordouan, off the south-western coast of France, long continued to be lit up by oak billets brought from the Gascon forests.  But the English coast was mostly lit up by coal.  In fact it is not so long since coal became disused.  It was only in 1822 that the last coal fire, at Saint Bees, was extinguished.  The last man who attended the coal beacon at Harwich—where the fuel was burnt in an open grate, with a pair of bellows attached—was alive only a few years ago. [p.41]  The lighthouses at Spurn Point, and on the Isle of May at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, also continued, until a recent period, to be lit up by coal-chauffers.  The light, also, which these coal fires gave was very uncertain.  When stirred, they emitted a bright blaze, and then sunk into almost utter darkness until again roused by the attendants.

    A long time elapsed before anything practical was done to light up the coasts at night.  The Trinity House was indeed established by Henry VIII. in 1515; but it was at first more of a monastic institution than a lighthouse association.  It was denominated "The Brotherhood of the Most Glorious and Undividable Trinity."  The brethren prayed for the mariners at sea, but they did not erect lighthouses.  Their duties were enlarged by subsequent sovereigns.  They had to appoint pilots for the Thames, collect dues for ballast, and erect lights and signals.  They attended rather to the navigation of the Thames, than to the lighting of ships along the coast.  The only step they took for the purpose of lighting up the coast, was the granting of leases from the Crown, for a definite number of years, to private persons willing to find the means of building and maintaining lights, in consideration of which, authority was given them to levy tolls on passing shipping.

    The erection of lights became a matter of speculation as well as of political jobbing.  A speculative man would propose to erect a lighthouse just as he might propose to sink a coal-mine.  If there was a dangerous rock at sea, in front of a seaport, any man might propose to the Trinity House to erect a building there for the purpose of guiding ships, in which case he was allowed to levy dues on the ships that passed.  Or, if he had political influence, he might use it for the purpose of obtaining a lighthouse.  Thus a memorandum was found in the diary of Lord Grenville, to watch the king into a good humour, that he might "ask him for a lighthouse."

    There was a combination of philanthropy with speculativeness, in erecting a lighthouse.  The object was to save human life, though its net result was that it should pay its constructor a large profit.  When a lighthouse was erected on the Smalls Rock in the Bristol Channel, it was through the instrumentality of Mr. Phillips of Liverpool, a member of the Society of Friends.  His object was to erect, at his sole risk and expense, a work that should be "a great holy good to serve and save humanity."  The lighthouse was erected at considerable risk, and it was a strange-looking barracoon when finished.  It doubtless saved the lives of many seamen; but it also served the purposes of its erector, who derived a large income from it during his lifetime; and, after his death, his representatives obtained from the Trinity House not less than £170,000 by way of compensation for handing it over to the Corporation.

    There was another dangerous rock in the way of the shipping bound for Liverpool—the Skerries Islands, north-east of Holyhead.  A privilege was granted to a private speculator to erect a lighthouse there; and the dues received by the owner were so large that the Trinity Board were compelled to give him £450,000 for the rock and lighthouse, when they took it into their own hands!  A wooden lighthouse was also erected in 1698 on the Eddystone Rock as a matter of speculation; but that was soon swept away by the sea. [p.43-1]  The coasts of Cornwall and Devon were also lit up about the same period; for we are informed, in the Travels of the Grand Duke Cosmo in England about two centuries ago, that the Plymouth shipping "paid fourpence per ton for the lights which were in the lighthouses at night." [p.43-2]

    We also find from the records of the Corporation of Rye, that a light was hung out from the south-east angle of the castellated building in that town, called the Ypres Tower, as a guide for vessels entering the harbour in the night-time, and that not being found sufficient, another light was ordered by the Corporation "to be hung out o' nights on the south-west corner of the church, for a guide to vessels entering the port."  A beacon to rouse the inhabitants in case of invasion was also kindled in the old oak-tree still remaining in the neighbouring churchyard at Playden.  A light-pot used to be hung out from the spire of old Arundel Church for the purpose of guiding vessels entering the harbour of Littlehampton after dark, and the iron support of the rude apparatus is still to be seen there. [p.44]

    That lights were used for the guidance of ships may also be learnt from the practice which then prevailed among the wreckers along the Cornish coast of displaying false lights, and thus luring passing vessels to their destruction; the shipwreck season being long regarded as the harvest season in Cornwall.  With the increase of navigation, the erection of lighthouses at the more dangerous parts of the coast became a matter of urgent necessity; and it was such necessity, as we shall afterwards find, which brought to light the genius of Smeaton.


    Until the erection of the Eddystone Lighthouse by that engineer, the only stone lighthouse in Europe was the fine Tour de Cordouan, built on a flat rock off the mouth of the Garonne in the Bay of Biscay.  It was finished and lit up more than two hundred and fifty years ago; and, though one of the earliest, it continues one of the most splendid structures of the kind in existence.  It replaced a lighthouse founded by the English on the rock in 1362-71, while the Black Prince was Governor of Guienne.


Cordouan lighthouse: designed by Louis de Foix and completed in 1611.
Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

    The present stone building was begun by Louis de Foix, one of the architects of the Escurial, in 1584, in the time of Henry III., and was continued all through the reign of Henry IV., being finally completed in 1611, in the reign of Louis XIII.  Its height originally was 169 feet French; but in 1727 it was raised to the height of 175 feet French, or 1861 feet English.  The building exhibits that taste for magnificence in construction which attained its meridian in France under Louis XIV.  The tower does not receive the shock of the waves, but is protected at the base by a wall of circumvallation, which encloses the apartments for the attendants.  It is not conical like the Eddystone, but is constructed in three successive stages, angular in the interior, and consequently more susceptible of decoration than the simple and solid structures of Smeaton, Rennie, and Stevenson.

    The Tour de Cordouan is further memorable as the first lighthouse in which a revolving light was ever exhibited.




IN a country such as Britain, full of running streams, bridges form an essential part of every system of roads connecting the various districts of the kingdom with each other.  So long as the population was scanty and the intercourse between different parts of the country was of a limited character, the necessity for bridges, by which the continuity of the tracks was preserved, was probably little felt.  The shallow and broad parts of rivers, provided with a gravelly bottom, were naturally selected as the places for fords, which could be easily waded by men or horses when the water was low; and even in the worst case, when the waters were out, they could be crossed by swimming.

    Towns and villages sprang up at these fordable places, along the main lines of communication, the names of many of which survive to this day and indicate their origin.  Thus, along the line of road between London and Dover, there was first Deep Ford, now Deptford, at the crossing of the Ravensbourne—next Crayford on the river Cray—Dartford on the Darent—and Aylesford on the Medway, part of the pilgrim's road between the west of England and Becket's shrine at Canterbury.  In all other directions round London it was the same. Thus, eastward, there was Stratford [p.48-1] on the Lea, Romford on the Bourne, and Chelmsford on the Chelmer. Westward were Brentford and Twyford on the Brent, Watford on the Colne, and Oxenford or Oxford on the Isis. [p.48-2] And along the line of the Great North Road, crossing as it did the large streams descending from the high lands of the centre of England towards the North Sea, the fords were very numerous. At Hertford the Maran was crossed, at Bedford the Ouse, at Stamford the Welland, and so on through the northern counties of England.



    As population and travelling increased, the expedient of the Bridge was adopted, to enable rivers of moderate width to be crossed dryshod.  An uprooted tree thrown across a narrow stream was probably the first bridge; and he would probably be considered an ingenious man who laid down a couple of trees, fixed upon them a cross-planking, and thus enabled foot-passengers and pack-horses to cross from one bank to the other.  But these loose timber structures were very apt to be swept away by the rains of autumn, and the continuous track would again become completely broken.  In a rough district, where rocky streams with rugged banks had to be crossed, such interruptions must necessarily have led to considerable inconvenience, and hence arose the idea of tying the rocky gorges together by means of stone bridges of a solid and permanent character.

    The first of such bridges in Britain were probably those erected across the streams of Dartmoor.  The rivers of that district are rapid and turbulent in winter, and come sweeping down from the hills with great fury.  The deep gorges worn by them in the rocks amidst which they run, prevented their being forded in the usual way; and the ordinary expedient of bridging the gaps in the track by means of felled trees thrown across, was found impracticable in a district where no trees grew.  But there was an abundance of granite blocks, which not only afforded the means of forming solid piers, but were also of sufficient size to be laid in a tabular form from one pier to another, so as to constitute a solid enough road for horsemen and foot-passengers.  Hence the Egyptian-looking Cyclopean bridges of Dartmoor; a series of structures—most probably coeval with the building of Stonehenge—of the greatest possible interest.


A "clapper bridge"; this at Postbridge, Dartmoor [p.49].  Photo: Editor.

    One of the largest of these bridges is that crossing the East Dart, near Post Bridge, on the road between Moreton and Tavistock, of which a representation is given on the preceding page.  Though the structure is rude, it is yet of a most durable character, otherwise it could not have withstood the fury of the Dart for full twenty centuries, as it most probably has done.  The bridge is of three piers, each consisting of six layers of granite-slabs above the foundation.  One of the side piers, by accident or design, has unfortunately been displaced, and the tabular slabs originally placed upon it now lie in the bottom of the river.  Each of the table stones is about fifteen feet long and six feet wide, the whole structure being held together merely by the weight of the blocks.

    There are other more perfect specimens of these Cyclopean bridges in existence on Dartmoor, but none of a size equal to that above delineated.  For instance, there is one of three openings, in a very complete state, in the neighbourhood of Sittaford Tor, spanning the North Teign: it is twenty-seven feet long, with a roadway seven feet wide, and, like the others, is entirely formed of granite blocks.  There is another over the Cowsic, near Two Bridges, presenting five openings: this bridge is thirty-seven feet long and four feet broad, but it is only about three feet and a half above the surface; nevertheless it has firmly withstood the moorland torrents of centuries.  There is a fourth on the Blackabrook, consisting of a single stone or clam.  We believe that no structures resembling these bridges have been found in any other part of Britain, or even in Brittany, so celebrated for its aboriginal remains.  The only bridges at all approaching them in character are found in Ancient Egypt,—to which, indeed, they bear a striking resemblance.

    Although the Romans were great bridge-builders, it is not certain that they erected any arched stone bridges [p.52] during their occupation in England, though it is probable that they built numerous timber bridges upon stone piers.  The most important were those of Rochester, Newcastle, and London.  Not many years since, when a railway-bridge was being built across the Medway at Rochester, the workmen came upon the foundations of the ancient work in a place where no such foundations were looked for, and their solidity caused considerable interruption to the work.  So at Newcastle, when the old bridge over the Tyne was taken down in 1771, the foundations of the piers, which were laid on piles of fine black oak, in a perfect state of preservation, were found to be of Roman masonry.  Similar bridges were erected at different points along the lines of the Roman military roads wherever a river had to be crossed; and it is probable that the town of Pontefract (Pons fractus) derived its name from a broken Roman bridge in that neighbourhood, the remains of which were visible in the time of Leland.

    It is not known when the English people began to build stone bridges, after the Roman bridges had become destroyed.  The history of England was a blank for several hundred years after the Romans left.  We know next to nothing of the people who occupied the country; we can only guess at the successive migrations of the foreigners who settled in it.  The probability is, that at first they were, for the most part, barbarians, who neither built bridges nor repaired the roads which the Romans had left behind them.  Civilisation recommenced with the Church.  The early Churchmen were not only the first people who could read and write English, but they were the principal agriculturists, gardeners, and masons.  They were the first church-builders, as they were also, probably, the first bridge-builders.

    Thus, we hear of St. Swithin, Bishop of Winchester, building a bridge over the Itchin at that city in the ninth century.  He planned the bridge, and caused it to be built at his own expense.  As St. Swithin "had necessarily to go abroad upon spiritual matters, as ever, so in this instance, he cared for the common advantage of the citizens, and built a bridge of stone arches at the east gate of the city, a work which will not easily decay." [p.54]

    Bridges were also constructed, most probably through the influence of the Churchmen, at Lincoln, Durham, and other ecclesiastical cities.  These early bridges were useful, but not graceful.  They resembled a long, low series of culverts, hardly deserving the name of arches, with intervening piers of greater thickness than the span of the arch they were built to support.  They were a sort of stone embankments perforated by a multitude of small openings to let the water through.  The piers had thus very little more to support than their own weight.  Quantity was substituted for quality, and mass for elegance.


    An early bridge, which some allege to be the earliest arched stone bridge existing in England, is the singular-looking structure still standing in the immediate neighbourhood of Croyland Abbey, a few miles north of Peterborough.  It has been conjectured that the bridge, which is triangular, was erected out of the offerings of pilgrims to the shrine of St. Guthlac, the saint of the Fens, as an emblem of the Trinity. [p.55]  The bridge stands on three piers, from each of which springs the segment of a circular arch, all the segments meeting at a point in the centre.  It is situated at the junction of the three principal streets of the little town, which was originally built on piles; and along those streets the waters of the Nene, the Welland, and the Catwater respectively, used to flow and meet under the bridge.  Carrying out the Trinitarian illustration, each pier of the bridge was said to stand in a different county: one in Lincoln, the second in Cambridge, and the third in Northampton.  The road over the bridge is so steep that horses can scarcely cross it, and they usually go under it; indeed the arches underneath are now quite dry.  This curious structure is referred to in an ancient charter of the year 943, although the precise date of its erection is unknown.  On the south-west wing, facing the London road, is a sitting figure, carved in stone, very much battered about the face by the mischievous boys of the place.  The figure has a globe or orb in its hand.  It is supposed to be a statue of King Ethelbald, though it is commonly spoken of in the village as Oliver Cromwell holding a penny loaf!


Trinity Bridge, Crowland. [p.57]  Picture Wikipedia.

    The first ordinary road-bridge of which we have any authentic account is that erected at Stratford over the river Lea, several miles to the east of London.  The road into Essex by the Old Ford across the Lea is noticed as early as the seventh century.  It appears that the body of St. Erkenwald was stopped there by the flood, while being conveyed from the abbey of Barking, where he had died, for interment in London; and the body of the Saint was only conveyed across the river by the intervention of a miracle!  Many lives were afterwards lost in crossing the Old Ford, and amongst those who narrowly escaped drowning was Maud, Queen-Consort of Henry I.  Several of her attendants were drowned, while her Majesty herself was, to use Stowe's expression, "well washed in the water."

    To prevent this great danger to travellers, the Queen directed two bridges to be built over the two branches of the Lea—one at Bow, the other at Channelsea, connected by a gravel causeway; and she bequeathed certain manors and a mill to the abbess of Barking for their maintenance and repair.  The bridges were erected some time between the years 1100, when Maud became Queen, and 1118, the year of her death; and they are supposed to have been named "de Arcubus," or the Bows, because of their arched form.  Stowe says, "the bridge (of Stratford-le-Bow) was arched like a bow; a rare piece of work, for before that the like had never been seen in England."

    Notwithstanding the ample endowment of the bridges, and the additions made to it by successive benefactors, their repair seems to have been sadly neglected, and the approaches were often found impassable.  The crowns of the arches became worn into deep ruts, and they must shortly have fallen in, had not one Hugh Pratt, who lived in the neighbourhood in the time of King John, contrived, by begging aid from the passers-by, to keep the structures in repair.  His son continued the practice, and even obtained leave to levy tolls, amongst which we find the following: "For every cart carrying corn, wood, coal, &c., one penny; of one carrying tasel, two pence; and of one carrying a dead Jew, eight pence." [p.58-1]  At a still later period, we find collections made in all the churches throughout the City, for the purpose of repairing Bow Bridge, as "a work of great necessity for the passage of victual unto the inhabitants;" and in the reign of Elizabeth we find a letter, signed by Burleigh, Lincoln, Sussex, and other Lords of the Privy Council, to the Corporation, acknowledging that such collection had been made by the free-will of the citizens, and was not to be drawn into a precedent for compelling the citizens at any future time to be at the cost of repairing the said bridge. [p.58-2]

    Bow Bridge was unquestionably a structure of great utility; but though Stowe describes it as a rare piece of work, it possessed no great merit in an architectural point of view, as will be obvious from the representation on opposite page.

    This bridge, like most of the early structures, had large piers, occupying a great part of the waterway, and supporting small and low-arched openings, with high battlements for the enclosure of a roadway of the narrowest possible dimensions.  The piers were provided with large angular projections, not only to divide the force of the current, but to admit of spaces for foot-passengers to retire into, and thus avoid danger from carriages and horsemen when passing along the narrow roadway.  Indeed, its extreme narrowness, notwithstanding the attempts made to widen it, eventually led to the removal of the bridge, and the substitution of a new one of a single arch on the same site some twenty years ago.


    The great convenience of bridges gradually led to their erection along most of the principal routes through the country.  In the first place they superseded fords; and when the art of bridge-building had become more advanced, they superseded ferries—always an inconvenient, and often a dangerous, method of crossing rapid rivers.  Many towns were named because of the bridge erected in their neighbourhood.  Thus Bristol is only a corruption of Briegstow, the bridge-place, or the site where the river Avon was crossed by a bridge.  Hence also Bridgenorth, Bridgewater, Brigg, and similar names of places.

    The bridge brought the inhabitants of certain districts into immediate connection with those on the opposite bank of the river flowing between them, and enabled them freely to hold intercourse and exchange produce with each other; and the public advantages of this improved means of communication were found so great as to lead many benevolent and thoughtful men, in those early days, to bequeath large sums of money for the purpose of building and maintaining bridges, in like manner as public benefactors, in after times, left money to build and endow churches and hospitals.  Yet popular tradition in some places attributes these structures to a very different origin.  Thus the fine old bridge of three arches over the river Lune at Kirkby Lonsdale, in Westmoreland, is said to have been the work of the devil. [p.60]


Devil's Bridge, Kirkby Lonsdale.
© Copyright Alexander P Kapp and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    We have said that the religious orders early took in hand the erection and maintenance of bridges, and we owe to them some of the finest structures still extant, many others having been superseded by modern works.  An order called the Brothers of the Bridge was founded by St. Benezet, the builder of the noble bridge at Avignon early in the thirteenth century; and the brethren spread into England, and went from one work to another, building bridges and chapels thereon,—the provision of a bridge-chantry characterising nearly all their early structures in this country.  Indeed, the architecture of the early bridges in many respects resembled that of the early cathedrals.  From the point at which the piers rose above the level of the stream, ribs of stone usually spanned the openings from one pier to the other, precisely similar to the Gothic arching of cathedrals and vaults of chapter-houses; and it is most probable that the bridges and cathedrals were built by the same class of workmen.

    One of the finest of such bridges was that erected by Abbot Bernard over the Trent at Burton, until recently the longest in England.  It was 1545 feet in length, and consisted of thirty-four arches, built of squared freestone,—a most useful and substantial structure.  Another old bridge of the same period is that over the Wensum at Norwich, still called Bishop's Bridge, a singular-looking old building of patched-up stone and flint, erected in 1295.  It consists of three arches, inside of which are some grotesque heads and remains of old ornamental work.  Fairs used formerly to be held on it at Easter and Whitsuntide, as was the practice on several other old bridges.  At Leeds the weekly cloth-market was held on the bridge at the foot of Briggate, some of the old arches of which are still to be seen; the clothiers being summoned to assemble by the ringing of a bell in the old bridge-chapel, when they exposed their cloth for sale on the parapets.  But the bridge was so narrow, and the market caused so great an obstruction, that at length a special cloth-hall was built, to which the clothiers removed about the end of the last century.

    The erection of Wade Bridge over the river Camel, in Cornwall, is an example of the origin of many of these structures in early times.  The benevolent vicar of Egloshayle, lamenting the number of lives that were annually lost in crossing the ferry, determined to raise a fund sufficient to build a bridge; and success crowned his efforts.  It was erected in 1485, and claimed the distinction, with Burton Bridge, of being the longest in England.  It consisted of seventeen arches, and, though recently widened and repaired, stands firmly upon its foundations to the present day.  The vicar must have been a man of great energy, for it is recorded of him that he designed the bridge and worked diligently upon it until it was finished. [p.62]  At his death he left an endowment of £20 a year towards its maintenance.

    Rochester Bridge was an important part of the great highway between London and the Continent, and a Roman timber roadway on stone piers formed part of the ancient Watling Street.  The bridge long continued to be of timber, and we find Simon de Montfort burning it down in 1264.  Twenty years later, having been repaired in the interval, it was seriously damaged by the breaking up of the ice, the force of which, rushing down the Medway, carried away several of the piers.  It was patched up from time to time until the reign of Edward III., when the gallant Sir Robert Knolles, who had raised himself by his valour from the rank of a private soldier to that of a commander in the royal army during the wars in France, returning to England, and determining to leave behind him some useful work by which his name should be held in kindly remembrance by his countrymen, resolved upon the erection of an arched stone bridge over the Medway, and it was accordingly built at his charge and made over by him to the public.  It was completed in the fifteenth year of the reign of Richard II., and was considered one of the finest bridges at that time in England.  It had eleven arches, resting on substantial piers, the foundations of which were blown up, not many years since, by the Royal Engineers, at a considerable expenditure of gunpowder. [p.63]  A chapel was afterwards erected by Sir John Cobham at its east end, where collections were made in the usual manner for maintaining the structure.  But it appears that the moneys thus collected had been insufficient, and the bridge shortly fell into decay; for, about a century after its erection (in 1489), we find John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, adopting the extraordinary expedient of publishing a remission from purgatory for forty days, and from all manner of fines, to such persons as should give anything towards the repairs, as the bridge had by that time become very much broken.



Wakefield Bridge and the Chantry Chapel.
© Copyright RichTea and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Wakefield Chantry Chapel.
© Copyright Betty Longbottom and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    Bishop-Auckland Bridge over the Wear, and Newcastle Bridge over the Tyne, were similar Structures, maintained by the voluntary offerings collected by the priests who ministered in the chantries.  The chapel was invariably dedicated to some patron saint.  That on old London Bridge was dedicated to St. Thomas, on Bow Bridge to St. Catherine, and others were dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors.  The chapels were exceedingly picturesque objects, and were often highly decorated.  They were erected over one of the piers, about the centre of the bridge, elongated for the purpose; and a brother stood at the door to receive the offerings of the passers-by towards the repairs of the bridge and the support of the services in the chantry.  There was a chapel on a bridge in Droitwich, Worcestershire, through which the high turnpike-road passed until within a few years past; and the congregation sitting on the one side of the King's way, heard the preacher from his pulpit on the other. [p.65-1]  Nearly all these old bridge-chapels have perished, but a beautiful specimen has happily been preserved in the chantry on Wakefield Bridge, of which the preceding cut is a representation.

    This bridge is supposed to have been built by Edward Duke of York, afterwards Edward IV., in memory of his father and followers who fell at the battle of Wakefield during the wars of the Roses.  It was richly endowed, that prayers might be offered up there for the souls of the slain, and especially of poor little Rutland.  However this may be, the bridge chantry at Wakefield, which has recently been renovated in excellent taste, and is still used for evening service, is one of the most beautiful and interesting of these ancient structures.  The entrance to the chapel is directly from the roadway, and it stands upon an elongated pier obviously erected for the purpose, and forming part of the original structure.  The bridge itself has undergone many changes, in order to adapt it to the improved modes of travelling.  When chaises, stage-coaches, and waggons came into general use, the old erections were found altogether inadequate for the traffic.  They were very narrow, [p.65-2] and often very steep; and though they had been well enough adapted for the foot-passenger, the horseman, and the pack-horse convoy, many of them did not admit of sufficient width for the convenient passage of wheeled vehicles.  The picturesque gateways at the ends of old bridges—such as existed over the Ouse at York and the Monnow at Monmouth, as shown in the next cut—were also found to be a great obstacle to stage-coach travelling.  The arched gateways did not admit of the passage of a coach without danger to the outside passengers; and where it was not found practicable to turn the thoroughfare another way, they were shortly demolished.  The bridges themselves were widened and enlarged; and though in many cases, as at Wakefield, the old piers were included in the new work, the original picturesque character of the bridge was in a great measure destroyed.

    Notwithstanding the increased necessity for such structures, the art of bridge-building seems to have fallen into decay and become almost a lost art until about the middle of last century; and whilst many of the erections of the Brothers of the Bridge continued to stand firm on their foundations, as they had done for centuries, the bridges of more modern construction were liable to be swept away by the next winter's flood.

    The only mode of securing foundations was the clumsy one of throwing loose stones promiscuously into the bed of the river, so as to find their own bearing, and then, on the top of these loose stones, the stonework of the starlings was erected.  The piers were built up on the foundations thus rudely formed; but they were constantly liable, as may be readily imagined, to be unsettled, undermined, and carried away by the rapid flow of the river.


    No architect of eminence devoted himself to bridge-building; and although Inigo Jones furnished the design for the bridge of Llanrwst, over the Conway in Wales, in 1634, it was a work of a comparatively unimportant character, and the only one of the kind on which he seems to have been employed.  In the plan of this bridge the pointed arch is no longer adopted, but three segmental arches, the middle of which is of the span of fifty-eight feet.  The roadway approached the horizontal line, and was of sufficient breadth to accommodate carriage traffic.  On the whole, the design was of a very modern character, and was probably adopted, to a considerable extent, as a model by succeeding bridge-builders.


Pont Fawr, Llanrwst.
A steep and elegant but very narrow stone bridge designed by Inigo Jones and built in 1636.
© Copyright Eirian Evans and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The work, however, seems to have been so badly done, that it was shortly after found necessary to rebuild one of the arches; and to this day the bridge is known as "the shaking bridge," as it does not stand very firmly on its foundations.  The people of the locality consider this a merit, as it certainly is a curiosity, and they attribute the "shaking of the bridge" [p.68] to the "very nice principles on which it is built."  But that the bridge should shake or rock could have formed no part of Inigo Jones's design, and that it stands at all must be attributable mainly to the fact of its foundation being upon a rock, which cannot be undermined and washed away.


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