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The Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon
Chapter VII. Lancefield House


It has been previously mentioned that there existed an intimate connection between Robert and his cousin, David Napier, from whom he had acquired the Camlachie Foundry. Robert was now carrying on an extensive business in the Vulcan Works, but finding them too small to overtake the contracts offered him, he again approached his cousin in a characteristic letter.

“Whitevale, 7th Nov. 1835, 8 p.m.

“Dear Cousin,—I once heard you say that you would either let or sell your premises at Lancefield. Are you so disposed still ? If so, the rent for the whole, or the lowest price for the whole, and the terms of payment ? At present I could not venture to withdraw cash from my business to pay you cash, but I would pay part.—I am, yours sincerely,

“R. Napier.”

David seemed desirous of leaving Glasgow, and the negotiations thus abruptly entered on were concluded at once, as the following letter shows :—

Lancefield, 7th Nov. 1835.

Dear Cousin, — I hereby become bound to let to you for twelve years from Whitsunday next, the whole heritable property belonging to me at Lancefield for £500 a-year, payable in equal instalments at Martinmas and Whitsunday, you having a right to purchase it within the first seven years of the lease on paying £20,000. If a sale takes place, £5000 to be paid down in cash, and the remainder in equal instalments, including interest; and during the other five years of the lease I shall not be at liberty to sell it without first offering it to you. During the course of the lease you pay all public burdens.—I am, dear Cousin,

David Napier.

On completion of the agreement, Robert at once removed his residence from White-vale to Lancefield House, and it may be noted in passing that he exercised his right of purchase within the stipulated time, and became proprietor in 1841. The Lancefield property included a tidal basin; and in after years the Clyde Trustees, in a very hectoring and bullying manner, endeavoured to take this away, even threatening force, to which threat Napier rejoined that he would repel force by force. They then engaged in litigation, and the upshot of the matter was that Napier succeeded in thoroughly defeating them, getting a special Act of Parliament, by. which he remained undisputed master of his dock.

In the closing years of his life it was purchased by the Trustees at a very large price. In fact, he got twice as much for the dock as he paid for the whole Lance-field property.

About this time he entered into a new agreement with his manager, Mr Elder, for a period of seven years. His salary was to be £250 per annum, and 7s. 6d. for each Nominal Horse-Power his employer contracted for, which bonus came to a large sum. There was an unusual clause introduced into the contract—viz., that Elder was to have the right of making plans for his own private use. When this engagement expired it was renewed for other five years, and Napier, in an interesting postscript to a letter written in November 184:2 to his friend Mr Moncrieff, says: “You will perceive Mr Elder and I have arranged, in the spirit of true friendship, for another lease of each other’s services for five years, if we are spared together so long. If all is right with both of us, it should nearly, I think, terminate the laborious and active part of our lives.” His prognostications, however, were so far from being fulfilled that he continued actively engaged in business for nearly thirty-five years after this date.

In those days it was customary to have engagements extending over a period of years with leading hands and foremen. Thus in 1828 Mr Napier had brought James Thomson from Manchester to act as leading smith, finisher, and turner for a period of years. He was to receive the sum of £10 to defray the expense of conveying his family from Manchester to Glasgow, and a wage of 36s. per week, to be paid fortnightly; and a formal stamped document was drawn out embodying this agreement. A new engagement was entered into on 8th June 1838, reading thus :—

It is hereby agreed between James Thomson and Robert Napier that the said James Thomson shall give the whole of his personal services for the term of five years from and after this date. On the other hand, Robert Napier to pay the said James Thomson a yearly salary of £120 sterling, with a bonus of £5 for every pair of engines that are finished and set agoing from the Works of Vulcan and Lancefield Foundries, commencing with the following engines: The Victorias, Fire King's, Glow-worm’s, Aberdeen and Arran Company’s engines; these bonuses to be paid at the end of each year for all engines set agoing and finished during the preceding year; and we agree to put this on stamp paper.

Witness    R. Napier.
H  James Thomson.

About the same time he engaged George, brother of James Thomson, as foreman of Lancefield Works on somewhat similar terms. James Thomson by-and-by acquired some capital, and in 1847 he left Mr Napier’s employment, and, along with his brother, founded the firm of Messrs James & George Thomson, known afterwards as the Clydebank Shipbuilding Company. Messrs Thomson removed their works from Glasgow to Clydebank about 1870, and the firm has now become incorporated with the Coal, Steel, and Armour-plate Company of John Brown & Co., Sheffield and Clydebank.

Although helped by able foremen, many of whom afterwards struck out for themselves, the business depended largely on Napier’s own personal exertions; and as he was often called away, his affairs were very apt to get into confusion. His wife’s cousin, Mr John M‘Intyre (whose son, Mr James M‘Intyre, one of the founders of the firm of Napier & M‘Intyre, was also at Vulcan Foundry), had acted as his factotum for many years. His death, which took place in 1840, left his employer in a dilemma, as he had no person in his establishment whom in his absence he could absolutely trust with the management of affairs.

In this extremity he turned to his brother James, who was then in partnership with his cousin William, under the style of “ James & William Napier.” This firm owned the Swallow Foundry in Washington Street, and had a good reputation as engineers and boiler makers. James Napier was the inventor of the tubular boiler, for which he took out a patent in 1830, and in the same year introduced it successfully into steam vessels. At first the introduction was attended with no small difficulty, and, to use the inventor’s own words, “his firm had to contend with ignorant and interested prejudices, and to give guarantees of security, and submit to penalties and responsibilities in their contracts for these boilers which no other engineer in the regular course of his business would ever submit to.” He was a great authority on boilers, and his report submitted to the Admiralty has already been referred to.

A patent for a steam-carriage was taken out by him in conjunction with his Inveraray cousin, Mr David Napier of London, grandfather of the present well known maker of motor-cars. At that time, however, the difficulty of constructing a light and satisfactory boiler was insurmountable, and the carriage was not a success.

It may also be mentioned that James and William Napier were among the first to build steamers of iron, a material then only beginning to be used for shipbuilding.

No great inducement was offered to James to give up his own business, where he had overcome the initial difficulties, and in which he had good prospect of success; but being very loyal to his eldest brother, who had a personal ascendancy over all the members of his family, he was persuaded to dissolve partnership with his cousin and come to Vulcan Foundry to take charge of Robert's commercial affairs. The oversight of financial concerns was hardly his role, as his bent was mechanical; and though overshadowed by his brother, he was perhaps the more able engineer of the two.

While he endeavoured to confine himself to general business, his engineering instincts occasionally asserted themselves. Thus at the time when the side-levers in some of the Cunard vessels cracked, and Elder, the manager, attributed the cause to defective iron, suggesting as the only remedy that these ponderous pieces should be made entirely of brass, thereby making the cost of this type of engine prohibitive, James Kapier pointed out that the fault lay in bad design, due allowance not having been made for expansion. He predicted further failures, which actually took place, and in the end his suggestions for remedying the defects were adopted.

At a later date, when in London, viewing the Great Eastern while she was on the stocks, he gave an opinion that the launch would not be successful, as he personally had experienced trouble with launching vessels broadside. The secretary of the company, who did not happen to know him, derided his remarks as the views of an ignorant man, and he was somewhat surprised at Mr Napier’s acquaintance with Mr Scott Russell when the latter cordially welcomed him. As is well known the launch was unsuccessful, trouble arising exactly in the way Napier had anticipated. While regretting the accident, he could not forget the secretary’s incivility, and the paragraph announcing it was promptly cut out of the newspaper and sent him, with the grim remark, “From Mr James Napier, the result of his experience.”

James Napier's connection with his brother's business lasted from 1841 till a short time before his death, which took place in 1873. During this period he kept a sharp control over the financial arrangements, and there is no doubt that his brother was much indebted to him for the supervision of his commercial affairs, which were left entirely in his hands. He was a fearless man, of sterling upright character, a great favourite with all, and familiarly known by the workmen and others as “Uncle James."

Outside of his immediate establishment the person with whom Mr Napier came into closest business connection was his much esteemed friend Mr Wood, who built the hulls of most of the wooden steamers which he engined. John Wood was born in 1788, and learnt the elements of his profession from his father, who was a shipbuilder in Port-Glasgow. With a view to acquiring the best knowledge of his trade he went to Lancaster, then a shipbuilding centre, and served under a Mr Brocklebank for two years. There was an interesting parallel between his early days and those of David Napier, as, owing to his father’s death in 1811, he had to undertake the task of constructing the Comet, which his father had contracted to build. He subsequently built a great number of river-steamers engined by David Napier, and afterwards steamers for deep-sea navigation engined by Robert Napier, the largest of these being the Cunard steamer Europa.

Mr Wood, while possessing the most eminent attainments, was of a very modest and retiring disposition. He was the most celebrated builder of wooden ships of his time, his vessels being specially strong,and having a reputation for beauty and symmetry of form. Mr Napier was so satisfied with his work that he wished him to construct all the first steamers Mr Cunard ordered ; but he would only undertake one, the Acadia. Writing to Mr Wood in 1841, he says : “I have uniformly in England and Scotland held you and your work up as a pattern of all that was excellent, and I have never yet had it proved to me that I was mistaken."

Mr Napier’s only sister was married to Mr Archibald Reid, and on his death in 1837 his business was taken up by Mr Wood, Mr Napier, Mr M'Intyre, and Mr John Reid, who carried it on under the style of Messrs John Reid & Co.

With the advent of iron shipbuilding Mr Wood’s trade was gone, and he practically retired, his business being merged in Messrs Reid’s firm. In his latter years he resided at Port - Glasgow, where he died in 1860 in the seventy-third year of his age.

One of the few enterprises outside his own business with which Eobert Napier was connected was the Muirkirk Iron Company, which he joined in 1834, Mr Ewing of Strathleven being then the chief proprietor of the works.

Lord George Bentinck was manorial lord of the Muirkirk estate, and being on intimate terms with Mr Assheton Smith, he took a special interest in his friend’s acquisition of shares in the Company, and wrote him several letters on the subject. His views on the purchase were expressed in the following letter :—

Harcourt House, March 5, 1834.

Sir,—I have to apologise to you for not having sooner acknowledged the honour of your last letter. The fact is I have been so much engaged with the business of Parliament and of my constituents that I really have had no time to attend to my own.

Since I received your letter I have spoken with Mr Ewing, who agrees to postpone all further discussion of the subject till we can all meet in town at the end of April or beginning of May.

I hear from Kilmarnock that you and Mr Hamilton have met, and that you have absolutely purchased Mr Yuill’s share for a price equivalent to £11,500 for the whole. I sincerely trust you may not find that you have paid too dearly. My valuer estimated the materials of the work at £6812, 18s. 2d., and the Company’s estimate did not exceed £7089, 16s. 2d. The stone, mortar, brick, and wood-work of course are worth nothing to sell, whatever they may have cost in the original erection. Of course, therefore, had the works been abandoned, £7089, 16s. 2d. would have been the outside price that the Company could have obtained for the works; and it is therefore all that you should have paid for them. It is true that when I stated this to Mr Ewing that gentleman threw out a hint that he would batter down the walls with a park of artillery rather than sell them standing for the breaking-up price ; but I need not say that he must have been in joke and could not have been in earnest, for considering the fatal effects of such a course of conduct upon the existence of his old servants the Company’s workmen, he must have been worse than an African savage or a Muscovite barbarian, —in fact, he must have been a devil incarnate to have entertained seriously for one moment so monstrous a thought. But Mr Ewing is proverbially a warm-hearted man, with a polished mind, and of course, therefore, as I said before, he was merely in joke.

Now in reference to my mention to you in a former letter that Mr Ewing had represented the profits of the Muirkirk Iron Works to have been in two separate years once £17,000 and the other time £30,000, you will recollect that I did not guarantee the fact, I only guaranteed the statement by Mr Ewing of such being the fact. With respect to the fact itself, of course, as I was not at that time manorial lord of those works, I could of my own knowledge know nothing. And it is fair to say that I am inclined to be of opinion that Mr Ewing is apt to think his geese swans, and especially on that particular occasion when, in trying to persuade me to give £20,000 for the works to the real intrinsic and bona fide value of which I have above referred, I really do believe he talked and wrote not me but himself into believing that the whole concern had been much more profitable, and was altogether a much finer thing than the reality could warrant.

I have troubled you at too great length, and in having done so I beg to apologise, whilst I have the honour to remain, Sir, your obedt. humble servant, Gr Bentinck.

To R Napier, Esq.

Napier’s connection with Muirkirk extended over a period of ten years, during which time he acted as the Company’s engineer. He gave great attention to the business, and made frequent journeys to the works, which were managed by his friend Mr Carswell, through whom he had been induced to join the enterprise.

Lord George Bentinck was a shrewd man, and his views regarding Muirkirk were in the main correct. The business was far from lucrative, and on the expiry of the contract of copartnery Napier was glad to terminate his connection with it.


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