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The Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon
Chapter I. Early Days


Dumbarton is one of the oldest towns in Scotland, able to boast of authentic history for nearly fifteen hundred years. It was constituted a Free Royal Burgh by Alexander II. in 1222, and received fresh charters from his successors, which were confirmed by James VI. shortly after the union of the kingdoms. This historic town was the home of the Napiers and the Dennys.

Robert Naiper or Napier, son of John Naiper, was the grandfather of the subject of this biography, and he was born in the year 1726. He followed the calling of a blacksmith in Dumbarton, and about 1750 married Jean Denny, by whom he had a large family. Three of his sons— John, Robert, and James—followed the trade of their father, and were in their day well known as workers in iron. John, the eldest, along with his brother James, continued the business in Dumbarton, while Robert went to Inveraray and became smith to the Duke of Argyll.

Each of these three men had a son who followed in his father’s footsteps, and came to great eminence in the engineering world.

Robert Napier was descended from the youngest branch of the family. His father, James Napier, was born in 1764, and in 1789 he married Jean Ewine, who came from Rosneath. Their family consisted of six sons—Robert, Peter, James, John, David, William—and one daughter who was married to Mr Archibald Reid. Their eldest child died in infancy. Robert, their second, was born on the 18th June 1791, and baptised on the following day, from which fact we may presume he was not robust.

At the date of his birth his father was engaged in business in Dumbarton as a master smith, in conjunction with his brother John. John Napier at that time had a foundry in which were two steam-engines, one for blowing the cupola, and the other, of the Newcomen type, for working a primitive boring mill. Few steam-engines then existed in the west of Scotland, and part of the cannon cast at Clyde Iron Works were sent here to be finished. “Born with the hammer in his hand,” as he was wont to say, Robert at an early age was sent to school in Dumbarton, where he was instructed in English and the elementary branches of knowledge, including Latin and French.

The most notable among his teachers was a Mr Traill who had been connected with Messrs Dixons’ Glass Works, which was then the chief industry in the burgh. Under Traill’s tuition he developed a special aptitude for mechanical and architectural drawing, which was carefully fostered by his master.

His father was anxious to give his children a good education, and, in accordance with Scottish custom, Robert, being the eldest, was intended for the Church, but when the time came that he should go to college the hereditary taste for the anvil proved too strong. The education for the ministry was thus bestowed on his younger brother Peter, who graduated in 1810, and afterwards became minister of the Blackfriars Church in Glasgow.

Accordingly Robert, at the age of fourteen, began to work with his father, but at first a regular apprenticeship was not entered into.

In those days raids by the press-gang were frequently made on the Royal Burgh, and in one of these he was nearly captured. To prevent such an accident, as an apprentice was not liable to impressment, an indenture to serve his father was drawn out on 4th September 1809, which ran as follows :—

This Indenture of the date underwritten entered into and executed by and betwixt James Napier, Blacksmith, in Dumbarton on the one part and Robert Naiper, his son, with the special advice of Robert Denny in Greenhead as cautioner for him doth witness that the said Robert Naiper hath become bound and hereby binds and engages himself as an apprentice to the said James Naiper his heirs or assigns in the art and trade of a Blacksmith and that for the full time and space of five years compleat from and after the commencement of his apprenticeship which is declared to have been upon the first day of September eighteen hundred and seven years notwithstanding the date hereof during which space the said Robert Naiper as principal and the said Robert Denny as caution with and for him bind and oblige them jointly and severally their heirs and successors that the said Robert Naiper apprentice shall at no time be absent or divest himself from his said Master’s service without leave asked and obtained (sickness excepted) that he shall by no means reveal or discover to any person or persons whatever any secrets he may come to know or be instructed in relative to any branch or branches of his said Master’s business and that he shall not be privy to nor know of anything that may tend to the hurt or prejudice of his said Master without giving him the earliest notice thereof and endeavouring to prevent the same and that he shall faithfully honestly and diligently serve and obey his said Master by night and by day in these branches of a blacksmith’s trade which shall be assigned to him or in any other branch of trade connected therewith, and for each day’s absence excepting as above he shall serve two days at the'expiry hereof which absent days shall be sufficiently verified and ascertained by the account thereof taken from the book of his said Master and attested by him.

For which causes on the other part the said James Napier the Master and Peter Cochrane, Shipmaster in Dumbarton, as cautioner for him bind and oblige themselves and their heirs and successors that the said James Naiper shall teach and instruct or cause the said Robert Napier to be taught and instructed in the art and trade of a blacksmith aforesaid or in any other branch of trade connected therewith excercised by the Master at which the said apprentice may be set to work and that so far as the Master knows and practises or the said apprentices capacity can reach and shall use his best endeavours to render the said apprentice skilled and expert therein and that the Master shall entertain as he hereby becomes bound to entertain the apprentice -at bed and board during the whole period of his apprenticeship Sundays excepted suitable to his station and in the same manner in which his other apprentices are or have been accommodated and the said parties oblige themselves to perform their respective parts of the promise each to the other under the penalty of ten pounds sterling to be paid by the party failing to the party observing or willing to observe. Over and besides performance consenting to the registration hereof in the books of Council and Session or others competent for preservation and that letters of horning on a charge of six days and all other execution necessary may pass thereon in form as effeirs and constitute Prors. In witness whereof these presents are written on stamped paper by Archibal Colquhoun Writer in Dumbarton an agent duly licensed possessed of the legal certificate and subscribed at Dumbarton the fourth day of September one thousand eight hundred and nine years before those witnesses William Lang Senior Merchant in Dumbarton and the said Archibald Colquhoun writer hereof.

William Lang, witness.    James Naiper.
A. Colquhoun, witness.    Robert Naiper.
Peter Cochran. Robert Denny.

It will be observed that, notwithstanding the date of the signatures, the apprenticeship was declared to have commenced two years earlier, on first September 1807; it may also be noticed that his kinsman, Mr Denny, was his cautioner.

To prevent impressment, the deed was at once produced to a Justice of the Peace, and endorsed by him in the following terms :—

At Dumbarton the 4th day of September 1809 in presence of one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the County of Dumbarton compeared James Naiper within designed and in terms of the eightieth and eighty first sections of the Act of the forty-ninth of George III. Cap. 12: entitled an Act for punishing mutiny and desertion and for the better payment of the Army and their quarters produced the written Indenture entered into between him and the also within designed Robert Napier of this date and which Indenture is here endorsed by the said Justice of the Peace in terms of the said Act of Parliament.

On 6th October 1812 young Napier completed his apprenticeship, and was duly discharged by his father.

I James Napier within designed in respect that the also within designed Robert Napier has served me as my apprentice in terms of the within Indenture for the whole years therein contained properly and faithfully therefore I do hereby exoner and discharge him and the within designed Robert Denny his cautioner of the said Indentures whole purport and effect thereof so far as the same was incumbent on him and his cautioner and oblige myself to warrant this discharge at all hands. In witness whereof I subscribe this discharge written on the back of the Indenture by Archibald Colquhoun within designed at ^Dumbarton the sixth day of October eighteen hundred and twelve years.

Before these witnesses the said Archibald Colquhoun and James Donald apprentice to John McAulay Writer in Dumbarton.

A. Colquhoun, witness.    
James    Naiper.
James Donald, witness.

During this apprenticeship he acquired some experience as a millwright, working at the machinery in the calico works in the Yale of Leven, which his father was commissioned to alter and overhaul.

James Napier was a stern upright man, and under the strict tuition of such a father the son soon acquired great proficiency in his craft. Possessed of more than average abilities, he became a first-rate workman, especially in ornamental smith-work, of which accomplishment he was always very proud. In his spare moments he occupied himself making small tools, drawing instruments, guns, gun-locks, &c., and perfecting his drawing under Mr Traill.

He always considered that he was under great obligations to Mr Traill for inculcating that love of the fine arts which he cultivated with such assiduity in his later years.

On completion of his apprenticeship he worked for a short time in Dumbarton as a journeyman. Thereafter, being anxious to see the world, he set out for Edinburgh, fortified with a certificate of character from the minister of the parish, and a small supply of money from his father.

He had a struggle to get work in the Scottish metropolis, and at the outset had to content himself with such low wages that in his own words “he had often to count the lamp-posts for his supper.” After some time he obtained a better situation from Mr Robert Stevenson, the eminent lighthouse engineer, and remained with him for a year or more.

There is a story told that a blunder in a first attempt to construct a boiler so mortified him that he terminated his connection with the east country; but, whether this be apocryphal or not, we find him in Glasgow, in 1814, working as a journeyman smith with Messrs William Lang & Sons, in the Old Wynd. With a view to further advancement he endeavoured to join the Incorporation of Hammermen, giving in as his “essay” a screw bolt and nnt; but being unable for some reason to produce a burgess ticket, he was evidently not admitted.

His views at this period were modest, and he applied for a foreman’s place with a firm in the country, but not succeeding in obtaining the situation, he returned to his native town and again worked with his father for a short time.

His uncle, John Napier, had gone to Glasgow in 1802, and young Robert resolved to follow his example, as there was more scope there than in Dumbarton. Having borrowed £50 from his father, he bought the tools and goodwill of a small smith’s shop in Greyfriars Wynd, and there began business in May 1815. His rent did not exceed £20 per annum, and at first only two apprentices were employed.

His grandfather and father had been members of the Incorporation of Hammermen, and his uncle had attained to the dignity of Deacon of the Society, so he again made an effort to join this body, and having overcome the difficulty of his burgess ticket, he was admitted. The entry in the register of the Hammermen reads thus: “25th August 1815, Robert Napier, Smith in Glasgow, a Freeman's son, made and gave in a Bored Hammer as his Essay, and showed his burgess ticket, which is dated 21st August 1815.” This hammer passed out of his possession for many years; but he recovered it, and in his old age wrote the following account of its history :—

“This ‘Essay' Hammer was made by Robt. Napier in 1815, in presence of Two of the Master Court of the Corporation of Hammermen, Glasgow, being forged out of a piece of square bar of Iron and Steeled on both ends or faces of the Hammer at only Three! successive heats in the fire. At this period every Blacksmith, before being’ admitted into the Corporation of Hammermen, was bound to prove that he was a good Tradesman.”

It may be added that he was very proud of this “essay” hammer, and in 1868, at a gathering of several thousands of his employees, he displayed it as a proof of his early skill.

Little is known of his struggles in his first shop, but at length business success began to show itself, and he acquired such confidence in his prospects that he had a sign painted at the corner of the wynd, “Robert Napier, Engineer and Blacksmith.”

He directed his attention to smith-work in general and the construction of Bramah presses, doing also a little millwright work, such as the making of cog-wheels, &c.

His cousin David, son of Robert Napier of Inveraray, had gone south to London to push his fortune, and occasional letters passed, the London cousin sending to his Scottish relative particulars of Messrs Maudslay’s presses, and other interesting information on mechanical topics, which he turned to advantage.

In little over two years’ time Robert Napier had made a name for himself in Glasgow, and was chosen for the important office of Collector to the Hammermen, a position which he filled with such acceptance that he was subsequently elected Deacon of the Incorporation. He seems to have taken a deep interest in the affairs of the society, as the records show that he attended every meeting during his year of office. The formal meetings were held in the Trades’ House; but at this time the ordinary business was transacted in the Swan and the Gardeners’ taverns, where the Master Court regularly met.

In 1818 he married his cousin Isabella, daughter of John Napier, and began housekeeping in Weaver Street, not far from his smithy.

His wife's family were in fairly affluent circumstances, and through his marriage he came into closer relationship with her brother, David Napier, who by this time had started a foundry at Camlachie, where he was making marine engines.

David had taken part in producing the machinery of the Comet, had tackled the problem of deep-sea navigation, and was now considered the most prominent man in the new marine engineering world. For the ensuing twenty years the careers of the two cousins were closely identified; and as Robert followed in David’s footsteps, a short sketch of his life may be of interest.


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