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