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The Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon
Chapter III. Camlachie


In 1821 Robert Napier entered into a lease of his cousin’s premises at Camlachie, and removed his dwelling-place to White-vale. The rent of the foundry was £300 a-year, including the use of tools; but as this sum was more than ten times what he had been paying for his old shop, and as there was considerable risk in the venture, he had the option of giving up the lease at the end of the first year. Though a great advance on what he had hitherto been working with, the plant at Camlachie was of the most modest description. There were a few 10-inch and 12-inch lathes, a rude horizontal boring-mill, a vertical machine, and the necessary appliances for making castings; but even with these tools he succeeded in turning out first-class work.

One of his first steps was to fix upon a good works manager. In making this selection, he was most fortunate in securing the services of Mr David Elder, who continued with him for forty years. Mr Elder came from the east country, and was a very sterling upright man. He was a millwright to trade, and would turn out nothing but the most solid work, on which he put the most accurate finish. He was nearing forty years of age when Mr Napier engaged him, and a good deal of millwright work had previously passed through his hands.

Established in his new premises, Napier undertook a contract for large water-pipes for the City of Glasgow, which he executed satisfactorily. The first order for machinery came from Mr Boyack, of Dundee. It was for an engine of 12 H.P., to be used in driving a mill; and so well and substantially was this made that it was running at the date of Mr Napier’s death, fully fifty years afterwards. Orders of a similar nature followed, and he also made numerous land engines. Robert Napier, however, perceiving that there was a great future in steam navigation, desired more especially to construct marine engines like those with which his cousin David had been so successful.

Failures were then more frequent than successes, and as he was an untried man as a marine engineer, he had great difficulty in attaining his wishes.

Through his Dumbarton connection he was acquainted with the Langs, and from them he ultimately, in 1823, succeeded in getting an order for the engine of a luggage-boat they were about to build.

As so much hung on the satisfactory carrying out of this contract, he bestowed on his first marine engine his best skill and finish, introducing improvements on the condenser, air-pump, slide-valves, &c., and taking special care to have the framework strong and rigid. The Leven succeeded beyond his most sanguine hopes, and her engine, after lasting out three hulls, finally found a resting-place on a pedestal at Dumbarton Castle as a monument to the constructor.

This order was speedily followed by others, and he was now constantly employed as a marine engineer, constructing machinery for river boats and larger vessels, such as the Belfast steamers Aim-well and St Andrew, in the running of which he appears to have been interested.

It may be noted that in the early days of steam navigation the builder was frequently the owner of the vessel, and it was generally owing to his initiation that new routes were started. Thus in 1818 David Napier began the Belfast trade with his steamer Rob Roy, and in 1826 Robert Napier made a further forward stride in the same trade with the Eclipse, which he in great part owned. At the time she was described as “the most complete vessel of her size ever built on the Clyde; in point of sailing unequalled by any vessel; built of the best British oak, copper-sheathed and fastened, with double side-lever engines, having cylinders 35 inches in diameter, warranted equal in construction and workmanship to the best engines made.”

Being desirous of selling this vessel, and hearing that some of the London companies wanted crack steamers, he went to London in the spring of 1827, and stayed with his Inveraray cousin, David Napier, who was then becoming known as a skilled mechanic, especially in connection with the invention of the rotary printing-presses, so much used in later years in the production of the ‘ Illustrated London News’ and other papers.

Messrs Maudslay were then reckoned the most famous engineers in London, and being desirous of seeing their works, Napier approached them through his cousin, who had at one time been in their employment. He received a most gratifying reply to his request for permission to visit their premises :—

Mr Maudslay’s respectful compliments to Mr Napier, and begs to say he always feels more gratification in meeting or seeing any gentleman who has a knowledge of the business he is engaged in than the thousands who go about taking up the time without gaining any information. . . . Mr M. will therefore be glad to see Mr N. either on the receipt of this or at 4 o’clock, or to-morrow morning, Friday.

Lambeth, March 1, 1827.

This letter was specially complimentary, as the London engineers did not then throw open their works readily for inspection.

He was at this time living quietly at 31 White vale, and there are few letters of general interest extant. There is, however, one from his friend Dr Chalmers, who had just resigned the charge of St John’s in Glasgow, on his appointment to the Chair of Moral Philosophy in St Andrews University.

Kirkcaldy, November 13, 1823.

Dear Sir,—Having had no time in Glasgow, I wish to thank you (now on my way to St Andrews) for the use that you so kindly allowed us of a child’s coach, from which our little daughter derived a great deal of enjoyment, and also of substantial benefit.

May I beg my most affectionate regards to Mrs Napier and your brother.

I should have called along with Mr Sommerville upon you for the purpose of introducing him to your acquaintance. This I was not able to accomplish, but I hope that you will soon meet, and that he will prove a blessing in the highest sense of the word to your family.

It is my great wish that the chapel shall prove a blessing to your immediate neighbourhood.

Give my compliments when you see him to your cousin, David Napier, Esq.—I am, dear Sir, yours truly,    Thomas Chalmers.

The brother Dr Chalmers referred to was the Rev. Peter Napier, who was then assistant minister in the High Church, in Glasgow, from which in the following year he was presented to the church of St Georges-in-the-Fields, a charge then newly created. In later years Dr Napier became minister of the Blackfriars, or what was more commonly known as the College Church of Glasgow, a position which he occupied till his death, which took place in 1865.

Robert Napier was now no longer an unknown engineer, and his reputation as the best engineer on the Clyde was established in 1827.

The Northern Yacht Club, at their regatta in August of that year, offered a cup, valued at twenty guineas, for the swiftest steam-boat. The course was from Rothesay Bay round boats moored at the north end of the Great Cumbrae, and back to Rothesay. Several steamers entered for the race. The contest was an exciting one, occupying nearly three hours, but in the end victory lay with Napier’s steamers, the Clarence winning the cup, and the Helensburgh coming in a good second. This apparently trivial incident was one of the most important events in his life, and had a material bearing on his subsequent career.

Up to this point his life had been a laborious struggle to obtain a subsistence, and his position little more than that of an industrious master mechanic.

His success changed the situation. Orders, not only from Glasgow but from other quarters, flowed in on him, and he began to find himself in affluent circumstances.

He now entered into negotiations with his cousin for the purchase of Camlachie Works which he had hitherto leased; and to meet the growing requirements of his business he resolved to obtain premises near the Clyde. A favourable opportunity presented itself of acquiring the works at the foot of Washington Street, where Mr M'Arthur had carried on business as a marine engineer, and he availed himself of it.


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