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Kirkintilloch Town and Parish
Peter Neilson, Poet


Peter Neilson was born in Glasgow, on 24th September, 1795. His father, George Neilson, descended from the Neilsons of Camoquill, near Balfron, Stirlingshire, settled at an early age in Glasgow. In 1785 he commenced a calender, succeeded well, and acquired property in Bell Street, on ground now covered by the police buildings and the bazaar. Our author was the youngest of nine children; and, what is worth noting, was the seventh son of a seventh son. . . . After receiving a liberal education at the Glasgow Grammar — now the High — School, and the University, the subject of our memoir was sent to learn business in the office of a Mr. Blackburn. After various employments, he was ultimately engaged with his father in exporting cambrics and cotton goods to America, and visited that country some time before 1820. On his return to Glasgow in that year, he married his cousin, Miss Elizabeth Robertson. In 1822 he sailed again to the States with his wife and infant daughter, and continued in business there for six years. In 1826, his father died in Charleston, South Carolina.

During this time, in his business capacity, Mr. Neilson visited nearly all the States of the Union, and collected much valuable information regarding our transatlantic cousins. On returning once more to Glasgow with his family in 1828, he published a volume, entitled “Six Years' Residence in America,” recording, in a clear and accurate manner his impressions of the country, and replete with lively incident and anecdote. The death of his affectionate wife some time afterwards considerably affected Mr. Neilson, and led him to find increased solace in literary pursuits. In 1834 he published a volume of poetry, comprising “The Millennium,” a long and elaborate poem, and some smaller pieces, named “Scripture Gems.” For “The Millennium,” Dr. Chalmers, one of the fathers of the Free Church of Scotland, was the first subscriber. Having perused the poem in manuscript, he wrote to the author, “Your poems indicate a very considerable degree of accomplishments and power.” At the same time, Professor Wilson wrote of him to a Glasgow bookseller, “He is a man of talent.”

In 1841, Mr. Neilson removed from Glasgow to Kirkintilloch, in which suburban town for many years afterwards his unmarried sister, an accomplished lady, in addition to superintending the training of Mr. Neilson’s motherless family, which then consisted of three daughters and one son, conducted a seminary for the education of young ladies.....Mr. Neilson contributed miscellaneous pieces, in prose and verse, to several periodicals, of which may be mentioned a series of communications to the Glasgow Herald on “Cotton Supply for Britain,” a subject on which he was well qualified by experience to write.

On 8th January, 1848, long before iron-plated ships had been built in this country, Mr. Neilson sent a letter to Lord John Russell, accompanied with a sketch of the invention, the receipt of which was duly acknowledged :—

Kirkintilloch, 8th January, 1848.

My Lord,

You are aware that there now exists considerable excitement throughout the kingdom in regard to that most important question, “Is Britain at present quite prepared to cope with or repel a powerful invading army?” I, therefore, respectfully, yet most earnestly, solicit your Lordship’s attention to the following; and I take this same liberty of directly addressing you, for the very obvious reason, that should my suggestions be really found worthy of attention, the most profound secrecy should be maintained on this point, except to such individuals as your Lordship may deem worthy of confidence.

I believe it will not be denied that Britain’s most advantageous place to contend with an enemy is the ocean which surrounds her. Britain’s best policy does not consist in maintaining an immense armed force of her citizens, ready at all times to contend with a powerful invading foe on her own soil; no, it consists in her being able totally to prcvc7tt an enemy from ever planting a foot on her hallowed shores.

In the full confidence that, should my suggestions be approved of

Peter Neilson,

by your Lordship, you will not suffer them to lie dormant one day, I at once beg to lay my plans before you in the briefest possible manner.

I am aware that you will think it a bold assertion, yet I do not hesitate to advance it, being convinced that the strictest investigation will bear me out in the main points, that with six, or even four, steam vessels, constructed and armed in the peculiar manner which I am now to describe, an invading fleet of 100 sail, might not only be greatly annoyed, but almost totally destroyed in the space of two hours.

I purpose, then, in the first place, that a number of vessels, to be impelled by steam on the screw principle, or by a single paddle-wheel in the middle of the vessel, should be immediately built,—measuring about 140 feet in length by 35 feet beam (1000 tons or so per register) —and that they should be constructed in the strongest and most substantial manner of timber ; and that all round, from the water-line and six feet upwards, they should be covered or lined with planks (if I may be allowed the expression) or blocks of solid malleable iron four inches thick, firmly bolted to the timber work, thus rendering the interior of the vessel perfectly safe from any projectiles which an enemy could bring forward at the present time. Were Government to order a few experiments to be made, say at Woolwich, by firing the heaviest ordnance now in use, at a target composed of strong timber-work (such as a ship’s side), and faced with four-inch thick blocks of malleable iron, I believe it would be found that no ball could perforate the same; and, 1 may remark, that if the surface of the iron. be well greased, unless when projected at right angles, or within a very few degrees of a right angle, the balls would immediately glance off. These blocks I should recommend to be made of the best iron, and in general about 8 feet in length by 12 to 24 inches broad, weighing respectively u£ and 23 cwts.

Your Lordship will, no doubt, should you consider my project feasible and practicable, consult professional men on the subject; still, I lay great stress on your Lordship’s own opinion, feeling convinced that if Britain’s security can be enhanced thereby, you will exert yourself to carry out the proposed plans. At first view you will be apt to conceive that such a dead-weight of metal above water-mark will render the vessel I have described top-heavy. I beg to state that the weight of the whole metal required would be only about 130 tons, and when it is considered that neither masts nor yards nor other top-gear would be required, and that such a vessel would require about 300 tons of heavy ballast next to her floor timbers, and that the weight of her machinery, engines, and fuel would be very considerable, it will be seen that she would float upright and steady.

In the second place, I purpose that this vessel should be armed with one very large piece of artillery, to carry either a solid iron ball of two feet in diameter, weighing 2000 lbs., or a hollow ball of same diameter, weighing about 1,200 lbs., and filled with explosive materials, and discharged in such a manner that it would explode immediately it pierced the side of an enemy’s ship.

A vessel such as I refer to, might advance to any invading fleet, and select her object without danger to her own hull, machinery, and men; and, can it be doubted, that a ball discharged by her at a short distance could fail of disabling or sinking even the largest man-of-war, or, in the case of a steamer, completely destroying her machinery?

To project such a ball as I refer to effectively would require a cannon of fully two feet in diameter in the bore, and the latter about twenty feet in length, allowing the sides to average twelve inches in thickness, and allow three solid feet at the breech—such a piece would weigh just about fifty tons. Being properly fixed or suspended in the vessel to fire over the bow in a line with the surface of the water, and at an elevation of about three feet above sea-level, it would scarcely miss its object. It might be discharged and loaded (by aid of some simple machinery) twenty or thirty times in an hour.

Should it be objected, How could such an immense cannon be cast and bored? I merely answer, if bells have been cast in China and Russia weighing from 60 to 200 tons and upwards, will powerful, enlightened, and mechanical Britain pause at such a difficulty? And, if it should be proven that four or six such vessels as I refer to could discomfit a powerful enemy, what might they not do when backed and supported by a fleet of British liners and war steamers?

Should Government ever adopt any part of my plan, there is no doubt but, as soon as publicly known, other Powers will also endeavour to avail themselves of the same plan of operation ; but, would it not be a matter of great moment, that Britain, in case of an invasion (which heaven avert!) would be ready to meet her foes with an altogether novel and tremendous engine of destruction? The complete discomfiture of a powerful enemy in such an unexpected manner would effectually check any attempt at further invasion for at least one generation. But your Lordship will perceive that the more secretly

Peter Neilson.

and speedily such a force was got ready the better. I may further remark, that I reckon upon the principle, that these steamers are intended only for home or channel service, and not for long voyages. Neither, I allow, could they dperate well unless in moderate weather.

I should reckon that 100 to 150 hands would be sufficient for such, but I need not enter into particulars at present. I merely offer general suggestions, leaving abler and more experienced hands to do their iwn improvements.

I may yet further remark that the plan of applying blocks of iron to the outside of vessels might be used beneficially in regard to ships of the line, especially in relation to the lower decks, and even the main decks of first-rates. Supposing these blocks of iron to be firmly bolted (taking out four inches of the wooden planking) on the space between the port-holes to the breadth or depth of five feet, it would render the whole space ’tween decks (excepting such projectiles as might enter at the port-holes) comparatively secure. In such a case, the chance in favour as to death and wounds would be as eight to three under the present mode. In a first-rate, for the lower deck, the weight of iron four inches thick for both sides would be about 100 tons, thereby immerging the vessel only five inches deeper in the water.

And now, if your Lordship has indulged me thus far, I must apologize for such a long letter. I am actuated by deep feelings for the welfare and glory of my native land, and shall be proud indeed should any suggestions of mine tend to her future safety. Should your Lordship conceive my hints worthy of notice, I am aware that with you to think will be followed by prompt and efficient acting. There is much in your power: and should you, in a quiet and unostentatious way, have a new arm of war ready in case of need the more will be the glory. Allow me to state, in conclusion, that in June, 1846, I received a letter from the Lords of the Admiralty, approving of certain improvements I had made in the life-buoy (and which, if put in operation, might lie the means of saving annually not a few lives), a description and model of which I had sent them. They also recommended me to take out a patent for the same; but as it costs a heavy sum to obtain such, under present circumstances I have been unable to avail myself of it.

I have the honour to lie,

Your Lordship’s humble Servant,

P. Neilson.

Mr. Neilson died at Eastside, Kirkintilloch, on 3rd May, 1861, in his sixty-sixth year. The following is an extract from his poem on “The World’s Fair, in London, 1851 —

“Now enter there, good stranger,—what a blaze
Of light prevails—no wonder that you gaze
In mute astonishment. Two thousand feet
Of crystal walls in one continuous street
Stretches before you ; on each side huge piles
Of earth's vast riches may indeed cause smiles;
Brighten your countenance. Here Britain shows
Piles upon piles arranged in stately rows
Of sterling broad-cloth, fit to grace the frame
Of king or prince, or peasant,—*tis the same;
Good honest stuff, all made of Spanish wool,
But manufactured by old Johnny Bull.
Here’s bales and trunks of muslin, all so fine,
They’d deck the Graces or the Muses nine,
But that we’re told those ladies wore no clothes—
Bad customers for weavers we’ll suppose.
Muslins and shawls from Scotland heap on heap—
Come, ladies, buy, you’ll find them good and cheap.
Here’s hose from isles of farthest Shetland sent,
Warm gloves for use and not mere ornament;
Fine table-cloths from old Dunfermline town,
Tartans from Bannockburn of old renown,
Rich plaids from Glasgow—glory of the Clyde!
Embroidery from Ayr on Doon’s fair side,
Muslins from Paisley, crapes from Paisley too,
Kilmarnock caps of worsted red and blue—
Old Caledonia sends no useless trash,
But sterling goods quite worthy of the cash.
Look to the other side. Behold the gay
And gallant Frenchman, like a flower in May ;
He smiles so gracefully, and points out where
You’ll find his silks, his jewellery, and ware
Of various sorts. A crystal bottle stands—
Three men inside at dinner—lift your hands,
And clap them loud! Are not these Frenchmen clever?
Why, yes/says Jonathan, I guess I never
Saw such a crystal in my blessed life;
I’ll buy it as a present to my wife.”

A DREAM OF MY WIFE
December, 1849.

“And have I seen thee once again, my sweet,
My best beloved? and shall we once more meet
And hold dear intercourse, my darling wife,
Thou that were dearer to me far than life?
I saw thee in a visioh, even last night,
Thy countenance all radiant, sweet and bright,
And fond as ever; held thee in my arms,
And gazed in rapture on thy well-known charms.

“Oh I what a pure, a holy calm delight
Pervades my bosom, vision of the night!
What comfort, peace, dost thou infuse within
My drooping heart, while in this world of sinI yet remain!
Oh ! how much need haveI Of aid celestial!—here, alas!
I sigh And mourn my sins, my errors, yet would rise
Above all earthly frailties, seek the skies,
And see those glories, beauties, all divine,
Which round the throne of God for ever shine.”


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